Janie Molster Talks Design, Her Career, And Work/Life Balance

Janie Molster believes good design should delight, inspire, and embrace her clients. With a portfolio that ranges from family homes to boutique hotels, urban apartments, restaurants, and retail stores; the Richmond, Virginia designer is equally adept at transforming public and private spaces. Her 25+ years as a design principal and her diverse portfolio of acclaimed projects has established her firm as one of the Southeast’s design leaders. House Beautiful, Traditional Home, Southern Living, Coastal Living, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have featured her work. “I like to think my rooms inspire Southern graciousness, whatever the region. Even the most sophisticated designs, when handled thoughtfully, should infuse a space with warmth and personality.”

Known for her masterful use of color and passion for antiques, some of her most successful spaces are quiet, monochrome, and decidedly contemporary. A review of her portfolio confirms that every project is approached with an ‘outside the box’ methodology, reflecting creative customization and attention to detail. Clients appreciate her well-honed discovery process, which focuses on their ideas of what’s possible and expands on them. “We’re translators. We invest in good communication upfront to transform a client’s ideas into a cohesive workable plan,” she explains. “The most satisfying compliment I can get is, ‘you understood what I wanted better than I did.'”

As a mother of five, Janie understands that good design must be intertwined with comfort and functional practicality. “Even in formal homes, there are no cordoned-off rooms in my designs…a beautiful room should be a gathering place, beckoning people to sit down together and talk.” While a Janie Molster design defies easy categorization, a common thread of authenticity runs through her work. “The most inviting rooms look like they’ve evolved naturally over time,” she says, capturing her design sensibility. “I’m not guided by genre, period, or pedigree. I am guided by good.”

Recent projects include a luxury condo-conversion of a 32-unit historic building (former Stuart Circle Hospital) on Richmond, Virginia’s famed Monument Avenue; renovation and redesign of the Sayre House at The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; redesign of Early Mountain Winery and Tasting Room in Madison, Virginia; a private lodge and entertaining pavilion in the Allegheny Mountains in Warm Springs, Virginia; a historic 18th-century plantation home in Powhatan, Virginia; and a Floridian bungalow in Palm Beach County.

Janie Molster Designs
What is your day-to-day routine? What you love most about what you do?

One of the most appealing aspects of my job is that no two days are ever alike. I am at my best with a very organic schedule that can allow for flexibility and constant change. Most of my days involve a combination of the following:

1) Pulling schematics together for a project is the magic of what we do and always a real highlight. I work one-on-one with the project manager on this deep dive into our library with our client’s preferences directing our research. Working with a team of design junkies, this is our favorite task and inevitably the process results in some oohs and aahs and other members of the team rushing over to see what hidden treasure we’ve unearthed.

2) Visiting a job site is another rewarding part of the day, especially when you can view progress and collaborate with the contractor and subs. We are often there to approve progress but there’s a fair amount of troubleshooting as well and we have to be timely and decisive to keep progress rolling.

3) Lastly, I try to review financials every day in some form. I may tweak the last phase of a project budget, review cash flow in operating accounts, or run reports on revenue comparisons from prior months or years. As a small business owner, staying on top of the financial side of my business as thoroughly as the creative side is a key to success.

What made you want to become a designer?

Design discovered me. I was bumbling about as a young mother, delving into my passion for food and cooking, pondering what I might do one day with my English degree, and mostly nesting. With a modest budget and big ideas, I tinkered around with our first home — an early 1900s, three-story townhome in Richmond’s historic Fan District. Long on ideas and short on budget, I was young, fearless and had to approach the design as creatively as possible. I was soon being asked to select paint colors for neighbors and then to rearrange the furniture in my friends’ homes. A friend gave me design business cards as a birthday present and I was off. I suppose it was inevitable. I have always been strongly impacted by my environment. I should have taken note when I was regularly rearranging my room as a child, staying up all night painting a rental apartment in college and spending my hard-earned summer paycheck on artwork. Janie Molster Designs Where do you find inspiration?

It changes constantly. Just last night I received a couple of new shelter magazines and sending a quick shout-out to my design industry peers–YOU inspire me! I love to see what other people are creating and I love to watch trends. I may not hop on everyone but creativity breeds more creativity. Following others in my field and having an inspiration group to bounce ideas off of is so valuable to me. And of course, travel is so important to everyone who works in a visual field. You have to get out there and expose yourself to history and architecture. All of those visuals inform our collective design aesthetic and keep us inspired.

Do you have a specific person that’s inspired you or mentored you, that one specific person that’s really influenced you?

My design aesthetic differs a lot from Sister Parish, but I relate to her practical no-nonsense approach to living well in our homes. Much like me, she fell into the design world because it gave her no choice. Gifted in correct scale and color balance, she learned a lot as she plied her trade. She was one of the trailblazers in making all of our rooms welcoming and livable. The era of the formal, parlor-style living room and the clubby, family-friendly den seems a thing of the past, largely thanks to Sister. She elevated the low and knocked down the high so that all of her rooms beckoned comfortable day-to-day living.

What has been your most challenging project? How did you tackle it?

Last year we completed a project for The Washington National Cathedral. We were hired to renovate an existing building on the Cathedral property and convert it into a home for their new Dean and his family. The home needed to be welcoming and elegant as the Dean frequently hosts visiting dignitaries, and the Deanery is often the location for special events. The other goal was to make the new Dean and his family feel very welcome and comfortable in their new role and life. So the house had conflicting needs for public and private personas. It was quite the balancing act but we got there. Museum worthy artwork hangs adjacent to a child’s kindergarten sketch and a gorgeous antique Jacobean table culled from the Cathedral’s library found its’ way to the Deanery’s dining room where it is flanked by portraits of the Dean’s children.

Walk us through your design process with a client? Does your approach differ from residential to commercial projects?

Discovery is Step #1 in our process. For some clients, this is an easy, fluid process. For others, it’s a bit like peeling back the layers of an onion. We are determined to help our clients learn their own innate design preferences so we can create something reflective of who they are and how they aspire to live.

Step #2 is creating initial schematics. At this point, I turn into a bit of a Tasmanian Devil. My mind starts racing and I generally tear up my office digging for things. I see ideas everywhere. I wake up early in the a.m. and several times during the night. I am obsessed until I get my head around the bulk of it. It’s crazy, busy, and exciting. Definitely an adrenaline rush.

The design process for residential projects differs from commercial projects in that the commercial client may have a marketing team giving us direction on the overall goals and vibe of the design. We generally have a bit of freer hand in commercial projects. The clients are often not as emotionally attached to a business as they may be to the place that they lay their heads every night.

Janie Molster Designs

What’s been your favorite project you’ve worked on and why?

My favorite project is often the last project. I begin missing my clients and our frequent talks and trouble-shooting sessions. We call it “uncoupling” and it’s very hard. We have just wrapped up something wonderful: a large lodge in the Allegheny Mountains. The lodge sits adjacent to another project we did for the same clients (our 5th project for them). Needless to say, we have a great understanding of each other and things came together seamlessly. The lodge is a second home on the property with 5 bedrooms as well as entertaining spaces geared for large events–almost like a mini-conference center with a residential perspective. There were some amazing craftsmen on the project. The first event my clients hosted there was their daughter’s wedding. It was a storybook affair and gave me such great joy to see them so happy in a place I had helped to create for them.

You have some beautiful gallery walls in a number of your projects. Any tips for constructing a gallery wall?

Yes! Put everything on a large table or preferably, the floor for evaluation. Measure the overall space available for the gallery wall and tape out a corresponding grid on the floor. When selecting pieces to use, a continuum of color or theme is nice, but not always necessary. The strength of the individual pieces need to be balanced. For example, a quiet, pastel landscape could be completely overwhelmed by a bold, saturated abstract, so select pieces that can stand up to one another. Similarly, frames do not need to match, they just need to be balanced. I like to begin with the largest piece in the center and push it to the left or right a bit so it’s “off”. Then I fill in around it. Stacking larger pieces above smaller pieces can draw the eye upward if your ceilings are tall. I often hop up on a chair or ladder to view the layout from above to make adjustments.

How do you balance being a mother of five with your business? Any tips or advice you could share for other female business owners trying to figure out that balance?

If I can share any wisdom with other designers, especially those in the throes of parenting, always choose family first. I am blessed that my career has successfully weathered the storm of a few years of intermittent attention. There were times when I was barely keeping my foot in the door of the design world. Early on I fretted over whether it seemed unprofessional to cancel a meeting due to a sick child, a parent-teacher conference, etc. It’s not. I can’t tell you the number of clients who have hired me because they know I am a mother of five and they have confidence that I can elevate the design of a family-friendly house. It’s rare that you’ll look back and regret turning down a design job due to family demands—but miss that field trip to your daughter’s favorite museum or your son’s home run and you‘ll have real regret.

Janie Molster Designs

What apps or software can you not live without?

Instagram: I love the quick visual inspiration and it gives me a way to have a connection with people that I follow and who follow me.

Pinterest: a picture is worth a thousand words….When my clients are trying to describe something to me but they don’t have the design language to explain it, Pinterest saves the day. I love getting a link to a Pinterest board from a client that says, “I like rugs like these”. SO helpful!

What 3 pieces of advice would you offer to someone looking to update a space?

1) Edit out everything you don’t love. An empty room with one beloved item is better than a room chockablock full of mediocrity.

2) Invest in a new piece of fabulous original artwork. Always buy art because you love it, not because it fits a certain spot. If you love a painting or sculpture, you will find a home for it wherever you land.

3) Check your light bulbs! Nothing more of a buzz buster than blue-tinted lightbulbs. There are many options now on the market that can give us that warm glow of an old school incandescent bulb.

4) Sometimes it’s the lampshade, not the lamp that needs elevating. Upgrade a pair of lamps with new shades, preferably in a print you love that will add another layer to your room.

Janie Molster spoke at the Female, Fierce, and Fabulous in Design discussion on September 24 at DISCOVER ADAC

Published in Dwell, Featured Articles