The Designers Group CEO on how COVID-19 has changed interior design
Blima Ehrentreu is the founder and CEO of The Designers Group, an interior design firm with offices in Toronto, New York, and Miami. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: Have you always been interested in design? What led you down this path?
Blima Ehrentreu: I always had a passion to create, improve, and perfect. As a kid, I wanted to be involved in anything visual. After graduating with a master’s degree in interior architecture and design, I started working at an architectural firm. That’s where I learned how to work with drawings and plans, and the technical side of design. In 2009, I founded The Designers Group with another designer—and what started as a two-woman firm in Toronto has since blossomed into an international firm with locations in Toronto, New York, and Miami. At TDG, we believe that design is about finding and creating positive energy in spaces to encourage productivity and creativity in every way possible.
DL: Do you approach projects differently from industry to industry, like from healthcare to residential?
BE: I believe that we can learn from every industry and bring different facets from different sectors into the spaces that we’re working on. For example, most nursing homes have drab and sterile environments, so we took our healthcare projects and approached them from a hospitality standpoint where we designed beautiful lobbies with hallways that looked like hotel corridors. Similarly, with the office spaces we design, we bring in the warmth from our residential projects by adding lounges that make people feel at home and more comfortable. Design is very fluid. Bringing the best parts of different sectors into others and making them all work together helps us come up with original and innovative spaces.
DL: Given everything that’s happening in the world, how is design changing?
BE: We used to approach the design of spaces with the intention of bringing people together. Whether we were working on residential amenity spaces, office work areas, or senior communities, the idea was to bring ideas, hearts, and minds together. However, following the pandemic, this critical aspect has changed. The design fundamentals are still there, but now we are more focused on designing while maintaining optimal safety protocols of distancing and limiting social gatherings. We’ve been doing a ton of research on how this pandemic will affect our future interior environment and have been advising our clients through new social distancing regulations. By assessing and analyzing their spaces, we have been updating them with smart technology features, antimicrobial materials, and limiting the requirement of contact.
DL: What’s your leadership style like?
BE: I want to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable, and everyone feels important. I’m a big believer in a team effort and everyone working together; however, I also think the person in charge sets the tone. It’s essential to give people a voice and foster an environment where people’s creativity can flourish. I’ve witnessed some toxic work environments, and I have a zero-tolerance policy for that.
Especially now, during a pandemic, you’re able to see the type of staff that you have. There was a time when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Will I have to lay everyone off? Will we be able to push through this slowly? But my team was all there for me. At this point, some of the team is back working in the office, and others are still working remotely, but during the unknown period, I was able to see that my staff cared and would do whatever was needed to push through together. And I think that that’s because they feel like I would do that for them.
DL: How do you convince a client that a new idea is a good idea?
BE: We like to build relationships and tend to have clients who are developers or owners with multiple projects. We have a great team in place, a great process in place, and once we’re working with a client, and they see how dedicated we are to their projects, they trust us. I remember the first time I had to convince a client to build a room for packages when online deliveries weren’t as common—now he sees what a great idea it was! Our clients like being innovative and trying new ideas, and we are mindful that what we suggest isn’t too costly.
DL: How do you approach the topic of environmental sustainability with your clients?
BE: Sustainability is a big deal for us as designers, because we really care about the environment around us. I always tell our clients that the initial investment to make their project sustainable might be a little higher, but it pays off in the end. A few years back, LED lighting was a lot more expensive than the standard fluorescent lighting. All those who implemented LED fixtures back then are seeing lower electric bills, and many people are switching over because of incentives offered. In general, I see that people are realizing how important sustainability is and understanding how the environment affects us. Today, many businesses are putting a lot of focus into giving back. It’s nice to see everyone coming together, caring about the environment, and trying to help each other out. We’re definitely going in the right direction.
DL: What do you tell up-and-coming designers today? What advice would you give them?
BE: Believe in your goals, trust the process, and learn from your mistakes. People will rely on you to make decisions, and you will make mistakes. With a lot of my junior designers, I find that they’re scared to make decisions. They’ll ask me every detail and I say to them, “Listen, I trust you. You will make a mistake. That’s okay, but only if you learn from those mistakes.”
I remember my first residential project; we ordered a sofa and were so excited about it. It fit the space perfectly, however when it was delivered, the sofa did not fit through the door frame. Now, any time I order a piece of furniture, I always make sure that it will fit through whatever doorways are in that project.