Evolving a Design Business Over Time with Jean Stoffer
“Do the work of digging deep into something on your own. Research, zoom in, find out detail by detail what makes a room great.” says Interior Designer Jean Stoffer. With over 30 years of experience, Jean knows what it takes to build a design business that lasts. Known for classic and elegantly designed spaces, especially kitchens, Jean shares how her business has evolved over the years - from a one-woman show to a team of seven, including Jean’s daughter, Grace. Read on for more.
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You own and operate Jean Stoffer Design and also recently opened Stoffer Home; a home decor brick and mortar shop. How did you get started in design?
I got a business degree in college and went to work as the Admin at a small design firm in the Chicago area. My eyes were opened to the world of design and I couldn’t get enough of it! My boss was so kind to me, teaching me what she was doing, why she did it, and encouraged me to learn the skill of drafting. I took a class at the Junior College and after working for the firm for two years, started my own design business. That was 1985. Over the next few years I discovered that the design work I enjoyed the most was more technical. I loved designing built-ins and the occasional kitchen. In 1991, I began focusing solely on kitchen design. In 2017, my daughter, Grace Start, suggested that I expand the business to include interior design and even said she would leave her teaching job to help if I did. Within a few weeks I was offered the opportunity to do all the design of a whole house remodel. With Grace on board, I said yes! And now here we are!
What inspired you to open the brick and mortar part of your business?
Grace and I worked out of my home and it was lovely. But as our business grew, our team grew until there were five of us. Clients, contractors and reps came to meet us at my home and it got to be a little too much! Since kitchens were still the cornerstone of our business, if we moved out of my home, I would lose my “display” kitchen, so we would have to build another one for people to see. We also discovered it was very hard to find accessories to finish our projects in the aesthetic that matched our interiors. “If only there was a good home decor shop in Grand Rapids!” we would say. Then the light bulb went on and we decided we could have all this in one space. Our office, meeting space, display kitchen and home decor store. That is the inspiration behind Stoffer Home!
Some of your designs lean to a more traditional approach while others are fairly modern. Is there a favorite style of yours?
I love what I call “English Modern” which is traditional with very clean lines.
What are three aspects that you believe have made you successful and stand out in the design world?
1. I feel that every project starts in the kitchen. Since this is our area of expertise we feel it makes us stand out.
2. We embrace classicism of design and bring in fresh elements in the same space. We try to avoid trends so our designs have lasting appeal.
3. We have had the opportunity to work in some beautiful old homes with classic and rich architecture. We embrace this and love its voice in our designs.
You are a mother-daughter team. What strengths do each of you bring to the company?
Grace has a fresh aesthetic that inspires me. She puts things together that are unexpected and elegant at the same time. She is also great at technology which has been very helpful as we grow. I have the benefit of age and experience. I know what would work with a family and what wouldn’t. I understand budgets and construction. We love each other and appreciate each other so the whole thing is just a love fest. :)
Do you have any tips or tricks for someone who is getting ready to renovate or build their home?
Take your time. Ask the pros for realistic budgets, put a good team together, and know that it will take longer than you think it should. Be willing to pay for things that need to last a long time.
You live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What is your favorite part of living there and where can you be found on the weekends relaxing?
Grand Rapids is fun for me because I’m a relative newcomer. I was born and raised in Chicago, and moved here only three years ago to be closer to a lot of our kids and grandkids. That is my favorite part of living here, honestly. But I also love the city because it has so much to offer in terms of restaurants and things to do, but is still so accessible and easy to get around in. I’m a bit of a homebody, so on weekends I like to hang with my husband, walk by the lake near us, see grandkids, go to church and then brunch afterwards.
Who or what inspires your design?
I am very inspired by classic architecture and anything English - London storefronts, country gardens, stone cottages, antique botanical prints - I love and am inspired by it all! I also love old oil paintings, am always on the hunt for them and am inspired by the artist’s ability to evoke an emotion with paint.
What is a typical day in the life for you?
Get up with the smell of coffee because my husband usually brings it to me while I’m still in bed. I know, he’s great! I spend some time reading the Bible every morning, have breakfast and then head to Stoffer Home. The whole team meets there and we go after the to-do list, the conference calls, the brainstorming and the follow up. Customers are coming and going up front in the shop while we work in the back around a big table, each with our laptops open, talking with each other as we go. One or some of us are on job sites often too - or checking in on FaceTime with our out-of-town clients and contractors. Its busy and never dull! Evening is relaxing at dinner with my husband, or sharing a meal with one of our kids and their family.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the design world?
Do the work of digging deep into something on your own. Research, zoom in, find out detail by detail what makes a room great. Try to find unique sources on your own. We get designers asking us “where did you get….” and “who makes….” multiple times a day. The best designers think up and discover their own unique secret sauce.
Is there a space you have designed you are most proud of?
Yes! My own kitchen is something I am very proud of and feel so thankful to enjoy every day. It was a very difficult space to figure out, and took dozens of “what-ifs” until I found THE one. It's beautiful, but accessible. Simple yet elegant. I’m delighted with it.
What is next for you and your business?
Well, we just launched the Stoffer Home Cabinetry line which took many months of planning after decades of refining my kitchen cabinetry design skills. That launch is extremely exciting. Soon after that, we launched our Stoffer Home E-commerce site which will offer a curated collection of home decor items so people can shop Stoffer Home without having to travel to Grand Rapids, Michigan! We have unique kitchen and home decor accessories, a beautiful collection of lighting fixtures, our Stoffer Home pillow collection and more! The physical shop will always have items that can only be purchased in-store like vintage rugs, oil paintings, and very fragile items, so we hope people keep coming to see us here in Grand Rapids. I am particularly excited about a very special spec home in which I have partnered with a contractor I have done many client projects with. It is a massive estate home dating back to 1905 located in the Historic District of downtown Grand Rapids. We are keeping its formidable beauty and giving it a completely new life inside. I am thrilled with the project and cannot wait to share it when it is complete! As far as Jean Stoffer Design, we have exciting projects with wonderful clients going on all over the country. They are new twists on our classic English-inspired style. We simply cannot wait to show them as they are completed and photographed.
Photos by Stoffer Photography