Hi Doris! How would you sum up your work?
Doris Lee Design Studio is an interior design studio specialising in creating warm, casual and laid back homes that are easy to live with in the modern world.
What inspired the idea of setting up your business, and how did you then develop it?
My venture into interior design was quite organic. When my husband and I purchased our first flat, it was a newly converted period property which was a blank canvas. I wanted to turn it into a home that was warm, down-to-earth, and welcoming, but didn’t know how. I even interviewed a couple of local interior designers to help, however none of them were able to fit what we were after. As a result, I decided to do it myself, researching and making small changes and mistakes as I went along, but I loved the process. After my oldest son was born, it was even more important for me to create a home for our family to feel comfortable in and I realised that I could help other people do the same, so I decided to set up Doris Lee Design Studio.
What did you do before setting up your business?
I came from the corporate world, having worked as an IT project manager. The role of a project manager means you work with many different people and different skillsets, which I think really helped when I setup the design studio. We work with many people including builders, trades people, suppliers, and of course, clients.
When I was on maternity leave with my eldest son, I was a stay at home mum and I really needed a creative outlet. I loved learning about interiors, so I started a little blog called ‘diary of an interior novice’, where I shared things that I had learned along the way. It was the perfect way for me to marry my skills learned in the IT world with my new skills in the design world. The blog kicked off, and it helped me get my first client – an acquaintance who I didn’t realise was reading my blog approached me to help them with the design of their bathrooms.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
I tend to be the most inspired by being in beautiful places like a beach or a cosy cafe. When I am stuck in a creative rut, I tend to take a couple of days off if I can, to just think about something other than the latest project. Once my mind is cleared, the creativity tends to return.
Are there themes that run through your work, or that you are drawn to?
Our interiors tend to be either eclectic or contemporary in style, but we always aspire to be casual, comfortable and practical. We create homes that reflect and represent our clients memories and fill the home with items that tell a story; a sideboard they have had since they were a child, an inherited armchair from gran, or artwork collected over years of travel. These are all elements that we love to incorporate into our clients’ homes because it represents who they are and where they have been. These are the elements that make a home truly special.
What career would you pursue if you weren’t an interior designer?
There is no other career I could imagine myself doing that would provide me with more happiness and joy.
Describe a typical working day…
My working week is a balance between home life with kids and work. I work Tuesday to Saturday, which ensures I can accommodate meetings for my busy clients and be available for my kids. I work very flexibly (the advantage of having an IT background), and have set the entire business up so that we can all access everything from anywhere.
I wake up at 6am, drop the young one off to nursery at 8am, then walk across the road to my studio where I will do some focused work (either design or quiet work). I might visit a building site and talk to the builders before they start their day, or I might have a client meeting. Then I usually go back to the studio and follow up with staff, and review work progress. More design work follows until lunchtime, when I pick up my little one from nursery, who is usually exhausted after a fun morning and goes down for a long nap, so I log back in for another couple of hours of work. Saturdays are my quiet days where I can focus properly on the business and admin, with the occasional client meeting.
What are the values behind your business?
Doris Lee Design Studio is a local business, and all our work is within a very short distance of our studio (which we love). Where we can, we try to use local suppliers and trades people, we love being able to ‘drop in’ to our local suppliers shops and showrooms for a chat, or to pick up that one item for our client. We also love working with local artists.
Working as a team is important, as it will always create a better outcome than just going on one idea alone. So, we always encourage ideas from both our clients and the builders that we work with. We love to collaborate, and the results are always great.
The team believe in creating warm, casual and comfortable homes that reflect our clients’ needs. A lot of our clients are homebodies who want us to help them create spaces for them and their families to relax in.
What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?
Being self-taught, it would have to be getting the confidence to call myself an interior designer and charging money for doing something I love.
Describe your work process…
I start with a meeting to get to know our clients and the home they want to change, I ask a lot of questions to get an understanding of my clients lifestyle, wants and needs, and then I start designing. I always begin with the layout and floorplan, as it is very important to get the flow of the space right. As I am designing the layout, I start to imagine how each room will feel and look. It slowly builds up in my head and then the concept is created. Next, I work out the details of the room and pass this on to Sensi, who looks after the furniture, fixtures and fittings. She will then help me to define the individual pieces based on the proposed concept, and together we create the scheme.
What sort of space do you work in?
I have a unit in the Barley Mow workspace building in Chiswick. It’s down the road from where I live and close to my children’s school and nursery. The building used to be a wallpaper factory and is very industrial in its aesthetic. Our unit has an extra-large steel framed window which looks out onto the back of terraced houses and tall trees, so when we are at our desks, we see mostly blue sky, roof tops and trees. We often feel very exposed to the elements when we are here, which is wonderful. When it rains you can almost feel the impact of the storm while at our desks. But mainly I fell in love with the unit because of the abundance of natural light that floods in.
Tell us about your neighbourhood and community…
I often call Chiswick an oasis bubble within the busy city. The area is filled with young families and the high street feels quite villagey, while still being close enough to get to central London within a short time. The location has several parks and gardens which provide a lot of green space for residents. As I live and work here, I have built a strong local community through both work and family, which is really nice. Our street is filled with people who have lived there for more than 20 years, and we have neighbours who regularly help each other take care of elderly residents when needed. From a business point of view, our studio has built relationships with local builders and suppliers who we love to support.
Has your work evolved since you began?
Most definitely! I would say that my confidence in using colour and pattern has evolved significantly. Working with clients who are brave with wanting to use these elements has helped me grow as a designer. I designed a house for a creative artist who loved colour and art, and although I was reluctant at first, I then embraced the brief and was so glad I did. It created such an impactful space that both the client and I loved.
Is there an element of your work that you love the most?
I love the start, the middle and the end! I love the design phase – when I am dreaming up what the interior for my clients will look like; I love when the building is stripped back to its bare bones because there is always so much potential; and the end, when we are providing the finishing touches to the space to be enjoyed, and seeing the excited, happy faces of our clients who love the space.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
It has been so valuable to my work. As my work is very visual, being able to showcase it is really important. We are so lucky that our lovely clients allow us into their homes and personal spaces, and we are proud to be able to show what can be achieved. I also find the online community super-supportive: when I’m having a bad or good day, the support from other creatives is always so positive.
What’s been the biggest eye-opener for you in running your business?
It would have to be how much admin is involved – I spend a lot of time on administrative tasks like book keeping, invoicing and written communication.
How do you differentiate your business in a creative industry?
While a lot of designers focus on perfect and luxurious interiors, we go against the grain and stand for warm, casual and comfortable. We prefer to create homes for our clients, not showcases.
What are the joys, and challenges, of working as an independent?
I love working as an independent studio. I get to define what our studio’s values are and get to work with some lovely clients, trades people and suppliers. The challenges are that the renovation process can be extremely stressful and having to work through these stressful moments with our clients can be difficult.
How do you approach marketing and PR?
I’m conscious that our industry is very visual, and our prospective clients cannot walk into a showroom or visit our previous clients’ homes. So where I can, I always get a photographer in to photograph the spaces we have created, which I then share on the website, via a newsletter that we send out twice a year, and an update on Instagram. We are so lucky that most of our work comes from our lovely, happy clients, fabulous architects, and builders we have worked with previously.
What have been your business highlights so far?
There have been so many! Our key highlights would be being shortlisted as a finalist for our Shepherd’s Bush Craft House in The Sunday Times British Homes Awards and being featured in Architectural Digest. Having grown the business to a point where I could move from working from home to a studio space was also a big milestone, and anytime a client refers and recommends us is always a highlight, too.
Another memorable accomplishment for me was having the privilege to work on a house along the Chiswick Riverside – I used to walk my baby along the river and often admired the beautiful terraced houses as I passed. To then be able to design the interior of one of those houses was a dream come true!
What’s one thing people would be surprised you do in your job?
As part of our quality assurance process we always look under window sills, to make sure the painters have not missed under the sill!
Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?
I read a lot, and I garden.
What is the most important lesson that running your business has taught you about life?
There will always be bumps in the road and problems you have to deal with, try to see the bigger picture and not get too caught up in them as in the end, these problems will feel insignificant against what you have managed to achieve. And without the people around you, you would not have a business, so always be kind and supportive.
Any good advice for independent creative businesses who are just starting out?
Just go for it. If you have an idea and you don’t know how to start, Google is your friend. Join groups with like-minded people and start your journey – you will find that you are able to learn so much from others. People are always willing to help and be supportive because they were once where you are, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice when you need it.
What does the next year hold for you?
We are working on a couple of exciting projects which are due to complete this year, and are about to start a project in Ealing for a young family. With the current Covid situation, it’s more important than ever to love your home, and I look forward to creating many homes for our clients to enjoy. Next year, I intend to put in place a long-term plan I’ve had to marry my IT background with my love of interiors. This is a side project I’ve been working on for a little while, and it will launch in 2021.
Books I love: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Home is where the Heart Is? by Ilse Crawford.
Creative Heroes: Ilse Crawford – interior designer, Jessica Helgerson – interior designer, Sibella Court – interior designer/stylist
Instagrammers I love: @jhinteriordesign – one of my favourite interior designers, @abigailahern – her home is beautiful and a true reflection of her aesthetic and @themontydon – gardener and presenter of Gardener’s World. His garden is inspiring.
Photography by Chris Snook