By David Blanchette
Photo by Elouise Photographie
Paula Ryan is a Springfield native who graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in recreational therapy after originally starting out as an art major. Her interest in art and design has served her well, first working with her husband through his construction company, Ryan Homes and Development, and later when she launched her own company in 2011, Paula Ryan Designs. Her background in construction helps her guide clients through the maze of design decisions long before construction begins and keep things running smoothly.
Paula and her husband, Mike, live in Springfield in the Tara Hill subdivision they developed. Paula has two children, son Chris who lives in Chicago, and daughter Elle, who recently moved back home to attend nurse anesthetist school, plus five stepchildren. She enjoys working out with her Carpe Diem CrossFit group, reading with her book club, walking her dog, Willow, and traveling to see family.
How did you get started in the design business?
I started out as an art major in college before switching my major, so I kind of have an art mind, and I love working with people. I married my husband in 1990. He was a contractor, and I was going to be a stay-at-home mom. I had my son in September and by January I was like, ‘Ooh, I can’t handle this.’ So, I started working with my husband one day a week.
Most contractors’ wives run the business part of it, but that is not my forte at all. I slowly began helping our customers, running the jobs, doing marketing and the creative end of it.
I worked with my husband for more than 28 years, but I always had friends who would ask me on the side, ‘Hey, can you help me do this or that,’ and then I finally decided to get paid for it.
What special skills do you bring to each design job?
It helps so much that I know how things get built; how the process works. I can run a job very smoothly because I know how it all works and how it should be scheduled.
Then there’s the business aspect, which nobody ever talks about with design. There is so much that goes into the business part of it: putting the bid together, talking to clients about what they are willing to spend, educating people about the cost and the process.
One of my biggest skills is listening. I always say I’m a part-time marriage counselor, part-time psychologist and a part-time babysitter. I manage all of the trades as well.
What is your design philosophy?
I’m big on design and function. I want your house to look timeless. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in somebody’s house where they’ve seen something on HGTV, and they’ll do their bathroom in a style that clashes with their mid-century modern home? So I love to make sure the house flows and that it functions well for the client.
I always start with a consultation; I like to listen to what is bothering the client. Most of the time people can’t articulate what is bothering them, so I’ll listen while I’m walking around the house and looking. Probably 90% of the time I’ll pick up on things that they don’t notice that’s feeding into what is not working for them. I will educate them, tell them what I see. Then we talk about budget.
With current real estate prices, are people buying homes and remodeling them to suit their tastes, or staying in their own homes and updating them?
I am seeing more people staying in their houses. They realize if they sell their house at a high price, there’s a dilemma. They think, ‘if we sell this house at a high price, how do we turn around and buy another house with the same issues, the same out-datedness, and then not have the money to update it?’ So, many homeowners have decided to stay in their homes and update what they have.
People are looking for casual living and more timeless finishes. They aren’t looking for something trendy, they are looking for something that’s going to last a while. Like white cabinets, people have moved away from the grays and are going into the creamy neutrals and then doing pops of color on the wall, like with pieces of art. Permanent finishes are what you spend money on, but you can change out your rugs, you can change your artwork.
Where do you get design inspiration?
I used to go to the National Homebuilders Convention in Las Vegas, they always had the latest trends and educational classes and I always took advantage of those. When HGTV debuted, I watched some of those design shows, but often they don’t equate to the real world. Occasionally, I’ll snag an idea or two from someone.
I follow Maria Killam, a color expert, and she offered a two-day class on colors, undertones and understanding permanent and soft-finish colors. Permanent finishes are flooring, cabinets, countertops and tile. You add in your soft finishes like window treatments, art and furniture. The day following the two-day class she showed how she runs her business and that was a huge help to me. She said you have to charge enough so you can make money to stay in business.
Do you sometimes have to practice tough love with clients?
I’m pretty gentle about it, but yes, I have to. Typically, the people who want to work with me have followed me on Instagram or Facebook and kind of know my design aesthetics. I’ve had a few customers that I had a difficult time helping them make the right decision. But by the time I get to know people I can be kind of funny about it too, and jokingly say something or show them a really bad picture, kind of try to make it fun.
I have had many clients who have said, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had hired you earlier.’ Because they either don’t realize how long the process takes, or they have made bad decisions, and I have to come in and fix things for them.
What advice would you give to those entering your career field?
There are so many different avenues you can take. Talk to people, job shadow them to see what it’s really like before you invest in college or jump into the career.
What may people be surprised to learn about you?
I have five stepchildren and two children of my own, which is a lot. I don’t even know how many grandkids I have (laughs).
I am very active in CrossFit. I was a member of the original gym here, so I’ve been doing that at least 10 years.
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