Jennifer Salvemini is an incredible interior designer who I had the pleasure of meeting through the Kingston Design Connection. I had the honor of interviewing her to learn more about how her lifestyle brand came to be. I think the thing that I admire the most about her is how intentional and multifaceted her business is and how she continues to develop innovative ways to expand it. Her continuous growth and creativity is something I strive to infuse in my own business. So here’s the interview in full. I hope you are able to take away as much as I did! :)
Jennifer Salvemini. Interior Designer Extraordinaire and Lifestyle Consultant.
Listening Room, Kingston Design House 2020
@MackofAllTradesNY: Hi, Jennifer! It’s great to talk to you again. I’m excited to learn more about you today. Do you mind telling me and the readers a little bit about your background? Where are you from and who were some influential people in your upbringing?
@Jls.lifestyle: Sure! I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, which is a suburb of Manhattan. The town itself was very racially diverse, which is why my parents chose to live there. My mom is African American and my dad is Italian and so in the early 80’s they had a young family in a pretty homogeneous town and they wanted to move to a place where we could have more diverse experiences. I’m glad they did because Teaneck was a great town to grow up in. It’s very much a suburban place though. I spent a lot of my youth at one of the 15 different local malls hanging out.
Culturally my father’s mother was influential for me. She was a classic Italian homemaker. There was always a pot of sauce on the stovetop cooking. The kitchen always smelled so good. She was into fashion and interiors also and she was an excellent seamstress. She was always sewing curtains or making wedding gowns. I mean she even made couture dresses for my baby dolls! I loved that she humored my interest with it. We spent a lot of time together. My earliest memories were of travelling to all the different fabric stores with her. Even now I get that nostalgic feeling when I walk into one. It’s that smell of the fabric, you know the sort of mix of dust and material. It makes me think of my grandma and my mom, who was also obsessed with design.
My mother was incredible. She redecorated our house every two years and in fact let me redecorate my childhood room as often as I wanted. I can think of 5 different ideations of my room growing up. The final one was Victorian romantic with absurd floral prints and lots of lace and even a canopy bed. Romantic and macabre. She really did humor all of that.
I also remember we would spend Sunday mornings watching “Martha Stewart Living” together. That was another major influencer for me because Martha Stewart’s signature Connecticut style was so different from the loud colorful Black and Italian house I grew up in. Everything in her world was Robin’s Egg Blue and tidy and organized. There was a quietness about it which I was really attracted to. It left an impression on me for sure.
Beautiful Space Designed by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: I love that. “Martha Stewart Living” was a big part of my childhood too. When did you decide to become a designer? Did you go to college for that or did you make the decision after?
@Jls.lifestyle: I went to school for anthropology and philosophy, two fields that did not lend themselves to career paths. While I was in school I was working in fashion, and that was a natural path for me because I had worked in retail growing up. In fact, I was actually scouted to be a showroom assistant because of my retail experience. So I bounced from fashion to other sorts of creative studio management. After college I found myself working in restaurants and absolutely loving everything about it. I eventually began opening and running restaurants in upper management positions.
The hours were insane though and I had a major life change. I got divorced and found that I couldn’t really create a new life for myself because I was working so hard building someone else’s business. So at that point I took a job serving. It was sort of a golden goose job. I was waiting tables three days a week and making enough money that allowed me to go to a very part time schedule and recalibrate everything. I was able to take on a business coach and figure out what I was gonna do with my life.
What I really enjoyed doing was home decor and cooking, homemaking really. But how is that a business? How do I create serves for that and monetize it? My goal was to offer homemaking to people who might know how to do it intuitively. But I had to spend some time figuring it out. What is that job? Honestly, it took me a few years to flesh out a brand identity and a list of services. I began to take on small projects and figure out my process.
We came up with this concept of “lifestyle consulting.” This ranged from helping decorate home interiors, to me coming and overhauling your kitchen and helping stock your pantry, to me providing cooking lessons and tips. Hopefully I can support my clients in coming up with better systems for living inside their homes. And it’s interesting, when I created this there was a holistic and therapeutic thing that happened. It felt good. It felt right. It took me a while to build a little clientele in the city and then I moved upstate. I again had to figure out what I was building and apply it to my new life in the Hudson Valley.
Beautiful Mid Century Design in the Hudson Valley by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: How did you find your first client for such a niche business?
@Jls.lifestyle: It was actually perfect because I had just gotten all my business assets together and a longtime colleague of mine, his wife’s brother had just purchased a giant home in Troy and was splitting his time between there and San Francisco. He was overwhelmed by it and he needed a ton of help. This became a baptism by fire in a sort of way. He hired me to help furnish and style it but on one of his trips to San Francisco a pipe burst and destroyed a massive part of the back of the house. It was really a tragedy because the house was in turnkey condition prior to that. It was a pristine 200-year-old Victorian home. This really gave me a great opportunity to learn how to manage contracting teams. And the funny thing is, it turns out after years of running restaurants and managing teams of 40 people, the information is different but managing teams is pretty relatable from one field to the next. So that initial client was a referral and what made it so great was because I knew his sister there was this familiarity that just made him a great fit. This unfortunate incident actually ended up being to my benefit because I was put in a position where I had to learn by doing things very fast.
Stunning room designed by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: What were the biggest lessons learned from that first client?
@Jls.lifestyle: I learned to trust myself. That was the first time I found myself giving walk-throughs and directions to contract teams. After years of being interested in this work, it was awesome to see that it was a smooth transition. I found myself really commanding authority and I actually knew what I was talking about. I found that surprising and didn’t really realize that I had given myself that education over all those years. Trusting myself was a huge one.
Also learning how to communicate with clients was a great lesson. The degree with intimacy is way different when you are working with a client in their home long-term. Learning how to cultivate these relationships that have the client coming back for more help after you have completed something is important. That the client is trusting you in their home and giving you the keys, it's a different kind of intimacy. I was really able to learn how to translate my former skills into this new environment, which was great.
Stunning Sitting Room Designed by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: Is there any advice for someone who is learning how to do that? I feel that women especially are a lot less confident in themselves starting out. How can someone overcome that quicker?
@Jls.lifestyle: Any woman going into the design build world where it is a very male-dominated industry should just move without questioning yourself. If you don’t falter and if you show up wearing the boss pants, you will be responded to as the boss. It’s a conjuring of confidence that really has to come from within. If you can find it and show up with it, you will get the respect you command. But also don’t show up as a man if that doesn’t feel authentic to you. It’s okay to be the boss and be a woman at the same time, however you decide to do that. Also dress for the part. I have no problem showing up in a hard hat and boots if it’s demo day and I’m meeting with a contractor about lighting installation. Part of what I do is making something beautiful and if that means I need to access my femininity to be delighted by something pretty, I don't have a problem showing that at the same time as well.
@MackofAllTradesNY: When setting up your business originally, what was your biggest hurdle or fear that you felt you had to overcome when stepping into a full-time entrepreneurship role?
@Jls.lifestyle: There are a lot of scary things that happen when you make that leap. The scariest is that you have to be all of those things: accountant, marketing, HR, the talent, etc. All of the different roles and departments are you. Frankly, I’m not good at all of them. Being able to identify your strengths and your weaknesses while not being afraid to ask for help when you need it is important. For example: billing and invoicing. I don’t enjoy doing it. There are certain aspects of running a business that are just not fun. I need to be poked to do my quarterly sales taxes. Handing off tasks that aren’t a fit for you, if you can afford to do so, to someone that does certain aspects better is key. If you can outsource, go ahead and do it. If you can’t, find ways to support yourself through accountability groups or by finding networks so you are not so alone.
@MackofAllTradesNY: How have you built your interior design community and support system?
@Jls.lifestyle: My community came from my involvement from the Kingston Design Connection. I met Maryline in 2018 when she opened the first design house as a solo venture. She invited me to help out with the logistics of the 2019 house. Maryline recognized she needed help with managing the house and serving as liaison with homeowners. This added some tools to my toolbelt and gave me a small space to share my design work publicly for the first time. The experience was awesome and it introduced me to a ton of other designers, makers and artists that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I continued on into the 2020 production of the showhouse and our organization has continued to grow. There are now two other designers on the strategy and development team. In the past 2 years my network went from being a little fish alone in a bowl by myself in the middle of Catskills to feeling very integrated into the community. And honestly, the communities you can find on Instagram are kind of remarkable. Finding other local people by liking and commenting on them goes a long way. It’s kinda crazy the relationships that can evolve from social media marketing. It can absolutely be a part of your community development strategy as well.
Kingston Design House 2020, Listening Room Designed by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: How would you describe your style and how do you help other people to figure out their own style?
@Jls.lifestyle: My personal style is ‘vintage eclectic’ which is anything from late 19th century up to 80’s deco. I’m obsessed with that 150 years of design. Any and all of it is everything to me.
I like to find unique vintage pieces that have personality and are also made with quality and care. I enjoy finding ways of marrying them in a harmonious space. That’s what I do in my own home, and if I had free reign over the showhouse, I’d do that too.
In terms of finding the language to help clients speak to their aesthetic, there is a whole intake process that starts with a questionnaire. It’s really a conversation. I have clients print images they have seen that really speak to them or share with me places they have been that really speak to them. And if nothing is readily available I ask them to show me a piece of clothing they love and talk about why. One time I had a client that sent me a collection of stones she found on the beach. She loved the colors, the textures. It became the entire springboard for the rest of the project. So it could be anything, even as random as a collection of rocks.
What I find is that most people don’t have the lexicon to talk about the things that they really like. Everyone has a style whether they know it or not. You get up in the morning and put your clothes on, it is reflective of your style. Figuring out how to speak about it and giving the client the language to talk about their aesthetic and then express it in the objects in their home is what I do. And also, just because you like something doesn’t mean it necessarily will have a good relationship with something else in your space. I help them arrange and find relationships between objects. Learning how to tell a client no in the editing process is part of it as well.
Vintage Dining Room Designed by Jennifer Salvemini
@MackofAllTradesNY: How do you select your clients? Have you ever had a client that has a vision and you feel you aren’t the designer for it?
@Jls.lifestyle: Just to be transparent, I’m not really in a place yet in my career to be turning down work. Whatever work comes to me, if I can fit into my schedule and the travel isn’t insane, I'll probably take it. That’s real talk but I have had clients that I realize it wasn’t a good fit and it’s hard because you want to do right by the client, you want to produce good work and I feel like learning how to identify those ‘bad fits’ sooner is a skill that I'm still honing. Coming from hospitality, I know how to make people happy. This is different though, it’s not just about tweaking a meal order it’s about personality types because you are working collaboratively with someone for a longer period of time. It’s a good question though and I don’t have a good answer because I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.
@MackofAllTradesNY: What are your long-term goals for your business?
@Jls.lifestyle: I’m currently in the middle of expanding the business, not just to be design services but to be products also. I have some things in the pipeline and am currently working with other designers and makers to create custom lines. In addition to that, the property that I own is commercial. I’m hoping in a few years to have a few different lifestyle destinations on my property. There will be a showroom/design studio where these specific products that I’ve developed live alongside antiques and vintage finds that are curated by me. I hope to invite clients there and to house my sample library there as well. Also there is this large barn that I’m hoping to turn into a spice and tea cafe because there is still a part of me that loves hospitality. Perhaps it will be seasonal, but I love the idea of people coming and buying custom spice blends or tea blends and then having a pastry at the bar. Maybe I’ll get a liquor license to also provide an Amaro bar and host Amaro tastings. I just love spices and aromatics. I can see myself serving everything in vintage glassware. Another building on the property also needs to come down so eventually I’d love to replace it with a professional kitchen and dining room. I think private dining is going to be more of a thing in the future and I love throwing parties. I’d like to throw private dinner parties as well because it just sounds like a fun and a cool way to collaborate with other chefs and wine makers. In my mind this will become a colony of young beautiful things and fun activities.
@MackofAllTradesNY: The other aspect of my blog is helping support my readers in developing financial independence. I try to break down a lot of terms and systems to help people grow wealth. As an entrepreneur retirement planning and reading financial security all that falls on you. How do you plan for that personally? Do you have any advice for building business while providing for your future-self financially?
@Jls.lifestyle: That is a good question and it is so important but I don't know. Basically I would say the way that I’m trying to expand the business is slowly with a lot of intention and without accruing more debt. My main strategy is not to put myself into any deeper of a hole. It took a few years after I purchased my property because I had to put a bunch of stuff on credit, but I have just recently cleared my credit line and have gotten to a place where I can look ahead. I’m really asking myself how do I grow the business and do it responsibly? More debt feels unsustainable and not something I'm interested in doing.
At the moment that’s the best I can offer. In terms of long-term future planning I have to say things feel very precarious with the national economy and Covid. It’s so hard to know what it looks like in the future. I’m trying to not make any big sudden moves and just take the work as it comes. I want to make sure I expand the business responsibly and sensibly so that I don’t get myself into more debt that I can’t dig myself out of in the future. That’s as much as I got right now.
@MackofAllTradesNY: As an entrepreneur, do you still have to face that fear about having a fluctuating income or has that fear subsided now that you are a few years into building your business?
@Jls.lifestyle: In reality interior design is a gig-based industry so there the constant fear is that the work will not show up. And earlier I spoke about trusting myself but the other part is trusting the universe so it will continue to provide. I also did want to speak to the fact that there's is a bit of luck involved in creating a business as well. You can do all the work in the world to promote yourself and get yourself out there and to make connections but the reality is you are competing with other people and now it’s in a world where everything is supersaturated. For example, you can watch my cooking demonstrations or you can watch another hundred million cooking demonstrations. Finding your niche and finding your voice throughout all of that is crazy important. Go into this understanding the reality and that is that it’s a competitive world out there. I think it’s also important to diversify your income streams. I have design work, but also have an AirBnb. While I am exploring developing my own products, I sell other people's products through curated gift baskets. My services are vast but the majority of what I do is interior design. But I also can do catering, I can do event planning and I'm happy to shake it up. So diversifying your offerings is what has been working for me.
@MackofAllTradesNY: What can our readers do to support your business?
@Jls.lifestyle: You can follow my Instagram account @Jls.lifestyle. I am usually there a lot. Please reach out if you need any design help, also there are also a few podcasts you can listen to as well.
I hope you were able to take as much away from this as I was. The incredible vision of her brand has already begun to take root. It will be very exciting to follow along and watch it grow. And if you are looking for ways to support her business you find her and all of the amazing services she has to offer at her website or follow her on IG @jls.lifestyle. You can even book her adorable Airbnb if you are looking to escape to the Hudson Valley!
Thank you, Jennifer, for being so incredibly gracious and sharing your journey with us! We look forward to sipping Amaro at your Amaro bar one day! :)