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Small Business Spotlight: Summerhouse, Ridgeland

High Design

Palmer and staff have unique ability to fit personal taste with originality and flair

Summerhouse, a four-year-old upscale furniture store and interior design firm located on Highland Colony Parkway in Ridgeland, is quiet and still on a late Friday afternoon. The recession has tightened enough family budgets, even in Madison County, so that many shoppers are using local high-end retail outlets only out of necessity rather than for the pure luxury of it. “People are certainly going to feed their families before they buy a new sofa,” said owner Lisa Palmer.

Summerhouse owner Lisa Palmer wears a lot of hats, from managing her staff and customer service to buying and advertising. “I still have clients that I’ve been working with and now their children are buying their first apartment. I’ve been working with these people a long time,” she said. Photos by STEPHEN McDILL / Mississippi Business Journal

The store’s vast, sunny showroom is partitioned into several sections highlighting not just different interior themes or motifs, but also the store’s chameleon-like ability to fit any client’s vision from the boardroom to the nursery room. Every throw pillow, every piece of local or regional art and every flute glass is carefully selected as a prop to accentuate each piece of furniture.

“What we do here is high design,” Palmer said. “We work with customers who are really knowledgeable about good, comfortable, quality furniture.”

Palmer said she wants anyone to be able to come in and buy furniture from Summerhouse even if it’s not one of the high-end pieces. She recently started a bridal registry and said that furniture is a great investment for a new home and a better alternative to burying the bride and groom in kitchenware.

One word that Palmer uses to describe her business is “unique.”

“I’ve had people here from as far as South Florida — from Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans. They always say, ‘We don’t have anything like this in our town,’” Palmer said. “I try to have a look like nobody else and I think we’ve accomplished that.” The Summerhouse clientele is primarily residential but Palmer and her staff have also done work for offices, dress shops and events spaces all over the South. “Our projects have kept us alive,” she said.

Palmer moved to Mississippi in the 1970s after her father accepted a faculty position at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. After graduating from Murrah High School, she studied art at Ole Miss for a year before transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg where she completed her degree in interior design. Palmer wears a lot of hats at Summerhouse, from managing staff and customer service needs to buying merchandise and handling advertising. Not restricted to wallpaper and paint, she is also a mother of three and an accomplished jazz singer.

Interior design has gone through some redecorating of its own, since Palmer first began working in the industry. The program she graduated from at Southern Miss has outgrown its home economics origins and is now accredited with the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. Palmer was one of the graduates that the foundation interviewed when it first surveyed the program for accreditation. Since then, many of Summerhouse’s interns and employees have graduated from USM.

Palmer said most interior design programs in the U.S. gear their education based on the assumption that designers will work in the commercial sector. “They don’t do a whole lot of teaching them about the residential end of interior design and that’s a little bit of a shame in my opinion,” Palmer said. “There’s a lot of designers coming out of the program who are not qualified to work in the residential field. They don’t know what to expect. When they come to me as an intern, I have to teach them a lot about just the practicality of working with a homeowner.”

Palmer said that it is very hard for young designers to get into the field because there is something to be said for having experience. “Word of mouth is how a young designer gets her business,” Palmer said. “I’m always just a tad disappointed though that they come to me really not knowing how to write a purchase order, budgeting, dealing with a showroom or how to place an order. What we do is 75 percent business, 25 percent design.”

Palmer said that “design on a dime” TV shows like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” and HGTV’s “Design Star”, while popularizing interior design, have spawned many misconceptions about the profession. “I think it’s not a good thing for my industry because people think you can blink an eye and have a new room for $79.99 or working on a $100 budget,” Palmer said. The Internet has also increased her customer’s knowledge about the process. “The whole green aspect is also important to my customers and to consumers,” Palmer said. “They want to know that the wood comes from sustainable forests, that it’s certified- they’re asking for organic fabrics.”

One thing that has not changed in interior design is the industry’s deep running connection to Southern society. Since before the Civil War, the Southern home was the centerpiece for hospitality and entertainment. “The interior and exterior of the home has been very important much more (in the South) than in any other part of the country,” Palmer said. “We love to entertain. We have our grandparents’ antiques. A lot of my customers have collections that have been passed down. History is very important to a Southerner.”

While the recession may have crippled the furniture and retail industry, Palmer believes Summerhouse will continue to weather the storm. “Instead of people buying new homes, instead of people taking those long vacations, they’re staying home and investing in the home that they have,” she said.

About Stephen McDill


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