A longtime volunteer with ASID, Robert Wright shows an unparalleled dedication to both his craft as an interior designer and his profession. In addition to managing his successful residential design practice in San Diego, Bast/Wright Interiors, he has been a part-time professor of interior design for 20 years. His passion for education has led him to serve as the ASID liaison to the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) and to serve on the organization’s board, including as chair for two years. His service to ASID is extensive, both with the ASID San Diego Chapter and at the national level as a board member, council chair and as Society President in 2005 – 2006.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time — how did you get your start?
I started my career in Houston after graduating from Texas State. At the time, I was solely interested in commercial design work and I was lucky enough to start my career by working for the then-president of the ASID Gulf Coast Chapter. I think she hired me because I had a big truck and could haul stuff for her!
After a while, things were changing in Houston and I wanted to leave Texas altogether, so I went to Denver where there was a big building boom. I really wanted to get big firm experience and continue my career in commercial design, so I got a job at Neville Lewis Associates, a large firm with many offices. As a project manager for them, I got exposure to high-end corporate headquarters-type work. The experience I gained there was probably the most important in my career path.
Then, after five or so years in Denver, I got a phone call from a recruiter to manage the design department for a commercial firm in San Diego Although I hadn’t planned to m move, it felt very serendipitous and I let myself be open and receptive to what the universe brings. That was 27 years ago!
With such a strong background in commercial work, what led you to shift your focus to residential design?
After about six years in San Diego, I made a conscious decision to redirect my energies to residential. For thing, I wanted to have more direct contact with the decision makers. I’d been feeling that the opportunity for creativity in my commercial design work wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted to be engaged with my client on a one-to-one basis. I also wanted to boost it up and do really high-end design, which was in residential. At the time, San Diego was not a big corporate place, so people weren’t spending big money to do corporate spaces and it just felt a little bit unrewarding. Jan Bast, FASID, invited me to partner in her business, and the rest is history!
Tell us a bit about some of your memorable clients or projects.
My very first residential client, the family was like a mentor or patron for me because I had done commercial work for their company. They actually encouraged me to go on my own and start doing residential work, and then they hired me immediately for their home remodel. As a couple, they were some of the wisest, sharpest business people I knew, with big hearts, just great people. They’ve remained clients throughout my entire career and I still do commercial work for their multi-city company, as well as doing four homes for them. That relationship has meant a lot and I’ve been able to help their family through ups and downs, maneuvering through the years.
Another memorable client was a woman whose home I remodeled after she had been recently widowed. That was an incredible experience to work with her and see her on the other end of that grieving process, as a newfound person starting a new life. I got to watch her blossom and in turn she was so supportive and nurturing to me. That project was actually the first time I was acknowledged by the local design publication, with their Interior Designer of the Year award.
Her goal was to never move out of her gorgeous home, so I helped her over the years, to adjust and make the home fit her changing needs. She passed away in her own home last year, just as she had wanted. It really showed me how design truly does impact peoples’ lives. When you work in residential design, you create spaces for people to retreat, play, work, heal and even die in their homes. You get involved in all those life issues and the cycles of our clients’ lives. She will always remain an important client to me and I saw the power of design through working with her.
Your business has continued to flourish, even with the recent economic climate. How have you managed to stay successful?
For one thing, we’ve always depended on different size projects. The smaller kitchen and bath remodels are just as important to us as the big projects. Luckily, I was paying attention and I saw the recession coming nine to 10 months before it really hit us and I did budget estimates to prepare for that loss of business. We did lose lots of business but because we had a plan in place, we didn’t have to lay anyone off. When we came out of the recession, we had fewer clients but larger projects. In fact, 2011 was our best year ever and 2012 was almost as good! Despite the tough times, we came out the other end more lean, mean, conscious and aware. And it caused me to learn a lot about managing a business and the economy, it was a very humbling experience.
Tell us a bit about your role as an educator.
From beginning, I was aware of how important a good education was to get you started right and I really wanted to get in front of students and get them inspired and fired up at the beginning of their education. To be honest, with my education, I was told my education was inferior because I didn’t go to an ivy league school and so I always wanted to be in front of students to tell them that it’s the individual more than the school.
I was a great cheerleader for the profession, teaching intro studio class, explaining the over-arching profession and all the opportunities within the interior design profession, even if they weren’t going to be a practitioner. I really enjoyed it and I left the studio knowing more than when I went in because the students were so challenging.
Any “a-ha” moments in your career?
Back in the day when I was going to ASID conferences and seminars, and doing lots of volunteer work with the Society, I had numerous opportunities to spend time with my colleagues from all over the country. More often than not, we ended up talking about stuff like Autocad and software programs like Design Manager. My “a-ha moment” was when I realized that I’d better get going with this sooner rather than later. Being an early adopter of that technology has meant so much to my practice in the years since.
At another ASID conference I attended, the speaker was talking about being a small-business owner or sole proprietor and how to take care of yourself first. Basically, the lesson was to ensure your future before planning for your business’s future and putting yourself first, since there’s not going to be a pension or 401k unless you build it. I really walked out of a couple of these events thinking, “I need to get serious.” I never would have known these things, if not for ASID.
What do you see in the future for the design profession?
To me, the most exciting thing looking forward is that silos are starting to fall. It’s a much more collaborative business out there now. There’s no hesitation, in my part of the world, to involve everyone as equal stakeholders. So as the client is interviewing architects and other consultants, they’re interviewing designers as well and we’re all coming on board at the same time. I like that there’s different consultants taking the lead at different times. Projects are so much more complex now, but it’s so much better that there’s a diversity of people around the table. Projects are more complicated & technology has made them more complicated & easier. I see that in our work more and more and personally, on some of the projects I’ve done lately, it’s been really cool to have these collaborations with the architects. Without hesitation, they’re using us[interior designers] as a major resource and letting me take the lead on things, where at one time it would have been more defined that “oh, the architect will do this.”