Designing for Life, Part One

An informative interview with Marc Thee of Marc-Michaels Interior Design.




, the Marc-Michaels Interior Design team has provided a wide variety of luxury design services in projects with diverse scopes and budgets. The size of the firm, the magnitude of the design projects, and long-standing reputation for managing the selection, purchase and installation of interiors is unmatched in the industry.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Marc Thee, principal and co-founder, to discuss his views on design, on maintaining Marc-Michaels’ formidable reputation, and that intersection where technology meets design. We start our conversation with an overview of the firm, and some of the trends he’s witnessing in the Florida interior design market.

Marc Thee: First of all, thank you Stephanie for inviting me to share our story. As you may know, Marc-Michaels is the largest interior design firm in the country. We have about 80 people on staff, 40 of them being direct design managers. And we are the most luxury-oriented design firm as well. Last year alone, the homes we worked in were valued at over a total of a billion dollars. So managing that level of client expectation sets us apart from the majority of our competition.

We are typically brought into a project at a very early stage. I’d say that 25 percent of the time we are the first ones who meet with the client. Usually clients we have worked with over the years. Our clients are very savvy and have multiple properties, sometimes all over the world, and they know what they want.

Being a Florida-based interior designer, there just isn’t a more prolific state to practice our trade. While our firm is located in Winter Park outside of Orlando, I’d say that less than 10 percent of our work is in central Florida, because there are many upscale communities from north to south and east to west across the state.

And here’s perhaps one of the most important things I’d like to bring up as far as how we operate and trends we are seeing. My firm opened in 1985, so gosh we’re going on 35 years of business and it is the first time I believe our clients are really enjoying the process. Building a house is not easy. When you build a house you are going to hit a wall a couple of times with things that are not exactly easy to execute or are a challenge. But what I’m seeing today is rampant joy like I’ve never seen before.

Clients are allowing us to do things and make decisions that they never have before. They are much less hands on. They come in for a presentation and they look at a few properties, and they see something they like and envision themselves in, and they get it. And they leave a lot of the details for us to work out. And that has never been the case.

Steph: What drew you into the world of design?

Marc: You know, it’s funny because I come from a long line of creatives and artists. We are just naturally curious, and inspired by unique oddities. And so my eyes are always kind of drawn towards a unique vision that is just a part of my DNA.

When I was studying in college, because of the work ethic instilled in me by my parents, I just knew I had to become a doctor or an attorney. My father was a businessman, so I just kind of followed in his footsteps. But I was always drawn more to monetizing my artistic flair, and so I began to study architectural design.

This was way back in 1979, and I’ll add that I got a double major in psychology. And those psychology classes have come in handy, because I have been called the ultimate diplomat by many of my clients! In fact, I always strive to make my clients feel that they are being heard. Not just listened to. If we make a mistake, we admit it and move forward. And our clients really appreciate that. We become more casual around each other and they engage with us because they love what we do.

Steph: Have there been changes in how clients make their home-buying decisions?

Marc: Well, clients are becoming experts in so many areas, which I love because it raises the bar for everyone. You know, they used to walk in with some magazine pictures and say, “Can we do something like this?” Now, they have digital files! Yeah. Computer-generated room layouts and they’ve done tons of research and they just throw it all out at us so we can do a quick review.

And because a lot of what we are involved in is based on builder-developer spec work, there are already luxury properties for sale that we’ve done and that are turnkey and ready to go. And people today love the experience of walking into a space and emotionally just falling in love with a property.

For many clients in their 50s or 60s, they don’t want to take three years and go through the painstaking detail work of building a property. You know, it’s just a lot. Some decisions you make over that three-year process aren’t the decisions you’d make two years into the future. Life changes, our family complexion changes. So it’s always nice if you can find something that moves you, with the ability to make final tweaks based on your lifestyle.


“It’s not just about great-looking spaces anymore. It’s about the way they make you feel. So technology plays a role in that respect.”
— Marc Thee,
Marc-Michaels Interior Design

Steph: How has technology impacted design?

Marc: As an interior designer, I used to create beautiful spaces. And now I feel like I create relevant spaces that impact the way these families live every single day. And we can do that just with lighting design. I can uplift their lives. I can make them feel secure. I can impact their moods and the sense of a stress free and low maintenance environment. And I can calm them.

It’s not just about great looking spaces anymore. It’s about the way they make you feel. So technology plays a role in that respect.

You know, it’s funny. I used to walk around and really present a home to someone. I’d run around and set the dimmers and get everything just right. But in reality, that space would probably never look that way again, because we couldn’t save those scenes. People would turn the dimmers up the next morning when they needed full light and I’d have to go around and re-set everything for my next evening presentation!

But that’s all changed today. You don’t have to teach the client about setting dimmers. You can preset scenes and then give the client the power to make fine adjustments if they want to.

Steph: Do you have technology experts on staff?

Marc: No, we don’t. We have outside consultants who we bring in. From our perspective, we specialize in interior design. When it comes to lighting or technology or any other trade that is not our focus, we bring in consultants who are, like ourselves, at the leading edge of their profession.

The way we work is, we like to have enough knowledge about everything to know what’s on the market. We have people calling on our staff every day with updates to their offerings. We have a full-time librarian that is responsible for getting all product information out to our team. There are at least two reps in our source room every minute of every day that is servicing different aspects of the library. We work collectively.

So, yes, there are people that have much more expertise in specific areas than we do. So everybody has their gifts and talents. But do we have a technology expert? Absolutely not. But do we have our go-tos and who we like to contact and bring in for consultation? Absolutely. We have found that our clients appreciate a good kitchen designer or a closet designer, a good lighting designer, you know, a good sound system designer. For myself, I’m just trying to stay on top of color trends!

Steph: Tell us a little about nature and its impact on design.

Marc: One of the most exciting aspects for me personally is to connect a space with the natural environment around it. You know, it’s funny – we used to do a plant purchase for every house. We’d talk about budgets with our clients. I think we would look at about $5,000 as a budget depending on the design and there might be two trees in every room and there would be a weekly plant service to maintain the environment. But we really don’t do that anymore.

Now it’s much more specific. There might be very identifiable green walls or very beautifully executed organic moments that are much purer when properly executed. So sightlines, where we think through how we sprinkle greenness throughout the design. We can create an atrium or a light well or something that brings natural light and green vistas into a space.

Typically, the architectural plan comes to us early in the process, and we are able to shift window locations, shrink or grow window placements, and by studying traffic patterns and livability, including furniture placement, we can create mood and lighting opportunities to give a sense of environmental cues.

As an example, I’m very aware of what happens for instance in a long room. Perhaps with a lot of natural light exposed in one end of that room and you’re at the opposite end, moving from one area of the home to the next. It’s as if you are almost looking through blackness down a tunnel, and it’s very unpleasant. So we attempt to create symmetry as you move forward in that space that brings the outside cues to you long before you end up at the other end of the room and walk into daylight.

In part two, Marc talks about exploring and understanding client expectations and how to design interiors based on lifestyles and day-to-day living.