No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Chad Esslinger. Chad is a designer who took a leap in 2011 to start his own interior design firm in Downers Grove, IL. Chad has transformed the homes and interiors for countless people, and has been featured on HGTV’s House Hunters Renovation.
G: I am a visual person and love interior design, the creative process, and how spaces come together. How did you get into interior design?
C: I have always really loved everything about homes and where people live. When I was growing up, my Grandmother had a beautiful historic home that she maintained really well and she entertained there a lot. She had nice furniture and it was just a beautiful space, and I always remembered that. I remember thinking early on that the home is so important. It’s your sanctuary. It’s your happy place. It’s your place. I just always felt really connected to things inside the home.
G: As you grew up, did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
C: I was always a really creative kid. I was really into Transformers, but I didn’t have the actual toys. I did, though, have tons of Legos so I just built my own, and I was always trying to build things and problem-solve that way. I went to The University of Illinois with the intention of studying architecture. While I was there I found out about Industrial Design, designing products for industry. After graduation, I was doing design and product development of home décor and furniture for large retailers and wholesalers, which required a lot of traveling both domestic and overseas. But as I got older and started a family, the work-life balance wasn’t there. With the support of my wife, I knew I had the chance to rethink my career. So in 2011, when my youngest was born, I decided to start my own business.
G: I always love talking to people who start their own businesses. It’s super gutsy.
C: I knew I wanted to do more product design of furniture and home décor. I also knew though, that eventually I wanted to do more interior design and work with people who owned homes, not just people who made things. Slowly I started doing small projects for friends and family:a gallery wall of frames, a small kitchen remodel, furniture layouts for a living room. I discovered that my passion is designing spaces for people to love and enjoy for years and years. Now, 7 years later, my work is almost 100% residential interior design, with some graphic design and creative work for local organizations from time to time.
G: Did you have a specific vision or dream at the time? Or has it resulted in something unexpected and organic?
C: At that time, I was commuting and traveling all the time, and that lifestyle of working for companies designing products just gave me no joy anymore. I had this vision of what my life could be in being self-employed. It would mean being close to home, having a home office, and being there for my family. It meant that I could be there for soccer practice. I knew I would figure the work part of it out, but that whole work-life balance was really important to me. I also liked the idea of meeting new people and working with them face-to-face to make their homes functional and beautiful. I liked the fact that I could do that versus sit behind a desk and create things in the hopes that somebody eventually would enjoy them.
G: When you think back to that time starting out, putting it all together and seeing those spaces come together, what do you remember that being like? What resonated with you?
C: I remember walking around the city one day years ago, and a house that I passed by had a birdhouse that I had designed. I thought it was really cool that something I designed was being used and enjoyed by someone, versus something that just goes on a shelf somewhere and maybe somebody buys it someday. When I started doing interior design with clients and their homes would start to take shape, I got that immediate feeling from them that I was making a difference in their life. That their home was becoming a place where they wanted to entertain, and to be with their friends and family. I have always felt that your home is your most important place to be. It made me feel good to help these people with their spaces. Before I was kind of detached from that.
Most people I work with have kids. Having a place where you can raise a family and have everyone be comfortable and feel nurtured is so important. It’s a crazy world out there. And as a parent, it is cool to design a place where all the kids want to be and hang out with their friends.
G: I have always felt that there is something meaningful about being in a beautiful space. We can even look to nature to see how the world was meant to be beautiful, colorful and pleasing to the eye.
C: A lot of people want their spaces to be trendy, or what I say is more of a “museum of pretty things”. On the surface it’s beautiful, but it can feel shallow. My goal is to make it beautiful but also meaningful. I like to combine things that are personal, like things that you have been given from your Grandmother, photographs, or things you got from a trip, and see how that ties in to something new that you buy, or the paint colors that you choose. Anybody can just look in a magazine and make their house “pretty”, but the important part is that you walk into a space and it tells a story of who you are, who your family is, how you came to be, or your perspective on life. It makes your home that much richer because it brings all of your experiences from your whole life into your home.
I believe that every room should have a function, a flow, a reason to be, and a story. It just feels really good to bring a sense of calm and comfort to the home, because the home is the most important place for people. I tell people that if they look in their home, the things in their home should either have a specific function or give them a positive feeling. I try to create spaces that exude positivity and joy.
G: What is your approach in working with clients?
C: I always tell people as the project starts that I want to be an extension of who they are, a voice for them. Everyone comes in with a different perspective, and most people know what they like or they don’t like, they just don’t know how to make it all work together in their house. I don’t want to come in and just change it for the sake of change. I try to listen and learn from them and I want to ask questions and help them find the answers for themselves. At the end it really feels like a collaborative project, not a situation where they left the house and came back and it was transformed. Our homes are never really “done”, right? But I always try to leave a project in a place where clients feel confident making tweaks on their own, or if they don’t they can call me again.
G: You mentioned big reveals for tv, and we have to talk about your appearance on HGTV. What was it like to get that call?
C: Well, it was life-changing. It was an incredible experience but it was also a real project, with real clients, and it was just really fun. It was amazing.
G: There are always issues and a major need for problem-solving with renovations. You are also working with people with different personalities, on a project that is very personal, their homes. How do you deal with all of those challenges and the potential for conflict?
C: I try to be a neutral party, like the glue that sticks things together or the oil that keeps things moving. It is inevitable that there will be issues. Every project is different, and it is tough. When I become aware that things are going off the rails, I just stay present and address it head on before more money is spent and mistakes are made. It’s a total juggling act.
G: You run your own business, handle multiple projects at once, and are also a Dad and have a family and a life outside of work. What are some of your go-to ways to stay afloat and keep all of the balls in the air?
C: It’s tough because I work from home, and so, if I let myself, I could end up working every waking moment. The challenge for me is when to shut it down. I am constantly thinking and working, and there are definitely times when I am working late at night after my kids go to bed. Having someone who can help with the kids after school, delegating things, and my wife working close to home also helps. We all do our part and just make it work.
G: What you do is super creative, and every project is different. Your clients all have a different aesthetic. What keeps you inspired?
C: I am inspired by a lot of things. I am inspired by other designers, seeing who can push the envelope and do different things. I am inspired by travel, by going to new places with new perspectives and different points of view. I love to get out and see the world. Colors inspire me. And my clients inspire me. They come in with different ideas.
G: I almost always ask this question: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
C: My to-do list! At the end of every day, I leave it all out there, physically, emotionally, and mentally. When I wake up in the morning, my brain just instantly turns on. I get up wanting to make a difference, whether it’s for work, or my personal growth, or my family’s growth. It’s just time to get things done. Even as a child, I never took naps. I have always been a do-er. A go-getter. I had a great family life and upbringing, but we had humble means. In everything I have done, I have created the life I live because of decisions I have made or those little things that have happened to me that just change the course of a life.
To find out more about Chad, visit www.ChadEsslingerDesign.com