Striking Out On His Own

authors Kim Berndtson | January 5, 2016

It’s been about a year since Fred M. Alsen opened his kitchen and bath design firm, fma Design, in Chicago, IL. Although it’s a new venture for him, he is far from new to the design world. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Interior Design and has spent the last 20-plus years working primarily in interior design in the Chicago area, save for stints doing project development in China and India and as a showroom manager for a luxury wallpaper and paint company in the UK. His resume also includes time spent working for HGTV.
Even with his extensive background, though, he admits he was hesitant to strike out on his own, focusing on kitchen and bath design as well as spaces that require built-in cabinetry. “I’ve always felt I needed a secure job to pay the bills,” he says. “I was afraid to go out on my own. But I decided to believe in myself and take the plunge. It’s been amazing thus far, and I’ve been working nonstop! As soon as I finish a job, the phone rings and there’s another one.”
Alsen is already carving out a niche for himself, setting himself apart from others with a label he feels is most descriptive of what he does: interior design living specialist. “My philosophy has always been that your home is your cocoon,” he says. “It should be who you are. You should be able to come home, breathe and let the rest of the world go once you walk in the door.”
He prefers the term living specialist over the more traditional kitchen/bath designer. “I don’t like the words designer or design,” he says. “It isn’t about me, and it isn’t about the design. It’s about the clients, about understanding what they are asking for and what the house is asking for. Then I marry the two together. That’s the magic of it all. That’s the gift I have been given, but never believed in. Now I embrace it and, as I look back, it’s where I have been most successful.”
Alsen works mostly in the Chicago area, although he has accepted jobs as far away as San Francisco. His clients, no matter where they actually live, include anyone who needs guidance, whether it’s for a whole house design with project management or for kitchen or bath design and space planning, budgeting, product selection, etc. “It really depends on how involved they want to be,” he says. “My clients come to me because they have a problem and don’t know how to solve it. My specialty is problem solving, and kitchens and baths usually have the biggest problems to solve.”

Older Homes Specialty
His specialty is also remodeling – especially older homes – as opposed to new construction. “I love the challenge of working with the architecture of an existing space,” he says, adding that he recently finished remodeling the kitchen of a 100-plus-year-old home and is currently working on a mid-century home that is being completely gutted. “And, this is Chicago…we have mostly older homes here. I like their character, and I like to preserve…to make modern fit into today’s lifestyle.”
Alsen likes to work with clients in all budget ranges as well, dismissing the notion of only accepting big-budget projects that are designed to win awards. “To me, that’s a disservice to the client,” he says. “An award to me is a happy client who loves their home. Not everyone has a big budget, and not everyone likes ‘over-the-top.’ My goal is to give my clients a kitchen that functions and looks beautiful, based on what they like. I know some designers won’t touch projects under $100,000. But people who only have a $30,000 budget deserve a nice kitchen, too. I want to be able to help people, no matter their budget, live the life they want, as it relates to design.”

Working together
At this stage of his business, Alsen chooses to work out of his home rather than open a showroom. “It’s a different world now,” he explains. “My clients don’t want to come to a showroom…they don’t have the time.”
Instead, Alsen meets with them in their home so he can see their space. “That first consultation is so important to see if they like me and to see if I want to take on the project. With a showroom, I don’t think you have as much flexibility to do that. There’s also a large overhead associated with a showroom. With my current business model, I am able to give my clients a better value.”
Although Alsen has a deep-rooted history in the design industry, he finds it beneficial to surround himself with a team of experts he can call upon to fine-tune product selections and further his business. As a distributor for Greenfield Cabinetry and its various product lines, he works closely with his rep for all things cabinets. “She is a big reason I decided to open my business,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to venture into kitchens and baths, and I certainly wasn’t looking at being a cabinet distributor. But we met, and she helped build my confidence and has been a great support since.”
Alsen also works closely with local representatives of Jenn-Air and GE Monogram. “It’s important to all work together,” he says. “In this business, I have to know as much about appliances and countertop materials as I do cabinetry. I know I can’t be an expert in everything, but I do know who to go to for help.”

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