How I Became an Interior Designer

How I Became an Interior Designer

I recently realized that I have never shared my story of how I became an interior designer here on the blog. I get asked this question constantly by aspiring designers, and quite frankly, there is no short answer to give!


The Beginning

Images by Amber Robinson | Niki M | February 2017

This long story starts back in 2007. I was a senior at UNC Chapel Hill and after years of preparing to go to medical school, the reality set in that I was graduating in a few months and I did NOT want to apply to medical school. I had to make a choice about what I was going to do after I walked that stage because Linwood & Gloria didn’t raise me to be a bum!

I started to spend a lot of time thinking about what work really gave me joy, while also obsessing over Candice Olson and Sarah Richardson on HGTV. (Side note: remember when HGTV featured actual designers doing real design work? Not just real estate centered shows? I miss those days! But I digress…)

So I researched the design industry and what it took to be like Candice and realized in order for me to do her work, I had a lot to learn! I had always been interested in art and made art in various media. I had an amazing art teacher in high school who encouraged me to pursue a career in the arts but to me, that seemed too abstract. I needed something tangible and results driven to pour my creativity into.

Interior design was a great fit because it allowed me to be creative and appealed to my techie side. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I have always been artsy but can troubleshoot your computer problems too. Interior design allows me to do both, but first I needed to be educated on the fundamentals.

The School Days

So after graduating from Carolina, I found a program at Meredith College right here in Raleigh and immediately enrolled that fall. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I just wanted to do something! My first year at Meredith was awesome, getting the basic knowledge of the principles of design, history of furniture, lighting, and more.

I decided to study abroad in Florence, Italy for the 3rd semester to study art history & textiles. Where better to learn about the Renaissance than the heart of it all? And to be completely honest, it was the same cost for me to spend a semester in Italy than for me to study it right in my hometown at Meredith. Florence is incredible, and I am so glad I took that semester abroad because it grew me in so many ways. Not to mention, it was pretty amazing to see the paintings I was studying in my textbooks in person at the Uffizi Gallery.  I blogged about a lot of this trip, and you can see the old posts here. (Don't judge the low quality photos!)

niki mcneill interior design student italy 2008

Flash forward. I return to Meredith in Spring of 2009 and by this point, the recession was in full swing in the US but particularly in my area. I was so discouraged that I would never be able to use this expensive degree I was pursuing, and also unhappy in Raleigh. I felt the urge to move to Atlanta because I was so curious about the vibrant young black professional network there that Raleigh seemed to lack.

And I was in love with a young man that lived there too so…

The Atlanta Chapter

I packed up my ‘99 Corolla with everything I could fit and moved to Atlanta. I had a part time job lined up at Old Navy at Buckhead station, and that was my only income when I first moved. It was a stock associate position so I worked 3am-10am three times a week. From 11 am until dinner time, I was applying for full-time jobs and interior design internships. And blogging daily! I was so hungry at that time! And more than willing to work for free.

Finally, I landed a full-time job (still working retail) and an UNPAID interior design internship. To be completely transparent, I didn't get to see much design during this internship, but I was so excited to just get my foot in the door. After some time, I started attending as many interior design related events as I could in the city and Atlanta always had plenty!

One event, in particular, was held at the super cute boutique Pieces and that’s where I met Brian Patrick Flynn. I had no idea who he was, but he’s like 6’6 and talks a mile a minute, so he stuck out in the crowded Jonathan Adler fan group. I introduced myself and he mentioned that he was “looking for some help” because he had so many projects coming up. I left the event and immediately looked him up. I fell in love with his blog & his passion for repurposed vintage. I must have emailed him ten times asking if I could assist him until finally, he got back to me! Little did I know that he was producing content for HGTV.com centered around skilled DIY projects. He allowed me to join his team as a production assistant and I feel like this is where I really got my first peek into the design process plus I was exposed to the production process. It was amazing, but as with most intern/entry level opportunities, it didn’t last long.

The Faith Jumps

Meanwhile, I continued to blog and establish myself as a designer in the Atlanta area. In 2011, I was working as a receptionist while working on small design projects on nights and weekends. I had decided that I was going to step out on faith and work for myself that spring, and submitted my resignation. I had no clue what I was doing! I had established my LLC and had saved some money but I had no solid business plan. So this ‘fly free’ plan did not last very long and by the end of the year, I was working a combination of part time jobs to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, a production company called and asked me to participate in an HGTV show called Design Wars.  That was such a fun experience but when I look back at it I just laugh because to call myself a designer at that point was such a stretch. But God! He gives grace to us even in our ignorance. Not only was I featured on that show, but I also was featured in Southern Living Magazine, all while I was teaching piano lessons and working at J.Crew just to pay the rent.

hgtv-design-wars-niki-mcneill.png

By 2012, I’d gone back to working full time, this time with Pottery Barn as a "Design Specialist" which I thought was another step in the direction to becoming a designer. Boy was I wrong!

The Plot Twist

I was miserable and clueless about what to do next. Towards the end of that year, God really pressed it on my heart that it was time to go back to school. I was SHOCKED to receive this during prayer because, at this point, I had given up on finishing that degree. I felt like Atlanta was my new home and that, although difficult, I was on the path to becoming the designer I set out to be without formal education. Going back to school would require me to leave the home & friends I'd grown to love in Atlanta and make the humbling move back in with my mom. I was devastated but I knew I had to trust God and be obedient to this call. The conviction was that strong!

niki mcneill interior designer.jpg

So in 2013 I re-enrolled at Meredith full time for the spring semester. I loved it and I scored an awesome internship with a local hotel owner/operator group with their interior designer that summer. While I was working that internship full time (for minimum wage!) I got a call from an old design buddy who at that time working on an HGTV show called Elbow Room. Somehow, my name came up as a potential Design Assistant for their new season, and she wanted me to come interview with the host.

I was overjoyed to get her call and that I was being considered for this opportunity but what about school? I had just made a huge life shift and commitment to God to complete this degree. Well, because His plans are way bigger than I could imagine, it turns out that I could have both. I worked full time for 8 months filming season four of the show while completing my degree part time on night's and weekends. It was exhausting and better that anything I could have dreamt for myself all at the same time. 

Just to remind you, this is 2013 which means I had been pursuing a career in design for 6 YEARS at this point. You may be reading this and wondering how you can make your way into the design industry, and honestly there is no formula for how to do that! Things have changed so much over the last 10 yeras and the things that I did back then I would certainly do differently now. Tomorrow, I'm going to share 7 things that you can do to help get started.


Creative spirit living & loving in Raleigh, NC.