August 14, 2022
Designed to Live
By Jemi Lassiter
The Kennedy Warren is an interior design project of Shawna Underwood Interior Design. Located in Washington, D.C., this historic luxury high-rise became an art collector's dream with the help of Underwood.
Photo courtesy of Shawna Underwood Interior Design.
Shawna Underwood launched her self-named interior design firm in 2010 after earning at Masters of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture Design from George Washington University.
Photo courtesy of Shawna Underwood Interior Design.
There is something special about returning to the experiences that fulfilled you as a child. For DC-based interior designer Shawna Underwood, that is exactly what she has done: Returned.
The 43-year-old owner of Shawna Underwood Interior Design found her passion while drawing elevations and floor plans in grade school.
“Growing up, I would always decorate and redecorate my rooms. My bedroom. My college dorm room. I knew I really liked that. As a kid, I used to draw elevations of homes and floor plans. I didn’t know what they were at the time but that’s what I used to do all the time,” said Underwood.
Today, her firm curates interior design and guides complete renovations for residential clients around the country. Her aesthetic for clean, tailored rooms can range from the neutral palette typical of a modern art museum to the moody refinement of an estate’s personal library. Underwood’s work has garnered her recognition as a Home & Design Magazine's Hot Talent in 2014 and her work has been featured across the landscape of online and print interior design publications.
Underwood is and intentional interior designer and purposeful in her work, choosing to showcase her clients treasures - artwork or heirlooms - over trend. She challenges clients with colors and fabrics to bring the best space for them to the forefront with options, rather than decisions.
“Clients hire me for a reason. They need the help and they want the guidance”, said Underwood. “The home and space you Iive in can impact the way you feel. [My clients] want a space that feels like a retreat or a resort. I’m a strong believer in that your space can really dictate your mood. [My approach to interior design is] ultimately to guide them to the way they want to live and feel in the space.”
But on this day, Underwood sits down with Eve After Eden because sometimes, most times, perhaps all the time, the opportunity to work in your passion means you have to hold on to the job that supports your lifestyle.
Underwood is sensible, strategic even, in that way. The Pennsylvania native raised in Lincoln University (not to be confused with the actual university, she’s from the city) seems to have always kept an eye on supporting herself, doing what must be done, before doing what most fulfilled her. Out of fear or out of responsibility, most likely the latter, she hedged her bets on herself with a logic and reason not usually associated with Creatives.
While her eye for interior design became clear as a child, her college career led her to a degree in computer science from North Carolina Central University. Becoming a doctor was an option but it would take too long for Underwood and IT industry was steadily growing.
“Unfortunately, at the time that I graduated, there were a lot of hiring freezes especially in IT”, said Underwood.
In fact, Underwood graduated just as the National Bureau of Economic Research announced the country’s first recession in a decade. The technology industry was hit hard in 2001 with job losses beginning as early as March and changing the job market landscape for college graduates for the next few years.
Luck would have it that a summer internship at State Farm Insurance Company in Pennsylvania during her senior year of college would pay off. The company offered her a job after graduation and she took the offer. For five years, Underwood worked in Pennsylvania, all but shelving her creative instincts.
Making the Move
It was a transfer to the company’s Frederick, Maryland office to be closer to her then-fiance, now-husband that brought that old feeling back. That twinge-of-possibility feeling on what a space could be, the color that tufted sofa should be to pair perfectly with the window treatment, or how she would have highlighted this feature in a room over that one that resurfaced.
After getting married and settled into her new role in a new office, Underwood stopped shelving that feeling. She leaned into and earned a Master’s of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture Design from George Washington University.
George Washington University’s Interior Architecture Design Program is the only program in the nation’s capital to be accredited by the Counsel of Interior Design Accreditation. The program is a rigorous full-time, five-semester 60-credit curriculum that takes two years to complete and students are required to complete a 120-hour internship as part of the degree program.
After earning her degree, Underwood traded her job for her career leaving State Farm and taking a position with a local commercial furniture company as a senior designer. The company specialized in creating office spaces for businesses and Underwood took well to the work, learning space planning, pulling fabrics and reconfiguring furniture.
“I didn’t know it at the time but it was a very great start to what I’m doing now”, explained Underwood. “It let me really focus on space planning, maximizing space and putting parts and pieces together to make a whole.”
For five years she supported corporate and government clients by reimagining office spaces with color, texture and their staffs traffic flow. And, it was here that Underwood became familiar with jobs in the government arena that required interior design skills and she and transitioned from working with the commercial furniture company to being a government employee.
The move gave her the stability she required and fulfilled her creative desires.
“I was familiar with the government. I applied for some government jobs and I got a position at the Library of Congress as a designer project manager. So, that was a pretty cool experience.”
Shawna Underwood has been able to take on projects across the country from her D.C.-based interior design firm with the use of technology and well planned site visits.
Photos courtesy of Shawna Underwood Interior Design
The [Focal] Point
But, there is more. As any Creative knows, there is always more!
Underwood’s eye for design, for style, for “WOW! That’s beautiful!” moments was often borrowed by friends and family who just needed a little help picking a color for this room, arranging that room or all out design.
“I was doing design work on the side for residential projects. That kind of sparked me going into business”, said Underwood.
In 2010, she launched Shawna Underwood Interior Design hedging her bet on herslef with something a little riskier, the referrals of people she helped in the past… as well as the standard business practices of a website and strong portfolio. Again, Underwood is sensible, strategic even.
She has a list of go-to vendors, contractors and artisans that get her design intent and bring it to fruition; a knack for working with new vendors; and a penchant for navigating tough design circumstances particularly those of century-old homes.
“In D.C. there’s a lot of opportunity to have homes where architecture can be the focal point because of their age, their history,” said Underwood. “I’m really attracted to older homes with really ornate flooring or moldings. That can really guide me or influence the design direction.”
An interior designer for nearly twenty years now and a business owner for more than a decade, Underwood has worked on projects across the country and experienced an increase in business during the pandemic while other industries took a hit. Taking long distance clients through virtual meetings and supplementing them with site visits, boosted her firm’s ability to take on more projects.
“The Pandemic brought back peoples love for their homes because they spent so much time in their homes”, explained Underwood. “There was a big increase in kitchen, bathroom design and home office design during the Pandemic. The only downside was the supply chain shortage and shipping delays. We’re still dealing with that [as an industry].”
Perhaps the greatest part of her job-to-career transition is the connection she has with her clients. No, every client does not become a friend but they get pretty close.
“Designing a home for someone, you’re getting into their personal space. You have to find out who they are and how they live. You meet their family members and you see how they live and you do have this emotional connection to your clients because you’re brought into their life and their family to be able to design a space for them. You can be with them for over a year in the design process and construction process. So, some of my clients have become my friends and repeat clients”, said Underwood.
Underwood’s firm takes interior design projects with a minimum budget of fifty thousand dollars and renovation projects starting at one hundred thousand dollars, fair market prices in today’s economy and in the D.C. region where home prices start at half a million dollars and can quickly grow to eight figures.