A Conversation with Phyllis Harbinger, Owner of Design Concepts/Interiors

Harbinger’s creativity and expertise has propelled her to several prominent roles in the design industry: business owner, professor, published author and consultant.

Phyllis Harbinger does not recommend working for yourself in the design industry… in the beginning, that is. She opened her business, Design Concepts/Interiors, right out of design school, and though she had to learn from her mistakes on her own time, her talent and determination are stronger because of it. In addition to her role as principal at DCI, Harbinger is an adjunct assistant professor at New York's’ Fashion Institute of Technology and author of The Interior Design Productivity Toolbox, the success of which spawned the launch of her design/build consulting service, Phyllis Harbinger.

How did you begin your career in the design industry?
When I was little, my parents told me I should be a lawyer or a doctor, so I went to Syracuse and graduated with an international relations degree with the idea of pursuing international law. I quickly realized I hated what I was doing. As a child, I changed my room around all the time and was enthralled by spatial arrangements, but I was never told I was a creative soul so I never latched onto it.

My first apartment was a disaster and on the market for more than a year before I bought it. I had and executed a vision, and we sold two years and made a $50,000 profit, which was a lot of money back in 1986. I realized there was something here for me, so I took a course and excelled. I told the professor that I already had a degree but I wanted to do this, so he sent me to FIT. I graduated with my design degree and opened shop. I later began teaching three or four years out of school to supplement my growing business and landed back at FIT not long after that, where I have taught since.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I’m inspired by my students, travel, industry literature, a work of art, floral arrangements, a carpet, there's no end to it. That’s the beauty of design, inspiration can come from everything.

My students challenge me in different ways than clients do. I think it keeps me very current and provides new insights on what’s new and what’s next.

How do you differentiate yourself and Design Concepts/Interiors in a crowded market?

I pride myself on being an eclectic designer and not having one set style. I think viewing clients individually and vicariously living through their style but curating it to make it beautiful, functional and exceptional yet still reflective of who they are is an essential skill.

I also wrote a book that birthed another business strategizing, coaching and presenting to the design-build industry, which adds to my credentials in the build side of design as well.

What is the biggest challenge the design industry is currently facing?
TV design shows create unrealistic expectations based on a limited price range and time constraints. In a real life design project, we have to re-educate clients from what they think is real based on what they learned watching something. I was on HGTV and participated in a designer challenge. Between the behind-the-scenes work that went on and the expensive products that were supplied for free, what they broadcast is misleading from a project standpoint.

What excites you about the future of the design industry?

Designing with computerized tools made product design really exciting right now. Using technology to help us realize designs in a more meaningful way is taking the industry forward. Technology is a great way to collaborate with clients. I use Wecora, an online presentation platform that creates 3D virtual displays and allows for interaction, budgeting and invoicing. I've had clients tell me they've hired me because the way I use technology works more into their busy schedules.

What is your best piece of advice for your students and those interested in the design industry?

Get an internship as early as you can during college and get as much out of it as you possibly can. Work hard, learn and be a sponge, and build your portfolio from first semester on, editing throughout your time at school. Include sketches and annotations so your process is as visible as possible. Showing your work is super important and the best way visually to get in the door.

What design trends are you most excited about heading into 2019?

Kravet just launched a new line with a lot of menswear-inspired textiles. I’m seeing a lot of plaid coming back into our realm where it’s been absent for a number of years, but it's a different design in the plaid. Metallics are still huge and will continue to be, particularly matte black and rose gold. I also think the integration of mixed materials will continue.

Where can people find you?

In addition to our website, follow me on Instagram at @phyllisharbinger or check out the DCI Studio Facebook page.