Tiffany Piotrowski may only be 31, but the interior designer is already running her own design firm, Tiffany Leigh Design. With a passion for design that dates back to her Barbie-filled childhood, Piotrowski has been bringing her personal brand of, as she puts it, “California cool meets Little House on the Prairie,” aesthetics to clients across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since opening her firm in 2019.
As she navigates a recent move (in June, she relocated from Toronto to Lake Simcoe), she’s adapting to a change in lifestyle and wants to transition her business into cottage country.
We caught up with Tiffany to chat about what it’s like to be the principal designer and founder of her firm, launching a business right before a pandemic and her number one tip for Instagram when it comes to work/life balance.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the position of Slice.ca and any of its affiliates.
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What is your salary?
We are incorporated. So the salary payments are different from what the business brings in, but I would say the business brings in around $200,000 per year, currently.
What sparked your interest in interior design?
I grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., and I’ve always had [a] love for design since I was a little kid. I can remember playing with Barbie’s and my favorite part was setting up the house. When I got a little older and all my friends were watching MTV, I was watching HGTV and that kind of thing. So I think it’s always just been something that I’ve been really interested in. But I didn’t originally go to school for design. I took a course in high school, a careers course that… was more geared towards traditional career paths. Even when I did my [careers] project, it was on interior design. The expected salary was not looking very good and the job prospects weren’t looking very good. So at the age of 16, [it] sort of scared me away. [Instead] I studied English at the University of Guelph, and then I did my Bachelor of Interior Design afterwards.
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What helped you get your foot in the door?
I was very lucky. I think that networking played a big role in my start. When I was in design school, a friend of mine was actually working for Sarah Richardson Design. And then she [moved] away to London, England and put my name forward as a possible replacement candidate. I was kind of loosely in the design scene. I had started a design blog back when blogs were all the rage, so I was going to a lot of Toronto events. I had a small body of work that [the] firm could look at, and I got hired there while I was still a student in design school. I stayed there for almost five years.
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You founded Tiffany Leigh Design in 2019. What was it like starting your own business?
It was really exciting. I knew that it was always my end goal to start my own firm, but I was happy to work with other designers for a while [and] learn and grow and be mentored by these really amazing, talented people. And then it kind of felt like the right time. I don’t know if this is relevant, but my landlord in Toronto was selling my apartment and so I had to move out and temporarily relocate to Hamilton with my partner, Luke, so the commute was long [when going] back into the office. And I [thought], ‘you know what, it kind of feels like the right time to just take the leap and start this.’
[When starting a business], if you listen to your heart and your inner voice, you can’t go wrong.
Now, I didn’t know that the pandemic was right around the corner. So, you know, most of our business has been during COVID, which has been really interesting to navigate. It was scary. But I also knew that, if I didn’t believe in myself, why would anybody else? So I had to just kind of take that leap. And luckily, because I was freelancing prior to that, I was able to take on a few small client projects during that time to kind of build up my base. So I felt confident enough that I could take that leap and get started on my own.
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Tell me a little bit about the different services you guys offer. You also mentioned having to continue working during COVID — have you had to adapt to offer any of the services virtually?
Yeah, so we offer three services. We offer just our single-visit design consultation, and that’s where we go into our clients’ homes for two hours and it’s a flat-fee service. We give all of our design advice in [those] two hours; we can answer any questions they have, any concerns. Sometimes clients will already kind of have a kitchen plan [in mind], and they just want us to help review the drawings and the finishes, so it’s a one-time service that can be really great for people who are maybe working with smaller budgets or people who really know what they want and don’t need a full-time designer and just need that little bit of reassurance.
The other main service we offer is full-service design, so that’s where we take it through from conception right to installation and manage all of the trades, all of the ordering, everything throughout the process. That’s my favourite service that we offer.
The third is a virtual service [where] we offer an exterior rendering service. So if people are having trouble with curb appeal, they can send us a photo of their existing exterior and we kind of Photoshop some ideas so they can see the potential for the exterior of their home. A lot shifted to virtual [during this] time. For at least a year, my team and I were all working virtually at home. We’re so lucky to live in a time when Zoom and all these great programs are available. We did a lot of client presentations virtually. I even did some consultations virtually. We are now starting to see people in person again, which is really lovely. But yeah, it was a big shift and I feel very fortunate that, because it’s a luxury industry, it kind of could have gone one of two ways and we’ve seen a really big boom in the industry.
I think because people are spending so much more time at home, [and are] maybe not traveling as much, they might have a little bit of extra money to put into their homes or maybe they’re just looking at something that they thought they could ignore staring at all the time. There’s been a lot of demand for home offices. So we feel really lucky. The challenge now is really long lead times on furnishings. There’s big backups on things coming from overseas and then also just limited availability of trades because they all seem to be swamped.
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What does a typical day look like for you?
It varies a lot. One of the things that I love about my role in the business I’ve created is that I have a very multifaceted role. I have all of the design projects, [and] I’m also doing a lot of content creation on Instagram and YouTube. I oversee any photoshoots we do, [and] client projects. We also have a vintage shop that does seasonal vintage drops, so I’m always sourcing for that to get ready. I feel [that] my team is always like, ‘Oh, what’s it going to be this week, Tiffany?’ But I think the flexibility makes it really fun. It keeps it really fresh and interesting. I think it keeps the creative juices going. But there are days when I’m just having a boring office day where I’m viewing invoices and doing all of that, too.
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What have you found challenging in your career so far?
I think the most challenging part for me has really been the business side of things. I think, as a creative person, I never really had to think about that too much, especially when I was working under other designers. That [side of things] was not really on my radar, all the day-to-day business, the finances and things like that. And so I’ve had to really adjust my mindset to get into that. I feel like I have a pretty good business sense of, ‘Oh, let’s try this, let’s do this.’ But when it comes down to the actual analysis, I find that quite challenging. I think the key to combating any weakness in your own business is just surrounding yourself with a really great team and hiring people who do know more about that than you, so that you can make sure that you’re progressing and learning and that your business is really getting the advice it needs. You can’t do everything alone.
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How big is your team?
So I have myself, and then three designers who work under me, so an intermediate designer and two junior designers. And then we have a part time accounts manager and a social media coordinator.
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What is your favourite part of your job?
My favorite part is always installation day. I think it’s just so much fun after you put in a lot of time on a project. New-build projects can take two years or a year to complete. So you really do form these special bonds with clients and then for them to walk into the house after we’ve been there for the day, setting up all the furniture and all of the accessories, seeing their reaction is just so fulfilling and so fun, and usually emotional. It’s just really rewarding.
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Do you have a favourite project so far?
We’re starting a complete gut renovation of a home in Caledon, Ont. this fall, which I’m really excited about. I think as much as I love all of my past projects I get most excited about what’s coming [next].
How would you describe your personal design philosophy?
I always describe my design style as kind of California cool meets Little House on the Prairie. It’s a funny way of saying it, but I love those clean, crisp lines of California design — I love a bit of a coastal element. I moved to the lake, I love the water. I love that little vibe. But I [find that I] always need rustic, beat-up primitive pieces put in there, which is where that Little House on the Prairie side comes from, just to mix it up. I think my biggest philosophy in terms of design, other than my aesthetic viewpoint, is really livability. I think that there are a lot of times when design feels a little bit intimidating. I’ll see an image and I’m so inspired, but would that work for my client with five kids or a busy family? I always want my interiors to feel warm, inviting and livable — not too precious. So those are kind of my leading pillars when I design a home.
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How do you manage work/life balance?
That’s a big challenge. [My partner Luke and I] are newly navigating his position, as he actually just finished his residency and fellowship training last week [at SickKids in Toronto]. So, up until now, we’ve kind of been in a position where he was working a lot and I was working a lot. Now that he’s done, we’re starting to kind of navigate how we can slow down. One thing I’ve implemented in the past couple of months is that I’m trying to be off Instagram on weekends. Social media is a big part of my job and [we are] advertising everything — 95 per cent of our client inquiries come through Instagram. So it is an important venue, but I’m trying to stay off [on weekends]. We have a ton of work to do on the new house, so that allows us to kind of also step away from work and spend that time together. But I would say it is a challenge and it’s going to be a new challenge now that we’re both kind of entering this new phase of life together.
I think [with] your instincts, if you listen to your heart and your inner voice, you can’t go wrong.
How do you deal with stress?
So I think one of the big thing we did for stress is moving out of the city. Part of that was that Luke’s fellowship at SickKids was coming to an end so we could leave the city, but another big part of it was just wanting to be closer to family. We didn’t have any family in Toronto and Luke’s sister and our [niece and nephew] are up here, so that’s really important to us. Also, this is a new activity, but I love to go paddle boarding now, so when I’m feeling stressed I’ll get on the board and paddle around and then I just feel really refreshed and inspired after.
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What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started in your industry?
I think the biggest advice I have, and something that worked really well for me, was developing a presence on social media prior to what I did. I think a lot of people don’t start a design-related Instagram account if they feel they don’t have the most beautiful home. When I started out, I would just style little vignettes. I would go to HomeSense [and] I was like 18 on a student budget. I’d buy things, I’d style a vignette and then I’d return [the items].
It’s just showcasing your style with whatever you have. I think if you appear [online] in a really genuine way, it will connect with people. And then when you are ready to take that leap into business ownership, you’ll have a base of people who are there really supporting you and excited about it, which is a big help. [The] lessons I’ve learned really are just to trust my gut. I think that your gut never lies. I’ve had times where maybe a client project didn’t feel like a right fit — [and] it’s a long relationship, so it really has to [work] on both sides. [In the past] I’ve had hesitations, but I was so new and I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do it. It’s gonna be great.’ I regretted not trusting my gut on it. I think [with] your instincts, if you listen to your heart and your inner voice, you can’t go wrong.
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