A career by design: Oak Parker finds calling one client at a time

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Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Anyone who ever watched an episode of Oprah or read a self-help book is familiar with the adage: "Do what you love and the rest will follow." The idea behind this often-heard advice is to find a job that you really enjoy and you'll make plenty of money and find fulfillment. Easy enough if you're Oprah Winfrey, but what about the rest of us?

Interior designer Amanda Miller, an Oak Park resident since 2005, has found success following some similar advice from a dear family friend. "In high school, this woman who was like a second mother to me told me that as an adult, you should choose to do something that you lost yourself in as a child." Miller didn't immediately take the advice and planned a career in social services while in college. Eventually, she realized there was some truth to those words.

Growing up in Michigan, Miller loved anything to do with art and design, but in college she convinced herself that she should have a career in social services. While the drive to help others was there, her heart wasn't in the day-to-day work. Remembering the words of her family friend, she thought long and hard about what she had always loved to do, and enrolled in Bradford College in England to complete a one-year program in art and design.

Convinced she was on the right career path, Miller returned to Chicago and enrolled at Columbia College to receive her Masters of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture. After completing the program, she worked in commercial design for architecture firms before landing a job at McDonald's Corporation in the same field.

Miller's thesis advisor at Columbia lived in Oak Park, so she and her husband got to know the village. When it came to starting their own family, they decided there was no better community.

After the birth of her first daughter, Miller worked part-time as a designer for McDonald's, and when her second daughter arrived, she decided to take the leap of opening her own interior design studio.

"I was in the very fortunate position of having nothing to lose," she remembers. "I wanted lots of flexibility due to the children, and I wanted to get into the residential design field."

Miller started small, looking for her first clients on Oak Park's popular web-resource Mom Mail. An early Mom Mail contact introduced her to business consultant Tony Roeder, who helped her get her business off the ground.

"Tony was invaluable. He took me on and only charged me $200 a month, which at the time seemed like so much money. He helped me get my website up and running and put me in the right place to get started. Things just fell into place."

During that first year, Miller was prepared to work hard to build a client base, and it wasn't always easy for the licensed interior designer.

"I did a ton of silent auctions through schools and churches. I would donate three hours of design time and end up working 20, but it was worth it to do a good job and get that word-of-mouth exposure," she says. "That first year I didn't make much money and it was such hard work, but it was really beneficial. After three years, I've gotten my groove."

Miller now employs two assistants and currently has 25 ongoing client projects. Rather than relying on Mom Mail to get the word out, referrals from her previous clients and return clients keep her busy. Small projects have given way to kitchen remodels and whole floor plans.

Miller insists that every project be about the client. "Every project is different, so I am always building my experience. I always start off each client meeting letting the clients know that my style is irrelevant. It's entirely about their style."

She says everyone has a sense of style but may need a little help bringing it to life. "My typical client is savvy and very well educated," she says. "They may have multiple children and multiple pets, and they are very busy. They have a sense of style; they just need help pulling it all together."

At the beginning of the design process, Miller uses a style questionnaire to determine her clients' likes and dislikes. To further pin down or flush out a particular style, she has clients peruse magazines and catalogues, asking them pull any pages that may have interesting items. "I like to get at least 50 to 60 pages to look at."

Miller then uses the images to cut and paste a paper visual, tying together her vision for the room. "Clients provide the stack of images, and it's my job to curate and tell a story," she explains. "People know instinctually what they like, but they need to have a second set of eyes come in to tell the story and put it all together."

Once Miller has a firm grasp of her client's style she goes on to create room plans in accordance with a budget. Some clients go to her simply for help with furniture choices, and others want a more customized approach that may include carpentry work and textile choices.

With her two daughters now at school age, Miller is finding her stay-at-home career has turned into a full-time job, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a balancing act, but I love it. I love working with my clients and building that rapport," she says. "Building up trust is part of the process. Homes are very precious to people, and it's my job to make their homes work for them and their lifestyles."

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