There’s a quote that’s been passed around on the internet lately by the ancient poet Rumi. It goes: “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.” It’s an inspiring thought that many fantasize about doing, but few actually take up—and when someone does, it’s worth admiring.
I mention this phrase because it could easily be the mantra of interior designer Maya Williams, who, after discovering her love of design as a little girl, didn’t go back to that dream until much later in life. Successful, but unfulfilled in the entertainment business, it took the very first day of a single design class for her to drop everything in her current life to relentlessly pursue her earlier love of the art. It paid off: as an interior designer running her own successful firm in Southern California, Maya Williams Design, Maya finally found total fulfillment doing what she loves. And her passion shows. We sat down with Maya to learn her particular, precise way of filling out a room, the only near-miss she’s ever had transporting a piece, and the strangest request she’s ever gotten (hint: it involves chickens!).
I’ll begin with a question that I think everyone would like to ask an interior designer. You’re in an empty room. How and where do you start?
It would be a real treat to start with an empty room, honestly. Most of the time the biggest issue in the beginning is that the room’s still filled with the outdated furnishings and an old layout. And even though I’ve been hired to do a complete makeover, it can still be hard for clients to see past that, even though they’ve grown tired of it and want something completely new and fresh. So it’s a blessing to have an empty room because it’s a blank slate. Either way, the first thing I do is have a dialogue with my clients about how they plan on using it. I also start with the functionality, how they want to use the room and think of ways the room could be used as well. Then I can create a furniture plan to get a sense of the placement of things and if the room needs to be opened up and walls need to be moved in some cases. I address the fabrics and the colors and all the other important elements. I then present the full furniture plan and design elements for them in the next meeting.
Do you have to measure the room and the way you start is you think, “Okay, I think I can fit this couch here or this piece there?”
By now I can tell exactly what will fit properly, but I certainly take measurements of the room, the walls, the ceilings… everything! Then I do a digital floor plan where I plug in all the furniture pieces to the exact size, so my clients can see exactly how the room will be laid out. Typically I provide two layout options.
That’s a really great way to do it. And that’s funny, actually, because there’s a few interior designers I’ve talked to where it’s not necessarily once it gets to the room but getting it into the room. So there have been cases where they can’t get it through the doorway, for example, and they have to think of creative ways to get pieces into the house.
That happens a lot, especially in Los Angeles where you have a lot of older homes that have narrower door openings and narrow halls. Oh, it’s a huge factor. I always measure door openings. One time very early on I didn’t take into account a sharp turn at the top of a staircase and I had a sleeper sofa to install upstairs. And a sleeper sofa is much heavier than your regular sofa because of the mattress inside, so my team got it up the stairs and when they went to turn the corner, it wouldn’t fit. Luckily the feet of the sofa were removable, so we took them off and that was just enough to get it around the corner. It was a close one, but we made it. I learned my lesson there—consider every corner. But that was a long time ago, and never again.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I hate to pin down just one aesthetic because I have to be flexible to what my clients want. There are many designers that have one just one aesthetic or look. And they replicate that look in every home. And if that’s what a client wants, great—but I like to to bring out my clients’ style. If you’re asking what my personal taste is, I would say my personal aesthetic tends to be traditional, very European and classic. Classically traditional, but modernized for today’s living. I usually can’t help adding a bit of glamour, though. And color, of course. I love to play with color in an unexpected way. But for my clients, I always style to their taste. I don’t force my style onto them. So, for example, if they want a really modern design, we’ll go with that. I want my clients to be beyond comfortable and happy.
But a lot of times clients have no idea what they want at the start. So we start with a conversation and I tend to observe what their tastes are. Sometimes, seeing objects in a room or pictures on a wall of places they’ve traveled or what they do for a living helps. I just sort of take my style and translate it to them and then turn it up a couple of notches, if that makes sense.
Yeah, no that makes sense. Mark [Cutler, nousDECOR Chief Designer] actually has described it this way where you’re elevating their sensibility. They might have a certain style base level but they just don’t know how to translate it into the real world and that’s why they’ve hired an interior designer.
Yes, you have to take it to the next level, absolutely. I get a lot of clients that show me random pieces from Restoration Hardware catalogs because of a latest trend, or because it’s as close to their ideal as they know how to get. Better, they show me pictures from many different websites. That’s a great way for me to see where they’re going, and then I take it from there and customize. You know, they’re always amazed when the room is complete and everything ties in together purposefully and perfectly. That’s the expertise a good interior designer brings. We go above and beyond and exceed our clients’ expectations and give them exactly what they wanted, even if they didn’t know how to communicate it.
The chicken coup in beautiful Ojai, California. The interior looks like a luxury hotel!
I imagine designers often get bombarded with strange requests. Can you think of the strangest request you’ve ever had?
The strangest request….hm…well, I was asked design a chicken coop once! It was an east coast-style farmhouse in Ojai being built from the ground up. There were a lot of structures on this property. There was the main house, a guest house, a barn, a pool house, everything you could think of—and at the very end, they said we need you to design a chicken coop. And so, I did—I designed a glorious chicken coop. It’s the Four Seasons of chicken coops because it is pretty fancy. Custom colors, a skylight, high-end windows. It is quite grand. And it works out great for them, they have about twenty chickens living in it. Twenty really lucky chickens.
Ha, how funny! I would definitely love to see that. So why did you become an interior designer? How did you get into the business?
Oh, my goodness…that’s like a multi-layered question. There was a part of me that always loved it when I was a little girl, and I was lucky that my parents traveled a lot, and took me to interesting places around the world and I became enamored with different cultures, art, architecture and style when I was very young. It sort of stuck with me and formed my aesthetic and taste very early on. Then, when I was 18 years old my parents hired a designer to do their house, I thought, “Oh my God, this person is the luckiest person in the world, I would love to do what she’s doing,” and my dad said, “Don’t you dare go make pillows for a living.” So I waited, and I went to school and studied and didn’t get into design until later. It was a second career for me. I went into the entertainment industry and became a TV lit manager making good money working for Michael Ovitz’s firm, but the design bug kept biting me and I just kept going back to it. So I made a deal with myself and was like, “Okay, I’m going to take three classes to see how I like it and then decide what I want to do.” After the very first night of the very first class, I said, “I’m done with TV management, this is what I’m doing for a living, I love it, this is what I’m meant to do.” I get to be creative every day and enhance and enrich my client’s lives through their environments. I’m so grateful to be able to do that.
Are there any favorite projects or clients you’ve had over the years?
It’s a tough question for me to answer because I really do love every project I work on and have great relationships with my clients. And they’re all so different from one another…but I think the projects that I love the most are ones where clients are willing to take a leap of faith. Like I had one client that was open to just everything. She is definitely a risk-taker and the risks always pay off. Like we wallpapered her ceiling. And her bedroom is a bright, mustard yellow. She was open to having a pink and purple office. That’s not an easy thing to pitch to somebody. Like, yeah I’m going to give you a pink and purple office and some of it will be metallic—most people would say, “You’re crazy.” But she said, “I trust you! Let’s do it!” And it turned out amazing and now I’ve had other clients ask for a similar look! So clients that are more open to stepping out of their comfort zone are really fun to work with.
What advice would you offer to someone just starting out in the field?
It would be two things, actually. I would say if you’re really just starting out, I would work for at least two different designers. I think interior design is a very unique industry in that nobody does it the same way. It’s different from most other professions. Every designer works differently. They charge differently, purchase from different places, and deal with clients differently. So I think it’s very good to work for at least two different designers so you can compare and find what works best for you. It’s a very personal business and there’s a lot of psychology behind it. It’s important to know how different people operate and know what works and what doesn’t. Second, interior designing is a business. Yes, it’s a fun way to make a living, but it is a business and you have to treat it like one. Once you actually get going and if you start your own business, you should never sell yourself short. Make sure you set a value for yourself and your services because you’re going to end up working so much more than what you tell the client. That was one of the things I did when I first started, where I’d say, “Okay, I think I’ll put about 25 hours into this room.” And I would put 85 hours into the room but still charge 25 because that’s what I quoted. So learning about these kinds of things takes time and you just have to learn by going through the process.