Schmieder designs room for growth in her company

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When Via Design founder Valerie Schmieder first purchased AutoCAD, the salesperson couldn't understand what an interior designer was going to do with architectural software. But for Schmieder, it was just a matter of laying down railroad track before the train existed.

Though at the time her company was strictly an interior design firm, Schmieder left room for expansion, envisioning a company that would encompass multiple design disciplines. Originally named after herself, Schmieder changed the company name in 1995 to something that could apply to different forms of design.

"Also, Schmieder is really hard to spell," she said.

Via Design now houses architects, furniture designers and interior designers under one roof. Since merging with Brian Barkwell's Grand Rapids-based architectural firm in 1998, the company has been able to take on larger projects.

When Barkwell's firm began renting space from Via Design, Schmieder and Barkwell found it natural to start partnering on various projects, beginning with some Grand Valley State University buildings on the Allendale campus.

The two business owners noticed that working on something simultaneously created a more efficient and cohesive process. After merging their companies under the name Via Design, the firm doubled in size and has experienced consistent growth ever since, expanding the types and size of the projects they're able to take on.

Valerie Schmieder
Via Design
Title: Founder and Principal
Age: 55
Birthplace: Fulton, Ill.
Residence: Ada
Family: Husband, Joe; children Maria, 22, and Adam, 21. 
Business/Community Involvement: American Society of Interior Designers, International Interior Design Association, American Society of Furniture Designers, National Council for Interior Design Qualifications, Kendall College of Art & Design board of trustees, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Gilda’s Club, UICA, Jose Narezo Memorial Scholarship, ArtPrize, CANstruction Inc., Kids’ Food Basket, Grand Girlfriend, GRAM, Frederick Meijer Gardens 
Biggest Career Break: Starting her own design firm in 1989.

A furniture design sector has been added to the business and, more recently, a product design sister company has emerged under the same roof. Viable, which is headed by Schmieder's brother, Scott Sikkema, specializes in workspace storage solutions for commercial buildings.

In the office, designers and architects work together in a communal environment, constantly collaborating to the point where Schmieder said it's sometimes difficult to tell if they are working on design or architecture. Schmieder and Barkwell have come to call this process their "holistic approach."

"We really approach projects as a totality. So we look at the function of the interior and how that drives what the architecture becomes; we don't design a building and try to fit interior into it," said Schmieder.

Schmieder noted that beyond the convenience of coming to one source for all design needs, Via Design's clients benefit from the cohesion of the process. "They know we're working very closely together to ensure the architecture and the interior support each other. One doesn't become more important than the other, one doesn't become first; they work simultaneously together at the same time."

Design has been a part of Schmieder's life for as long as she can remember. Her parents owned a furniture store in a small farming community in Illinois, doing interior design work for basically everyone within a 50-mile radius.

"My mom and dad were always planning and designing something. Our dinner talk was always about designing something, whether it was a home or the business," said Schmieder.

She remembers being dragged through every Frank Lloyd Wright home her father could find when she was a child. Because her high school didn't offer art classes, Schmieder went to a local community college during the summer.

She continued her education in design at Calvin College, eventually obtaining her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in interior design from Kendall College of Art and Design. Schmieder said that her visual background applies to everything she does.

"Even when you design a room, it's similar to what a composition is in a painting. It's just three dimensional," she said.

Having grown up in a family of designers and business owners, Schmieder always felt she would have this same duality in her own career. "You need both to be successful," she said. "You can't disregard one side of it. If you do, then you need to work for someone else."

But when she started out on her own in 1989, one of her biggest motivators was the flexibility to be able to spend more time with her family. When she began her design business, Schmieder and her husband of 25 years, Joe Schmieder, had a daughter, Maria. One month after starting the business, she learned that their second child, Adam, was on the way.

Though Schmieder had a lot to balance, her company started out with a bang. Having come from a professional background at two Grand Rapids-based interior design firms, Bud Baty and Associates and DeWinter and Associates, Schmieder knew there was a lot of design work to be had in the city.

Landing a few key clients — Dick and Betsy DeVos, The Bouma Corp. and GVSU — Schmieder was able to start hiring immediately. But it wasn't until the merger with Barkwell that she really felt the company had hit its stride.

The early days of the partnership were not without a few rough patches. For example, when Schmieder decided the office could use a new $10,000 copier, she went out and bought one without consulting Barkwell. "I had to adapt to having a partner. I was used to making all the decisions on my own."

But beyond the formalities, Barkwell and Schmieder agreed that the transition was more a financial change than anything. "From a working standpoint, from collaborating on the design part and what our philosophy was on our work, we were on the same page," she said.

The two run what Schmieder describes as a "non-corporate" office of creative professionals. Their space at 44 Grandville Ave. SW above Bistro Bella Vita is a sensory overload: It's home to an extensive commercial and residential resource library, an open studio space, and whatever artwork and source material they're currently discussing with clients.

One of the more recent projects was the renovation of the Windquest Building, home to Reserve Wine Bar. Originally built in the 1920s as a bank and office space, one of the biggest challenges for Via Design was bringing the building up to code and making the space functional in a 21st century setting.

"(Reserve) is spread over three floors, and that's very difficult in a restaurant situation," said Schmieder. One of the additions to the building was a mezzanine level with a connecting staircase to the main floor. "We were able to create more intimate private areas, but they are still very much connected to what's going on in the lower level."

The team created a modern and compelling space while preserving the historical elements by restoring original plaster details and repurposing the original vault door of the bank as the wine cellar door.

"I loved the integration, the marriage of old and traditional with the very new. I think that's just such a wonderful contrast," said Schmieder. "We tried to restore as much of the historic nature of the building as we could, but we did not keep it a historical renovation. We made it very hip and new, incorporated new life into an old building."

The team designed an entirely new structure to be added on to the building, including new windows and some contemporary elements. Much of the furniture was custom designed by Via Design in addition to commissioning contributions from local artists and furniture manufacturers.

The Windquest Building is now home to a restaurant, wine bar, offices and a private residence; utilizing all of Via Design's capabilities.

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