By Tami S. Scott
When you first walk inside Design Specialists—a Syracuse-based independent design firm established in 1988— expect to be greeted by at least one of three small dogs with big personalities. Buck, Addie, and Gretta are experts at creating smiles and welcoming guests.
Much like the business’s founder and president, Krista Taskey.
Not only does Taskey have a knack for interior design, but she also has a gift for making people feel at home and building lasting connections. So, it’s only logical that, based on those two attributes alone, her 35-plus-year career has climbed to what it is today, where 90% of her business is repeat or referrals.
“We started out as an interior design firm specializing in commercial, fee-based work, but I also sold product, such as furniture, window treatments, artwork and accessories. We realized that our clients were thrilled to have a single source for their design and procurement,” she said. “Gradually, the procurement part of the business just grew and grew, [and] now we have two businesses here—the interior design business and a window treatment business.”
The window treatment business started about 15 years ago.
“We received a call from a local general contractor who noticed that we are a certified WBE business in NYS and City of Syracuse and asked if we would consider submitting a bid for blinds for a dormitory project that they were bidding on,” Taskey said. “At that time, we had never bid window treatments to any contractors.”
The contractor convinced Taskey to try—and they won the project! Today, at any given time, two to four employees dedicate their time bidding and project managing work in the window treatment side of the business.
The concept of “thinking outside the box to better design inside the box” is the way of life at Design Specialists. “I don’t ever say no to a customer,” Taskey said. She explained that if a potential client asks for a specific service or product that they haven’t yet done, she will research the request before responding either way.
The interiors library at Design Specialists is most likely the largest commercial library in all of Central New York. It consists of samples for carpet, tile, specialty flooring, wallcoverings, paints and fabrics for upholsteries and window treatments, and other specialty product.
“One of the things that’s important about our library is that we can typically design pretty fast. Probably 99% of what we need to design a space, is right here at our office,” Taskey said. “If we need larger samples of specific items and/or additional options, we simply reach out to our vendor reps who will then ship things directly to us.”
Currently, Design Specialists purchases product directly from more than 100 vendors. “We only team up with vendors that will support us and our clients when issues surface, which we all know that happens more than we like!” she said.
Taskey credited a large part of the business’s success to “our great staff and our liaisons with other businesses.”
“Some of the partners we collaborate with take care of fabricating and installing soft window treatments, framing and hanging artwork, and other specialty services. We have long standing relationships with these businesses,” she said.
In terms of the window treatment business, “we have our own installers, they are on our payroll, they are not subcontractors. This allows us to control the quality of the work and the scheduling. Our installation team, led by Dave Reid, is top notch! Dave always watches out for us while putting the customer first. We have received many compliments that are a testament to the entire team.”
When Taskey talks about her crew, the admiration and respect she feels toward them is palpable.
It’s all about trust
When Taskey moved her business from Rome, NY to Downtown Syracuse, her first office was located in an old firehouse, which is now the beloved Wolff’s Biergarten on Montgomery Street. She moved a second time before settling 13 years ago in her current location on Joy Road in East Syracuse.
“Part of the reason I bought this building is because it has a receiving area for the window treatments,” she said. “An 18-wheeler can just pull up with the product and we can get it unloaded directly into our warehouse. Once the product is checked in by our team, we can arrange installation with the general contractors and/or clients.”
Design Specialists serves clients within a 3-hour radius, with the majority in Buffalo, Orchard Park, and Albany. Yet, Taskey says that her company is still kind of ‘under-the-radar.’
“Not a lot of people know about us,” she said. Those that do, however, keep coming back.
“Some of our clients are at a point where I send them a quote and they don’t even want to see the finishes or the colors anymore,” she said, paraphrasing one customer who told her that ‘in all these years, you’ve never disappointed me so just do what’s right.’ “There’s a trust factor. The longer you work for a client, you build that trust and they pretty much sign the check and send it to you.”
For instance, senior living properties and continuing care communities that have independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care are very familiar with the firm—and very satisfied.
“A lot of those clients, we do everything—finishes, lighting, furniture, window treatments—the whole soup to nuts,” she said. “At this point, really all of our business is referral or the same people over and over again—I don’t have to look for work anymore.”
Other clients include those in the healthcare, corporate, education, and hospitality markets. It’s noteworthy to mention that safety, accessibility, and ergonomics are always built into the designs.
Imagine contacting a business that has a 24-hour callback/email policy, that doesn’t have voicemail but rather takes messages with handwritten notepads. You might ask why in this advanced technological age, but that’s how Design Specialists rolls — its relationship driven and aims to provide the best customer service for its clientele.
In fact, the DS staff knows where Taskey is, so if she’s on the road and a painter needs her guidance to move forward on a project, he can pick up his phone and call her cell. “In our business, accessibility for our clients and our contractors is really important.”
How it all started
Taskey’ s path to interior design first began by earning a degree from a community college in Ontario, Canada. Though she always felt this work came naturally to her, it was finding the right employers to teach her the industry ropes that really put her on the right path forward.
Taskey’s first job was with a dynamic interior designer in Williamsville, NY. The move to this area found her working for a large architectural firm in Utica. Then finally, in true Mary Tyler Moore fashion, she threw her hat in the air (figuratively speaking!) and decided to try to make it on her own.
What may surprise you is … “I never had a business plan,” she said. Rather, Taskey learned through trial and error. By making mistakes or doing it right, the business organically evolved.
When asked what her favorite part of interior design is, she said it’s making the client happy; hearing that we did a good job; hearing they’re thrilled with the results: “Servicing people,” she said. And while money is a motivator, it’s not what most attracts her to the world of design. Rather, the work is rewarding. “I think 99% of what we do here every day is positive.”
“The nursing home environment, where about 80% of our workload is, that’s even more important because for the people that live there, that is their home. I feel very blessed that I can make those spaces beautiful for the residents and the staff,” Taskey said.
The present and the future
When you walk inside the open space facility, there are three large portraits of Buck, Addie, and Gretta that adorn the left wall. The quarters are bright from the natural sun, and the walls are bedecked with bold, rich colors. Multiple work rooms are home to stacks of samples, fabrics, furniture, and artwork. And the comforting and stimulating smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen permeates the air. There’s no slowing down in sight at the DS office.
As for Taskey’ s retirement, which she’s been asked about on occasion: Put your fears to rest, there’s no plan for that, either.
“I still love what I do for work,” she said, “and as long as I still have that passion, I don’t see me retiring in the near future.”
For more information about Design Specialists, visit their website at designspecialistsinc.net or call 315.479.1551.