alex kaehler - ak studio - chicago - interior design - behind the biz - business - meg biram
Alexandra studied interior design at Harrington College of Design in Chicago. Shortly after, in January of 2010, she opened Alexandra Kaehler Design in Chicago, Illinois. Alex’s work is based in happy mediums: a mix of high and low, masculine and feminine, colorful and neutral. Her curated aesthetic allows every home to be livable no matter how glamorous they might feel.
Was there a moment in your life when the lightbulb went off and you just knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur and start Alexandra Kaehler Design?
I went to college at University of Colorado and studied communications, with the goal of working in advertising after school. A couple weeks before graduation, I landed what I thought was my dream job at a large ad firm in Chicago. After two years there, I grew antsy. I wasn’t satisfied with my quality of life, or the work I was assigned to do. My days seemed to drag on, so as a creative outlet I started my blog (formerly Things That Sparkle). Day after day I blogged about interior design but always viewed it as my hobby, something to fill my free time, not a career.
I began to look for new jobs in the marketing field, and accepted a position at a different company. Between the two jobs, something clicked. A friend of mine said, you seem like you are dreading this new job. You love interior design, would you ever consider pursuing it? That was it. That was the light bulb. I had never thought of design as a career option for myself. I applied to graduate school the following week, and began classes less than two months later.
While in school, I continued to blog, and sort of accidentally, stumbled onto my first independent project. I had always envisioned myself graduating school and working at a big name design firm in Chicago, but I found working on my own provided a lot of creative freedom that I loved. When I finished school I opened my firm, and said I would give myself a year to see if it took off. And thankfully it did. It’s been an incredible 3 years with Alexandra Kaehler Design.

Once you knew you wanted to launch Alexandra Kaehler Design what steps did you take to make that a reality?

I was sort of all over the place. I knew the first big step would be to get my house photographed (a designer’s own house is usually a good launching pad for their career because they have creative freedom to execute exactly how they would like to). From there, I needed a website. Since I had a blog, I knew how incredibly important a web presence was. I had some friends come over and style and shoot my home. Shortly after, I got a website up on wix (which is an incredible website building site for beginners) and hit the ground running.

I spent hours at the Merchandise Mart looking through the showrooms, getting myself acquainted with the lines of textiles and furniture. I had business cards printed and just started getting my name out there. I didn’t use any sort of traditional marketing tactics, but I knew my blog would be the perfect spot for putting my newly available services out into the universe. The one thing I realized really quickly was that if you take yourself seriously and have confidence in what you are doing, other people will do the same. Although I was lacking the real life experience, I was confident. I knew I would do a fantastic job if given the opportunity to. And luckily, a short time after, I was given the opportunity.

alex kaehler - ak studio - chicago - interior design - behind the biz - business - meg biram

What lessons have you learned along the way?

The one above was huge for me. To be confident. But so many others too. How important organization is. I used to consider myself an organized person, but I quickly realized the level of organization this job requires is well beyond my day to day to lists. Binders, folders, lists, orders, emails, calls — there is just so much to keep track of. So organization was key in keeping all of that in order. I also have learned how incredibly important it is to build a relationship with your clients based on trust. I am going to make mistakes, everyone does, but if my client trusts me to make it right, those mistakes are not the end of the world. I am really hard on myself, and when I used to make a mistake in the beginning everything would sort of spiral. Now, I pick right back up where I left off, fix it, and move on.

What has surprised you about owning your own business?

The schedule. Yes it gives you a ton of flexibility but it also makes it so that you can never turn off. When you go on vacation, there isn’t someone who can do your job for you. When you own the business, it is yours to run. I have an amazing assistant who is incredibly helpful, but I am so invested in this little company, I just always want to make sure things are running smoothly and that my clients are happy. That is my number one priority, if my clients are happy, I’ve done my job well.

alex kaehler - ak studio - chicago - interior design - behind the biz - business - meg biram

Do you have a daily routine or rituals you do?

Yes, I have a very embarrassing ritual that my husband refers to as “The Alex Wake Up.” My dog wakes me up really early, much earlier than I would normally be waking up. So instead of popping out of bed and getting out of the house I go downstairs, feed him, get back into bed with my computer and do about an hour or two of work before getting out of bed for the day. It’s indulgent, but incredibly productive time for me. I catch up on emails and write my blog post. Lately, there are more and more mornings where “The Alex Wake Up” hasn’t been possible, and I have to say, I really miss it! Its such a relaxing, quiet start to my day.

What hardships have you had along the way?

At the time, they always feel more serious than they do in retrospect. But I’ve worked with clients where its just not a good fit. Sometimes on their end, other times on mine. I’ve learned that it is not the end of the world. Even if it feels like it at the time. It is just such an intimate relationship to come into someone’s home and help them design it. If the relationship isn’t working, for whatever reason, it is best for everyone involved to move on. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard though. I like to feel like I can always do an amazing job, but sometimes it just isn’t the right fit. That’s a tough one for me to swallow.

What do you wish you would have known going into this?

A million things, but also nothing. I think my ignorance coming into this industry was bliss. I had, and really still have, this incredibly romanticized vision of this industry. Sure, there have been a lot of curve balls and things that have shocked me, but sometimes I think I am better off for them. I love what I do every single day, even when its challenging.

I suppose the biggest adjustment was working for myself. I thought I could work from home. I was totally wrong. Working from home is great for some people, I am not one of them. My office keeps me sane. There is a separation between work and personal, I stay organized at the office in a way I wouldn’t be able to at home. My office was a game changer. I would’ve done it from day one if I had known.

alex kaehler - ak studio - chicago - interior design - behind the biz - business - meg biram

What have you found works for you as far as organizing your business and time?

Lists, lists and more lists. Every single day the first thing I do is create a list for myself. As I go through the day I religiously mark things off. I love having a to-do list on paper where I can actually cross things off. I also live and die by my iCal. I put every single reminder, appointment and meeting in there. If I didn’t have it I would be lost.

I also allow myself flexibility in my schedule. I work a lot of weekends and evenings, so I usually try to end my day at the office around 4, so I can have a couple hours with my husband at home before going to a meeting.

Highlight of your career so far?

Having my home featured on the cover of Chicago Home & Garden was a fun one. It was totally surreal and exciting. Being published doesn’t typically bring new work in, but it definitely provides some affirmation that you’re headed in the right direction. There’s nothing quite like getting the call that one of your projects is going to be featured in a magazine!

Best advice you’ve been given?

I have some incredible personal mentors in my life. My mom keeps me grounded in reality and then my dad offers this really incredible business perspective that I admire and trust implicitly. Between the two of them I have a 360 approach to life. And the cherry on top? My husband, and partner (in crime) for 11 years is my biggest cheerleader. Its quite the behind the scenes team I have rooting for me. Between all of them, the best advice I’ve ever been given, “Work your butt off, and it will show, in spades.” Time and time again, it’s proven true.


Photographs by Heather Talbert