This sister duo has made quite the name for themselves in the interior design world, and we’re lucky enough to call them our neighbors. Emily Barker and Marie Carson are the founders of m.elle design, a Pacific Palisades-based firm that has created some seriously sophisticated designs, and we’ve been obsessed with them for years. Their work is show-stopping and it’s thanks to a priority they’ve both made out of keeping their creative energy focused — professionally and personally. For starters, that’s not an easy thing to do when you have five kids in four years (between the two sisters, phew) — and quite frankly, it’s not an easy thing to do ever.
We don’t want to spoil all the details before you read their interview below, but once they hit the ground running with starting their biz in their Manhattan apartment a few years ago, they’ve never looked back. We are personally grateful that Emily and Marie have built their business to exactly what it is today, because they are visionaries and peers we deeply admire. Scroll down and read our interview with m.elle design. Get inspired by their work and of course, follow them on the good ‘ol IG if you don’t already!
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey. How did you team up together and both become interior designers?
Emily and I are sisters and grew up with an incredibly chic mother who is also an interior designer. So you could say it was in our blood :) I was always an artistic kid and went on to study Painting and Art History in college. After graduating from undergrad, I moved to London to get my Master’s in Decorative Arts at Christie’s. I knew I wanted to be an interior designer and chose to take an academic approach and study the history of furniture. Gaining this foundational knowledge of furniture really helped me hone my eye for quality. Also, living in Europe exposed me to so many different looks and aesthetics. After receiving my degree from Christie’s, I began working for the late David Collins in London. He was larger than life and had a keen sense of personal style. Learning from him and his senior designers was incredible training. The work ethic and standards of excellence that I gained by working at David Collins Studio was invaluable. After a few years with David, I moved to New York City. I convinced Emily to move to New York at the same time. We always intended to start an interior design firm together but it ended up happening waaaaaay earlier than we thought. We were living together, not loving the job market, and took a huge leap of faith and started the company out of our apartment in Manhattan. Our mom quickly wanted in on the fun and the three of us founded m. elle together in 2008. Our mom ended up retiring in 2012 but is still our biggest influence!
What’s it like working with your family? Tell us about the working dynamic.
It has been one of the biggest gifts to work by my sister’s side. When you start a business it is exhilarating and exciting, while also being all consuming, exhausting and incredibly trying. When your business partner is your sister, best friend, and the person that understands you better than anyone, it makes it so much easier. We always want what is best for each other, not just what is best for the business. We understand when we each need a break and how to balance each other out. We have completely different skill sets. I am the creative director and Emily is the business director. We are definitely better together! For me, having the business side of operations covered allows me to really focus my creative energy. We have also gotten much better about not letting work seep into our sister time. Figuring out how to compartmentalize the two took a lot of practice. When we have a great accomplishment at work it is so fun to celebrate it with your OG friend in life :)
How would you describe your design style? What inspires your designs?
Our mom is still our biggest source of inspiration. She has incredible taste that is instinctual. She is our inspiration, best editor and our biggest fan :) Also, having a background in art and art history I am always drawn to the history books and am heavily influenced by artists, architects, furniture designers, and love high fashion to find inspiration for shape, color palette, and pattern.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in starting your own business?
The amount of work it takes. When it is your own company, there is no one else to pick up the slack!
What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started in interior design that’s feeling stuck?
Stay focused. I think with Instagram, Pinterest, etc. it is easy to get sidetracked and confused about your aesthetic. Really drill down on what makes you inspired and stay true to your own taste. Your clients really want you to have a strong point of view.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
You will be amazed how far you will get on hard work alone. This is advice our dad gave us. This is so true! Hard work is sooo much of the recipe. We are a service industry and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. During installation weeks, our job description also includes, housekeeper, mover, florist, gardener, etc. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and care sooo much that no task is too small.
How do you find balance between work and personal life?
Emily and I work really hard to design our life to reflect our priorities. We are both mothers with young kids, between the two of us we have had 5 kids in 4 years! Needless to say these last few years have been busy! Finding this balance is a moving target. I think what balance looks like changes so often, somedays it is going all in for a few days on a big presentation and then taking Friday off to be with the kids. We try to realize being a great mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and business woman is a tall order. We can try to be those things but not all at the same time! Some days we feel stronger than others and that is ok. We also try to tell each other when we need to take a break, because we can see when one of us is approaching burn out. A huge part of why we can keep things moving when things get incredibly hard is because we have the most dedicated, and talented team at m. elle, without which none of it would work!
What are five things you can’t live without right now?
Fresh cut flowers
What’s next for m. elle?
So this is a tough question and one we get often. We would love to do a small furniture line, and one day have a book. However, we have learned not to let this question drive all our decisions. We want to focus on the selective custom homes we take on and really do the best work we can. We like keeping our company small and taking on very few projects a year. For us, keeping our creative energy focused has been a huge driver of our success both professionally and personally. Not biting off more than we can chew has allowed us to find that balance as best we can. So for now, we are really content with the business we have built so far :)