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Meet Shanna Kerr of SMDA in Orange County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shanna Kerr.

Shanna, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
As a child, I loved the arts, music, and I had an eye for the details. But, it was not until college when trying to figure out what I should do with my life, that I took a test that came back with Interior Designer. It was like a light bulb went off. It was so obvious, but I had never thought of it. Coming from an Asian family, I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer… So it was a revelation to think of my love of art and design as a career, not just a hobby.

After getting my education, I started working for firms that specialized in hospitality design, specifically restaurants, hotels, resorts. I love food and restaurants and travel, so that seemed like the perfect fit. I worked for medium size and then large international firms working on projects around the country and then all over the world (Europe, Asia, Middle East, South America). Traveling for work and learning about different cultures really expanded my horizons. Learning to design for different cultures and working with teams from diverse backgrounds really perfected my ability to see things through other peoples’ perspective.

Eventually, the scope and size of the projects were so large that I felt less and less involved with the actual design of it, what I had fallen in love with, to begin with. Around this time, a good friend of mine decided to build out a semi-custom home and asked if I would do the design work for her. I was still working on huge projects and managing design teams all over the world, but in the evenings and on weekends, I could really dig in and get my hands dirty again. There, I found that there is something incredibly special and satisfying in creating something with one specific client in mind, not the potential client base say of a restaurant or hotel. My love for hospitality had not waned, but now I also had another love.

Eventually, I decided that it was time to go out on my own and create my own design studio. A studio where I could apply all this amazing experience and expertise I had running huge international projects to a smaller scale. A scale where even with teams working for me, but I would still be involved in the design work itself. Doing what I really love and what feeds my heart and soul every day.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Ha!! Never… although I can’t really complain too much. I started SMDA during the height of the recession, so not exactly the best timing. But we survived. We took on smaller projects and ran them like big projects. That impressed people and got us referrals and repeat clients. Many of those people are still clients today…. which is something I’m incredibly proud of.

Also, the marketing part of the business is difficult for me. It is hard for anyone to build a brand and get your name out there. And in this business particularly, it is so much about the person and the personality. I am rather introverted, so getting myself out there in that way is not always easy. I have definitely had to stretch myself.

On the design side, I would say the biggest challenge is educating people about what we actually do as designers. This particularly applies in the residential work we do. Many people think of us as just doing the pretty stuff like furniture and fabric and pillows… and we certainly do those things and love doing those things.

But we also, amongst other things, design the layout of the rooms so that they flow, relate to each other and function well; we design the ceiling and the lighting to create volume and ambiance. In short, we design the space itself, not just the things or stuff applied to it.

Please tell us about SMDA.
Our design studio, SMDA, specializes in both high-end residential design and hospitality design. My two loves, remember? We work on large scale homes, mostly custom homes from the ground up. We also work on resorts, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

Both types of work feed into each other. Who has not thought, they would love their home or their guests to feel like they are staying at a 5-star luxury resort? On the other hand, every hotel owner wants guests to feel like space is personal, anticipates their needs, and feels like home.

The thing that makes us special is that we truly put our clients first. We have built ourselves as a boutique firm and I still personally oversee each and every project. I want to have a close personal relationship with all of them. To us, in order to design well, we need to truly and intimately understand our clients. For instance, in the homes we design, we need to know how the client lives every day.

Things like whether they like having coffee in the morning in their bedroom before seeing the rest of the family or whether they are showered and dressed first before doing anything else is very intimate but absolutely critical to designing the space so that it works perfectly for them. We also are not limited to a design style or signature look.

We work in the style of our client. We dig into our clients head to figure out what they love and bring the best version of that to life.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Going back to my story, after getting that test back that said I should be an Interior Designer, I had an aha moment. I remembered how as a child, I would play with my barbies as so many little girls do. I would create an elaborate storyline, layout space where the story took place and then dress them and do their hair in an appropriate way.

By the time that was all done and the actual playing should start, I was bored. I had done the interesting part. My aha was realizing, my favorite part playing with my barbies was the design…

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Skylit Photography, Tim Street-Porter, Applied Photography

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