Laurie Blumenfeld-Russo is a relative newcomer to interior design. She broke only three years ago from a career in marketing, studied at Parsons, then set up her own design business. We were curious to find out about her experience as a forty-something student but as it turns out she was not the only grown-up in a sea of college kids. “There were a lot of bankers—a lot of people from Wall Street.” It does rather leave one wondering how many Wall Street types are secretly thinking about curtain tiebacks instead of short selling.
After managing five million dollar events budgets for Nickelodeon, Laurie worked as a mere intern for an interior design business, which involved swallowing a fair degree of pride but she says that it revealed to her things she would never have known otherwise: the detailed paper trails, the extraordinary range of product and the realization that a designer is dealing closely with clients’ personal money instead of corporate cash.
Now, despite having only been in business a short time, the projects are steadily building via word of mouth. We particularly liked the way she scored a project in the Brooklyn Heights dog park where she walks her Australian Shepherd, Ava.
So this is your second career and you went to Parsons only three years ago—how did you find that whole switch?
I was terrified … but equally excited.
Can you give us a rough idea how old you are? You don’t have to be specific!
I was 48 and now I’m 52.
Were you the oldest in the class?
No! There were a fair amount of people who had marketing degrees; there were a lot of bankers—a lot of people from Wall Street. And once I got over the fear of “Oh my God I haven’t been in school for, like, thirty years”, it was fun—you know the whole back-to-school thing, going and getting your books and all that. And homework was a drag!
How long was the course?
It was two years, part-time. It’s very different than it used to be. It is computer-based. It’s a mixture of the architectural drawing and the scale and all that stuff. You can take the autoCAD classes but they also teach you how to draw. They want you to understand how the scale drawing works. All my homework assignments were hand-drawn.
What was your first assignment?
That was really hard for me because I’m much better at freehand drawing. They had us designing a restaurant space.
And did you get grades?
We did not get grades—pass or fail.
What was the real motivation to do this?
For me, because everyone that knows me knew me as someone who ran the events department at Nickelodeon— I [now] felt that this was my way to put my stake in the ground and to rewire how I see myself and how other people see me. This was the pause point. It wasn’t going to be a hobby.
People can be very patronizing about interior designers. There’s a lot to know.
Yeah. I was so happy to learn all the art history and to [acquire] all the design knowledge. There’s so much to know.
Tell us what it’s been like to break into the business.
I feel very fortunate. I did an internship with an interior designer while I was in school. Her name is Alex Hayden—she runs a studio called Octave Studio. You know I was used to running the events department at Nickelodeon—and now I was an intern. So I had to swallow my pride but I really wanted to do it!
What sorts of things did you learn?
So much more than I even realized … like the process of the purchase orders, all the bookkeeping, custom furniture, every type of wood, every type of tile, there’s a billion of everything. And I know this sounds obvious but this is people’s personal money. This is not my five million dollar events budget that belongs to Viacom—it’s very personal.
And after only one year working for Alex Hayden, you decided to go out on your own?
Well while I was working for her, people started approaching me so that’s what made me decide. So I kind of plugged my nose and jumped.
What sorts of things are you learning not to do?
One of the things I’m learning is that you shouldn’t give people too many choices.
So you have this spectacular roof garden—what would your main piece of advice be to someone planning a roof garden?
I would say don’t hold back. Like we were just planning a little one and then I said to my husband, “You know what? Let’s just do it! You love to cook! Let’s make an outdoor kitchen!” Obviously it was not inexpensive but it was worth every penny. And we collaborated with an amazing architect—and you can’t do it without that.
But you also have like, trees and things up there. What happens about weight?
The architect said we didn’t need to put in steel beams but this building was put in in the 1800s and that just seemed … yeah … I would say no matter what advice you’re given, you need steel beams. It is extremely heavy and we sleep at night knowing that it isn’t going to fall down and kill us or crush the building.
And how about watering everything?
I love to garden. Bob is the chef and I’m the gardener. I go up there every morning; I water my garden; I cut back [the plants] and I do all the planting. But we have an irrigation system—I knew that I wanted my roof to look like the High Line. The Brooklyn Bridge Park was also an inspiration for me.
And you like to travel—where have you been?
I’ve been to over forty countries. I’ve been to India four times. I have been to several places in South America, all over Europe, Myanmar and Nepal. My husband has dual citizenship for the US and Italy, so we go to Italy every couple of years which is really fun.
Was working for Nickelodeon as fun as it sounds?
It was fun for a really long time and then not so much. I worked there twice actually … I’ve done a lot of different things.