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Inside Track: Interior design career is something of an odyssey
Marissa Iacovoni left Grand Rapids after high school but dreams of returning to start her own hospitality commercial firm.
Marissa Iacovoni’s journey to having a successful interior design career began in Grand Rapids, her home city, and then took her all over the world.
Her work currently has landed her in Houston, Texas, where she holds a number of titles, including interior designer for international design firm Rottet Studio, which also has offices in New York, Los Angeles and Shanghai; event planner at BASH Event Design, which she co-founded; founder of her interior design business, Iacovoni & Associates; and blogger for Diva On A Dime Interiors, her interior design blog, which has about 14,000 followers.
At 25, Iacovoni is already a rising star in the design industry, with major hospitality and commercial design jobs in China and Chicago under her belt. When she’s not running her businesses or travelling on weekends for work, she finds time to take online classes at the University of Phoenix, working on an MBA in project management.
But something she desperately wants to be part of her story is still missing: a homecoming.
“My dream someday … is to have a huge firm in Grand Rapids — a big hospitality commercial firm — because there really isn’t something like that here,” she said.
“My ultimate goal would be to have a company that’s both in Houston and Grand Rapids. I’m also the co-founder of BASH Event Design, which started in Houston, but I’m going to expand it into Grand Rapids.”
It’s an interesting situation to be in. Iacovoni is positioned well, with a budding career at Rottet Studio, named by Interior Design Magazine as one of the Top 3 Most Admired Firms in the World. She loves her jobs, she adores her boss, Lauren Rottet, and she likes Houston just fine.
All this, however, doesn’t keep her from traveling to Grand Rapids every couple of months and spending time with her family while working on local design projects.
“I think the greatest thing about Grand Rapids is there’s so much room to grow in design here that I feel I could make a really big impact,” she said. “There is good design here, but I think my having done design all over the world — I’d love to bring it here.”
So, why hasn’t she and why did she leave in the first place? The simple answer: job security.
Iacovoni grew up on Grand Rapids’ west side, where all her dreams started, she said, and attended West Catholic High School. While her mother always knew she would end up in design, Iacovoni said it wasn’t until her high school art teacher encouraged her to take a couple of classes at Kendall College of Art and Design that she began to fully realize her potential.
After graduating from high school in 2006, she left Grand Rapids and headed for Chicago, where she majored in interior design at the Illinois Institute of Art.
The reason so many young people, herself included, leave Grand Rapids in their 20s — and then return in their 30s to raise a family — isn’t necessarily because they wanted to leave, Iacovoni said. But in today’s economy, sometimes it’s the best option for beginning a career, she explained.
“Grand Rapids is booming as far as medical is concerned … but, truthfully, it’s hard to find big corporations hiring so many people right out of school,” she said. “So people in their early 20s go to these bigger cities like Chicago and New York, get that experience, and then come back to companies like Amway, Steelcase, Hayworth. They’re going to hire seniority, and now you have that, coming back.”
While studying in Chicago, she was a nanny for a family with connections to the hotel industry. Her personal connection to that family, which turned into a treasured friendship, led to one of the most important first steps in her career, she said: landing an internship during her freshman year at the art institute.
“I got to be on the whole project design team for a hotel in college, an opportunity I never would have had otherwise,” she said. “I completely got involved in hotel design and hospitality and just loved it.”
After graduating in 2010, Iacovoni was immediately picked up by the McDonald’s Corp.’s Chicago branch to work on designing the behemoth company’s higher-end restaurants. Her work was a success, she said, but the corporate style limited her artistic creativity. She began to find other design projects, re-designing two Chicago clubs, Jellyfish and Mercer One Thirteen, for Slick Design USA.
She also started her own company, Iacovoni & Associates, at that time, and returned to Grand Rapids to work on remodeling a new office on East Beltline Avenue for Prudential Fase Realty — for which she still is doing freelance work, making sure to utilize products from local companies, particularly Steelcase, as much as she can.
“I respect people in the design industry here so much,” she said. “The furniture design here — it’s impeccable. Baker and all these people that I’d even hear about being in Houston, being in Europe, being all over — it’s crazy that it’s (from) my own hometown. When I come home and do Prudential projects, I try to always use stuff (from here.)”
In 2011, she moved to Houston and began to work at Rottet Studio. She’s been there ever since and has no immediate plans of leaving. But down the road, she knows Grand Rapids is calling her. And like a true entrepreneur, if the city doesn’t have something ready for her when the time is right, she’ll create her own job.
“I don’t really have a timeframe,” she said. “For me, it would be getting more projects in Grand Rapids, influencing design and just pushing the boundaries of design and having people walk into a space and say, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m in New York or Chicago.’”
Because of Iacovoni’s past work with hotels and nightclubs, she’s particularly interested in bringing those ideas to Grand Rapids, she said, and she’d like to see hotel brands like Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and W Hotel added downtown.
There also is a need for a high-quality club space in Grand Rapids, she added.
“There isn’t really a cool club here … something that’s kind of exclusive. Not a bar — something like a (Chicago underground club) where people can go and they don’t feel like they’re in Grand Rapids,” she said. “Grand Rapids needs something super hip, aiming toward the younger college crowd.”
How or when she will make her permanent return to Grand Rapids, she has no idea — nor does she know how many other young professionals like her are out there, waiting to return to West Michigan with stable careers. For now, she’s content to be a Grand Rapids expatriate, biding her time for a return to make a difference in her hometown.
In the meantime, she remains patient, remembering some advice from the Chicago couple she nannied for: “Never settle.”
“(They) always told me, ‘Don’t just do it because it makes a lot of money. Do what you love and the money will come later,’” she said. “That advice to me has paid off so much because now I feel like I work harder than I ever have, and I’m starting to really thrive, but it’s because I’m so passionate about it.”