Westmont, IL — For some, the path to their career is clear and straightforward – a tidy line from point A to point B. Others, however, arrive at their professional destination via a more winding road, accumulating a wealth of diverse experiences along the way. Designer Stephanie Frees falls into the latter category.
“I was headed off to college and law school and ended up getting married and living in Mexico City,” Frees explains. As a young stay-at-home wife eager to make her first house feel like home, she frequently visited a nearby interior design store for inspiration. “Within a month or so, they approached me and asked me if I would come work for them,” she continues. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s great, but I don’t have any design experience.’ And they said, ‘No, we think you have a keen eye and we can train you.’ And that was my start in the design industry.”
The women who ran the store became Frees’ mentors, teaching her the ins and outs of the industry and helping her to hone her skills as a designer. When Frees and her family eventually relocated to the U.S., she continued to pursue interior design, as well as architecture – in fact, she designed and built her family’s house, in conjunction with an architect.
A serendipitous meeting with a major Chicagoland remodeling firm at a charity event led her to a new career in remodeling. “I designed additions and all kinds of things, but part of that was kitchens and baths, and I just fell madly in love with the kitchen design part of the industry,” Frees recounts.
In 2006, Frees opened her own design firm, Plain & Posh, followed in 2015 by a storefront showroom in Westmont, IL. Her reputation has since expanded beyond the Chicagoland area, gaining her nationwide recognition, leading to projects in Florida, California, Oregon, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
For Frees, designing a kitchen or bath isn’t about putting her stamp on a space. Rather, her focus is on truly understanding her clients’ style and bringing their vision to life. “I don’t have a ‘look,’” Frees remarks. Rather, she believes that tailoring her designs to precisely match her clients’ tastes necessitates a flexible and insightful approach. “I really work hard to ‘get’ who my client is, and then design a beautiful space that feels like ‘them.’” Frees relates an anecdote of one client who, during a meeting to discuss design ideas, remarked to her husband, “I can’t believe she totally gets who I am.” Frees adds, “That’s what I love to hear. It’s not me. It’s not my pretty design. It’s [about them].”
Of course, Frees is focused on making sure her designs are not only attractive, but highly functional and suited to her clients’ lifestyles. “I really stress form and function to make sure that ultimately, it’s not just a pretty kitchen, but that it really works for them,” she says. In order to create a design perfectly fitted to her clients’ needs, Plain & Posh carries cabinetry by Dura Supreme and Haas, as well as Frees’ new original line, the Plain & Posh Collection, which is locally crafted and “can be customized to suit any storage need.”
The location of Plain & Posh requires flexibility in budget as well as aesthetic and function. Frees’ showroom sits at the border of the village of Hinsdale – one of the wealthiest towns in Illinois – and the solidly middle-class Westmont. Frees explains that she might be working with a Hinsdale client one day and a Westmont client the next, so she has had to become adept at creating beautiful designs at all price points.
Supporting clients through the challenges of the design process was one of the primary reasons Frees decided to open her own business, she explains. “I needed [to focus on] what I do best, and that is my customer service [and] my ability to pull together all of the selections and the timeline and manage the project.”
Frees explains that not only is her focus on creating spaces that bring her clients’ design dreams to life, but also making sure the spaces are functional and full of high-quality materials. When she has to insist on one choice over another for the sake of functionality, she takes the time to carefully educate her clients about the reasons for her selection. “I super hand-hold,” she says.
This patient, personal approach has led to plenty of repeat business, as her previous clients will often hire her to design kitchens and baths for new homes or vacation homes. Satisfied clients are also keen to refer friends and family to Plain & Posh – in fact, Frees remarks, approximately 80% of her business comes from referrals.
“I have a lot of longtime clients,” Frees notes. “I’ll just go to lunch with clients because…we’ve connected. We’ve formed a friendship, and I truly cherish that.” She adds, “I think that’s part of being a small business owner.”
When she first started Plain & Posh, Frees expected that she would want to bring on more designers, perhaps a total of six people. However, as her business has grown and her client load has increased, she’s come to realize that she prefers to keep Plain & Posh a one-woman show. According to Frees, spending time with her clients and getting to know them personally in order to create thoughtful designs is more appealing to her than managing a team of people – although, she laughs, her husband does provide some bookkeeping help. Frees concludes, “At the end of the day, Plain & Posh is me.” ▪