10 Questions With... Sarah Kuchar

After working at Perkins + Will for 11 years, Sarah Kuchar branched out on her own in 2016. Kuchar's motto is “no rules”—no market sector, site, material, or product is off limits for her eponymous firm, which employs five women. That approach has resulted in a varied portfolio—including a financial firm in Singapore and a coding school for children in Chicago—that will only continue to diversify as the studio passes its two-year anniversary in January.

Interior Design: Nearly two years in, what have you learned about running a business that you didn’t know when you started your practice?

Sarah Kuchar: Being a business owner feels like a completely different way of life. The structure that held a large portion of my life together is now gone. It can be great, especially when it comes to schedule. But at times, it can feel very isolating. That said, the business world is so incredibly supportive. I have had so many entrepreneurs take time to mentor me without me even asking. Specifically, other female business owners.  

ID: What did you learn from working at Perkins + Will that you continue to reference in your own studio?

SK: I was taught by some of the best people on how to run a well-oiled design machine. Everything from what a design presentation should entail to making marketing materials and construction documents. I bring those skills to my small firm so that we can compete in the market. My goal is that clients don’t feel a sacrifice in coming to a small business. They get the same level of design and performance.

ID: You say that you are a studio without rules. How does this play out?

SK: I’ve never been a rule follower. When we look at design and assume it should be a certain way, I like to challenge that by asking “why?” Daily, I have conversations with my designers and throw out crazy ideas. Sometimes the response is, “Can we do that?” And my response is, “We can do whatever we want.” I want to have that sort of freedom in design; it helps us think differently and brings more ideas to the table.

One other way that we breathe our mission is mixing design backgrounds on different projects. A designer who is working on residential is also working on an office. A hospitality designer is designing an educational space. The typical “rules” of each market tend to disappear when you see what other markets are doing.

ID: Where did you grow up, and how did it influence your work?

SK: I grew up in a small town in Michigan called Fruitport. Its population is 1,100. When I came to Chicago for design school, I didn’t know a single thing about interior design or architecture. At first, I felt very behind. However, I think it allowed me to come to into this industry with an open mind. Interestingly, my hometown is near the Herman Miller, Haworth, and Steelcase headquarters. I saw those trucks growing up but never knew what they were!

ID: What are a few recent projects?

SK: We recently completed a project for a company called Codeverse which has the mission “teach a million kids to code.” The space is designed to allow the kids to hack everything around them using an iPad. They can turn lights on and off, make sounds move around the room, and design video games that are displayed on a 20-foot video wall. It was a true pleasure to be a part of this business that is trying to improve the education of children learning to compete in the programming world.

Another recent project is the showroom we did in the Merchandise Mart for Source International at Neocon. I started using their furniture years ago, and didn’t think that their showroom in the Mart represented what I was seeing of their brand online. For the show this year, we really pushed them in terms of design. We painted the walls mauve, added residential wall trim, and styled it with residential accessories. It was a very big change. When the client arrived with the fully styled showroom, they were so happy with the result. It highlighted their product in a new way. It was a great success for both of us.

ID: Which person, place, or thing—inside the industry or out—inspires you?

SK: I am currently inspired by the podcast How I Built This. They interview founders of some of the most well-known companies in the world. Hearing their stories and how they got started is so inspiring to me.

ID: Latest design obsession?

SK: Terrazzo. Especially the kind with big aggregate chunks in it. 

ID: Pencil, pen, or computer?

SK: Computer. My mother bought a computer when I was in third grade and we figured that thing out together. I got into digital renderings early on and that’s how I got my first job and a lot of my experience.

ID: A secret source you’re willing to share?

SK: Gina Dorough Surface Studio. She hand-dyes fabrics, leathers, and drapery in the Chicago area.

ID: An item you couldn’t live without?

SK: My Jeep Wrangler. We have stuffed that vehicle to the gills for styling projects. Also, it gets me through the Chicago winters in style.

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