Have design library, will travel

Colchester interior designer found business opportunity knocking on closed doors
Burlington Free Press
By Dan D’Ambrosio

In 2008, Christine Burdick lost her job as an interior designer at Burlington’s TruexCullins, one of Vermont’s leading architectural firms. She was a victim of the economic catastrophe brought on by a burst housing bubble that was dragging associated jobs down with it.

“The construction industry came to a screeching halt in October 2008,” Burdick said recently at her new office in Colchester. “It basically just stopped if you didn’t have larger projects to support the staff. There was a huge layoff in the industry, pretty much across the board nationwide.”

Before the big layoff, Burdick had been on something of a fast track professionally. After graduating from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in interior design, Burdick moved to New York City and worked for a year at Montroy Andersen (now Montroy Andersen DeMarco) a Madison Avenue firm with clients ranging from Walt Disney to the National Geographic Society. Unfortunately, she got a taste of what was to come when the dot-com industry tanked and her hours at Montroy Andersen were cut back from 50 hours per week to 35.

“Trying to pay rent in an expensive city, it’s tricky,” Burdick said.

She decided to move to Washington, D.C., returning to work at ACG Architects in McLean, Va., where she had done an internship while at Virginia Tech. After a year working in D.C., she and a girlfriend from college were formulating a plan to “city-hop” across the country, with Chicago as the next stop, when her life took a sudden U-turn, back to the state where she was born and raised in Colchester.

“My now-husband dragged me back home,” Burdick said. “He’s from Vermont. My best friend married one of his best friends, so it’s kind of amazing. I never pictured myself coming back here. I tried to drag him to the city, but our families are both here.” Given her high-profile experience, Burdick was able to land the job at TruexCullins in 2002, cruising through the next six years working on a series of interesting projects for the firm. She thought she was set.

“I was very happy working with them and thought I would spend my career there,” Burdick said of her time before October 2008.

Instead, she would spend the balance of 2008, and all of 2009 on unemployment, with an infant and 2-year-old child.

“Everything changed,” Burdick said. “I had to pull the kids out of day care. We couldn’t afford to have them in day care and me not working. I spent a year at home with the kids. Not that I don’t love my children, but I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom.”

As part of being on unemployment, Burdick was required to apply for three jobs weekly. She used that requirement as an opportunity to schedule “informational interviews” with architectural firms.

“The year I was on unemployment I interviewed with pretty much every architecture firm in the state,” Burdick said. “What I found was that they didn’t need a full-time interior designer on staff, but they all needed an interior designer at some point on a project-to-project basis.”

Burdick said a light bulb went off. She could set up her own shop to service architects who needed an interior designer on an interim basis.

“Everybody wins,” Burdick said. “They don’t have the overhead of another staff member, and I’m able to work on all the exciting projects.”

Burdick began in the basement of her home. The job that launched her was one she actually didn’t get – The Lodge at Shelburne Bay Senior Living Community, a project for Wiemann Lamphere Architects of Colchester.

“I’ve kind of shied away from health care and senior living projects,” Burdick said. “You can’t be good at everything. You have to pick what you love and are passionate about, and go for that, but Wiemann brought me to the table because I had worked for them before. Long story short, I never got that project, but it was enough to give me the confidence I needed.”

Burdick’s first big job was Dealer.com, the Burlington firm that designs websites and online marketing with automobile dealers across the United States and Canada. The company is in the midst of a 75,000-square-foot expansion of its headquarters on Pine Street more than doubling the size of its space. Burdick knew the architect on the project, Tyler Scott of Scott + Partners Architects in Essex Junction, from one of her informational interviews, and she had worked with his project manager at TruexCullins. She got an email from Scott while on vacation with her husband in Jamaica in the spring of 2010.

“He didn’t tell me the client. He just said he was working on an interesting project in Burlington,” Burdick said. “He said, ‘I think I could use your help.’”

Burdick said her first step in working with any client is to try to understand the company and their brand.

“Who are the employees, but who are the customers?” she said. “Who are the people coming in to meet with them? When you walk into that space you want to feel like you’re in that company.”

Burdick didn’t get the right feel from another client, Pizzagalli Construction Co. of South Burlington, where she worked with the architectural firm, Wiemann Lamphere, which had decided not to use her on the Shelburne Bay project. One of the first things Burdick did was to ask Pizzagalli to remove the expensive green marble floors in their headquarters.

“When I first walked into that building it was very formal, almost a New York City multi-tenant feel,” Burdick said. “We decided to remove that green marble. It’s expensive, but it didn’t fit with the personal touch Pizzagalli has. They don’t want clients to walk in and think they’re stodgy. What we decided to do was base the design on construction. That’s what they do, and they do it very well.”

Burdick took historical black-and-white photographs of Pizzagalli workers climbing on scaffolding with hard hats, and other scenes from the employee-owned company’s long history of building things in Vermont, and had them printed on wallpaper and hung on the walls of the headquarters.

“This becomes the art work,” Burdick said. “You start to bring some of the heart and soul of the company into the built environment.”

Burdick’s theory of a roving interior designer – a gun for hire – who could jump from architectural firm to architectural firm, cherry-picking the plum projects, has turned out to be a winner. In addition to Dealer.com and Pizzagalli Construction, she is working on the new Vermont Energy Investment Corp. headquarters on South Pine Street, and the new Green Mountain Coffee Roasters headquarters in Technology Park. She has also worked on projects with Ben & Jerry’s and AllEarth Renewables, all since launching her business in April 2010. Burdick has moved out of the basement and into a building on Main Street in Colchester where she went to kindergarten when it was a school. Her office is open and airy, with colorful carpet squares on the floor, and desks for her and her two employees. A large table dominates the space where Burdick and her clients can look through her growing library of sample books for furniture, finishes, flooring and more.

Next week, she’ll attend NeoCon in Chicago at The Merchandise Mart, the biggest exposition and conference for commercial interiors in North America, with more than 700 showrooms and exhibitors. Burdick’s library will expand overnight.

“If I was tied to one architectural firm I would be working only on the projects that firm gets,” Burdick said. “The thing I love about where I am is that I can work on all these projects for all these amazing companies.”

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@burlingtonfreepress.com or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dandambrosio.