There aren’t many interior designers that are having a better year than Robert Passal. His soigné New York apartment landed on the cover of Ronda Rice Carman‘s new book Designers At Home, and the masculinely urbane home he created for Guido Palau was featured in last months Architectural Digest – marking his first appearance in the magazine.
Thinking about his achievements I remembered someone once telling me it takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation (an assessment I think is spot on.) The truth is when someone like Robert gains industry acclaim it often skews the amount of work and determination it took to get there.
It’s with that idea that I conceived of a post series titled ‘The Road To Success’, in which I’ll interview designers about how they grew their businesses, and the key concepts that have gotten them to where they are today.
Robert graciously agreed to be interviewed first.
When did you open Robert Passal Interior and Architectural Design?
I started my business in 2000, and then opened the Pascal Boyer Gallery in 2003 as an aesthetic extension of my work.
What would you say is the one idea that’s most impacted your career success?
I would say the one thing that’s been most valuable is that I take risks.
For example, very early on I heard that a certain celebrity was moving into a building in which I had worked, and I decided to send them an introductory letter along with my portfolio. Several days later they interviewed me, and I got the job.
Taking risks also translates into my design decisions. I am always looking for new and creative ways to solve problems in my work. I always tell my employees that we need to be trend setters, not trend followers. I’ve got nothing against Kelly Green, but if Pantone suggests it’s the color of the year, we try to avoid it.
Master Bedroom and Guest Room of the Palau Residence. Follow this link to see the entire apartment.
Taking risks often translates into overcoming fear. Has that always been an ability of yours?
I’m not sure it has always been one of my abilities, but I recognized early on that overcoming fear was essential to success. When I first started my company I had a post-it note on my computer screen that said ‘face your demons’. The first thing I’d do in the morning was to make the phone calls I didn’t want to make, have the office conversations I would have preferred to avoid, and deal with paperwork. With those things out of the way, I could concern myself with creativity. That habit is still with me today.
How important is it for you to have ongoing relationships with vendors?
Very important. I think that in interior design you’re only as good as the vendors you align yourself with to execute your vision. We’re very faithful to our vendors. Of course we like to mix it up sometimes and try something new, but I think that establishing and nurturing vendor relationships is one of the keys of my success.
The same is true of my employee relationships. I have one employee who I hired fresh out of FIT who has been with me for the entire 13 years I’ve been in business. I work very hard, and so does my staff – I believe in part because I generally care for them and their well-being.
Entry Gallery by Robert Passal
Aside from the tenets of good design, is there a skill you consider essential for success in our industry?
Absolutely. I think you need to learn to listen. Listening to your clients, listening to your employees, listening to vendors is key. It’s something we pride ourselves in doing. When people feel heard and genuinely understood, the interiors we create are authentic and unique to the client: their wishes and their goals for their home are fulfilled in ways that almost always exceed their expectations.
I am a true classicist, it’s what I’m really all about, but if you look through the projects on our website you can see an underlying aesthetic. You will also see that each project is decidedly different. I think we’ve achieved the ability to create that kind of range in our work because we’ve learned to listen effectively.
What’s your perspective on design in the age of the internet?
Everyone obviously has access to almost everything now, which has its upside and downside. It used to be that I’d visit a dealer and find an amazing sideboard for a project in New Jersey, get a serviceable Polaroid to take to the client, and then try to help them understand the piece’s value. Now the client can look at the piece on 1stDibs, which is great.
The downside is that I’m not out shopping as much, and for me as a designer that’s really important. It’s exciting to visit new shops, and to see what kinds of products are new in the shops I frequent.
Many designers wonder about the value in being published. How important has it been to you in growing your business?
I think it is fulfilling to see your work on paper in a shelter magazine, and I admit that Architectural Digest was high on my bucket list, right up there with Kips Bay – which I was lucky to have been invited to do in 2005.
But I think it’s much more about building self-confidence for a designer, and advancing your brand, than it is an effective tool for generating new client leads. We’ve been published more than a dozen times in the press, at his point and have frankly never gotten a client directly because of it. People call and ask about a paint color, or about some cabinetry detail – which is flattering – but we’ve yet to have someone engage our services because of a project in print.
Getting published is very validating, for yourself, for your peers, and for future clients. I think that’s the real value.
You maintain an office in New York as well as in Miami. Do you see your firm growing to a third city?
No. I’m quite content to have two offices. We’ve done projects in multiple cities and several countries now, but getting larger isn’t my goal. I think people think designers live a glamorous life: and don’t get me wrong – I am passionate about what I do, but for me interior design is more a lifestyle than a nine-to-five job. I may be off on the weekend, and headed to Central Park for a walk, but I’m likely to make several stops along the way for business.
I would have to say that things are great right now, and that I am very grateful.
Bedroom by Robert Passal
A special word of thanks to Robert for taking the time to share his insights with us here on the blog. The quality of his work is only exceeded by his incredible charm.
Watch for the next post in this series next week when I talk with a woman who has also taken the world of interior design by storm this year.
Written by CJ Dellatore