From fitting spinal braces and making prosthetic limbs, to cementing yourself as an invaluable part of an emerging design practice isn’t the average career arc! Though, it’s the reality for Sarah Shinners, a young creative whose unexpected path to her dream job clearly illustrates how fulfilling changing tack can be!
When Sarah was finishing high school and tasked with making a decision on ‘what to do for the rest of my life!’, creative courses were not highly encouraged and she was swayed towards a health degree: a bachelor of Prosthetics and Orthotics to be specific. Graduating four-years later, Sarah went on to work in this field for six years, at The Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane and The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
‘I needed to break out into a job I was truly passionate about. So I went back and studied at Mercer School of Interior Design whilst working part-time; I loved every minute of it and haven’t looked back since,’ tells the 30-year-old Melbournian.
Before completing her design studies, Sarah reached out to Simone Haag at just the perfect moment. As Simone’s first-hire, she became the studio’s Design Assistant. Since then, both the business and Sarah’s role have evolved dramatically, yet she still calls on some technical skills from her past life from time to time. ‘If anything needs any form of assembly on installation day, it lands in my pile without hesitation,’ she laughs. ‘I’m quite handy on the tools!’
The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…
In this industry (well in any industry really) directors and employers aren’t going to go looking for you, and they want you to make their life easier, not harder. So put yourself out there, work hard to get noticed and keep learning and developing to ensure you’re always relevant.
Simone always asks me to come to her with solutions, not problems – and that has been a great piece of advice. I also have no problem with putting my hand up if I haven’t pulled something off and I know that honesty is appreciated because it opens up a dialogue for helping progress the situation.
I landed this job by…
… saying yes to every opportunity that came my way, as well as being organised, reliable and honest.
In 2015, I decided to enroll in a Diploma of Arts (Interior Design) at Mercer School of Interior Design, which was conveniently located nearby where I was living as well as many top Melbourne design showrooms. It was a wonderfully practical course. As a ‘mature-aged’ student the entry process was appealing because I didn’t yet have a folio and the fact the school is located in a beautiful new building drew me in!
While still studying the one-and-a-half year course at Mercer, I saw that Simone was doing a talk at Modern Times. I went along and knew immediately that I aspired to do exactly what she did (furniture, art, object, and styling for high-end residential homes), plus I loved her attitude towards life and work – a real ‘can do!’ mentality, that I also really relate to and live my life by. So I cold-called Simone and was promptly booked in to help on a photo shoot.
From there I just kept saying yes to every job she had going and eventually started doing more serious work for her like putting together concept presentations or schedules for clients. Simone was juggling a business and being a mum of two, so call it serendipitous/luck/excellent timing, not to mention a bit of hard work thrown in there too, but I was offered a job.
I appreciate that internships and volunteering are common-place in creative industries and expected that I might engage in one or both of these for a lengthy period of time. Whilst I did volunteer with Simone on a few shoots and consulted on a casual basis before landing a job at the studio, my internship period was fairly swift. I helped out in a little design shop in Fitzroy North, but it is fair to say I managed to side-step what is practically a rite of passage before landing a creative job.
A typical day for me involves…
… that’s a tricky one as what’s on my to-do list varies greatly depending on what stage we’re at with our current projects. It could include researching pieces for projects, creating concepts, documenting in CAD, scheduling and pricing items or coordinating ordering and logistics on behalf of our clients. It’s busy but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the variety is really important for me; I’m not a desk-job kinda gal!
Install days (the day or multiple days when all of our clients’ furniture is delivered and their home is styled) are often very long and exhausting but they are also exciting and extremely rewarding. On these days I’ll get to site nice and early with coffees and clipboard in hand. I’ll greet our client and then ideally send them off for a lovely day out while their home is transformed (we love a big reveal). I’ll then get to work rallying the troops; we often have multiple assistants on site for large project installs, armed with surface spray, dusters, steamers, and orange oil to make sure the client comes back to a spotless home. As deliveries begin to arrive, I’ll be locating items and checking for defects or damage and working with our suppliers to rectify any issues.
For one recent job, I co-ordinated there were 12 deliveries to receive in one day, no small feat! Once everything has arrived and is located, it’s time to style the space with all the beautiful objects we’ve collected for the client. We’re often also working with our art hanger David The Art Man at this time too.
Then there’s my favourite part of a day… the client returns home and we share a Champagne to celebrate!
The most rewarding part of my job is…
… seeing something we’ve imagined come to life. The ‘install day’ I spoke about above, where all the furniture arrives, as Simone has said in the past, is like the wedding you’ve been planning for years and when it finally comes, and you bring all of your friends (i.e. furniture pieces) in the one room at the one time. At the end of that day when your client comes home and their face lights up with the transformation of their home, that’s pretty special.
Secondary to that, I love the challenge of working with a client brief that falls outside my usual style. I think being a great interior designer is like being a chameleon of sorts, your style adjusts depending on the clients home you’re in. The idea is not to push your own style on clients but to develop an understanding of your client’s style and elevate it.
I truly take my hat off to working mothers and have no idea how they get out the door of a morning – so always being punctual is something I can offer the studio, knowing Simone will get there as soon as her little people allow it. What I love is that our clients see me as their main point of contact, so I can get things happening on-site and run meetings whilst Simone executes her role as Creative Director.
On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…
… the steep learning curve; I literally learn something new every day. As our small business grows we have had to become more process-driven and often these processes are refined by good old trial and error. Sometimes it feels like we’re experiencing setbacks, like trying to manage a tricky installation or a client that is running the process rather than allowing us to lead it. These challenging times have helped set us up for future success and allowed us to create a smoother client-engagement timeline. We can definitely credit Tonina our Business Development Manager for helping us navigate through these periods of change and growth.
On another note, our role involves working with hefty budgets and emotions can run high when a piece of furniture comes later than scheduled or is damaged in transit. But I think my past experience also helps me in terms of recognising a good day vs. a bad day; having dealt with patients who are in need of spinal care, often related to serious trauma, it helps me know how to put my work into perspective.
My idea of the perfect workplace is…
… collaborative, flexible, at times autonomous but also hugely supportive.
I really value the creative freedom I am trusted with on a daily basis at Simone Haag. Working for a small business means you get to do so much more. Sure, that comes with added responsibilities but the experiences are so much more vast. I’ve progressed so far in such a short time and this has only been possible because Simone allows me to express my creativity and supports my ideas.
Prior to this role, I’d only ever worked within large public hospital/government settings where you go to work at the time allocated to you, do the jobs allocated to you, and leave at the designated time. This lack of flexibility really hinders productivity in someone who likes variety, creativity and who has no issue with self-motivation. What if I wanted to do a yoga class at 9am and work until 8pm? It just wasn’t possible in those types of jobs. Simone is extremely supportive – as long as the work gets done it doesn’t matter if it’s 11pm and you’re on the couch in your trackies or on a train in Austria (which is where I started responding to these very questions from!).
I love the fact that I can do my job from just about anywhere, as long as I have my laptop, phone, and the Internet – I’ve even had a rug-colour consult in a Fitzroy Park!
On Job Day at school, I dressed up as…
There were three jobs I remember idolising as a kid. I started off wanting to be a ballerina (what five-year-old doesn’t?), then a trip to Sorrento with a friend swimming with dolphins inspired my ‘marine biologist’ phase.
But, as cliche as it sounds, I remember being asked to answer the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ for our year-seven yearbook and my answer was: an Interior Designer!
The best piece of advice I’ve received is…
… if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I know, I know, it’s the oldest saying in the book but it was Dad’s mantra and the OCD in me really relates. I’ve always been a big listmaker and find confidence in organisation.
Over the years, my workplace has…
… evolved immensely, from a one-woman show to a killer small business that’s still growing.
I feel honoured to have been employee number 001 for Simone’s studio. Since I started we now have Holly our Studio Assistant, Jodie our Financial Controller, and Tonina our Business Development Manager on board. I’m so lucky to work alongside this A-team of fabulous ladies and have Simone as my mentor, director, and friend.
In the next five years, I’d like to…
I always find this question the most difficult to answer as so much can happen in five years. In the past five years I’ve changed immensely, my career, the city I live in, my surname; in the next five years, I don’t plan on changing any of these things!
My goals instead are to: continue to see the world, for work and pleasure; to develop professionally so that I can help contribute to and support the growth of Simone Haag studio; and lastly to find a place to buy/build a home so that I can explore my interior design and decoration skills in a space that represents my family.
Who knows, there might even be time for babies in there at some stage too! Having watched Simone intertwine motherhood and creative pursuits, I have no doubt that I would be encouraged to do the same when the time comes!
Mercer School of Interior Design, in collaboration with Collarts, offers three courses for aspiring interior decorators and designers: Bachelor of Arts (Interior Design), Diploma of Arts (Interior Design) and the Certificate IV in Interior Decoration. Their Cert IV online is the only course in Australia to offer live online tutorials on a weekly basis. Find out more or apply at Mercer.edu.au.