Lorna McCarthy is the owner and lead designer behind McCarthy & Co, a boutique design practice, focused on creating interiors that are authentic and emotive. Based in London, Lorna's speciality is applying an intuitive approach to each project. Studying History of Art has given Lorna a different approach to interior design, allowing an innate and in depth understanding of style, space, composition and colour which she applies to the creative direction of every project.
Although the past eight months haven't been the smoothest transition to being the fabulous, independent business woman that she expected, there's no doubt that her freelance experience so far has made her a better designer.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance interior designer.
I became a freelance interior designer, not by mistake but certainly not planned. Although I had always aspired to go out on my own, it ended up happening a lot sooner and with a lot less preparation than I ever would have anticipated.
In school I studied history of art, after which I did a very short internship at a prestigious design studio. While I didn't actually learn anything while with them, it did allow me to include the name on my CV, following which I was lucky enough to be taken in by a small company. I am so thankful for this experience and my mentors there, as it enabled me to gain an understanding of design from the inside out - including, most importantly, the nitty gritty of how to manage clients, how to invoice effectively, what you need on an install (baby wipes and floristry scissors!); the every day stuff. Here I honed my skills in all aspects of interior design over the course of four years, going from the administrative side to eventually leading and managing my own projects.
I have never had formal training [in interior design] and learned entirely in the job. In the beginning I saw this as a draw back, but now I can appreciate that this without a doubt cemented my approach and application of interior design, and has given me such a thorough and pragmatic education, without which I wouldn't have had the capabilities or confidence to freelance. It's enabled me to develop an organic approach and way of doing things. On top of this I credit studying history of art as having developed my understanding of style, space, composition and colour, something which I apply to every project and is at the very heart of me as a designer.
After a while though I became quite jaded about the industry and as a result had actually walked away from interior design. But, I only ended up having a three month hiatus! My first freelance project was for an existing client who asked me to work for her independently, and I haven't looked back since!
As I had experience of running my own projects and have always been very independent [as a designer] going freelance felt like a natural progression, and for me I know that I'm at my best working independently. The freedom of being able to work in your own way, choose who you're working with and ultimately having control over the design process is very important to me, and I wouldn't want to design any other way.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
Well, as I have only been established since the start of this year, I would say I'm still very much in the 'beginning' stages! But for me it has absolutely been establishing genuine relationships with clients, who then wanted to work with me independently. This, and word of mouth. In the beginning I thought it was all about your website, how you approach advertising yourself and 'who you know', but really, for me, it's come down to positive experience and word of mouth. Design is so personal so it's important that you and the client are a good fit; I wouldn't take on a project if I felt I wasn't suited to the client or the job. Forming authentic, personal relationships with both clients and suppliers is something that I want to continue as I grow; both of which are a huge source of inspiration for me.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
If you start to procrastinate, ask yourself why! For me procrastination is such a dangerous habit, as it can have the potential completely de-rail a project as they tend to run to very tight deadlines. When I find myself procrastinating, at the root of it is usually feeling overwhelmed, or a lack of confidence to make a call or decision. If I'm honest about why I'm feeling the urge to procrastinate then I find I can overcome the hurdle that's driving my procrastination and get my productivity back on track.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
My greatest struggle as a freelancer so far has to have been going through an unexpected identity crisis when I first started out, and after a good few months of 'what the f- am I doing?!', learning that it's okay to do things differently. Age was definitely a sticking point [I'm 25, which is young for this industry!]. In the beginning, although I didn't realise it, I had an idea in mind of how as an interior designer with my own company I should be approaching new clients and new projects. But in reality this was how I felt I should be approaching things, not taking into account my own personality, strengths and weaknesses. I was overlooking the very reason I wanted to become freelance - to do things differently and to offer an alternative to the run of the mill experience of interior design. Because my ethos rests largely on creating authentic relationships with both clients and suppliers, it follows suit that I am not the strongest networker. So following the path of what someone else is doing, even if it might be working well for them, is not going to be authentic to me or effective. I had to get comfortable with who I am and how I want to establish myself as a designer - for instance, outlining certain values like paying suppliers a fair price and not compromising on this. It's only been since accepting that it's okay to do things a little differently and in my own way that I've been able to find my feet as a freelancer, produce my best work and be able to stand firm behind myself as a designer.
Another thing was the financial aspect. After a few months [of establishing my company] I started working in a local cafe alongside my interior design work, which although isn't always easy [managing both] it gives me the financial stability I need while I'm still finding my feet and establishing a client base. I think pride can rear it's ugly head when you're a freelancer; wanting to say yes, I'm doing amazingly well, to put out a facade of being fantastically busy. But the reality for a lot of people is that it can be a struggle in the beginning. This is something that I felt was important to touch on, because looking back I had an unrealistic idea when I first started out about how smoothly one project would flow into the next. I've learnt that it doesn't make you any less valid as a designer, or freelancer of any kind, to have a 'side job'; but rather, in my case, was simply a way to make it work.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
For me as a creative, it's without a doubt the freedom and control to do things your own way, and not to have to compromise on this. Something that is hugely important to me is supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and working for a company where someone else ultimately makes the decisions I wasn't able to do this. It's been so rewarding to choose each and every supplier I work with, to pay a fair price and to know that I am supporting someone's livelihood, not just imports from China.
From a creative perspective, I need to be accountable and responsible for all design choices which again, in interior design isn't possible if you're working under someone else. Because I'm a total control freak (only in design might I add, nothing else!) I love that I'm able to have complete control over every decision. For me, it makes the whole design process from start to finish so much more enjoyable and rewarding, and ultimately better. I love to completely immerse myself in a project and find I'm able to do this working for myself in a way that I was never able to before. Being able to make the choice about who you're working for and what you're working on more than outweighs any of the negative aspects to freelancing I've experienced so far!
If you could design for anyone, who would it be?
To be honest I am incredibly lucky with the clients I have, but as I'm soon to be relocating to Falmouth [in Cornwall, UK] in spirit of that a dream project for me at the moment would be a Cornish boutique hotel or cafe!
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
The work/life balance is something I try my best to create boundaries around. While design is a huge part of me, my entire identity isn't 'interior designer' and so I try to make sure I leave time for nurturing relationships and other interests outside of design. As I'm a bit of a magpie the sourcing side of me never switches off, but when it comes to everything else I do try to set boundaries and adhere to them. Although the odd late night is at times necessary, I try on the whole to keep my evenings after dinner work free as best I can. This keeps me sane and happy, both things I value!
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
Always be on the look out for inspiration, whether it be a natural landscape, new supplier or rooting through a secondhand shop. I'm constantly open to being inspired, and I find living in that way enables me to draw on inspiration organically when it comes to putting together a design concept.
Freelance work can be isolating. Do you have any tips or tricks for combating these lonely feelings?
Isolation is something that I definitely struggled with, particularly in the beginning. As I had just moved to London when I first started my company, McCarthy & Co, I found it hard not being a part of a community. I think isolation can be a problem for freelancers, particularly if you're going through a challenging time. For me, it did gradually get better as I found my groove and became more confident and focused. As I am frequently liaising with suppliers and clients that usually helps to dispel any feelings of loneliness, but if isolation does start to creep in then I'll make the time to arrange to meet a friend mid week for a coffee and a catch up.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Passion, belief and determination. Not knowing when you're going to get in the next project isn't easy, so it's imperative that you have determination and believe in yourself and your abilities. To me as a designer, belief is something which is absolutely crucial. If I don't believe in myself, my ideas and my work, then how can I expect a client to? I’m Christian, so belief is integral to me, and this applies to my work as well. And passion speaks for itself!