Co-founder, Chapman Radcliff Home
Recognized by House Beautiful as among the top designers in America, and named as a rising design star in Southern California, Ruthie Sommers helps clients to bring home their personal chic styles, and adds her East-Coast-classic-meets-West-Coast-bohemian flair into the mix.
But that’s just part of Ruthie’s story.
As the founder of the West Hollywood boutique, Chapman Radcliff Home (www.chapmanradcliffhome.com), Ruthie and her design team also refurbish used treasures into objects d’art and search the globe for wonderful antiques, attracting the attention of everyone from celebrities to furniture dealers.
Here Ruthie talks about setting up shop, reaching a point in her business where she had to choose between love and money, and making blah rooms beautiful…
Child’s Play Offers Clues to Life’s Passion
Ruthie: “I never thought I was going to become an interior designer until I became one, but I always knew I loved interior design. My best friend (Mary Mallard) and I used to rearrange furniture all the time. Our parents would go out and we would rearrange the furniture. One of our favorite things was to draw the side view of a house and do little drawings of all the furniture and decor inside.”
Fun with Best Friend Turns Into Business
“We also decided we loved the names… my middle name is Chapman and hers is Radcliff. I moved to New York directly after graduating from the University of Virginia and she moved to Charlotte (North Carolina) where we’re from and worked in an architectural firm there.
“Mary moved to New York after I had been working at Ralph Lauren in store design. Had it not been for Mary, I don’t think I would have started Chapman Radcliff when I was 25 – it was because of her organization that I did it. We opened Chapman Radcliff in 1995 out of our West Village apartment.”
Enjoying Success in New York
“Having someone else that motivates you and having a long-term dream is important… we thought of it as something fun to do. We rode on the coattails of successful businessmen in the 90s. A lot of our friends were doing very well in banking. They needed someone to come in and re-do their apartments. We thought we needed to jump on that.”
Setting Up Shop in L.A.
“When I came to L.A., it took me two weeks until I decided to open a store. L.A. doesn’t have some of the intimidation of the East Coast where people who are already rock solid in their careers hesitate to open up stores. It’s a great place to start over.
“What my pitch was when I opened my store is that I was finding flea-market and second-hand pieces and reinventing them with my original fingerprint. I wanted to show people that you can find affordably priced goods if you keep a semblance of taste and proportion.”
Getting Media Attention
“One of first publications that covered my store was Southern Accents. I literally wrote them a blind letter and included a picture of my store and myself, and wrote the story that I thought would be interesting for that magazine and that readership. Here’s a southerner in L.A. and she’s remaking furniture from flea markets…
“(After they covered Chapman Radcliff Home), I saw that reaching out actually can produce results. You have to decide what your point of view is and what your passion is, and it will all fall together.”
L.A. Style Anywhere
“Judith Regan approached me about two years ago to write an interior design book – ‘The L.A. House: Reinventing the Well-Lived Life.’ It’s meant to come out in November 2007. We wanted to capture what’s going on in L.A., the free spirit of California casual living.
“Having lived in New York for 8 years, lived in Paris (where she studied painting and antiques), and coming to L.A., the city of re-invention… so many people come here as an actor end up a chef, or come as a chef and end up an actor… there’s so much possibility in L.A. and I really grabbed that by the horns when I came to L.A.’
“I think there are two ways of working that. The first is to become incredibly calculated and (understand) all the logistics, including things like postage and lighting… all of that I never realized went into overhead.
“The other way is to dive in head-first. Then you’re in it and have to figure out how to swim. I was renting an apartment for $2500 a month in L.A. and I thought, ‘Why not trade my apartment rent for store rent?’ I lived with my boyfriend (now husband, Luke).”
Keeping Costs Low
“Before I knew it, (the business) was into its second month and I realized I needed capital and inventory. For me it was different because I was able to buy furniture at a very low cost and my overhead was not dramatic. I was the only person who worked in the store. I brown-bagged it.
“I didn’t get the most expensive awnings for my store or (the best-quality) business cards… I’ve slowly upgraded the more capital I’m able to accumulate.”
Date with QuickBooks on Friday Night
“I’m not a numbers person but I find it fascinating to go to QuickBooks on a Friday night and see… if I just shaved off the flowers that I bought for the month, where could I (re-allocate) that money in the business? How can I make more money by still being true to the product and clients?”
Secrets to Success
“Problem solving and having a positive attitude. I did not over-think too many things. I knew I had a passion and knew I was good at what I did… I knew if I was able to do my work, that the business would grow.’
Dealing with Ups and Downs
“I had months where my business (wasn’t) doing as well… but usually when I come back into the business and put my fingers on the pulse of what’s going on, I can turn things around. If you get bogged down in all the problems that come into owning your own business, you’re not going to be able to cross those hurdles. Owning any kind of business… basically the job is problem solving.”
“My husband is great at building businesses. Luke is an entrepreneur who started iFilm and is the CEO of Sport Net. (He’s) the person who tells me when I stay out until 12 at night working that he thinks that’s as sexy as it gets.
“He’s just been an incredible supporter – he told me I could do it, should do it, and why wouldn’t I do it. At the end of the day if I’m upset about payroll or a problem with an employee, or if I feel like I’m overworking… he says, ‘You are creating jobs for other people that other people are proud of.’”
Decor and Capitalism
“At the end of the day, it’s not all about picking the right color of pink for the baby room. At the end of the day, it’s about capitalism. (Your business) is your contribution to society.
“What are we all doing? We’re working. What is it for? You want to leave some kind of mark. It’s become such a ‘me, me, me’ society… what’s your contribution? That’s what’s impressive to me, more than someone’s station or what their grandfather did or whether they carry a $2500 pocketbook. Being showy about things is tacky to me. Being successful when you earn it yourself is what is impressive.”
“My greatest challenge was managing people. When I managed three project managers, that was not my strongest suit because I wanted to be friends with everyone and wanted them to love the job, and sometimes that can not produce the best results in people.”
Choosing Her Love of Design over Dollars
“I figured out that I was not meant to grow this into the perfect interior design company model, which is having 10 project managers working on various projects and managing the people more so than the projects. I’m an interior designer – I’m always going to carry lampshades in the back of my car.
“It takes a lot to pull back the reigns. It means I won’t earn the kind of money that I could, but the satisfaction that I have sitting on the floor with fabrics with my clients is unbelievable to me.”
Words of Advice
“Be positive about whatever it is you’re getting yourself into. Never focus on the obstacles; focus on what you can accomplish.”
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Ben Franklin
Discover Your Inner Decorator, Define Your Style
“Go to home magazines, start collecting photos that you like, review them and find out what’s similar in each photo. I think if people figure out what they love, that makes a unique room an original because there’s only one of each of us.”
Make that Blah Room Beautiful – Three Quick Tips
“The power of paint – I think painting makes one of the biggest bangs for your bucks and lighting – making sure every corner is well-lit, not over-lit, can be atmospheric and mood changing. Check out your local listing for flea markets or pop into that (used furniture store) to try to find a little gem.”
Web Site Delights of the Day
“Right now I’m gearing myself toward being more ‘green.’ I love www.treehugger.com. I think it’s important for businesses to understand being more ‘green’ is more American.
Final Happy Thought for the Day
“If I’m having a bad day, I’ll always tell myself that I’ll never have this day again.”