Like many future designers with a latent interest in interiors, for Kevin Isbell, the signs were all there at the start—from redecorating his childhood bedroom to putting off school assignments so he could pore over shelter magazines. Still, growing up in a blue-collar area of Ohio, “interior design wasn’t something I thought could be a profession,” he says. In fact, he got all the way to graduation day for a business management degree before he could see his potential future unfurling before him—and he didn’t like the view.
“Forty years of office work is not what I had in mind,” Isbell tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of the Trade Tales podcast. The sobering moment prompted an immediate pivot. Isbell went back to school—this time pursuing a degree in interior architecture and design in San Francisco—and set off on his new path shortly after his second graduation.
His first industry job soon followed, a position working under the San Francisco–based designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. There, his design education began all over again, and Isbell soaked up every lesson he could. “In school, everything is so esoteric, but there it was real—with real budgets and real materials,” says Isbell. “It opened my eyes to so much.”
After two years in San Francisco, Isbell decided to take on a bigger city. He moved to New York, where he rose through the ranks of several top firms before launching his own business in 2009. Then came the tricky business of determining how exactly a firm should run—and what its principal should do to make that happen.
To guide him through the next phase of his design education, the designer enlisted the help of business coach Sean Low, who helped Isbell define his goals and establish processes designed to protect his creativity. On this episode of the podcast, he shares a few of the experiences that shaped his firm and resulted from his trademark process of continuous learning, including why he builds downtime into his work day, what he learned from a surprising social media pet project and how he discovered the power of saying no.
Homepage photo: Kevin Isbell | Annie Schelcter