Anastasia Casey 00:00:05 Hi, and welcome back to the Interior Collective, a podcast for the business of beautiful Living. I'm your host, Anastasia Casey, and I am so excited for today's guest, Megan Grehl of Megan Grehl Design Studio based out of New York City. She is a wealth of knowledge and as we begin to explore the concept of going global and designing on an international scale, Megan is breaking down exactly how she got started in global projects, how she's booking hospitality projects around the world, and what she's doing to incorporate that on a residential scale as well. So let's go ahead and dig in going global, managing and scaling projects on an international level. Hello Megan, and welcome to the Interior Collective. I'm so excited to have you on the show.
Megan Grehl 00:00:53 And thank you for having me. I feel so honored. You have an incredible roster of people and I'm just happy to be one of them.
AC 00:01:01 That is so sweet. But you are very qualified to be on this roster. So, I'd love to start with a little bit of background. I know you were actually born a Texas girl, but you've lived all around the world your entire life. Can you give us a little background about growing up in Hong Kong and Beijing and how you got to where you are today?
MG 00:01:20 Yeah, well that is a very long story, but luckily we have some time. So my mother is Taiwanese, my father is American, he's from the Bronx. My parents met in Taiwan, moved back to New York shortly after to get married. And then when I was born we moved to Texas. Actually I think my mom moved to Texas prior to when I, prior to me being born and now I was born in Houston at Clear Lake Hospital. My mom was an interior designer and actually started her own practice in Houston. That was very successful. My mom's actually an artist and she, you know, back in the day when we didn't have software, she would watercolor all of her visions for her clients. So she's like super talented watercolor painter and my mom's company was doing really well in Houston. But then my dad got this job offer in Hong Kong to work for a major Fortune 500 and the interior design business, as you've probably heard from some of your other guests, it's very shaky, it's very up and down.
MG 00:02:18 And my mom was just like, you know, if we can have a stable income and work for a big corporation that pays for our housing and we don't have the up and down of a small business, like let's take it. So we moved to Hong Kong when I was just a year or two and that's where most of my memories, my childhood memories begin. I lived in Hong Kong for three years, then we moved to Beijing for 10 years. I went to the International School of Beijing when was 13. We moved to Taiwan and then I graduated from high school from Taipei American School. So being half Taiwanese, I, most of my friends from childhood are also Taiwanese and as a result I speak fluent Mandarin. Like Taiwanese culture in Taiwan is very traditional compared to culture in China. Like in Beijing and Shanghai, it's much more metropolitan, very International.
MG 00:03:09 Taiwan is much more insular, kind of like Japan where it's much more like ingrained in the old ways. So like traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, all of that. And that really influences a lot of how I approach design. But getting back to my history, just so I can wrap it up, I went to Bryn Mawr College, which is an all women's university like Wellesley outside of Philadelphia on the mainline. And I actually was a psychology major. I was thinking about becoming a psychiatrist because I really love the cognitive processing of how we perceive our world and how we see our world influences our behavior and our actions and our movements, our decisions, things like that. But I always felt like that artist side of me from my mother was kind of missing my mom, being a typical tiger mom, she didn't want me to take art because she was afraid that I'd become a starving artist.
MG 00:04:01 So she really pushed me towards, you know, biology, math, history and so on. So that's kind of how I ended up in psychology. But I decided to take a history of modern architecture course and I just fell in love. Um, and I just completely pivoted my whole kind of trajectory towards architecture. Um, I went to study architecture in Japan for a year and I also studied Japanese. I lived with a Japanese family for one year. So that really exposed me to Japanese culture. Taiwan was occupied by Japan, so I had a little bit of it. My grandparents spoke Japanese, but you know, we, I really love Japan and de Japanese design and that also really heavily influenced me and my design culture now. So then when I went back to the US for grad, like after graduating from undergraduate, I applied to U Penn.
MG 00:04:48 Bryn Mawr Penn have a special program where you can do an accelerated master's in urban planning. So after studying in Japan, I applied to Bryn Mawr and University of Pennsylvania had a special program where you can, if you are majoring in growth and structure cities as I was, you can enroll in University of Pennsylvania's master's in urban planning and do an excel. The program's usually two years, but you can do it in one. So that's what I did. I actually really wanted to become an architect, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do architecture school because it takes five years and I didn't know if I was right to do that route. So I graduated with an urban planning degree with a, you know, focus in urban design in 2009, which was the recession. Um, it was impossible to find a job. I was actually the youngest in my class, but one of the only people that had a job out of graduation.
MG 00:05:37 I applied to Kazuyo Sejima, she's a Japanese arch she's one of the most well-known female Japanese architects. She designed the new museum on the Bowery in New York. And I applied to her sort of her disciple, Florian Eisenberg. He's actually teaching at Harvard now. And him and his wife Jean Liu, they offered me a job to be like head of marketing for their firm. But you know, with very low pay and I couldn't live in New York with such a low pay. So I decided to go to Shanghai and work in urban planning. But you know, working with Chinese government officials wasn't just really, not really my cup of tea. All the projects took a super long time and it was very politically driven. I went to a lot of meetings with all men talking about politics in Mandarin of course. And I just felt really sort of not in the right place.
MG 00:06:29 I knew I wanted to pursue design, but I just felt like this was just way too bureaucratic for me. My boyfriend at the time was in the F & B industry. He was like a champagne ambassador for a major French champagne house. And so he knew a lot of the nightclub and bar owners and restaurant owners and he knew I wasn't happy. So he said, Megan, why don't two use of skills and 3D modeling and try to do a restaurant or bar or nightclub. So actually my first project on my own was designing one of the oldest nightclubs in Shanghai. It was a called Mao. It was owned by Mattia Visconti. He's an Italian guy and it was the after hours nightclub, everyone went there. So it was super exciting for me.
MG 00:07:13 It was a very fast paced project. Three months do full design and construction. You know, I had to manage everything for the first time completely in Mandarin, but I just love the intensity. It was like a sport for me. I used to play a lot of sports when I was younger and for me, like interior design was a sport, you know, like very competitive, high pace. You have to think on your toes, you have to be nimble, you have to, you know, you have to pivot quickly. And that's really what I love about interior design and that just got me hooked.
AC 00:07:44 Amazing.
MG 00:07:44 Ever since then I kind of, you know, I started working in more and more interior design firms. One very famous one in Shanghai called Arian, who I eventually became like sort of like the head of their FFE department there, filtering 150 architects, furniture and lighting proposals. But I always knew I wanted to move back to New York so I, I just quit my job and moved.
AC 00:08:08 So at that point you were still working as a designer or at some capacity for another interior designer. So, and it sounds like you went through multiple firms, that sounds like incredible technical education. As you're going through those F F E schedules, you got such a foundational basis for how you're going to potentially run your business in the future. At that point you wanted to move back to New York. Did you know you were gonna wanna open your own studio or were you looking for a job in New York?
MG 00:08:38 Not initially. I didn't know if I had what it took to run my own practice. And also I knew no one in New York, literally no one except for my family. So I didn't know the industry, I didn't know how to charge. I didn't even know what New York clients expected in terms of like an interior design proposal. I had no idea, nothing, everything I had to start from scratch. And that was pretty daunting for me. And I also felt like I'm a pretty good business person so maybe I wanna be more on the business side. So I applied to Gabriel Scott was opening a new showroom in Soho, so I applied to be their manager of their showroom and help them launch their showroom. But you know, filling out like purchase orders and sales orders every day was not like again, ooh, I was missing that creative juice. And I really just, you know, I missed design, I missed interacting with clients and picking things that were my taste, my style.
AC 00:09:32 Yeah, you were missing the rush at that point for sure. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
MG 00:09:36 And so I eventually, after three months I left Gabriel Scott and I started my own firm via Home Polish. I don't know if you've, you've heard probably heard about it through some of the other designers, but home Polish was, I like to call the Uber for interior design. You know, like connected a lot of us with clients and helped us manage sort of the infrastructure. So that was a good jumping off a platform. But I also felt that it was limiting my capacity to grow because they picked the clients for you, it was difficult to staff up and like to really take on bigger projects. It was all very small and small scale. So I eventually got my first big client through my old job in Shanghai. A very famous Chinese director walked into our showroom and said, Hey, like I'm buying a house in Los Angeles. Do you guys know any interior designers who speak Mandarin in Los Angeles? And they were like, well we know a interior designer who's really talented and speaks Mandarin but she's in New York. So this Chinese director <inaudible>, he hired me from New York and he was flying me out to California every two weeks to manage his mansion in LA.
AC 00:10:41 Wow. And that was really like the infancy of when you started your own firm. So as we kind of fast forward to today, your firm is multidisciplinary and you have such an integration of architecture and interior design but also product design and you really lean heavily into construction management as well. Correct. How does your architectural background inform that? And like what got you to the point where you said, I wanna make sure that we're doing all of these things in-house and it's my house.
MG 00:11:12 I really learned that through my mentors at Rin who in China, a lot of the designers kind of create content packages and hand it off to someone local to do the construction drawings, source all the materials, like kind of like oversee all the subcontractors and vendors and narrating who was very adamantly against that. We had our own product design department, we had our own, you know, we basically designed everything from head to toe for all of our clients. One of our big clients was Jean Georges is Italian restaurant, the bun for example, that I worked on. And we designed all the lighting, all the POS stations, like all the displays for the herbs for the pizza station. Like everything was custom. And I love that. I love customizing the concept down from, you know, from the overall layout of the restaurant down to the menu, down to the signage, the way finding like all those elements. I just think it makes design way more powerful to be holistic. So that really taught me that getting all facets of the project really just creates a stronger design, creates more control over the end products and ultimately I think makes the client really appreciate how involved and how understanding you are of the full spectrum.
AC 00:12:27 Right. Understanding things holistically. Do you ever find clients or have you experienced clients pushing back and saying, oh we definitely wanna use our own architect, blah blah blah, whatever it is. And you feel like that's actually in our wheelhouse and I don't wanna hand that off? Or do you feel like collaboration is great and you're open to it? How do you navigate that?
MG 00:12:49 That's a good question. I think it's a little bit of both. I think initially we do push back and we say that we cannot control the end product unless you like allow us to help with you until execution. That being said, like sometimes there are limitations by where you are located. Like we're working on a project in Chicago right now with a local architect. You know, sometimes you just need hands and eyes on the ground and you have to like work together to make it happen. Also for budgetary reasons, the fees fees in Chicago are different than the fees in New York and, and different cities around the world. Our, we're working on a project in France and the local architect is charging a fraction of what we would charge for such a project, you know? Right. So sometimes we just can't compete with the local services offered, but we just try to do our best to accommodate things by location, by context.
AC 00:13:43 That's super helpful. Thank you Megan. So I wanna talk a little bit about your team. 'cause you have a small but super diverse and really a team of great depth. Can you walk us through what your corporate structure looks like and what those day-to-day roles are?
MG 00:13:56 Yeah, so first of all I like to prioritize women. We don't only hire women, but I do prioritize hiring women because I think a lot of people in our industry think that women can, can handle construction and for me it's like a gesture to show that we really can.
And B, I find that women in general are a little bit more flexible and good at multitasking. And for a small boutique firm like ours, you need to be nimble and be able to think on your feet and pivot from invoices to construction management to design very quickly. So I find that like the women on my team, um, especially the ones who are trained as architects are really good at that. And typically when I hire, I like to look at people who are trained as architects but they really just love interior design.
MG 00:14:45 They love, they wanna like know all the brands know all the furniture pieces, the famous classic chairs from mid-century modern and all that. But they have the architectural training to handle things like drafting elevations, 3D modeling. When a contractor is talking to us about a concerned construction detail, they get it right away. That's something that you cannot, you know, you can't, architecture training takes years and there's a reason why because it's very just so many hours involved and that's something that obviously we cannot train all of that in-house. We have a procurement department, we also have an art department in our office. Anna, my chief of staff, she was a trained architect in Mexico City and she sort of helps me like when I'm not, I do a lot of the client facing, so she helps curate in-house like, okay, Megan would love this piece or Megan would not like this piece.
MG 00:15:39 I fully trust her to pick items that I think would go cohesive with whatever the concept of the design is. Samira one of my lead designers, she's a, you know, incredible 3D artist and she's based out of Lebanon. So we have people everywhere and Samira speaks French and Arabic, you know, Anna obviously speaks Spanish. We really like people with an international background and sort of from all over the place. So you know, Samira is helping us manage our hotel project in the French Alps. Right now we're actually working on a potential project in Dubai. So having that international team really makes it flexible to sort of take projects anywhere.
AC 00:16:19 I feel like that like either puts you in the game or takes you outta the game, having people who can, you're either capable of doing that job or not. And it sounds like with the diversity that you have carved out, you're able to get those global projects. Quick question, where are you finding your architecture design team? Like where are you finding your team members? How are you go about the hiring process to get talent of that caliber?
MG 00:16:43 We do a little bit of everything. We mark it on our Instagram. We also post on a connect for when we're looking for someone who is more of an architectural background. We've also been posting recently a lot on Dine, the online magazine. And then we also directly target universities. So I, I taught last semester at the University of Miami. So we, you know, through our studio there and through the alumni network we're kind of filtering candidates that way. I also have connections with Parsons and Pratt and actually majority of the interns that I hired and started my firm with were all from Pratt University because I was living next door at the time.
AC 00:17:17 Right, right.
MG 00:17:19 We try to get young talent so we can kind of train them in-house, but it honestly
is pretty risky because it's been really hit and miss with those fresh people coming out of school. Sometimes they can hit the ground running and, but the other ones will spend like days on a single 3D modeling like view and just completely drive you like nuts, you know, so <laugh>. Yeah, it's really hit or miss.
AC 00:17:41 Do you have, I, I'm sure you do, but do you have specific software experience requirements? Like what is the criteria? Especially as we're talking about interns, you know, I've heard a lot of designers say like it's about the right fit, like it's about someone who fits the culture, but I also know as a team that's doing everything in-house, it's like no they need to have a technical skillset <laugh> so that they can do these things. What are some of the, I'd say like top three criteria that you make sure that a particularly an intern coming in has?
MG 00:18:10 So we actually have a 3D model test that we send to everyone who works with us. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, even whether you're an intern or the most senior level of our staff, you get the same 3D model test. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and I think this 3D model test is super revealing not only to show that like how well they can 3D model but also how they deconstruct space. I've had people pick like heinous furniture models and put them into the 3D model and that shows me that they don't have good furniture taste or someone will come back in their 3D model files a complete mess, like folders are not organized so that tells me that they're disorganized, you know? Mm-hmm <affirmative>, some people they'll model a metal door and the thickness of the door is completely off and that shows me that they don't have experience in construction. They don't know what the thickness of a metal door really looks like, you know? Right,
AC 00:18:59 Right. When you send out that test, do you have any sort of compensation when you ask people to do the test, do they just know going into it that this is like a free test that they'll spend that time on and they gain experience from it?
MG 00:19:12 No. Yeah, it's kind of the prerequisite and we tell 'em it's true that everyone in our office, even Anna, my chief of staff, took the test and it's the same test for everyone. It's a project that was never like never materialized. So it's not something we'll use for profit or in any kind of real billing situation. And it's purely just to 'cause a lot of people you can, a lot of designers really cannot tell what they can do just based on their resume, even their portfolios. A lot of designers do these projects, especially out of school with other people.
So you don't know really what totally true have their hands on, you know, someone, I've had
people with terrible tastes with beautiful portfolios, you know, and that just shows me that they didn't work on that portfolio a hundred percent on their own. Absolutely. That's a huge risk. Onboarding is one of my, all my interior designers friends tell me, onboarding is one of the most costly and damaging parts of the business because it can take one month to onboard someone and someone could take six months to onboard and that's a huge financial difference.
AC 00:20:15 Yeah, it absolutely is. So your studio's unique differentiator from my perspective is its commitment to design on a global scale and with your team fluent in six languages, you have strategically positioned yourself to handle comprehensive design projects worldwide with clients in so many potential locations. Can you walk us through what your client onboarding process looks like?
MG 00:20:40 Yeah, so I obviously always get on a face-to-face call before, before our
clients pay us anything. The first consultation is always free because I really like to get to know
my clients and you can, you know, just like dating, you can tell a lot about a person within the first 30 minutes, even if it's on Zoom. So like you can tell how they view money, how they view like execution, if they understand the design process and if they've worked with a designer before or not, how much they know construction, how realistic they are about their budget. You know, some people have completely unrealistic expectations and then other people are like, you know, this is gonna cost a hundred thousand dollars. And they're like, oh really? Like I was expecting a little bit more, you know, so a lot of times when we make proposals we're like really shooting in the dark, but prior to making a proposal we like to have that conversation almost as if I was on a date with you and try to understand how do you live, what are your hobbies, you know, what are expectations out of this project? Do you care more about the budget or do you care more about the design? Do you care that we handle everything for you until the end? This client I'm currently talking to in Dubai, we're working on a potential Italian restaurant for him. You know, he thought I was just an American designer based in New York, but he was like, oh wow Megan, I didn't realize you have an Asian background. I'm also talking to another partner about a Japanese restaurant and I'd love to get you involved in that.
MG 00:22:07 But you also have Samira who's based out of Lebanon, so that's great. She speaks Arabic and you know, she's worked on projects in the UAE before so she kind of understands what the market is. And then prior to that call, Tamira and I did a little bit of research on what the local market is like in Dubai, what kind of restaurants will be competing against, what the successful Italian restaurants look like in Dubai and what the unsuccessful Italian restaurants look like in Dubai. So we know that we're bringing something new to the market and we're also learning from what the current market has rejected.
AC 00:22:39 So in this initial complimentary consultation, you know, I've heard designers say, oh, we give 20 minute free consultations and then like the in-person or when you're working on a global scale, like this longer version that's a paid ver, that's a paid consultation. How much time are you giving for free at this phase?
MG 00:23:01 I think, you know, minimum 30 minutes, maximum one hour. I think like we don't, I've had clients come back and ask for multiple consultations and more advice and I think that is a red flag that this client is not taking you seriously and just trying to get free advice. And that is also my husband who's also an architect. We always say that if the project starts off rocky, it's not gonna end like in a more positive, you know, level the projects that start off really smooth. You might experience some bumps on the way, but usually you can resolve those issues with that client. You really, you have a great synergy with them. Like you can work on things, you can work things out together, you know? Yeah. But if the first consultation feels like already like we're not meeting eye to eye, then I usually don't take those projects. Or I actually often, if I feel like a client's being really difficult would kind of factor that into my pricing. It's like okay, this client is gonna be very needy and hands-on and I'm gonna spend a lot more time. They're gonna, I have clients that call me at 11 o'clock at night. So that is a different package than the clients that are super smooth and easy to work with. <laugh>
AC 00:24:13 100%. Okay. So you've had this complimentary consultation. From what point do you move from that, getting into that initial research and development phase as you're putting together this proposal? What does that look like and have you physically traveled to this location across the world to get that? Or does that happen after someone signs a contract?
MG 00:24:35 I think it depends on the size of the project. So if it's a huge, huge project, obviously we'd wanna travel and see the site and understand the full parameters for this Italian project I am speaking of in Dubai, the client hasn't found the site yet. He wants to know our fees beforehand. So that's actually quite a difficult exercise because we don't it, it could be a 1500 square foot space, it could be a 3000 square foot space. He doesn't know right now. So we're creating our proposal based on like sort of a scale that if, you know, if you get in at this square footage it would be this price, but if the more you increase, it's not gonna increase exponentially in fees. But we do have to factor in the larger scope and larger, you know, surface area. But yeah, usually if it's available at a, you know, affordable, reasonable cost, I always like to see the site.
MG 00:25:28 I think it's really important to understand what you're getting into. Also, it's great to walk the spaces with your client 'cause you see how they perceive the space and you take cues from what they're wearing. You take cues from how they move, how they operate.
You know, some clients just like to go, go, go, they don't wanna talk to you for more than 15 minutes and they want you to execute. So like that is a certain kind of, those kind of like tech clients, those are a very, you know, specific breed. And then I have other clients that really, like I have one client, their contractor in Palm Beach gets on calls with me for hours and hours and hours. You know, he likes to go through every single detail and really walk through to understand and I also appreciate that he is putting a lot of care and thought into the space. Again, that's just a very different kind of contract or different kind of project, different kind of collaboration.
AC 00:26:20 When you say, you know, if it's cost effective, if it makes sense to go onsite, that is what your preference is. Does that travel get built back to the client and they're like, yes, I'll pay for this for you to come out and see it? Or is that a risk that you're taking and you are paying for that until you get that signed contract after the proposal's been made?
MG 00:26:39 I would say, again, it depends. Residential projects, for the most part, we don't come out unless it's paid. Just because in general there's less competition for resident there. Residential clients are coming to us because they really want, like me and our style. A lot of times for restaurant projects and more public projects, there's a lot more competition and you have to go out to compete for these projects. We usually, you know, we have to bid for the projects. So on a project I did in New York, I was competing against two other architects for a 200 person Asian restaurant and we made a complete concept proposal with two different designs, very opposite ends of the spectrum. One was like a totally brutalist concept and the other was more bohemian like, you know, nomadic concept if you will. And we wanted to show the client that we can really hit whatever kind of style they want.
MG 00:27:32 Um, and the other architect who were we were competing against only did one design one proposal and in my opinion it was pretty dry. So I think that's what ultimately led us to winning that bid was that the clients saw through that exercise that we could do whatever they want, whatever style they want. And in that project, in those kinds of situations, we would go out for free and we would, we did that concept proposal at a very low cost. The competition costs, the competition fees are much lower than typically what we would charge.
AC 00:28:04 Got it. Okay. That's so helpful. Thank you for breaking that down Megan.
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MG 00:29:02 You know, actually it's really funny. I had an interview with the editor of Business of Home a couple years ago and I never, you know, going back, looking back on my history, I, you know, I didn't realize fully how much culture shock I had moving. You know, obviously I'm American, I speak English, but I really grew up in Asia and I think the way we do design and construction in Asia is very, very different from the US. In the US you have all these tradesmen and subcontractors that are highly specialized in their individual trades. So the Millworker knows all of his cabinetry from A to Z, but he can never touch anything to do with concrete for usually, obviously my millworker in New York, he can do metal and woodworking, but not every millworker is like that. In China, you get like one GC and he handles everything.
MG 00:29:47 He handles the concrete, he handles the metal, he handles the millwork. Like he's literally on top of everything. So he kind of has to know a little bit in each trade. And then he finds like the small guys, but they're all like very controlled by him. But in the US the GC kind of just manages, in my opinion, like the schedules and the budgeting. But like he doesn't necessarily know as much as subcontractors. A lot of times the subs know more than the GC, at least that's what I hear from all of my subs. But they're going to him for insurance, for organization, for payment, for billing, all that kind of stuff. So going back to like my culture shock when I moved to the US to start, you know, to get into this industry for working in this industry for the first time in 2014, I was really daunted by like, where do I begin?
MG 00:30:32 You know, I have no idea. Even with Home Polish, they don't really tell
you like, oh, go to this middle mill worker, go to this upholstery guy. They didn't give us a handbook on anything. So you have to reach out to your own network of other interior designers and make friends really fast and you know, hopeful, hoping those friends will give you their contacts. Not all of them will, if those, especially not the competitive ones in New York. And then when I did the, when, you know, and so when I did that first project with a Chinese developer in Los Angeles, it was the same thing. I had already started to develop my Home Polish network in New York, but I knew no one in Los Angeles. So I reached out to the designers on home polish in la I met, I took some of them out for lunch and coffee and I was like, you know, making friends with him and I was like, please give me your drapery guy.
MG 00:31:17 I need a great stone guy. Like, you know, I will exchange, if you ever have a project in New York, I'm happy to exchange my network with you and like, you know, let's help each other out. So that's how I started gathering network in Los Angeles, which was completely foreign to me. And then also I use my Mandarin speaking skills. I specifically seek
out usually like, you know, Chinese metal fabricators, for example in New York because you
typically, they're lower costs because they're lower in labor and because of my Mandarin skills I can execute pretty good design at a lower cost and like a typical metal fabricator, you know, like a very high-end New York metal fabricator.
AC 00:31:54 Yeah. What about abroad? What about for like your project in France and those places, like how did you even get started with finding that?
MG 00:32:03 Well that is a whole nother animal because that project's actually at the
top of a mountain. The gondola shuts down at 5:00 PM and getting material up there is very
difficult. We can only, oh, <laugh>, we can like, oh, it's only accessible by gondola during the
winter on four by fours. Like almost like things that look like tanks, um, during the winter. And it's, you know, the, there's only three seats for people, let alone like space in the back from
construction materials. So for that project we have to construct during the summers and that
dictates everything else. The vendors have to be ready for the summer, you know, the millwork has to be ready for the summer, everything has to be ready for the, for the summer because that's when the snow clears and we can actually move things up the, you know, up the mountain.
MG 00:32:44 So we're still working on that project. It obviously helps that. My husband is French and we have several French speaking people on our team. So you know, France is very much like the US. You can Google a lot of things and you can find a lot of things. But in countries like China or the Middle East where it's not so readily obvious, like especially in China, because of all the firewalls the government has, you know, and all the filters, you can't Google anything. I remember working just to put a proposal together with images, like pretty images on Pinterest. Half of the Pinterest wouldn't even show up, like half of the images wouldn't show up on your screen because of all the firewalls that the government has. So it's much harder to navigate in those kinds of countries where like the online clarity is not so transparent.
MG 00:33:32 And so, you know, for those you really have to rely on your network and
like making friends and reaching out to people that, you know, in the industry. And so also when people come to New York, I'm very, very generous and open to sharing my contacts for the most part, as long as they're not super busy with my projects. But, you know, because I al I also know a lot of designers who used to work with me have gone off and started their own businesses and I'm always very open to sharing things like how to structure a contract, how to build a client, what kind of clients to stay away from. These are all kinds of advice that I have given to previous employees.
AC 00:34:10 So Megan, if you don't mind me asking, does your studio charge hourly flat rate or a combination of both?
MG 00:34:17 For the most part we charge hourly. I think that's the best way to go personally, because I think that's the best way for clients to respect your time. That being said, you know, restaurant clients or like one-off projects where there's not a lot of options being churned out, then they don't want to have hourly. Our client in France, the hotel project doesn't want hourly. The restaurant client in Dubai does not want hourly, you know, so it really depends on what type of project it is and what the client's expectations are and who you're up against and how bad you want the project, you know.
AC 00:34:51 So when a project, especially these like overseas projects, like when
you can only work during summers, how do you start drafting your proposals and like estimating what the hours are even gonna look like? So when you're giving this person a bid, like how are you even in the realm of reality?
MG 00:35:09 Honestly, it's really, really difficult. First, like I said, always size up your competition, like ask around for the Dubai project. I had a few friends in Dubai, so, and then
hired other architects. So I immediately reached out to them and asked them like how do you, how did you charge for those architects? Some of my students from the University of Miami are from Kuwait, so I, and they, their families have architecture firms, so I reached out to them as well. I was like, please, can you ask your dad how he charges in Kuwait? So just kind of like to get a sense of the market and the region. And then with the, you know, with the project in France, the client's actually a friend of mine. So we have a very good open dialogue about what the expectations are. And you know, it, hospitality is a hard industry at the end of the day.
MG 00:35:56 So, you know, the, the margins can be very tight, especially when you have a off season and you know, an on season. So, you know, we kind of try to show our clients that we are a part of the process and we're invested. Sometimes we even do like equity in the project. So if a client cannot afford our services, we offer something like profit sharing. So it's like, okay, we'll do, we'll do your design for X amount, but then once you start making profit and you know, you start having revenue generation, we expect to be paid back or we expect to get a portion of your profits.
AC 00:36:29 You know, that’s so interesting. At IDCO and at Kwin, we teach our newer designers all the time that having your processes, systems and processes in place is key. I have found over the years that as you start to elevate your projects, elevate your clientele, having that system and process is so important because only then can you customize that process to each client. And I imagine when you're dealing with hospitality projects, residential projects all around the world, it's really challenging to stick to an exact process and you're, you're customizing things a lot. Can you talk to me about the reality of does your established process for your projects stay intact? Are you really like black and white about that? Or does it really depend on location and the project itself? Like how does that differ?
MG 00:37:17 It's, that's a also, that's a con like a constant conversation we're having in within my own studio. And my husband has his own practice as well. So we're, this is something we discuss a lot. If you want to make any kind of money in this industry, you have to systematize your process. Otherwise you are just losing time, you're losing time, reinventing the wheel. That being said, design is almost never like copy paste, right? Like any kind of copy
and pasting, like just those kinds of designers in my opinion are not original designers. You
know, the client's always different, the context is always different. So you're always kind of, as
my husband likes to say, massaging the design to accommodate the needs of that particular
project. So I don't think good design comes out of copy and pasting and like just applying the
same system to every every new situation.
MG 00:38:12 But I also believe to be a profitable business, you have to have some kind of infrastructure in place so you can accommodate those moments where you have to
adjust, where you have to pivot, you have to buffer for unexpected things. You know, we're
working on a seven story townhouse project in Chelsea right now and it's going on for five years because of shutdowns, neighbors complaining, like just there's been like problem after problem that has come up that's been really out of our control and the GCs control. So you have to also put together a system where, and and we've actually had several team members work on this project. So every new person that joins this project, there's a learning curve involved and they're also bringing their own taste and own perspective to the project. So if you don't have that infrastructure in place every time you're changing this, this project into a different animal and that's not good for the client and that's not good for the project either.
MG 00:39:10 So to, I guess to answer your question, we have like, we specifically have a Dropbox where we organize everything by typology. So we have a marketing file, we
have a CAD file, we have a SketchUp 3D modeling, we have all of our schedules. We have
um, a spreadsheet that shows like all of our favorite furniture and lighting vendors, all of our
famous ARF vendors, we have an invoicing system that we use to invoice our clients. But again, invoicing can be very different. Whoever inputs the information, that invoice has a very different tone to their language, right? Some of our people on our team don't, English is not even their first language. So we have to go through a whole training process with our team. Like this is how you treat an invoice, you need to sound like a doctor. It's not personal. It's not like Larry decided this, you have to make everything seem objective. The client decided this, the architect inputted that. How are these actions causing more actions? You know, everything has to be documented and systematized to show that certain things in the design are causing different reactions. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and how is that unfolding and how does that affect how we build a client?
AC 00:40:20 So Interesting.
MG 00:40:21 'm not sure if that answers your question.
AC 00:40:23 That does. You're such a wealth of knowledge, even so generous. I have a few more questions for you. Do you have any processes, if you had to pick one or two steps in your process that are non-negotiables that you're not willing to massage or mold for your clients what would you say those processes are?
MG 00:40:41 For me, I really believe that 3D modeling is key and, and that, you know, in the digital age that we live in, everyone might think like duh, obviously like we live in a 3D world and 3D modeling is so accessible these days, but a lot of clients are still pushing back on 3D modeling, especially if we charge hourly because it is very time consuming and it results in big bail, big bills, I'm not gonna lie, you know, but I think the most successful projects are ones that we have done in 3D where we can see the intersection of materials, how one wall meets an oth, another, how the wall meets the floor. If the coffee table's too high for the sofa or the sofa is too high. Like all of these things are very, very difficult to analyze and understand in two dimensions you know, and that's where a lot of mistakes, you avoid a lot of mistakes that way.
MG 00:41:34 I've seen other designers order sofas, like I said, too high for the coffee table. The lounge chair across the room is lower than the sofa. They didn't check the dimensions, they didn't update it, you know, like the elevations are off or like where the tile meets this outlet on the wall, they didn't realize how they're interacting. Those two materials and those junction points can really make or break a design. So I, that's why we have the 3D model test screening for all of our candidates because I wanna make sure they come in able to 3D model really quickly so it doesn't agitate the clients and push the clients away from 3D. If they can come in and 3D model really fast and we can produce something amazing within a few short hours, then everyone's happy.
AC 00:42:17 Yeah, it just keeps that project on a really great trajectory. So would you say, when we're talking about your global projects, are the majority of your clients like expats, people who have moved or it's a second home kind of situation or foreign nationals who have just found you through loving your work or knowing that you speak Mandarin or those sort of
things? How do you start building that clientele?
MG 00:42:40 Um, I would say a little bit of everything. My husband obviously, because
my husband is one of three French architects who are licensed in New York. So he gets a huge amount of his clients through his French network, through French brokers, French entrepreneurs who are looking to invest in New York. I honestly thought that I would get more Mandarin speaking clients because of my background. But that was only in, in the initial start. Now I'm getting a lot of clients just because they love our work and we did Kipps Bay [showhouse] this year in Palm Beach. A lot of clients have found me through that. A lot of clients have found me through Instagram. The project in Chicago we are working on right now is their new home. We worked on their lot in Dumbo and now they're moving to Chicago and building a ground up townhouse.
MG 00:43:26 So we are working with a local architect on that. But we're doing like a lot of the conceptual design. Those clients are actually of Asian descent but very American, you know? Mm-hmm <affirmative>. So I find that a lot of my clients either are like Asian, you know, descent and like my style because of my Asian influence or like my Palm Beach client for example, she has traveled vastly around the world. She's a Bostonian like through and through blonde, but she loves international style. She has a very elevated taste. I showed her hotels that I stayed at in Portugal. She showed me a hotel she stayed at in Italy. Like you know, once you go international I find a lot of people like the same things, no matter where you're from or what your background is. So I guess that's so interesting. Our clients are really ones that are well traveled, I would say, and very international and they're looking for more international style in general I would say.
AC 00:44:23 Yeah, absolutely. What would you say are the biggest challenges with
designing projects abroad?
MG 00:44:30 Definitely controlling and overseeing the local vendors when it
comes to the final construction phase, you know? Yeah. Even Samira who's worked on several
projects in the United Emirates, you know, I told her we wanna go all custom with this restaurant project. She was like, Megan, we can try. But once you send that package, you don't know exactly what's gonna unfold with these local subs unless you go there in person and you have face-to-face meetings. A lot of things in foreign countries like Dubai and the Emirates and China, you still have to have that one-on-one with a metal fabricator. You still have to have that one-on-one with the millworker. You cannot just do things over zoom. They don't know you, they don't trust you, they don't know what your agenda is. You know, they don't know who's listening. So like they, you know, they are very careful until they feel like they have a personal relationship with you. And once you get to that personal level with them, they're gonna care and take care of your design a lot more.
AC 00:45:34 Okay. Next question as I wrap this up. What advice do you have for interior designers who are looking to land clients abroad and present their firm just more globally?
MG 00:45:46 I think first, obviously positioning the website is super key. It's something that I wanna work on more with my own website. I think a lot of people, like the Dubai client for
example, he didn't know we had someone in Lebanon, he didn't know we were working on a
hotel in the French Alps. You know, it's some, if you only, if you follow me on a daily basis, you
can kind of pick up the pieces of what's happening, but you need a landing page on your website or on your social media where people can understand within 30 seconds or less that like, you know, you are willing to take projects worldwide. In fact you have an international background, you have knowledge of this market and this market and this market and like no task is too daunting. That's what I really tell, like when I tell my clients I was on a Bravo TV show, I did a, you know, a $25,000 renovation in four days and we won.
MG 00:46:36 Like, then they start to feel the competitive spirit and that we're willing to
get things done and we don't feel like entering a new market is, you know, such a scary feat. A lot of clients are afraid of that and rightfully so. You know, if I were a client hiring someone from Australia, I would feel like they don't understand the American market, the New York market or whatever. Like maybe they do, maybe they don't, maybe they live there. You just, obviously there's this kind of barrier just like dating, I always go back to the dating analogy, but people from different regions don't understand your kind of perspective on life. So I think showing that through your visual marketing is definitely key. And and that's something
I'm also personally working on. I don't think I've mastered it yet. Um, but I do think it is important to get those international projects.
AC 00:47:30 Amazing. So Megan, our very last question today, you have been so
generous. I would love to know what are you most proud of in what you've built so far? 'cause I know you are just getting started, but right here today, what are you most proud of?
MG 00:47:43 That's a good question too. I think adaptability, you know, able to take on any project, any size, any location, like whether it's a seven story townhouse in Chelsea or a hotel project in the French Alps. We are not afraid to take it on and, and it does take a little bit of maneuvering, especially with the team hiring the right people. That's why when I look at, when I look at our candidates, I look at well-rounded people that if we have a residential project, they can move to that. If we have a hospitality project, they can move to that. Now a lot of people, especially in the us either do residential or do commercial. I think that's a difference with international training and education is that the schools internationally, they don't kind of segregate the sectors as clearly. The US market is very much like divi as, as far as I've seen, very divided into residential or like commercial hospitality, F & B, et cetera.
MG 00:48:38 So a lot of clients come to me and ask me like, can you do both? And I
was like, yeah, actually the firm that I worked in, we only did both. Like we always did both. And residential, you know, before Covid I was very anti residential actually because I was trained as a hotel designer and a restaurant designer. My first project was a nightclub. So I
always thought that the hospitality sector was what I wanted. But at, but like post Covid, I am so thankful and grateful for the residential sector. It really kept us afloat during Covid. And those clients, they don't drop your project, you know, they carry it through all the way to the end. And yes, it may be more time consuming, it might be more personal, maybe more emotional, you know, the level of investment is different.
MG 00:49:25 Like the personal investment, I'm not talking just monetary, like really the emotional, like personal investment is very high. So it is taxing, you know, because I feel very empathetic towards my client's situations. It is taxing in that sense. But I also feel that we are not letting go of our residential offering because I do love that personal approach and I do love how the clients will see it through no matter what. And that dedication is very valuable to us in terms of like, you know, completing the design holistically and cohesively. And those clients are usually the ones that we become very close with and we become friends with and they just keep loving our design. And you know, we had a New York Times article come out yesterday and a lot of my residential clients personally texted me and said, wow, it's incredible. Like, we're so proud of you. And I think there really is a renewed interest in residential obviously after Covid that wasn't there before in the design industry. I don't know if you're seeing that as well.
AC 00:50:24 Yes, absolutely. I think that it's so smart that you've diversified your focus. Like you said, it kept you afloat through Covid and there's gonna be other versions of Covid where the market ebbs and flows. And to be able to design on both sides I think is such an incredible asset. I will make sure that we link that New York Times article in the show notes for everyone to read. 'cause we're so excited for you and so proud of you, Megan. This was a powerful episode and I know everyone listening is going to have to listen to this three or four times. <laugh>, thank you so much for being here today and thank you for being so open with
your incredible knowledge and just the very specific finite details that's just really hard for people to find on their own. So thank you so much.
MG 00:51:09 Yeah, and I'd just like to add that like, you know, even though you know,
us more established designers make it seem easily easy, um, we really struggled like the first
three years of our business, so I'd really encourage anyone not to lose hope. If you feel like
you're, you know, not getting the clients you want, not getting the business you want, not doing the design that you want, like don't give up. It is a hard industry, but, you know, feel free to reach out to me if you have, if anyone listening to this podcast wants to know more about my international background or working in if different industries, different cities, like more than happy to share if a lot of my students ask me like, should I do architecture or should I do urban design? Should I do interior design? Should I do FF&E? Like should I do product design? This is all something, all different genres that I've been exposed to, so I'm happy to give my 2 cents on that as well.
AC 00:52:01 Well, that is overly generous. Y'all are super spoiled 'cause nobody's ever offered to reach out <laugh>. So Megan, thank you again so much. Thank you for sticking with us when you're a little under the weather. I hope that your little one feels better soon and we will chat in the very new future, I'm sure.
MG 00:52:18 Thank you so much, Anastasia. Bye.
AC 00:52:21 You can follow along with Megan and her namesake studio on Instagram
@MeganGrehl and keep up with her work around the globe like French Alps project and the
Dubai Italian restaurant. If you missed any of the links mentioned in today's episode, you'll find the full transcript and resources included in the show notes. You can also find more details about Megan's process outline below, or take her up on our generous offer and reach out with any questions. As always, thank you so much for listening. Please leave us a five star review on Apple Podcasts and rate us on Spotify. If you're on YouTube, you can catch every episode there, too. Until next week, I'm Anastasia Casey. Thank you for being a part of The Interior Collective.