Behind the Design: David Hopkins of Praed Projects
Behind the Design: Ivy Design Firm Praed Projects – Chicago, IL
David – how did you get where you are today?
David Hopkins: I went to school (many moons ago) for Interior Design. At the time, there was a tiny little elite school on Michigan Avenue called Harrington Institute of Interior Design which had been founded in the mid 1930’s by Lady Harrington. It was hella peculiar, but perfect. Sadly, after I left, it got sold to a corporation, gutted out, made crappy, and bankrupted. Fresh out of design school, I worked with a wonderful woman named Lisa Abeln; it was just she and I and she taught me so much about how to actually be a designer. This was also back in the days of limited internet (hello, catalogues!) and QuickBooks Desktop, but I really owe her a debt of gratitude. After four years, I moved to a very high-end firm where I worked for over 10 years and was lucky enough to work under Robert Klingel. Robert also taught me enormous amounts over the years and I credit him for really helping me to succeed in my current business. After Robert retired a few years ago, Aaron Miller, a fellow Robert and I worked with, decided to join forced and founded Praed Projects about a year and a half ago.
What is Praed Projects’ approach to design and client interaction?
DH: We both started this company with a vision that we wanted to push out into the world. All of our clients become important to us, and many of them consider us to be like family. Right now, the design world is trying to find our cumulative footing for the next 20 years. With online shopping, lifestyle TV, and social media, the awareness of having a well designed home and an enviable ‘lifestyle’ is very present. Unfortunately, the same streams of information are kneecapping our ability to make a living using traditional means. This has completely changed our approach to design and to our clients; meaning that we are very transparent with sourcing and will show a wide variety of resources to people. It has also made us more flexible as a firm and we have seen a dramatic increase in how much we can get done for a client with the same amount of budget.
Aaron Miller is your co-founder at Praed Projects…how do you manage tasks between the two of you?
DH: Each of us have our strengths and we tend to divide and conquer. We try to start each creative project in a collaborative way, then, we delegate between us and to our staff to see the projects to fruition. That has been one of our major stumbling points as we have grown and we are constantly trying to figure out ways to stay more on top of what we are each supposed to be doing. Running a small business comes with wearing many hats…Aaron is ‘director of staffing’, which means he knows how to submit payroll hours to the financial guy and I am ‘director of communications’ which means I am capable of creating pop-up reminders to call people back. The other day I also became the ‘chief technology officer’ when I fixed the printer (that was out of paper).
You’re based in Chicago…who are your favorite local vendors and people of the trade?
DH: We are lucky to have the Merchandise Mart here along with some terrific local folks. We tend to buy a lot of mass market and vintage upholstered pieces and have them re-done locally in our own fabrics. Molly Quinlan at Eli Wyn Upholstery is the lady we turn to to make that magic happen. We also love Meaghan Leavy at Home Carpet One, which is a small neighborhood carpet and tile showroom that has really great in-stock items. The fellow that does the buying for it has a great aesthetic. We also love the auctions at Leslie Hindman and Susanins…we tend to buy and inventory art and accessories from them to use later in projects.
How do you maintain healthy relationships with the vendors and tradespeople you work with?
DH: People respond to two things: pay your bills on time…and know their names. Sheryl, a person on our team, will know the first name of every single person working on a job site and I am amazed at what people will do for her. We also try and acknowledge that most vendors only hear when things go wrong, but never when things go right…and counteract that with thank you notes and images of installed pieces.
Have you acquired any designer certifications? Are you a part of any association or community to stay connected to other design professionals?
DH: We all love the Ivy Designer Facebook Group. Sometimes, just reading that firms are struggling with some of the same exact things we struggle with makes it somehow feel better.
How does designing make you feel? What’s your business mantra?
DH: Our most rewarding projects are those that we feel are really done – when the space is furnished, all of the white tags are cut off of the ends of the lamps cords, and the dining room buffet is full of perfect napkins just waiting to be used. We don’t think that clients are hiring us to just design for them…we are setting up a lifestyle for them. We have moved a bachelor from an odd family-oriented condo to an ego building three story timber loft (which made him very popular with the ladies) and helped a couple relocate from their cherished home full of stairs to a single floor co-op that will serve them for the rest of their life. Those are the moments when we can sit back and feel like we really did an extraordinary job.
In moments of clients dilemmas or design block, how do you pick yourself back up?
DH: That is where a good business partner comes in handy. At least once a week, we talk each other off of a ledge or from making a bad knee jerk reaction. There are also moments when we just fail at a project, like our infamous ‘green room’ incident. I picked out paint colors after dark (and after a couple of martinis). We are known for some bold color choices, but even the painter called me up to double check that he had the right color…and it was just dreadful. Every component that got installed in the room made the green even more jarring, until we had to call up the client and admit defeat. That was one painting bill I was happy to pay off.
What’s your strategy to capture the eyes of key editors for quality coverage?
DH: Somehow we have gotten quite a bit of coverage; I was featured in the The New York Times and we have had coverage in a few magazines just because of a writer we know. However, Aaron and I have decided that hiring a publicist and putting together an actual marketing plan is the next key step to our growth.
Do you regularly attend trade markets and conferences? If so, which ones and what’s your strategy?
DH: I went to High Point Market about ten years ago and continually say, “Oh, I need to do that again”.
How do you define professional success? How do you define personal success?
DH: For both of us, to be able to make a living from a creative field is amazing. Our five year goal is to have a company that can stand on its own and not be reliant on the two of us. Both of us realize that design changes constantly so we want to keep fresh young opinions around us to keep us from ‘aging out’ of things. I used to have a mantra to ‘define my own personal success’, and it was straight out of an episode of MTV cribs. I lost those desires 15 or 20 years ago, and, I’m still trying to figure out what I think that means.
Why did you choose Ivy as your software of choice to centralize your business management needs?
DH: We were trying to use only QuickBooks, and we were getting further and further behind with all of our projects. I had tried to use a competitor program previously and hated how heavy the front end is. Ivy makes it fast and easy to present concepts and then flesh things out later if need be. We also, as design savvy folks, loved how clean the interface was for anything client-facing. We actually gave our graphic designer print-outs of our Ivy invoices and tear sheets to make sure Praed Project’s brand identity was complimentary to Ivy’s paperwork.
What’s an Ivy feature you can’t live without?
DH: The Ivy Product Clipper. I love the fact that I can browse around the Internet for one project. While I’m sourcing for one project, I can see something perfect for another project, clip, and tag that product to a different client. It makes it possible to get so much done. Even if I come back to the product later and the size is off, or, it doesn’t work for the budget, it at least gives us a starting point to look for an alternate.
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