ITC Interview :: Summer Thornton Design {Part 1}

"Girl crush" is an underestimate. This fabulous entrepreneur, mother, and design connoisseur does it all - and then some - with flying colors. Emphasis on the colors.

Summer Thornton started her own interior design firm in 2007. Since then, her designs have been touted in major publications including House BeautifulModern Luxury and Traditional Home. And for good reason. After admiring her for years now, I can say her signature look is colorful, bold, far from ordinary, and always leaves you thinking, "That is such a good idea."

I'm beyond honored to feature her on Isn't That Charming, not just because her advice for design is one of the most-visited pages in my bookmarks, but she is a true inspiration with talent that exceeds the norm. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you the fabulous...

ITC: For those who don’t know you, what’s your elevator pitch?
Summer: I’m an interior designer and I’ve been able to work with some really amazing people to help build and design their dream homes or dream retail boutiques.  And thankfully, the media has been very kind to me – the work we’ve created has been featured in many magazines, blogs, and books.  In terms of style – no two projects ever look the same – every project is a representation of the individual I’m working with.  But there are some themes that are consistent in my aesthetic – it always is influenced by traditional design, but we typically give it a strong twist through unusual color combinations, layered patterns, and a strong use of vintage shapes & silhouettes.  Most of our work is in Chicago, but we’re expanding a lot this year – we have projects right now all over the country.  

ITC: Your experience includes working for textile companies and other interior design firms. At what point did you decide to start your own company?  
Summer: I officially took the leap back in 2007, but I had known I wanted to have my own firm since I was in college.  Looking back on it I was probably more na├»ve than brave but I wouldn’t change a thing!

ITC: What was the scariest part of taking that leap?
Summer: Probably being the boss!  I went from working for someone to being in charge.  I was 25 and starting my own business.  Figuring everything out from a legal perspective was the first step and then being able to land clients. I went from a salary with benefits to straight commission.   Not that I was making a fortune as a design assistant or while working at Osborne & Little, but I knew that I was giving up the safety net and was going to have to make it work.  I took a pay cut when I left O&L to become a design assistant, and that was one of the best career moves I ever made.  Scary, risky, but it has paid off in the long run.  No great achievement is ever had without taking a risk, and this was the risk I had to take.

ITC: What has been the most rewarding?
Summer: There are so many rewards it’s hard to put them into words.  Here are a few of the most rewarding things:
- I love the team that works with me at our firm - they have been absolutely critical to our growth & me maintaining my sanity.  They’re both great friends and I appreciate their willingness to ride this roller coaster with me every day.
- Seeing bloggers & our social media fans geek-out over our work. There’s nothing that’s more motivating and encouraging than a total stranger posting “OBSESSED” on Pinterest on one of your designs.  
- Being able to do what I love!  I am completely obsessed with design and have a totally one-track mind.  The fact that I get to do it every day is simply the best.  

ITC: What have you learned most from starting your own business?
Summer: One thing I am still continuing to learn, which is so hard to do in the moment, is to enjoy the ride.  Small businesses are a wild roller coaster – euphoric highs, and terrifying lows.  Bask in the good days, in the fun moments, in the profitable months, in the clients who give you creative freedom, and try not to let the tough times bother you.  You have to have tough skin and be able to roll with the punches.  Don’t freak out if you lose money for one month, just work hard to ensure it doesn’t happen every month.  And frankly, if you’ve got a slow day and its 80 and sunny, go to the beach because in 2 weeks you’ll be so busy you won’t be able to get home before 10pm.

ITC: Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Summer: I’m a huge proponent of small businesses, female entrepreneurs, etc.  And most everyone I know who has taken the plunge has been glad that they did.  That’s not saying that it isn’t risky, that it wont be hard, that you might have to live financially tight (very very tight) for a while, but in the end the rewards are exponentially greater than the temporary pain and frustrations.  My advice – go for it.  What do you have to lose?  Seriously.  If you fail, you try again, or if you decide it wasn’t for you then you go back to your former employer and beg for your job back.

With that said, I’d also say its critical that you put together a strong business plan. Differentiate or die. Be you. Figure out how you’ll make people aware of your business.  My husband did all of my PR & marketing which was absolutely critical.  Run the numbers – how many clients do you need to pay the bills, what should you be charging for your service or good, etc. 

ITC: What has been your favorite interior design project to date? 
Summer: My favorite project to-date I unfortunately can’t share photos of yet because it was just shot by Domino magazine and they’ll be featuring it in their summer issue (be sure to pick-up a copy to check it out).  It’s colorful, daring, sultry and quirky.  The final result was great and the clients were a big part of that – just fun nice people who wanted something different than their friends & neighbors.  They weren’t afraid to stand-out, and that made for a great design.

Another amazing project was a French Tudor remodel that I did.  We literally gutted the entire home keeping only the roof and exterior walls.  Again that was a situation where the client wanted a space that was perfect for him and he didn’t care that it wasn’t what other people had.  We shipped-in antique floors from France, a stunning Le Corneu range, custom designed all the cabinetry, installed steel-paned windows, etc.  Again the client just trusted our vision and let us run with it to make it as amazing as we could. 

ITC: In your advice section you note that “Colors don’t clash” and to “Use patterns and colors recklessly.” What is your favorite color combination to use? 
Summer: Which colors are interesting to me is constantly changing.  But I typically like to pull some retro/vintage color that hasn’t been used in years and pair it with something more modern.  Or I’ll take a hue that feels just a little quirky/off and pair it with something more trusted and traditional.  But truly, I don’t believe in color ‘trends’ – sure some things are more/less popular but I don’t think a single color can be ‘out of fashion’ – paired with the right shape, texture, pattern, and other colors and you can make any hue feel cool.  Honestly, once a color combination is popular, I’m over it.  Colors combos I’m loving and using now are powder blue, tangerine and coral; sky blue, pale mint green and acid yellow; and in my daughters room I used aqua, orchid (insert my Mom calling it “mauve”) and lavender. Obviously, you can tell I’m ready for Spring!

Keep up with Summer on Faceook, Twitter & Pinterest. Be sure to swing by Part II, where Summer shares advice for decorating on a small budget, key takeaways for designing a room, pet peeves, and what she's loving this Spring!


  1. This was a marvellous interview, loved it x

  2. Love this! Mauve reminds me of the 90s and the lamps my parents had at our old house :) I'm looking forward to tomorrow's post!

    26 and Not Counting


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