It started with a literal (nightly) dream. In 1999, after launching her fledgling interior design business out of her dining room, Valerie Winig was looking to rent a small space on the south side of the brand new, still vacant building on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington.
“I dreamed I was walking north in the middle of Route 7 and people said ‘No! Turn back!’ and I just kept walking slowly. After I crossed a threshold, these barriers blew open and there were horsemen with epaulettes and clubs, and it turned into a fanfare. I knew then that I had broken through the block of fear. I took the space with confidence and set everything up and responded according to my vision,” Winig recalls from what appears to be a still fresh memory. (She then incorporated Wingate on the auspicious date of January 1, 2000.)
At the time, a single mother of two young sons, she could reasonably give in to her fears. But conviction trumped any trepidation—Winig mastered the business model as a partner in another design firm based in Soho.
Plus, she learned to trust her gut. “I always tell young entrepreneurs that when a transition is met with an incredible amount of anxiety, it’s something that maybe you shouldn’t be involved in. But when everything seems to fall into place easily, there’s this power of inspiration that can ‘ couldn’t be stopped even if you wanted to. It’s a meant-to-be kind of feeling.”
The growth of the location
Some 20-plus years later, Wingate fully inhabits the same creamy two-story showroom-cum-studio, which overlooks a courtyard.
Despite an abundance of furniture and decorative objects everywhere you look, there is an overarching sense of collective calm – of being in a space that has been deftly assembled while also humming with creative energy and spark. It looks inhabited, cozy and inviting. That vibe is clearly an extension of Winig, who exudes an inner strength tempered by a genuine interest in who she’s with. She is professional yet personable, and it is easy to imagine that she is entrusting your home to her.
During a quick tour, Winig leads to where she handles the design work on the first floor; groups of fabric samples, paint chips and floor samples from her large resource library are organized for different projects around the great room. “They’re all taking on similar tonalities at the moment,” she says of the prevailing color scheme.
Pointing to several (scary!) stacks of paperwork lined up next to a work table, she explains that she keeps active projects nearby so she can grab them quickly and generate ideas. “There’s just a lot of information in every job that you have to be ready for.”
Upstairs is an on-site finishing shop for upholstery and paint, where on this visit an entire bedroom ensemble was painted a lovely matte gray (touch-up of a milk paint powder blue) and air-dried before being delivered to a client. . (Wingate also has an off-site woodworking shop.)
Ride the trends
Back downstairs, Winig describes the showroom—more like showroomswith raised sleeping and sitting areas—as a variety of pieces she has acquired over the years that do not fully reflect the variety of her work.
She stops by an oversized cabinet made from reclaimed alder from England, a holdover from her former business. “We used to be very into reproduction antique furniture and these pieces used to sell when TVs were much deeper. It’s no longer needed, but you can turn one into a bar or, if you have the space, a great linen closet.”
She likes how those reproductions are part of the history of what she’s been involved with, and to see their value even if buyers don’t (referring to the demise of “brown furniture” over the past decades). “I’ve been in this business long enough to know that design is cyclical. What is considered ‘out’ will eventually come back with a bang and people will wonder why they got rid of it.”
Sure enough, Winig was clearing out a sizeable draw — a significant number of pieces were marked with “sold” post-its — for a return customer. (Much of her business is from clients she has worked with before.)
“That same customer first came into the showroom around 1pm on an unremarkable Sunday. She sat in chairs for hours and looked around. And then she said, ‘Would you do me a favor and furnish my apartment in New York City?’ And so we did!”
According to Winig, they loaded up the truck with pieces as well as hooks and wire and did the whole job in one day – after of course working on the phone for about two weeks and supplementing from other sources.
“Look, the client just came back and asked us to do the same thing for their new house in Maine, and now we’re running out of things,” Winig laughs as he looks around at all the remaining items.
Although the pandemic has brought challenges, Winig says she hasn’t experienced the degree of supply chain issues that have plagued so much of the industry. But like others, she has experienced an increase in business, especially in the design-build area (more on that below).
By comparison, she remembers the recession in the air as “horrendous because we were all home furnishings and retail, and no one was calling, let alone coming in to buy anything or taking on new projects.” She had just purchased many thousands of dollars worth of merchandise that was shipped out that week and was facing significant debt related to the 30-day payments. Fortunately, she had the wherewithal to negotiate more feasible terms with the sellers and was able to pay it all off on time. “I have good relations with them to this day.”
Still, it was a struggle to come up with the cash during those hard times. Tired of sitting in a showroom full to the brim with no prospects, she created an ad offering an incentive for people to buy local, all in the spirit of recovery. “I tried to see the recession not only from my perspective, but from the perspective of others who have also experienced the economic impact but may still have a need.”
Sure enough, it resonated with one client who, inspired by the ad, “bravely came forward” and asked her to furnish their entire home. “And that was the end of the recession misery for me.”
Leaning into that setback helped her stay optimistic during the 2020 layoff.
“I find that when you go through difficult periods – whether you’re struggling to make a decision or having trouble coming up with solutions to problems – that’s when you learn the most. When I reflect on those times of my life, I am encouraged by that knowledge. We will always have times when things are easy and wonderful and other times when things are not so easy and wonderful.”
Wingate currently has eight full-time and a few part-time employees along with a list of local subcontractors who collaborate on the design-build business.
That business — where Wingate oversees the design and construction of a project from the ground up, whether a brand new home or more often an addition — now represents more than 50 percent of her total business. The rest comes from more traditional interior design services.
“I’m not a residential architect by any means, but I’m familiar with plans and know what I like,” she says, adding that she’s used to seeing things from an indoor/outdoor perspective as an interior designer and landscape architect. (Her first job out of college was at an architectural firm.)
According to Winig, the business developed organically, growing out of her experience working with the clients’ contractors and providing suggestions and input without having any financial connection to those contractors. “What has changed is that I now bring in my own team and find that it is more seamless and full-service. There is trust, unity and clarity.”
She is even approached by general contractors on the recommendation of some of her regular subs. “It makes it a lot easier for the customer if there’s a single point person who can orchestrate the whole thing, and it’s all completely transparent.”
That said, she still does more traditional interior design projects, including furnishing entire homes. “I try to keep my service options open to a variety of avenues so there is flexibility going forward. You never know how things will change.”
Not surprisingly, Winig has ideas for the future and is good at not worrying about how they will all turn out. “My sons have heard all kinds of ideas come out of my mouth over time and they know not to question me too hard, because many things come to fruition, but many things don’t.”
Ideally, the business will stay in the family. Her son Christopher, who is Wingate’s digital strategist (and former logistics specialist for the US Navy), helped stage the Saratoga Showcase of Homes, for which they won an award.
Her other son’s partner also helped with the construction of several houses. “I really enjoy working with her. She has a beautiful house, incredibly beautiful!”
Otherwise, Winig sees the company as transferable – the business model is in place and the name is familial but also generic, so it can be packaged and passed on. “It wouldn’t be my first thought, but it could definitely happen if it had to.”
“I’m happy to practice our art and have a great team to execute beauty, and that’s all I need,” says Winig. “I don’t need to amass great business wealth or grow it into a well-oiled machine.” And she quickly adds that she cares about people being paid well and feeling adequately compensated, empowered and enjoying what they do.
She also measures performance by the often tearful expressions of her clients, sharing a recent anecdote of a client who hired her in January to completely redo her home while she was in Florida—and refused to take any photos of the to see progress because she wanted that “wow” experience.
“We all waited inside and as soon as she came around a corner in the room she started shaking and crying. Seeing that joy is so gratifying,” she gushes. “Yet another client said in a similar moment of revelation: ‘I’m speechless!’ What more do you want?”
Ultimately, Winig considers serving clients an honor—and prefers to reflect their desires over imposing her own. “I do have strong ideas, but I like the springboard that is personal to the client rather than having a blank slate, which is not as creative or interesting. Their taste, their family heirlooms make it their own space.”
It’s another kind of thing that’s meant to be.