Interview with Interior Designer Toni Berry
Each month, we interview a Socialite Influencer, one of our members who has shown exceptional skill at marketing her business in the interior design, home staging, or workroom spaces. We cover the emotional, strategic, educational, and brand-based facets of running a business in the fast-paced home industry.
Meet Our Guest
What is your name?
What is the name of your business?
Marie Antoinette Interiors
Where are you located?
San Francisco East Bay Area or Tri-Valley Area
What services do you offer?
Custom draperies, soft furnishings, color consultations and design services, space plans, furniture, art and lighting.
How long have you been working in the home industry?
I've been in business as Marie Antoinette Interiors for 33 years. Before that I had worked in retail stores selling home furnishings.
A note from our Socialite Influencer of the Month:
Marie Antoinette Interiors was founded in 1985 and is a San Francesco East Bay design firm with projects throughout California, Washington DC, Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Northern Italy. Toni is a creative who believes in the power of beautiful interiors to transform daily life. With a degree in Fashion Merchandise, coursework in interior design, and years of solid training and experience in the home furnishings industry, she has a well-trained eye for quality craftsmanship, furnishings, and textiles.
Toni continues to be recognized for her tailored, timeless designs that remain fresh year after year.Toni is best known for creating polished spaces that are functional, friendly, within means, and beautiful. Each project speaks to her client’s own interests, travels and lifestyle. Her aesthetic is classic with a twist and timeless with a hint of edge. She prides herself on her attention to detail, obsession with quality, and love for local craftspeople.
Toni’s work has been featured in the home and garden section of leading Bay Area Newspapers including the Tri-Valley Times, Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, The Herald, The Oakland Tribune, numerous interior design and decorating blogs and industry trade magazines.
Toni was born in Trieste, Northern Italy. Her real name is Maria Antonietta. After starting school in the United States, her name was translated to Marie Antoinette, hence the name of her design firm, Marie Antoinette Interiors. As a teen, friends began to call her “Toni” as a nickname and it stuck! Toni is forever thankful to her parents for blessing her with such a beautiful name to carry into her work and her life.
She lives in Sunol, California, in the 130 year old stone barn she and her husband of 46 years lovingly restored themselves for their family.
The Emotional Side of Biz in the Home Industry
When you first started your business, how confident were you?
I started as a window treatment designer without any fear at all....I had a toddler son and a new born baby girl on my hip that was my sole motivation!
The lack of confidence came later as my business grew. Though I had a comprehensive knowledge of how a small business is run, I was scared to grow, and I was scared to believe that I could. I took on projects that were beyond my ability because I needed the income for my family. Those were the projects I cut my teeth on.
As time went on my confidence grew and so did my skill set. With each little failure came great growth.
What fears did you have as a new business owner in the home industry?
My fear has always been to delegate! Because of my background, I have always done it all. I taught my self how to keep books and did them, still do, actually. I have always done my own marketing, first by advertising in the newspapers, I even had my own decorating column in the paper. And until recently had the same self-created website.
All because I was afraid to let someone else do it for me.
What part of your experience or education helped you grow your business?
It was NOT my education (a degree in Fashion and courses of study in Interior Design) that moved my business forward; it was my experience in working in retail. I started in retail when I was 14 years old.
In retail you learn how to read people and how to negotiate with them. This has helped me immensely in my business. I learned to sew when I was 5 years old. My European mother, a seamstress/tailor, had great flair and style, that transferred to me at a young age as well.
Decorating with classical style is as natural to me as breathing...but the ability to stretch to create other styles for clients comes from listening to them and the belief that I can stretch.
How have you grown as a person since, and because of, starting your business?
I grew as a person when I began to hear from my clients how I helped them live better lives because of my services . The first note of "thanks" came from a client unexpectedly and as I read her description of how it helped her family, I was so moved almost to tears.
With each thank you since then, I knew I was not just picking colors, hanging draperies or fluffing pillows. I was serving a bigger purpose, I was improving the lives of families. It gave me such purpose.
Advice for New Interior Designers, Stagers & Workrooms
If you could give yourself (and any other new business owners in the home industry) a piece of advice, what would you say?
Stay at it! Don't give up ever. Stay the course. The reward is not in money; the reward is in purpose.
Do you have a business mentor or idol?
In the 80's, it was Martha Stewart...yes I even bought her business book and watched her programs. Then in latter years it was Candice Olson. Both these woman have an innate business sense that ties their personalities to their business. That is what I have strived for in mine.
Secrets to Success in the Home Industry
What is the #1 problem you seek to solve for your clients?
Better living! I try in as much as I am able to show them how to live better by improving their homes. And not just aesthetically but also by how they work, move, and live in their spaces and offices.
What type of project brings you the most joy?
Anything I design in textiles. It's always been my passion.
How do you spot and avoid a potentially ill-fitting client?
It's hard to avoid them...to this day after all these years in this industry I still believe that I should serve "everyone". But I do know one thing...if they only want to talk money, I am NOT their designer.
I operated for years without a "new client questionnaire" form now that I have one of those to email to them before we begin. I am better armed to identify them by page 2 of the questionnaire.
How do you handle people who say, "You're too expensive" and expect a discount?
I believe that "new" business owners should be less expensive than a "seasoned professional" and they should cut their teeth and learn from their mistakes in the beginning of their careers.
But I also believe they should increase their rates as they earn their stripes. So when I hear a potential client say to me, "you're too expensive", I reply with, "experience is expensive but may I refer you to a designer who is just starting out?".
I rarely hear comments like this now these days, however. In part, that is based in the fact that I do not discuss money or rates or deposits in my initial discovery call. Instead when they ask how much I charge I tell them I will email them my "fee schedule" and the "new client questionnaire" before we meet. That gives them a chance to kick the tire in private and make the decision to book an appointment or not.
Almost all my clients are "word of mouth referrals" from previous clients so it doesn't come up as much as it did in the beginning of my career.
In what ways have you intentionally set yourself apart from competitors?
The level of customer service I give every client regardless if it's a whole home project or a couple of throw pillows on the old sofa. Because of my age I know, remember and have experienced what real "service" is.
In our present-day consumer world, "real customer service" rarely exists. The world is just moving too fast to offer it...but some of us who may serve an older demographic know that it's important to the over all project and the client who is receiving it.
I once had a client delighted with my dropping off the fabric sample memos at her place of employment instead of putting them in the post to her. I knew she had a deadline and I knew we had to decide on the fabric to make that deadline happen for her.
She was delighted, and said the last designer she worked with not only took months to give her the fabric memos, but she had to pay for them.
I also show up for every delivery and every installation, even if it's one blind for a small window. I do not charge for this; it's stated on the invoice as a "professional installation." I use to do this for another reason, to learn how things are executed and to correct any of my own or my installer’s mistakes.
Now, I do it because I want the client to see me value their home's finished beauty. I sign more work at that last installation as well. Once you've spoon fed them during one project, they gladly sign up for more of the same. But I never take it for granted that they will. I only do all that I can to serve them again.
What is your big dream or goal for your business within the next 5 years?
My biggest goal is to be healthy enough to serve my clients. And I would love to mentor and pass off to a new designer my existing business.
I birthed this business just as surely as I birthed my two children. The delivery was rough, the growing pains were painful and costly but the reward was and is very beautiful and fulfilling.
Each client and their homes are my "mission field," I'm here to serve them, not to serve me. It's a vocation not a job. My prayer is the prayer of "St. Joseph The Worker." Look it up and read how humbly we serve in the homes of others and what an honor it is to be invited to do so.
Marketing Tips to Use & Avoid
What is the biggest marketing mistake you've ever made?
The very WORST...Groupon! I had to call on a woman who I did not know was a hoarder. From her front door to as far into the house as the eye could see were boxes, papers, cats, furniture piled to the ceilings and the most unbelievable stench I can't even tell you!
While I was looking down, trying to watch my step, she stopped, turned around and accidentally smacked me in the face with the back of her hand....I felt her hand hard on my nose and my front teeth...blood running down my chin. I turned and ran crying to my car.
And this was my worst marketing idea....Groupon. Never again....I served about a dozen customers and not one called me back...I actually went in the red financially on this marketing game. It cost me a bloody nose, sore teeth and about $300 in time and gas.
What is one marketing tactic you use now that you wish you had used "back in the day"?
I work a few hours a week in a Benjamin Moore Paint store manning the color studio. It brings in more new clients than ever before in my 33 years of advertising, Facebook posts, IG posts, flyers, park bench ads, giving decorating classes at New Home developments and senior centers and writing 11 years of decorating columns in the news papers.
Don't get me wrong, blogging and a presence on social media is fine, it supports my being professional but nothing beats a face to face meeting with the human being. A warm smile a hand shake and a "we'll talk soon" always comes back to bless me.
What is your favorite way to market your business?
I guess my favorite way to market now is my newsletter. I love to connect with the very people who have used my services. They are low hanging fruit as they say. They need to know I'm still here ready to serve!
How do you use Socialite Vault to help market your business in the home industry?
Email newsletters, Social media posts & captions
What is your web address?
What is your Instagram handle?
Socialite Vault is marketing platform for interior designers, home stagers, and workrooms.