Inside Track: Turning passion into vocation
Grand Rapids designer values mentorship and client relationships.
Rock Kauffman said he always had a “thing” for design. Having a grandmother who was an interior designer inspired him from a very young age. He often decorated and rearranged the furniture in his own room.
“I went to my friends’ house and rearranged their parents’ furniture from the time that I was 6 or 7 years old,” he said. “They always loved it. They didn’t change it back.”
Coming from a divorced family, Kauffman said he wanted to create that home feeling that he didn’t have growing up.
When he was 20 years old, he moved to Grand Rapids and started working as a merchandiser for Klingman’s Furniture. He spent five years at the store, eventually moving up to the sales floor and then into the design studio.
During his time in the design studio, Kauffman met a builder named Kevin Einfeld, who later became the CEO of BDR Custom Homes. Einfeld had plans to build a house, and noticing Kauffman’s skill, wanted him to help with the interior design. Their partnership led them to start BDR as a joint design and construction firm.
“BDR was part of Kevin Einfeld and myself, and we were the first design/build team in the city,” Kauffman said. “You would walk into one of our homes and feel like you could move right in.”
Wanting to have more flexibility with his work, Kauffman sold out BDR to Einfeld after five years. Working for a design/build firm restricted where he could work and the types of clients he could work with. If he were on his own, he would be able to work on projects out of city or out of state.
“If people wanted to work with me but wanted to work with their brother who was a builder, I would not be able to do that project,” Kauffman explained, “because it would not be fair for my partner, who was the builder.”
He also wanted to brand himself as a designer who could work with any builder or architect, which would allow him to recommend other builders in the area who might be a better fit depending on his clients.
Kauffman started his own design firm, Rock Kauffman Design, in 1994. Two years later, he started Urban House, a retail furniture store in downtown Grand Rapids, but sold out the store to his business partner in 2008 to allow him to focus more on his design career.
Jay Begrow joined Kauffman’s design team originally as an intern but later became his business partner. Begrow graduated from Central Michigan University, where he studied art and engineering.
“We do everything together,” Kauffman said. “We have the same clients … we just got this great gig going.”
Kauffman and Begrow have designed houses ranging from 3,800 to 15,000 square feet. Kauffman said, by his own observation, he found homebuyers now value quality and comfort over size.
“People aren’t about the big house anymore. It’s about the quality, about the lifestyle, making it more functional. … Bigger is not necessarily better.”
Applying that philosophy to his work, Kauffman emphasizes design that reflects the client’s own personality and needs. He claimed if he knows the client well enough, he could design an environment that reflects what they want, whether they know it or not.
One house he designed in particular was developed for a young couple with one daughter. Kauffman said the couple didn’t want a big house, but one big enough for when their daughter got older and wanted her own space that she could “grow into.”
“I always say if you won’t have a glass of wine or a beer with me, I’m not going to work well with you,” he said jokingly. “That’s not really the truth.”
Kauffman has mentored several successful designers over the years. Kathryn Chaplow and Tylor Devereaux are both designers in Grand Rapids who have worked for him before branching off and starting their own firms. Having several valuable mentors himself, he values the chance to pass on his knowledge to future industry professionals.
“Mentoring is so crucial to success in my opinion,” Kauffman said. “And the fact that I’ve been mentored and that I’ve been able to be a mentor to other designers and people just starting out in the career is just so rewarding in itself.”
Even though some of his biggest competitors were once his former apprentices, Kauffman emphasized the strong “design-knit community” they are all a part of. They work well together and try to find the client that fits each of them in the best way.
“A client’s going to work better with Kathryn than they’re going to work with me if there’s some connection in a different way,” Kauffman said. “I happen to tend to design a little more masculine than a lot of designers. I did a little girl’s room, and it was like pulling teeth for me to get the right pink.”
Kauffman enjoys what he calls “eclectic” design, or mixing different pieces to create the feeling that everything in the house has been collected over a period of time. He said he finds it more interesting and rewarding than buying and arranging pieces out of a set.
“I love doing a home for a client who travels, because typically they have some cool things from all over the world,” he said. “So, I can incorporate that.”
A world traveler himself, Kauffman incorporates the type of design he sees in his travels to his work back home. In Europe particularly, he valued the way windows are constructed to look more “clean” or open, compared to American windows, which have thicker borders and more mechanisms surrounding them.
He attributed much of his education in design to his travels in Europe. Having never finished high school, Kauffman regarded travel as the best teacher for him.
“The culture is so much older that what they’re doing today is so much newer, so much fresher,” he said.
Kauffman also has been influenced by the people he has worked with. One builder suggested constructing a porch with a drywall ceiling, as opposed to a traditional wooden ceiling. Kauffman was intrigued by the idea because the feel of drywall, he explained, “carries” the viewer outside.
“People just think, ‘Well, you can’t put drywall outside.’ Well, if it’s plaster and it’s done right, yes you can,” he said.
His work-related travel has taken him all over the U.S., from California to New York and from Idaho to Texas. He also has taken on projects in the Cayman Islands. Most of his work in the Caribbean involves vacation homes. He said he enjoys those types of projects in particular because it usually involves working with a clean slate and not being forced to work around a client’s family heirlooms.
“You don’t have to work with Aunt Thelma’s piano because chances are they aren’t going to take Aunt Thelma’s piano there,” he said.
Another passion of his is restoring and renovating old homes. He started a company called Rock Kauffman’s Reinvent, which is a branch of Rock Kauffman Design. The company has completed renovations for four homes that were previously slated for demolition and currently is working on a fifth one in which he happened to live in 1987.
“When there was word out that it was for sale because there was a foreclosure, there was also word that this builder was going to buy it and knock it down,” he said. “I couldn’t let that happen, so I bought the house, and now we’re reinventing it.”
Kauffman has helped create homes for clients and developed long and trusting bonds with them to the point that he’s begun doing the same for their children. He said he appreciates continuing to love his career for such a long time.
“If your passion can be your vocation, then that’s about as good as it gets,” he said. “It’s my hobby, it’s my strength, it’s my happiness.”