Growth By Design

Symposium Breakout Session Talk


Hi there, everyone.  I am Paul Miller.  I own MakeNest Interiors, which is located here in Winchester.  MakeNest designs and furnishes interiors for home and business owners so that they can live and work with optimal beauty, functionality, and sustainability.  Since we opened in 2004, I’ve designed lobbies for physician’s offices, dining rooms for restaurants, and common areas in a few fitness facilities.  I’ve also designed and overseen a number of projects here on campus, but for the most part, my commercial work has been for relatively small, independently owned businesses.

Being a small business owner myself, I feel a special connection to these clients.  So I wanted to talk today about some of the common challenges that I’ve helped solve for business owners through design.

Case Study 1

Ed’s Heads is a hair salon on Main Street in Stephens City.  I am a co-owner and so I thought Ed’s Heads would be a good case study because I know both the inside, business-owner perspective and the outside designer view of the salon.  

When I took on this design project, there were a number of unique challenges, but there were also a few fantastic opportunities.  We were relocating the salon, renaming it, and prepared for re-branding on all fronts.  We had a good reputation and a loyal clientele already.  So why tinker with the recipe?

Problem: Reasons for Change

  1. We were in danger of stagnating.  It happens in a business.  Sometimes the facility has something to do with it.  You may be keeping up with the general maintenance, but eventually the place needs a major overhaul to work and look better.  Maybe the landlord hasn’t upgraded the facade to compete with newer facilities.  Or you’ve outgrown the space. In our case, all of the above was true.  But there was more.  

  2. We wanted to make it our own. When we bought the business, the original name was fairly generic.  The space was in a nondescript strip mall. We had a solid reputation for caring for our clients, but we didn’t have a distinctive brand identity.

We felt the business could be more unique, but we weren’t sure when to pull the trigger and had concerns about rocking the boat.  Still there was a nagging feeling that things could be taken up several notches.  We wanted to ignite a spark and revitalize our business.

When a client of the salon began to talk about the painstaking efforts she was making to restore a 19th century storefront on Main Street, it may have been kismet.  Our talks veered from generalities to specifics.  Eventually there was a letter of intent, then a lease.  It was finally going to happen - we were going to re-imagine the salon.  At this stage, I left my business-owner hat on, but I added another one, stepping in through MakeNest to begin the design process.

That starts with discovery: discussing the challenges my client needs to overcome, taking site notes and measurements; using judgment and experience to pinpoint areas for improvement and points of inspiration. Particularly I am intent on understanding what the big picture is so that I can help organize all the pieces to fit and serve that image.  Luckily with Ed’s Heads, I already had an inside view.  

Emily spoke about using positioning statements in marketing.  In just the same way that a positioning statement can help organize a brand around a guiding principle, an interior designer aims to  identify the Point of View of the business.  The Point of View helps influence everything from space plans to wall colors.  With Ed’s Heads, we looked inward to ask ourselves what about us was unique? What could we build on?

Discovery: Building on Strengths

Ed’s Heads provides hair services to local families to help them express their personal style.   At the heart of the salon is a sense of community.   We wanted everyone to be comfortable there.

You know, in the early years, when we were figuring out who we were, we tried enforcing dress codes based on business attire.  Then we turned our point of view around and looked at the salon from our customer’s perspective, and we began to see that they wanted a salon experience where they felt comfortable whether dressed for the office or for the gym.  Our style had to be pulled together, but not stuffy.  

The namesake owner of the business, my husband Ed, is a stylish kind of person, someone who appreciates vintage threads and the latest fashions, but he brings a relaxed and welcoming personality to every interaction with clients.  The design needed to capture this essence.

We also wanted to embrace our beautiful historic building as a feature to our salon.  Here you could relax while a professional took care of you, all the while seeing a tree-shaded street through large windows.  One of my mantras was ‘Manhattan meets Mayberry’. In my mind that looked something like this. 

So we were determined to embrace the local roots of our setting, but equally sensitive to doing this in a way that had a healthy dose of panache and wit.  After all, why hide from being a small town salon with a close-knit group of stylists when what most of us are starving for is meaningful interactions with real people?  How many of us have almost lost our minds trying to get through a customer service call to a major utility provider?


In the end, we accomplished our goals through a number of design decisions:

  1. The first of these was an open floor plan.  We opted to keep the sightline of the lobby and the styling area open to one another.  The stylists are able to see their clients arriving and greet them as they would a guest.  This helped us stay true to our reputation of accessibility and warmth.

  2. We also designed unique focal points. Working with Ed’s collection of vintage nostalgia, we crafted an over-scaled shadowbox to make a vibrant, whimsical, and expressive focal point on display the moment you walk through the door.  Collections of new and old art from the area add engaging visuals that feel authentic to our setting and persona.  

  3. We chose light walls and warm materials.  We used saturated tones here and there for impact, but left the walls of the styling area as close to white as possible so that our creatives could rely on an honest read for their color work and precision cutting.   

  4.  To offset the ubiquitous and somewhat necessary use of black materials, we mixed in a graphic plaid and vintage prints to underscore the rustic charm we wanted to convey.


The feedback from our patrons was positive across the board, with an uptick in referrals from the moment we reopened under our new identity.  Staff had a renewed pride in their workplace. We also noted an increase in creative thinking from our team and more openness about trying new styles from our clients. In embracing a salon design concept that we hadn’t seen done before - and focusing on an authentic point of view - we had created an environment where staff and patrons were inspired to be more unique themselves.  We had accomplished our goals of reinvigorating the business and forging a strong and distinct identify.  Because we kept location and clientele in mind in the process, the design was successful and has helped us grow.


Case Study 2

Perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome when you get out of college is learning how to portray confidence, ease, and polish in business settings.  The classroom teaches particulars and provides perspective.  Still, for many it takes mentorship and life experiences to become that warm, relaxed person who glides through a networking lunch or a black tie fundraiser with ease.  When campus life can give a glimpse into that world beyond, students gain a little edge that can help with the transition.  

Last year, this was percolating in the mind of Dr. Clarresa Morton, VP for Enrollment Management & Student Success here at Shenandoah University.  She and others felt that a place for students to engage in simulations of professional mixers would have obvious benefits.  Every square foot of real estate here on campus is vital, so the space would also need to be a functional study area when not used for networking simulations.   We were approached to meet at the space that would best fulfill this need. 

Problem: Suitability

Here the issues were obvious to everyone involved.  It was not a large space for mixers, but it was adequate.  Mostly the space needed not only an updating of materials, but a vision for a new identity.  This corner of Howe Hall had served many purposes over the years; at one time a lounge for the athletic department, and later still as the campus bookstore.  Our study of floor plans from its original drafting in the 1970s through its repurposing for the athletic department in the 90s helped us to better understand some spatial peculiarities.

Discovery: Building on Strengths

  1. The location had not been selected by accident.  Adjacent to the Student Enrichment Center, mentorship and advice would be immediately available.  This was a strength to build on.

  2. Great creative opportunities are discovered in making friends with what we cannot change.  Within the project scope, we knew that making large spatial alterations was not part of the vision.  We would be changing the skin of this space and furnishing it to suit.  On the first  walkthrough, I kept eyeballing this quirky spot. Research showed that it had been designed to house Coke machines for the athletes.  I had other plans for it.

  3. Something else that struck me about the building was its brutalist underpinnings and I thought we might build on the vintage of the space, given that mid 20th century style is popular now - particularly with millennials and igens.  Thinking about things that were fresh and innovative in the 1970s got me thinking about NASA and the space age, which led me to Star Wars.  I got to calling this area the  Astro Lounge.  I doodled up this concept and later consulted with Leesa to render the space for purposes of demolition and construction.  I also wanted her eye to identify any points of scale and proportion that would need to be addressed.


  1. In addressing the Coke machine niche, I created a series of banquets.  Adding engaged pilasters with sconces and a graphic contemporary wallpaper, I outfitted the space with custom benches and sleek tables and chairs.  We turned what was an architectural leftover into a distinctive and useful focal point. Here the design established a number of  intimate spaces  for small study groups. 

  2. I created a mixed lighting schematic that replaced the former fluorescents with LED tracks.  We also added ambient lighting with the study niche sconces and this constellation of white glass orbs hovering at the center of the space. The natural light from the large windows provided clear strong lighting for day use.  The use of glass in the space allows light to flow without interruption while simultaneously bouncing and magnifying the lumens.

  3. I made significant material improvements.   Glass and steel, paired with copper vinyl and mango wood, provide the space with an urban refinement not unlike the  sleek corporate environments in which students will likely network within their career lives.

  4. We optimized the usability by developed a floor plan that allows for ease of access during mixers, while providing study space for as many persons as the room can realistically accommodate.  In the end, the space has modern style and optimal function.  The transformation was dramatic. 


On the day of the final installation, I discovered that faculty from adjacent offices were drawn into the space, confirming my opinion that people gravitate toward pleasing and well-organized design.  Feedback from Dr. Morton and various members of faculty has been tremendous.  With the project complete, I feel confident that our work was able to fulfill the needs the University set out to meet.   


We hope you come away today with a lot to think about and a better sense of how marketing, architecture and interior design impact success.  Determining the positioning statement of a business helps to guide what you communicate and to whom you’re communicating it.  Expressing this message through a strong architectural and design point of view makes work life better and confirms confidence in your clients.  Thank you for giving us your time today.