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I’m one of those freaks that actually does a digital dance (meaning I share online) when I find great design.

Great design inspires me.

It also motivates me to do better work.

And as a NEOCON addict, KBIS presenter and judge for the Top Shelf Design Awards as well as blogger-extraordinaire, I get to experience a lot of great design (thank heaven!).

So what does it take to create award-winning designs?

Three Things:

  1. Passion. Michael Jordan didn’t title his book “For the Love of the Game” just for fun. And he didn’t win five national championships “just for fun” either. A passion for the game you’re playing (in this case – design) is a key factor. If you just enjoy selling closets or cabinets you will do well, but you’re not likely to carry the title of “award-winning designer”.
  2. Space Planning. You need to have (and continue to learn) space planning expertise. Whether that space is in the kitchen, the home office or the bedroom closet, the better you are at planning that space for functionality and beauty, the better the results.
  3. Cooperative Clients. Stop moaning. They’re out there. And they’ve been waiting for you to show up with your creative genius to translate their drab space into dream space. If you communicate clearly from the beginning, you can determine which clients fall into the “cooperative” category and take their project to new heights.

What I mean by this is not just that your client is polite and answers your questions and pays you on time. What I mean by this version of “cooperative” is that they’re open to designing beyond the box. They’re open to accessories, color, embellishments, and add-ons that make their space not only more functional, but more beautiful.


I’m Denise Butchko, an award-winning design consultant who teaches closet design and who also works with companies in the design/build industries to leverage their brand and marketing efforts. If you’d like a free sampling of some tips and insights, register here:


How To Become A Closet Designer


Closet design is a really fun and fascinating career. One that most people aren’t aware of as an option, nor are they aware that you can make great money designing and selling closets.

white walk in closet
White Walk In Custom Closet


It’s a field that has roots in California, with Neil Balter and Eric Marshall creating and installing the first “Double Hang”, “Long Hang” and “Shoe Shelf” systems for what is now California Closets.


Yet it still has elements of a cottage industry. Eighty percent of closet companies in the US are small businesses that have revenues under a million dollars a year. Some manufacture and install their own components. Others buy from distributors and install.


But when it comes to the “design” part of closets – it’s a very left brain AND right brain discipline.


The left brain involves the measuring, math and space planning, along with the sense of how structure will fit into tight space and be able to function properly. And have structural integrity. There always has to be structural integrity.


The right brain is the connection to clients in one of the most intimate environments in the home – the bedroom closet. You have to develop trust, a great rapport, ask great questions, understand design and be able to convey that to a client. Woosh.


So what are your options if you’re somehow led to a career in closet design?

What skills do you need?

How can you become successful?




Let’s start with your options

You can approach a large closet company like California Closets or Closet Factory who has a local franchise/dealership in your market. Companies this size often have in-house training programs.

Should you go through the interview process and get a job offer, they will set up and coordinate training for you. They often have a sales/design/installation manual and will also set you up to shadow other design team members on sales calls. Some provide a mentor from the design team for a certain amount of time who you can access with questions.


A second option is to approach a smaller local company to see if they’d be interested in adding a member to their closet design and sales team.


These companies tend to have less formal training. You’ll likely work alongside the owner, who will be pretty hands-on in teaching you their systems, design solution preferences and sales procedures.

Lighted Jewelry Drawers
Lighted Jewelry Drawers


With any luck, they’ve got at least some kind of design and procedure manual that you can start with. If not, consider enrolling in Closet Design 101 –


Left Brain/Right Brain Closet Design


The analytical side of your brain is as important as the emotional side of your brain when you’re a closet designer.


Accurate measurements are a key to success. And you need to be able to measure very wide and very high spaces as well as all kinds of obstacles, including steam units, access panels, wall outlets and all kinds of other things that builders tend to put into closet space.


You also need an awareness of what will be involved to get the job installed. Things like will the materials fit into the building elevator or is special cutting or drilling required? They all affect price and customer satisfaction.


The more emotional, right brain side of you will need to be comfortable with discussing a range of things like where people put their underwear to how to incorporate the latest design trends into a closet space.


Sell! Sell! Sell!


The love of consultative selling is a big part of being a closet designer. The job involves much more than just figuring out an effectively designed space.


You need to be comfortable with communicating the benefits of this home improvement, which involves project pricing (more than one reach in closet) that typically starts at $1500 and quickly rises from there.


And it’s a predominantly commission-based career. Designers receive a percentage of the job totals that they sell. Averages are around 10%, but can include bonuses for high monthly sales or bringing in your own customers.


Most average closet designers end up with annual compensation in the $30,000 – $40,000 range in smaller markets. Higher in place like Chicago if they’re any good. Yet it’s not unusual to build a client base over time that brings in over $100,000 per year. To reach that level you need time, consistency and the ability to ask, ask, ask.



Angled Shoe Shelves
Angled Shoe Shelves

Getting a handle on well-designed closet space is not as quick of a learning curve as it used to be. It’s become much more complex in the last decade as awareness has increased (thank you Modern Family and Kardashian Family) as has the technology to create better looking materials and accessories.


And requests from clients for custom things also continues to rise. My advice on this is to develop your expertise and don’t over promise. As you learn more and more, you’ll begin to understand what’s involved in custom requests.  And you’ll start to see why they can quickly cost more than their return on the investment (or more than the client wants to invest in the project).


Anyone with melamine and a drill can install “custom closets”. My goal is to elevate the professionalism in this industry so we’re all creating effectively designed, functional and beautiful closet spaces. I invite you to join me. You can start here by getting my five favorite closet design tips –


walk in closet, wood closet, closet design

I embarked upon a closet design career in a very haphazardly specific way. I was working as an image consultant when I moved to Chicago and figured out there was real opportunity in actually designing the closet instead of (or in addition to) shopping for the client.

I began my career at Closet Works in Chicago, at the time a company with several million dollars per year in annual sales. I went from there to a smaller custom shop where I was able to learn about selling and designing with wood and staining and cabinetry options.


Here are the top three things I learned:

1- There’s tremendous value in designing with the right depth.

Most millwork shops and cabinet makers design closets that are 24” deep. They don’t have an awareness of the value good closet design can bring to a project. And the value isn’t just in space planning, it’s in dollars. When you’ve been trained to appreciate that shoes work best on shelves that are 12 or 14” deep and folded items work best on 16” depth, you don’t make everything a standard 24” deep. It sounds simple enough, yet making things in depths that match the items being stored increases the level of functionality by about 100%, if not more.

Another way you can work with depth is in budgeting and space planning. If you’re tight on space (as most closets are), you know where dimensions can be smaller and still functional. And you know when to adjust depths (say 24”deep drawers down to 16” deep drawers) to save dollars.


2- When we’re talking about “backing”, we’re not referring to the money an investor has put up to help fund our business venture


Wood walk in closet

Standard industry practice for closet design and fabrication is not to use any kind of “backing” for the systems. Panels are typically attached to the wall. There is no backing. It’s very functional and efficient.

With millwork, everything is a box. It all has backing as standard industry practice.


The takeaway here is that there are appropriate scenarios for both. However, if you’re a cabinet maker with no closet design experience and you’ve been asked to design and price a closet, you don’t know how to sell the benefits of a panel and shelf system, or even, necessarily, where to specify each to maximize the clients budget.

wood walk in closet

Wood Walk In Closet showing inside of cabinetry


If you’re a closet manufacturer, you frequently think that a closet design by a millworker is over kill. You can easily beat them on the pricing issue. But if a client has involved a millworker in their project, it’s probably a higher end project that merits assessing how to design a solution that incorporates the design-heavy, aspirational dreams of the client.


And many times that involves not only backing, but boxes.

3 – I figured out how to design hybrids


wood and melamine closet

Hybrid closet with combination of melamine and mahogany wood

I’m not saying I’m the first person ever to figure out how to design what I like to call a “hybrid”. A hybrid is a combination of melamine and wood.


If you have finishing/staining capabilities, you can select your most popular melamine wood tone colors and figure out an appropriate wood and stain match.


Then, by properly designing the space, you can get the effect of a wood closet for a much more budget friendly price.


Design elements to give serious consideration to are things like:

-Are there end panels that will be fully visible in the closet?

-Are clients wanting crown or base molding?

-Will there be any open countertops?


These issues complicate this approach because wood grains start moving in different directions and you now are viewing two different, mixed materials on many different visual planes.

I avoid doing hybrids in these scenarios. They become more of a headache than a money saver. And they are a definite time suck.

Interested in a few more closet design tips? You can download my top five favorites here:

Social Media Marketing Required.




That’s the “state of design” message that dominated this 2-day design lovers event at the Merchandise Mart, even though there was plenty of design education, discussion, sharing and designer cocktails (Hibiscus and English Tea infused vodka) all around.

Amongst the designer teams from Italy to the English color experts were the NYC digital marketing professionals. And all were accompanied by video cameras and Facebook live streaming, topped off by Instagram posts and Tweets galore.


I noticed that every session related to marketing not only filled all the available seats, but had standing room only attendees filling out the rest of the showroom space.


It seems that mainstream understanding and integration have finally reached critical mass.


Bottom line is that you won’t be effective using old world marketing techniques even if old world antiques are still the passions of your client base.


Effective social media marketing is the linchpin to staying relevant and growing and branding your business.


So here’s a fun stat for you – 93% of people over the age of 35 are on Facebook.

Process that for a moment.

Then look me in the eye and tell me you see no business value in Facebook and that your audience isn’t there.


If, however, you already get that and you’re using (or have tried using) social media to market your business and ended up in the land of confusion and ineffectiveness, the following insights should clarify a few things.


Boiled down, there are really three ways to to categorize your approach to marketing.

Director of Digital for Sandow Publications,  Pam McNally, breaks it out this way:

Digital Marketing Companies

A “comprehensive” marketing company that supposedly can do it all. Make sure you test their social media management skills and ask for references regarding social media.


Content Marketing Companies

These companies put blogging at the core of their strategy. Content is king and social media are platforms for distribution. Test their social media management skills and ask for references specific to social expertise.

I would add that email marketing is part of that core blogging concept. Don’t just settle for “curated content” and automated posting. Choosing that method for execution is not going to yield you any success.


Social Media Marketing

This is probably what you’re looking for if your only focus is managing and distributing the content creation that you’ve already mastered.

I know very few companies in the design/build niche’ that have the art and science of generating great content mastered.

Truth is that things are way too sophisticated now to just put out “crap content”. You have to create and share things that you, yourself, would find clickable. If you’d scroll right over it in your feeds, other people are likely to do the same thing.


So this all begs the question – do you take this on internally or do you outsource?


In either case, you should know your goals and which metrics are relevant and appropriate for you to measure.


If you’re outsourcing, I would want to know what experience the agency has in your industry. Do they speak your language and understand your processes. Also, how often will they update you with information and progress and will one of their employees be doing the work or do they outsource the tasks.


So it seems “Design Chicago”, or design anywhere, goes beyond measurements and material specifications. What’s integral to selling your design work is marketing it.


And marketing it effectively involves social media.


Color affects almost everything in my life.

My mood.

My choices.

Even my thoughts.

I’m not about “the little black dress” or the “crisp white blouse”. In fact, in my closet, neither of those items exist.

There are colors that I gravitate towards (in fact, people close to me could rattle off the top 3 without giving it a second thought). But that doesn’t mean that I only find those palettes appealing.

I love seeing what’s coming in color trends and how I can incorporate some of them into my life – and into my closet.

Here’s what I see trending as I wander through the city nearest to my heart – Chicago!


Metallics are still charging ahead.

They’ve gone from “trendy” options to foundational options, which, quite frankly, I love. And I have loved for decades. My wardrobe neutrals are brushed silver/grey tones and softened copper tones. Way jazzier and expressive than black.

Edgier Hues

The power of pink goes beyond “Pink” the entertainer, but performs in the same powerful way that Pink does when she’s on stage.

And the color is moving towards being accepted as “gender neutral”. That means that my godchild (Hey Cody!) can feel confident wearing the very on trend shirt I gave him that is totally pink. Now if I could just get him to shave the beard and mustache…

Pink Has a Sister – Mauve

Banish the image in your head of the 80’s Mauve Mother-of-the-Bride dress. Because while mauve feels like “an old” color, it’s also new. You can clearly see both in this photo of a Marshall Field’s (I know, it’s Macy’s. I don’t care) floor that has mauve stone installed during the 80’s and how it meshes with the latest clothing display featuring Mauve.

And we can update the mauve not only by pairing it with brass or rose gold, but add some texture for a reptilian win on a gorgeous handbag.

Blue is Still Big

Yes, blue is still everywhere. And I’m ok with that. It’s showing brighter and more geometric.

In its softer shades, it pairs wonderfully with brass (I know, brass!). Brass started to first reveal itself in 2013 at KBIS. Now it’s major mainstream.


Ed Sheeran references aside (I’m obsessed with “Castle On The Hill”) technology has allowed sheer clothing to make amazing strides.

We’re seeing all kinds of looks that have intricate detail or strategically placed cut-outs that create looks we’ve not been able to wear before.

So, do you see anything you like?

Any favorite that you just feel compelled to bring into your closet?

I hope so, because fashion can be so much fun.

Yet I don’t want you just stuffing your closets full of clothing. Well designed closet space changes lives.

Interested in my best design tips for designing great closet spaces? Check them out here –

You may have already heard that cabinets made a really big showing during Design and Construction Week 2017 (aka KBIS and IBS). And even if you haven’t, that translates to closets being included in many of those cabinet displays.

The takeaway is that closets continue to be on the leading edge of higher end design. All kinds of companies, lots of them European, have incorporated a closet line into their offerings. And many are “repping”, and not manufacturing, the products.

The most dominant elements are 24” deep panels and modern looks that resemble Poliform or have backing and brackets that support the sections.
So if you’re speaking with client and they want their closet to look “just like this one”, be sure you’re designing a comparable system (versus a 14” deep, 84” high system).

A European look for closets
Hans Krug Closets at KBIS











One of the companies I noticed this year is Hans Krug, a fine European cabinetry line with US locations in New York, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Hanak is actually the manufacturer and Hans Krug reps their product in the US.
I also saw another really interesting company named Velart out of Florida. They have these incredible closet systems that look like leather and according to the rep I spoke with, pricing seems reasonable. They highlighted their ability to do designs (not appealing to me, I’m a designer, but I digress).

Velart Closet Island
Velart Closet Island
More from Velart Closets at KBIS



So we’ll head to hardware.


It started showing up three years ago in the United States and is now going full force. And that’s shades of gold (though we’re still seeing shades of grey in cabinets)  My first reaction in 2015 was similar to the thought of resurrecting avocado appliances (yuck). But as it has evolved, it has grown on me. The golds and brass aren’t the same as they were in the 90’s. They’re warmer or they’re coated with a layer of antiquing or they’re rose gold. And rose gold against greys and blues looks fantastic. Northern Contours showed an example here:










And Wisdom Stone knobs and pulls showed the most unique and  best priced bling I’ve seen – as they would say – dazzling adornments for your home. They had some unique spins on the warm golds. A little art deco, a little contemporary. All attractive. If you’d like some closet design tips – click here to get my five favorites –

Wisdom Stone Grouping

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Can I interest you in a house that responds intuitively to your needs (so, probably better than your spouse, kids or partner), provides movable walls and storage and even a “smart closet”?

That’s the experience the team at Virginia Tech (Center for Design Research) provided at Design and Construction Week 2017 in Orlando.

The idea behind futreHAUS is to show how digital technologies, cutting edge products, and smart building design will unite to make our bedrooms and home offices more responsive to our future needs and way of living.

The concepts modeled in FutureHAUS can be used to build homes that intuitively respond to the needs of everyone from millennials and centennials to the aging and housebound – allowing people to live better and more sustainably.

The Virginia Tech’s student faculty research team has created rooms that demonstrate how advanced technologies and appliances can be seamlessly integrated in our homes using a modular style of building. The prototype features products from over 25 industry partners, including California Closets, which provided design expertise to maximize function and aesthetics.

The three aspects of this experiential prototype that most closely relate to our industries are Flex Space, Smart Closet and Wardrobe and Laundry.

Here’s a personal, 360 video view as I’m standing inside the space:

(Click on the image to view the video)

Flex Space includes movable walls that enable occupants to adjust living spaces for different activities and times of day. The closet conveniently expands to include a sitting room, dressing room, and laundry room, or contracts to create extra space in the bedroom or office. If an extra guest bedroom is needed, the office wall converts into a Murphy bed with a simple gesture or voice command.

The Smart Closet and Wardrobe include a smart mirror touchscreen that enables users to quickly find and select items in their wardrobe to be delivered on demand. The dress room wardrobe has self-opening drawers and an automated clothing carousel. Tiny RFID (radio frequency identification) tags in the clothes that enable the smart closet to scan and locate items – ensuring you’ll never lose a sock again. And all designed by California Closets.

The two photos below are an “open” and “closed” visual of cabinetry that’s cleverly designed so it’s not two even boxes with an expected opening. They’ve varied the height of the doors and storage sections to make for a really interesting design twist.

futureHAUS cabinet open


futureHAUS cabinet closed























And then, here’s a more “overall” photo to help you get a better sense of the cabinet designs:

While this has a romantic, futuristic notion of how we’ll get dressed in the future, I’m not convinced it will be a first choice amongst fashionistas who tend to invest in high end custom closets. There’s joy in the process of putting together outfits that I think outweighs the technology of selection.

The Laundry Room can be easily hidden or exposed by moving the closet space – a convenient feature for minimizing noise and keeping the laundry out of sight. Additional accessories, such as a folding station and ironing board enhance the function of the space, but tuck away when not in use.

And here’s a video that gives you a better “tour” of the space:


Drive In Closet – You want fries with that?????

Probably not if you’re Jennifer Aniston, who recently filed documents with the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department to convert her garage into a closet.

I’m not so sure you’ll be able to drive in anymore, that would be a silly thing from both a fashion perspective as well as a space perspective. But it sounds cool, doesn’t it?

Aniston is reportedly investing $60,000 in the project. That’s about 12 times what the average walk in closet costs, so I’m thinking she should spend a little more :-)Let’s do a real dream closet here and amp it up to the six figure mark.

It also seems to me that there will be a lot of construction work involved in preparing the space for the closet structure. Because hey, no matter how cool stained concrete is, I wouldn’t recommend it for the flooring of your dream, boutique style walk in closets. Face it, even in sunny California, your tootsies would get cold.

Documenting the process would be a hoot. Seeing the transformation from the Henry Ford automobiles to the Tom Ford couture garments. Watching the Italian leather referenced so often in luxury cars now be directed towards Gucci shoes.

CelebTV talks about Jennifer Aniston converting her garage to a closet.

CelebTV talks about Jennifer Aniston converting her garage to a closet.

Ahhhhhh………it’s a good life. Call me Jen. I can design you a better closet than anyone else out there.

It’s not often that I sit through a presentation without taking notes and thinking about how I can share the highlights with people. I have journalist genes in my jeans.

But I was so inspired the other night at  Casa Spazio in Chicago by the panel sharing insights and design trends from Salone Internazionale de mobile (The Milan show of modern design) that I went into sponge mode and just took it all in.

With insights from global traveler businessman Marco van velsen of Former (a furniture manufacturer in Italy) and Scott Dresner of Dresner Design in Chicago here are the highlights of what they saw as trends and what I see as inspiring and exciting:

Space Saving Solutions:
I almost have to sing this one! I’ve been aware of the brilliant creations of a company named Clei for a few years now. Their brilliance seems to be continuing. There isn’t much that makes me happier than well designed, functional space. This niche’ is only going to get bigger and better as our homes get smaller and smaller.

Check out this desk that folds into a shelf

Check out this desk that folds into a shelf

From “fashion” to “furniture”. This something that I love following, since furniture and home decor are the “fashion” for your dwelling while “fashion” is the decor for your physical body.

Color translates.

Textures and adornments translate.

Line and design translate.

The most straight forward example is yellow showing up as “the IT color” (according to Scott Dresner).

Yellow is the IT color

Yellow is the IT color

Integrating function and “hiding” things were also mentioned as strong trends, and ones highly relate-able to cabinetry and closets. There were lots of kitchens showing the tables actually integrated into the space and designs and others that had the tables “disappearing” as they slid into hiding spaces when not in use. Also shown were “hidden” appliances that could be revealed and accessed when needed.

Tables integrated into space and design

Tables integrated into space and design


More Hide and Seek as appliances are kept out of sight until needed.

More Hide and Seek as appliances are kept out of sight until needed.

Wood – Renewed. This interesting terminology shared by Dresner is different from “reclaimed”. It’s taking wood that is not necessarily recycled or being “re-used” but has different coloring than what we’ve been seeing the last several years. Featured were more medium wood tones, more grain and texture and changing grain directions within the same space.

Medium toned, highly textured wood

Medium toned, highly textured wood

Additional trends that our experts noted were extremely innovative design and use of materials (like an onyx couch), the return of wardrobes to store clothing items and thin counter tops.

A special thanks goes out to the River North Design District for sponsoring this inspiring event.



So it really does seem like a picture paints even more than a thousand words.

And that stat, which comes from Forrester Research, gives me pause. It would take me much longer to write that much content than it takes me to create it with video.

That’s a lot of words. And regardless of how prolific you are with the pen, most of it won’t get read.

People are “watching” things these days. Looking at lots of pictures. Swiping their devices for something that will catch their attention.

And their attention spans are short, so you better be both good and fast and getting that attention and then getting them (eventually) in to action.

So how do you do that? How do you catch their attention?

Video is a wonderfully effective tool for achieving that goal.

In fact, according to ComScore, a company that measures online video marketing and use, says that people are exposed to an average of 32 videos a month.

And video does not have to be big production. It can be. But there are also tools like Animoto that can help you use pictures and words to create a video.


You can also use a screen recording tool like Screenflow or Go To Meeting and create videos right from your desktop.

Then there’s your phone. A tool you almost always have with you. Take some quick footage of your projects in a more casual, storytelling way and share on your social platforms.

And if you would like to learn more specifics and how to’s, you can access the video with this link:


video marketing

Importance of video in marketing

It’s a FREE ON DEMAND session that is packed with great tips and info to help you understand more about how and why to use video as a tool for marketing your business.