Interior design has always been an iconic industry, not only for the LGBTQ community but for everyone to enjoy and celebrate. It’s dynamic and exciting. While a professional designer needs to bring to life the vision of the client in front of them, leave a designer to their own devices and you’ll witness the spirit and essence of boundless creativity.
Bilal Rehman is taking the industry by storm. In his early 20s, he shares his story of how quickly he moved from education to internship, from junior designer to senior designer, and ultimately the CEO of his own company. Having been featured on Buzzfeed and The New York Times for viral interior design content, Bilal prepares to launch an online store to sell his home-goods designs.
Passionate about interior design? Want to enter the industry? Unsure of how to get started? Enjoy Bilal’s story, one sure to inspire you to pursue your passion regardless of experience or tenure. Many thanks to Bilal for spending time with me.
As such a young designer how did this all start?
Bilal Rehman: I guess from the very, very beginning. I grew up with immigrant parents, and so the idea of doing something creative as a career or artsy as a career really was never an option. I’ve always had a fascination with design, but I never entertained the idea of doing it as a career because of that. When I was younger, I would rearrange the rooms in the house and get in trouble for it all the time. I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it. I always found such a fascination with changing the energy of a space or changing the way a space felt. I ended up, you know, kind of just doing it as a passion thing and not really entertaining it as a career.
I ended up going to college for computer engineering for about maybe three months or so. I absolutely hated it. I hated the stuff we were learning. I hated the books that I was reading. Every single thing felt as if I was out of place. I ended up pivoting and I switched to interior design because I just wanted to get a feel for it. When I did make that switch, I quickly realized that I do not like learning interior design from a book. That just, to me, didn’t feel like the best use of my time if I was really going to learn more about interior design. All they were teaching me was, you know, the basics, the color wheel and all these little things that I already knew or that were quickly accessible with a Google search.
I did not need to sit here for the next four years of my life learning it. So, I decided to switch my major once again to business, and I decided to try to find an internship or a job in the world of interior design. As you can imagine, finding an internship or a job in the world of interior design with no experience and no degree in it is hard. It took me like eight months before I actually landed an internship, and I started like bottom of the barrel. I did nothing creative. I was super into the paperwork side of things and checking orders and running errands. I was doing that for about six months or so until they finally gave me the opportunity to assist a designer, a senior designer there on one of the projects that they were working on.
What a fantastic opportunity!
BR: I instantly fell in love with the entire design process. I knew this was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And so I was so excited working on that project and I put my heart and soul into it, and I think they saw that. And so, they let me work on another project with a different designer at the firm. I continued doing that for another three or four months until they really saw my work on a multiple project level and they decided to make me a junior designer. I finally became an official junior designer, which means that I got to work more closely with the senior designers and work on more projects. I did that for about maybe a year and a half or so until they were in need of a senior designer because somebody left the firm and they decided to internally promote.
They decided to take me from junior to senior because of all the projects and stuff that I had worked on. I stayed in that position for about another year and a half until I decided to completely leave that firm. The aesthetic of the firm just wasn’t my aesthetic. My aesthetic is a little bit more a New York, Miami style. It wasn’t Houston. You know, the big daddy couches and the leather on the floor and all that kinda stuff. That’s just not my aesthetic, and I really got tired of designing around that style. I decided to leave the firm and launch my own studio in Houston, which was bringing a completely fresh design aesthetic to Houston. Something that it’s never really seen before. Because of that, it was like a breath of fresh air for people who were looking for a designer. It quickly grew our studio into something that I could not even imagine would’ve been possible at this age.
Many established interior designers have said, “Hell no, you don’t have to go to school.” Albeit, we don’t discredit those who did study the industry. Where would you say your design inspiration comes from?
BR: Honestly, my design inspiration comes from all over. I’ve always had a fascination with fashion and so a lot of my projects or inspiration boards that we create are based on really unique runway looks or really unique fashion collections. I definitely look up to some of the larger designers in today’s day and age, like Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Kelly Wearstler. They’ve always been a source of inspiration for me. Jonathan Adler, he’s a great source of inspiration. I think when it comes in terms of the aesthetic, my aesthetic typically stems from Los Angeles or New York compared to the other designers in Houston. New York is kind of that more sophisticated, opulent side of my design aesthetic, whereas LA is a little bit more of that relaxed, casual glamor that I use in my projects.
In this industry, especially as young designers, predecessors have passionate opinions about up-and-coming designers. While many designers are passionate and excited about the next generation, there can be a lot of ego in this industry. What does being “design arrived” mean to you, and what does maturity mean in this industry to you?
BR: This is a question that I have thought about a lot, honestly, internally going through this process of launching my own studio. I always viewed designers who have been in the industry for years and years as superior. I always thought, you know, “Wow, these people have been in the industry for 20 years or 30 years and they have all these fabulous projects.” They’re the “Idol of Design.”
What I really realized launching my own studio is that “experience” in this industry honestly doesn’t matter. It does not matter because in this industry, if you are a good designer and you are really passionate about what you do, you are constantly evolving and you’re constantly growing, whether you’re 20 years into it or a day into it. Just because you have a degree or you have tenure or a huge team doesn’t make you better or worse than a designer who is starting their career from Day One.
Granted, it’s not the case for every single one, but I feel like older designers a lot of times wouldn’t take me seriously because of my age and because of my experience. I began to look at their projects and I’m like, “I’m so underwhelmed,” and I look at their work and I’m like, “this looks like the same stuff you were doing 20 years ago.” We’re all creatives and we’re all designers, and if you have it, you have it. It doesn’t matter about anything else really. It doesn’t.
There’s that impostor syndrome, right? You do have to step outta your comfort zone and be willing to evolve. What is one thing an amateur designer can do to elevate their skills?
BR: Do not try to emulate the designers who you follow or you look up to. I think that’s a mistake a lot of new designers make. They think, “Okay, these successful designers whom I follow or whom I know, they have it all figured out and this is how it has to happen, this is what my aesthetic needs to look like, and these are the places that I need to shop.” I have seen it time and time again where this limits your ability to evolve into your full potential and into the designer that you need to be. My advice to an amateur designer is take risks. Go rummage through the farmhouse.
See if you can find something that really speaks to you and your design aesthetic that nobody else has used before, compared to trying to go shop a catalog that the designer who’s been here for 20 years has already been shopping through, or has used that same piece in all of their projects. At the end of the day, you need to find your voice as a designer, that’s what’s gonna set you apart in this industry and give you the ability to become a successful big-name designer if that’s your goal.
Is there something you think an amateur designer shouldn’t do when designing a space?
BR: Yes. I think when you’re designing a space as an amateur designer, don’t fall too hard into the trends. The thing with this whole trend culture is that trends get old very, very fast. When you’re designing a space or you’re working with a client, ultimately the goal is to create a space that reflects them, but is also fairly timeless and will withstand the evolution of the trends and withstand the years of use. If you dive too deep into a trend and make the room overly themed or overly trendy, it’s going to age very, very quickly. It’s going to almost limit your portfolio and make people see you as a designer who just hops on trends and then hops off when the trend is gone. You don’t want that. You want to create a very distinct voice that can break through the trends and withstand the evolution of them.
What is a simple technique anyone can do to transform their space?
BR: Simple technique. I had a whole video on this. It is layers of lighting. I think that’s something that everybody, even designers, most designers, don’t even pay attention to this. Creating layers of lighting in your space is something that will instantly elevate your space, enhance the way that everything in the room looks, including you. Who wants to go into a space where you look dead or you look like a zombie? Like that’s just not cute. You wanna walk into a space where you feel sexy and you feel confident and you get energized, or you’re relaxed or whatever the mood is. Layers of lighting is really the best way to achieve it.
Design aside, we just finished celebrating Pride month. What does Pride month mean to you?
BR: Honestly, Pride month is something that I think every year, it feels like the audience is getting bigger, the community is getting bigger. It’s really interesting to see the evolution of how people are evolving every year and how much more confident and comfortable a lot of people feel. I remember years ago, especially where I am in Houston, it’s not the most open-minded place to be. I remember the crowd used to be really, really tiny and it used to be a very select group of people. You almost knew everybody because of how small the crowd was. Now you go and it’s thousands and thousands of people, people who aren’t even a part of the community are there in support of their friends or their family. I think it’s just been really amazing to see how large the community has grown. I love all the energy and the love that is surrounded by every Pride month. I think that’s just so fabulous. I just love seeing it evolve every year.