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Better By Design: Interior Design

Better By Design: Interior Design

Spring 2008

Editor's note: Since publication, Kris Figy is now a full-time Interior Design faculty member at Fox Valley Technical College. 

Fox Valley Technical College grad Kris Figy has found her niche enhancing office spaces for Wisconsin’s top companies.

FVTC grad Kris Figy’s personal design style is what you might call eclectic. Her approach is to blend traditional furniture with modern elements to create a home environment that’s comfortable, kid-friendly (she has three), and sharp. She describes it as “traditional with a twist.” 

At work, though, Figy is all business, designing office spaces that reflect the style and brand of her clients. As a designer for Green Bay-based VerHalen Commercial Interiors, she creates spaces that are productive as well as good-looking. Working as a commercial interior designer is more than picking out office chairs and selecting wall colors, she notes. It’s a career that requires computer skills and business savvy as well as a keen eye for designs that meet client expectations. At 42, it’s Figy’s third career. It’s one that she finds demanding, yet satisfying. 

The Right Fit

Figy’s first degree was in home economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked for a few years as a residential interior designer, mostly with kitchens. As much as she enjoyed the field, she wanted to try teaching. So she returned to the classroom, earning a master’s degree in elementary education from Elms College in Massachusetts. But after eight years of teaching, she found the job emotionally demanding, especially as her own family grew to three children, now ages 13, 10, and 5. For a time, she was a stay-at-home mom, but eventually decided to return to work. “I wanted to get back into a creative field,” she says, “and give all my kid energy to my own kids.”

While she had experience in design, she also wanted to refresh her skills. She began looking for a training program that would offer her rigorous coursework, along with a schedule that was convenient for her family. She found it at FVTC and began taking a few credits at a time. At first, she worried about being the only person with significant work experience in her classes, but soon discovered that fear was unfounded. “About one-third of Interior Design students are adults wanting to change careers,” says Kathy McDonald, instructor and department chair of the program.

“FVTC was a really good experience,” Figy says. “As someone going back into school, I wasn’t sure if everyone would be 20 years old. But that wasn’t the case at all. My closest girlfriends now are all designers who I met at FVTC.”

In addition, her youngest son attended the College’s Parent/Child Center, which “was a terrific perk for the program,” Figy adds. “It is a wonderful child care center and it was great having him so close while I was just down the hall.”

The support network was vital for Figy as she juggled the competing demands of coursework and family. “Balancing school and home life was a challenge,” she says. “Finding quiet time to do the work when you have children can be a little difficult.”

A New Focus

While Figy entered FVTC with the intention of going back into residential design, she found herself gravitating toward commercial work. “The coursework in the program covers the basics for either field,” she says, “everything from computer-aided design to color theory to rendering and drafting.”

Students usually do an internship as they reach the end of their program. Figy interned with Building Services Inc. (BSI), an Appleton-based commercial design firm, and then was hired by BSI as she finished her program in 2006. Later, she attended the NeoCon World Trade Fair, an annual trade show and meeting for interior designers, where she heard about jobs in the commercial design field. Before she knew it, she was part of the three-person design team at VerHalen Commercial Interiors, which provides design and office furnishings, walls, ceiling tiles, and other products for a wide range of businesses.

Figy’s experience is typical of FVTC students. “We work with a lot of different types of businesses,” says McDonald. “Many students find their niche through an internship.”

Beyond Fabrics

Television design shows may make it look like interior designers spend their time shopping and looking fabulous. “In reality, the work is as much about customer service and number crunching as it is about fabrics and paint colors,” Figy says.

Projects range from designing an office space for a one- or two-person company to laying out more than 100 workstations for a large corporation. Depending on the time of day, she may be working on her computer, developing plan views and three-dimensional drawings to let clients and installers know how a space might look, or pricing products and developing a design that reflects a company’s image and brand. “Every day is a little different,” she says, noting that’s one reason she enjoys her job.

When working with a client, Figy first learns about the company’s space needs and budget parameters. Does it want desks and chairs or systems furniture for cubicles? If she is designing a reception station, she’ll need to find out how many people might work there and how the company wants to greet its customers. Once space planning is complete, she’ll begin to lay out the furniture and get into the details of finishes. “For some jobs we are selecting finishes such as carpeting and wall colors,” she says. “A lot of companies are budget-conscious these days, so we also have to work within what they want to spend.”

As a commercial designer, she also needs to be mindful of the client’s image and brand to ensure that the design reflects the company’s values. Case in point: A recent project involved designing an acoustical panel for a meeting room with 16-foot-high ceilings. The client’s overall space design reflected the Mission style of the early 20th Century. In keeping with that, Figy designed a pattern for the panels that mimicked a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed stained glass pattern. She selected fabric for the panels that was reflective of the period and flowed with the existing finishes.

For another client, Figy created a modern look throughout the company’s interior spaces, including conference rooms, waiting areas, private offices, and open-floor plan offices. “I needed to work with the client’s existing space and finishes to help create a more consistent, modern look,” she says. “And I had to do it all while meeting the client’s tight time frame for completing the project.”

She also notes that while commercial spaces are not as influenced by fashion as residential design, they do respond to trends. Lately, companies have been seeking lighter, warmer colors in their spaces, along with furniture that allows for flexibility. Modular carpeting tiles are a popular item, she adds, because they can be installed quickly, replaced easily if soiled, and have a wide range of color options. But the biggest trend in office design, as well as residential design, is a greater emphasis on sustainability. More companies want to use “green” products that do not harm the natural environment or create potential health hazards in the work environment.

Figy is excited about her new career. She’s had additional training in designing health care spaces and is now working with one of VerHalen’s sales representatives to develop that aspect of the company’s business. “The people here are wonderful to work with,” she says, “and we have a beautiful facility.”

As a designer, she should know.

Designing Graduates

Like Kris Figy, graduates of FVTC’s Interior Design program tend to find careers quickly after graduation. A survey of the program’s 2007 graduates found that nearly 100% of the ones who looked for work found employment; two-thirds were employed full-time and one-third part-time. Of the employed students, salaries ranged from $19,000 to $45,000 a year.

Ginny Sattler, associate dean of FVTC’s Business, Health and Services division, notes that many of the students are like Kris Figy in that they already have college degrees or work experience. “We’re getting more and more students who want specific training to help them get jobs,” she says. “Lifelong learning is very true for our students.”

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