Five questions with interior designer Barbara Portnoy

With interior designer Barbara Portnoy, principal of Portnoy Levine Design Associates

March 28, 2014|By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun

The woman behind the interiors of many of Baltimore's significant buildings celebrates this year the 15th anniversary of the founding of her business, Portnoy Levine Design Associates or PLDA.

Raised in Connecticut and educated at the Pratt Institute in New York, Portnoy struck out on her own in 1998. Her business now employs nine people at its St. Paul Street offices and counts among its dozens of clients the University of Maryland, for which its work includes the School of Journalism, the new Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore and the forthcoming bioengineering building.

"You have to plan to some degree in life but you also have to be smart enough to recognize your opportunities when they present themselves and jump on them," she said.

Portnoy reflected on her business with The Baltimore Sun.

You started art school planning to be a sculptor. What drew you to interior design?

At the end of my freshman year at Pratt Institute, my parents told me to pick a major that sounded like the description of a paying job if I wanted them to send in the next semester's tuition. My mom actually was a sculptor, and knew how difficult it would be to earn a living in that field. Looking for something that involved three-dimensional design, I declared myself a product designer because, lacking the appropriate information, I didn't consider interior design a serious enough career. It took me a few years out in the working world before I segued from product design to interior design, when I worked alongside a woman who was designing Manhattan beauty spas. She gave me my first opportunity to experience commercial interior design and I was hooked. I'm really proud of the way that our profession has grown over the last 35 years, from a discipline based mostly on aesthetic decisions to one based on science, psychology, mathematics and environmental considerations. For example, selecting an upholstery for a health care project involves knowledge of the fiber content, understanding how to translate test data results into performance capabilities, the environmental impact of the chemicals required to clean the fabric and the comfort afforded to its user.

How did you decide to start your own business? What was it like the first few years?

At that point I had been an interior designer for 15 years and was ready for the challenge of running a business. (Coincidentally my two oldest children, twins, had just left for their freshman year of college). I had been negotiating to purchase a portion of the firm I worked for and the "deal" offered just wasn't what I was looking for. I was on the cellphone with the owner, trying to explain why the offer was unacceptable, and at some point realized that I just needed to leave and start my own company.

The first few years were challenging. I don't think that I slept more than a few hours a night the first month trying to get systems in place. The first year was a roller coaster of guerrilla marketing and then figuring out how to get the work done. I used interns, borrowed friends as freelancers and worked long days until I was comfortable enough to hire my first staff member. This was in 1999 and there was a scarcity of talent available. I remember offering health care and retirement plans to prospective employees before I could pay myself a regular salary.

You've weathered some ups and downs. Can you describe the impact of the recession, what happened in 2009 and how you managed to get through that year?

Most of us have been presented with challenges for which you can't plan. But 2009 was beyond my imagination. At the beginning of the year our older daughter was married in a picture-perfect Eastern Shore wedding. My husband and I bought a brownstone in Mount Vernon and we moved PLDA into the newly renovated building. By the end of the year, my husband had died of a heart attack, many of our developer clients just stopped planning new projects as the recession deepened, and the bank decided that due to the death of a guarantor, I had defaulted on my mortgage. They gave me two weeks to pay off a huge loan. I learned how to ask friends for help and held Friday night dinners at my house so I didn't have to start my weekend in an empty house. I cried and I worked a lot, sometimes at the same time. It's the solid foundation that our families, community and mentors have helped us build that gives us the resources to meet each success and loss.

Your client mix includes educational institutions, corporations and health care organizations. What's driving your new business these days?

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