School of Interior Design
Interior Design graduate designs for retailers throughout North America
Having her own design firm has been Whitney Pope Ridgeway’s dream since she was 13 years old. Following her passion for design led her to the Anderson University School of Interior Design. Prior to this, Whitney had also pursued a business and marketing degree. She has proven herself to be multi-talented, having worked with builders and architects on interior and exterior selections as well as doing set design for two popular HGTV shows. Through those opportunities, a major corporate furniture retailer recruited her to establish design inspiration videos for customers. Additional roles included being a senior buyer and product designer. In 2020, she transitioned into furniture product design for corporate retailers across North America. She also started her own Interior Design firm, 85|19 Design Co., specializing in residential interiors.
How did you become interested in interior design?
My interest in Interior Design began when I was about 13 years old. I loved watching HGTV’s “Trading Spaces'' (Vern Yip was my favorite and I was fortunate to meet him in person after moving to Atlanta). I thought it was so neat how they could take one space and show it in different styles and layouts. We moved around a lot growing up with my Dad’s job and it gave me an opportunity to see how a new home and space change can be worked. I was constantly wanting to move things around or paint.
How did you decide on Anderson University?
I’m a Southern girl, so I wanted to stay in the Southeast. There are a good many options to select from when looking at Interior Design schools. Some are great but do not have the full Bachelor of Arts curriculum, and that was something I wanted to have as a backup. The dedication of Anne Martin to the Interior Design program exceeds what I saw in other schools and programs. The Designers coming out of AU were seeing success with reputable companies and designers and that is something I wanted to be a part of. You have to have a strong leader for a program to really excel; that’s what made me lean towards Anderson for interior design.
You have quite a skill set! What were some earlier experiences you’ve had in your professional life?
One thing really leads to another. It has been quite an evolution for me that I cannot say I would have expected while I was in school. In 2017, I was part of a professional group called Pathbuilders, it was a yearlong program that focuses on mid-level women recognized as having senior-executive potential. It was a mentorship that also had guest lectures from Women Leaders—VP’s and up at their respective companies. One woman, COO of her company, spoke, and her lecture has always stood out in my mind. She said that she had many different jobs throughout her career and each job was slightly different, but she took something out of each of those experiences and added it to her toolbox. The statement she made that day could not be more true or relatable to how my career has progressed.
Networking is so important and that was emphasized from the start in the Interior Design program. I served as president for our student chapter of ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) and the following year as the student liaison to the board for the North and South Carolina chapters. Ms. Martin did a great job teaching us the importance of networking. It became part of what I did in school and carried with me into my career. Having the opportunity to get involved with professionals early in the Interior Design program was pivotal in making those connections for internships and future jobs.
I had two internships through Anderson: One was with a former graduate, Kerry Howard; and then with Michael Habachy (both high end interior design firms out of Atlanta). I wanted to do two different styles of design during my internship summer, to help have a good read of where I wanted to land after graduation. Interestingly, the day I started my internship with Michael Habachy he mentioned that he would be competing on a HGTV show called “Design Wars” and that his challenger would be Kerry Howard (Pretty funny!). I was able to work on the show with both designers. Then after their competition was complete, the show offered me a position for the remainder of filming to help with set design.
After graduation through networking, I landed a job at a commercial/residential firm. My focus at the firm was designing model homes and curating interior/exterior spec lists for builders working in the million plus range. In addition to that role, I was helping with HGTV “Property Virgins” and working freelance with two architects and a builder. I pretty much worked from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. every night but it was a great experience. One day I received a call from a recruiter who felt that my interior design experience and time with HGTV fit a role perfectly for a corporate retailer in the furniture industry (Havertys). I had to interview with nine people, complete a design challenge and pass a video test. Thankfully I passed the test and landed the job. I would end up being a face for Havertys in design inspirational videos. Creating designs that showed consumers how to fashion different looks with the same furniture.
I ended up transitioning into a role where I was directly responsible for a new 3D program that would service 126 interior designers. The program allowed consumers to take a picture of their space, upload it to the designer and then the designer could place 3D models into the space. At the same time, I was working as a buyer responsible for several categories; Occasional, Home Office, Entertainment and Accents. I stayed with Havertys for almost eight years. Great company to work for, but at the time when COVID hit I had a nine-month-old daughter. That became a transition period for me, and family became the focus. We didn’t know the risks with small children. I knew I needed to make a change. I decided to leave Havertys, and a company I had worked with for many years offered me a fully remote position to design furniture, not just for Havertys but many corporate retailers across the North America and International territories. It was a huge opportunity. I had experience with custom furniture design through Havertys, but to expand my reach to all of North America and beyond was a huge opportunity and I couldn’t pass it up.
That leads me to where I am today.
Tell us about what you’re doing now.
What I am doing now falls into two parts. I work for a wholesale manufacturer as a product design manager creating furniture for the top 100 corporate retailers covering North America and some international territories. Then on my own I started the residential interior design firm 85|19 Design Co.
The tricky part about working on the corporate side of furniture, compared to interior design, would be that, when you’re doing interior design projects, you’re generally working with a family or specific client that you can focus in on their needs and wants. When working at a corporate scale, you still have clients that you’re working with, but the goal is to design something that will fit in every home in America—fit the masses. It’s two different ends of the spectrum, but I think having both allows me to bring good design to retail for those customers that may not be able to work with a professional interior designer.
Who are your typical customers?
85|19 Design Co. focuses on high end residential with a few opportunities in small business.
Currently the majority of my schedule is focused on furniture design and I do the interior design business on the side. This allows me to take on about two to three projects a year based on the scale of the project. In the future I would like to take both experiences and have a boutique furniture/interior design firm.
Is there a favorite kind of furniture you’ve designed?
I don’t always get to design my style of furniture. I must have an open mind, staying in tune with what is trending but also what sells. I do an extensive amount of research before I get started—looking at home trends, floorplans, upholstery color trends, wall colors, and wood floor finishes that are trending. I then pull together my best effort on a future forecast of what the retail landscape is going to look like in two years. The full process from designing, building samples, showing at markets, buyer commits, production and getting the product on the retail floor is easily a two-year timeline start to finish. I think to be a good designer, whether it be interiors or furniture, you must appreciate all designs. My favorite kind of furniture that I have designed is the one that becomes a best seller for the retailer. Then I know we accomplished the goal.
At the end of the day, what gives you a feeling of accomplishment?
Tying back to the last question, it feels great when you create a design and it becomes a home run. A lot of effort goes into creating a new design and when you see something take off you know that you made a connection that hit right on a large scale.
On the interior side, it is all about making the client happy. I finished up a project about a month ago for a lady who grew up in the foster system. She ended up joining the military and went on to become a doctor. This project would be her first true home and that meant something to me, I wanted every detail to be perfect and what she wanted. When we installed, she started tearing up and said, “we nailed everything!” Seeing and hearing her reaction is what it is all about.
Tell me about activities you were involved in as an AU student.
All four years, I was a member of ASID (American Society of Interior Designers, Student Chapter). I served as president for our student chapter and then my last year I was the student representative to the board for both North and South Carolina Chapters. I had a chance to meet professionals who were working in North and South Carolina, and interact with all students from each of the interior design schools in North and South Carolina. I have connections made during this time that I still have today.
Ms. Martin does a great job of keeping in contact with people—not only graduates but people in the design industry. I think her relationships, the respect she has with those people and what they know about the Anderson interior design program and graduates is what continues to help the program flourish. The network just keeps growing.
What are some of your favorite memories of being an Anderson University student?
I came to Anderson a little bit older. I completed a business and marketing degree first and then started interior design school. I was more focused and knew exactly what I wanted. I was there to take full advantage of everything that was provided.
Special memories that stand out to me are with my “design girls.” We laughed, we cried, and we survived haha! I formed a sisterhood with my design girls.… We graduated 10 years ago, and we still have almost a weekly group chat, (hear) what’s going on, how are you doing or (telling some) kind of silly joke. I think you have to have that to survive the program, because it’s rigorous. You must be dedicated to it. You’re not supposed to sleep in the studio, but we definitely did sometimes (laughs). You power nap when you have to. It felt like we basically lived together for four years so your peers become an extension to your family. Those relationships are something I will always cherish.
What do you feel is the most valuable thing you took away from Anderson University as a graduate?
One thing Mrs. Martin had us work on at the start of each year was a goals list. She would have us do short term, the next two years and then five years. That’s something I still try to keep my mind focused on today. It’s funny when you look back, I was trying to find one of my old cards just the other day. I’m pretty sure I put something about getting a master’s in furniture design, and I really lost track of that as I got into my career… I didn’t get my master’s, but I ended up designing furniture. I think that’s something… putting your thoughts out there, sometimes they may fade or turn out a little different but they’re in the back of your mind and if you just keep working hard and pushing towards your end goal, you’ll get there. Ms. Martin also stressed the importance of professionalism—how you present verbally/visually/written down to how you dress. It is a common comment that Anderson University Interior Designers are more prepared and have a strong professional presence. The importance of professionalism, goals, networking and fully taking advantage of opportunities provided were great lessons from AU.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering interior design?
You’ll have to work harder than you’ve ever imagined. Let the passion of design and problem-solving drive you. You will put in long days and some sleepless nights, but if you’re passionate about what you do, the hours turn into minutes.
While in the program, take advantage of every networking opportunity. Information share with your peers. It helps you as a student grow but also helps your peers.
At the end of the day, looking back on it, that information share, especially at that time, is critical to growth. There are people I went to school with that I can look back on now and say she was great at CAD/Revit, she was great at Photoshop, or she was strong at finish selection. After graduation, if I had a question, I could go “Okay, I need to call this person. They’ll be able to help me think through this.” In design school it can be competitive but work with your classmates, know your strengths and weaknesses, and reach out to those that may be stronger than you in other areas and vice versa. It will benefit you in the long run.
I’m a firm believer in AU Interior Design. I love the program and Ms Martin.