I design $100,000 luxury playrooms for the children of wealthy execs and celebrities. Business is wild right now — here's what my job is like.
- Denise Davies is an interior designer based in Weston, Connecticut, and cofounder of Project Playroom, a luxury-playroom design firm.
- With cofounder Karri Bowen-Poole, Davies designs and decorates dream playrooms with a focus on creating colorful, open-ended spaces that will inspire kids' self-expression and development of fine and gross motor skills.
- She's designed playrooms for wealthy clients everywhere from Beverly Hills, to New York, to Israel, including Nicky Hilton, with the average playroom costing $100,000.
- She and her business partner even created their own line of products like monkey bars, climbing ropes, and floor mats — and business is wild because of the pandemic.
- Here's her story, as told to the freelance writer Gia Miller.
During the past 10 years, I've decorated glamorous kitchens, welcoming family rooms, sophisticated bedrooms, and brightly colored playrooms. But I'd never purchased a single toy until Karri Bowen-Poole messaged me on Instagram in January 2019. She'd founded Smart Playrooms over 10 years prior and had a very successful business, but she needed an interior designer for her next project — a residential building in New York City called Manhattan House. She loved my work, so she took a chance.
The moment we met in real life, something just clicked. Since then, we've designed extraordinary playrooms for wealthy executives and celebrities, such as Nicky Hilton.
I didn't start out as an interior designer
I grew up in an art-deco home on Florida's Miami Beach watching my father buy and flip houses and my artist mother create beautiful paintings and pottery. I chose to major in fashion and was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of a denim fashion company as their salesperson. Within five years, I had worked my way up to vice president, and I helped them build a $100 million business during the 11 years I worked for them.
After my son was born, I took some time off and later moved out of New York to Connecticut with my second husband and our sons.
In Connecticut, I decided to go back to school, choosing interior design
I went to school for about three semesters, but because I'd already renovated several homes and had extensive business experience, this program wasn't the right fit. The director of the program approached me and said, "This isn't for you, but I know an interior designer who's looking for somebody." He got me my first interior-design job, and I learned the ins and outs pretty quickly.
I began D2 Interieurs, my interior-design business, six months later, in early 2011. My first project was a mudroom, and my next was an entire house with an $80,000 budget.
It took off from there, and now my minimum budget to design a home is $200,000. Sometimes I have $2 million budgets, and even clients with no budget.
To decorate a home, my design fee ranges from $35,000 to $100,000 depending on the size of the home and the extent of my firm's involvement in the project. For example, if the client would like me to serve as the project manager or owners' representative, the fee is higher than if I only provided interior-design services.
Every project I do is completely different
No one can say, "Oh, she's the designer that does gray, or she's the designer that does modern." Instead, I design for my clients. I have a very simple foolproof process that helps me learn about my clients so I can give them exactly what they want.
I always say that being a designer is the easy part. Running a business, hiring the right people, executing projects, keeping your clients happy, and staying on budget — that's the hard part. But I'm very good at that. I have a business mind.
My typical day starts at 5 a.m. and ends by 9 p.m.
I wake up early and meditate for an hour and 15 minutes. I began this practice two years ago, and I've become more grounded, focused, and grateful. It has also helped me be more forgiving and loving to myself. People think self-love is selfish, but it's really one of the most selfless things you can do — it frees you up to be present for other people.
About 6:30 a.m., I have a huge cup of coffee, check my emails, post on Instagram, and exercise. Then I have my second breakfast and get to work. Some days I'm driving from one client to the next, and others I'm in my studio, which is in a two-story converted barn on my property in Weston. My three dogs are always in the studio with us. They're hilarious and people get such a kick out of them.
I always buy lunch for my staff — I have five full-time employees and one part-time employee — and we eat together at noon on my patio, enjoying my gardens and discussing work projects or catching up on each other's lives. We get together again at 3 p.m. for coffee and snack time, and end the day about 6:30 p.m. Then I have dinner, check emails once more, and relax with my dogs. I meditate again before bed, and I'm asleep by 9.
I love designing playrooms
Playrooms are one of my favorite things to design because you can really go bananas. It's where I get to express myself.
As an interior designer, I was no stranger to playrooms, but designing the Manhattan House with Karri was an incredible experience. She believes children learn through play, and so she approaches projects with a focus on creative, open-ended spaces that can grow with the child. Karri shared her vision for the play stations, and I used the building's midcentury modern look as inspiration.
I selected the colors, created custom furniture, and commissioned the well-known muralist Billy the Artist to hand-paint a wall mural with the New York cityscape. It was amazing; it was almost like being in a cartoon.
We design every playroom with the goal of promoting self-expression, body awareness, and development of fine and gross motor skills. In the playroom, we also built a custom horizontal rock-climbing wall with colorful holds, ropes, mats, and foam pit.
We had such great chemistry that in 2019, we launched a business together, Project Playroom, and began doing more residential and commercial projects together.
Though we each continued to run our own businesses, the news about Smart D2 Playrooms spread quickly. In just under two years, we've designed custom playrooms throughout the country starting at $75,000, with the average playroom costing $100,000. One of the largest budgets we've had was nearly $300,000. What we do is so unique, we've even had people contact us from Israel and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
One of my favorite playrooms was the one we did for Nicky Hilton's daughters
They live in a residential building in New York, but she's the only resident with kids. Nicky was so sweet and actively involved in the process. She's a big fan of Damien Hirst's art, so I reached out to the photographer Allyson Monson to create a custom mural for the room.
The room was pretty small, and Nicky was in awe of what we accomplished in that space: a dress-up station, arts and crafts area, playhouse, climbing bars, and even storage bins. Her girls were so excited — they began climbing the ladder immediately.
COVID-19 was the catalyst for our product launch
We started creating our line of playroom products because we weren't excited with what was available from stores like Crate&Kids and Swing Set Mall. We started with monkey bars because we use them in every single project. The only ones available were in primary colors and always chipped and scratched — the quality sucked. Originally, it was just for us, but we started getting requests.
People saw pictures of our playrooms on Instagram and asked us where they could get our rock walls, climbing ropes, floor mats, foam pits, etc. It was clear there was a need, but we were too busy to design the products. When COVID-19 hit, and families were quarantined at home, the need and demand intensified, so we moved up our timeline.
We designed the majority of the products, worked with well-known artists and photographers to create our decals, built a separate website, and launched our products on Project Playroom in July. We're constantly adding new products; people can customize their own with high-quality, long-lasting products.
Right now, because of the pandemic, my business is wild
I never would have predicted this in March, when I couldn't even go to my client's houses to finish projects, but now D2 Interieurs gets anywhere from six to eight new client calls a week. Many people are fleeing the city and moving to Connecticut, so I have more clients near home. Between my D2 Interieurs clients, the playrooms I do with Karri, and launching a product line, I'm so busy that I've had to turn people away.
Despite going nonstop all day because there's just so much to do, I love my job, and seeing the happiness on kids' and families' faces once they get their dream home or playroom makes it all worth it.
Gia Miller is a New York-based freelance journalist. Her work has been featured in Well+Good, Dame, Parents, Healthline, SheKnows, and more. Connect with her on Twitter @GiaMiller79.