A growing interior design firm talks to us about partnership, passion, and managing a flourishing business.
Two years ago, Romina Tina Fontana and Jenny Dames partnered to bring their creative vision to life. With their combined design and marketing expertise, they’re a match made in heaven. The dynamic duo spoke to Goss about their future, upcoming trends in the market, and what has fuelled their collaborative endeavours.
Have you noticed a difference in your style since you’ve merged?
RTF: In the spirit of partnership, I don’t think our styles have changed. We have complementary aesthetics, and we have complementary skill sets. Jenny is more of a minimalist and modernist, and I’m more of a maximalist and traditionalist. So, instead of trying to merge and change, or pick one singular style, we’re able to focus entirely on our clients’ needs and help them make the right decisions for their spaces and lifestyles.
JD: This allows us to advise our clients most thoroughly and objectively. Much of my experience has focused on renovating and building homes, in addition to the decorating and styling. Romina has a strong background in business development for various brands and agencies, as well as decorating and organizing. As a result, we can offer our clients full-service solutions. It’s nice that Romina and I have such different backgrounds because we can come together and offer a very well-rounded experience. I love that about our firm.
Tell me about your background in the industry of design.
JD: I have about 15 years of experience in the sector, 10 of which were with two very different design firms. One was quite traditional and focused on antiques, so I have a real appreciation for that style and approach. The second offered very high-end modern interiors. Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle.
RTF: Interestingly, we have really diverse backgrounds. Jenny is formally trained, with an Interior Design degree from Ryerson University, and has a lot of experience with architectural renovations and restorations. She’s a very skilled technical designer — and a very modest one!
My degrees were in International Development, which somehow landed me in a first career in advertising and brand design. After almost 15 years in that sector in Toronto, I decided to combine my two passions in life — interior design and helping others — and transformed them into my own design business. Jenny and I met about two years later and opened our studio in Toronto.
How would you like current and potential clients to describe your business and brand? What might be three words that you would want them to use?
JD: Timeless. We always want our interiors to be timeless. Nothing overly trendy. And we want to create environments that inspire. We also always source high-quality items. So perhaps the three adjectives I would hope for might be: timeless, high-quality and inspiring.
What are some of the projects that you are currently working on and what are some challenges that you have surmounted in the last six months during the pandemic?
RTF: Shortly after we launched our business a year ago, the pandemic hit. During the initial lockdown, we remained committed to our preexisting expansion plans and we opened our second Fontana & Dames studio in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where my family is. We’re located in Knowlton on Brome Lake. The village is so charming, and we’ve partnered with very skilled and supportive tradespeople. We’ve already completed some amazing projects for new clients in this area including a family lake house in Magog, a modern year-round chalet in Sutton, and a classic country retreat in Knowlton.
Have you noticed that the types of designs you’re making now are very different?
JD: There are many more home office projects! So many of us are working from home, as you know — more than ever before. I think clients are at home, and they’re just tired of looking at the same four walls. Some have told us, “We don’t know how to handle it.” Or, “We need a new kitchen soon – ours is falling apart.” It’s not necessarily a different problem than usual … It’s just that people are becoming really familiar with the things that aren’t working in their homes. To assist them in wrapping their heads around a redesign or renovation, we’ve developed a thorough Project Process that we share with our clients before we start. It’s a clear, supportive guide detailing how a project will unfold, and how we can support them through a large renovation (for many, it’s their first one). Homeowners can have a lot of fear around that — and it can be quite emotional, too. It’s often a big financial commitment. So in that way, our business is not just about design; it’s also about support and communication.
What is your favourite aspect of the interior design process?
JD: Currently, most of our work is residential. We do commercial as well, but I find that for residential, the process is extremely personal. We’re in clients’ homes and speaking with them about how they want to live in that environment. I find that building that trust with our clients is a very rewarding experience. So often these connections result in lifelong relationships.
We also pride ourselves on making the design experience really enjoyable for our clients by offering world-class customer service and careful guidance through what can amount to important life decisions. We help them invest their renovation budget wisely, and maximize the return on their investment. For example, we’re always careful to select furniture and finishes based on their family and lifestyle.
When all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and the project is beautiful and functional, and the deep sense of trust is there — well, there’s something magical about that for sure.
RTF: Further to Jenny’s point, we recently received a note from a client that I can share with you. We were very touched.
“I appreciate how collaborative, constructive, nimble, and calm you are as we bob and weave through these initial phases of the project. It’s a delicate dance.”
JD: Romina and I are very different. Not in a competitive way — but we each have a unique approach to how we build our relationships with clients. I can’t totally articulate it, except to say that it’s really great to be partners and be able to offer two different types of services. Romina is a great fit with some of our clients, and I’m a great fit with others. We’re in this together, and we couldn’t do it without each other! We say that every day.
RTF: When we first started the business, I read an article that said the role of an interior designer is part plumber and part psychologist. I’ve found that there’s also a lot of fun to be had with clients and their kids. We did a very beautiful family holiday home reveal before Christmas, with the fire on and the tree lit. The parents were teary, and the kids were dancing. It was a very special moment for everyone.
JD: Yes, that relationship can be very rewarding. At the end of the day, it is, of course, a professional relationship, but we really do build long-lasting connections. We care about our clients deeply. We always want to deliver the results they’re looking for and manage their expectations carefully. That reveal just before Christmas was amazing. All the time and effort really paid off, and we were part of making that magic happen. We worked hard to ensure that it was a very rewarding experience.
How do you see your brand developing? It’s been a year, you know how much you complement each other. How do you envision the next 10 years? What would be a goal?
RTF: In terms of the relationship between the brand and the business, we’d like to grow at a slow and steady pace. Sooner rather than later, we will need to hire some additional support and junior designers. For now, we have a skilled team of senior experts and consultants that we use on an as-needed basis. I think a small support team in each studio will be great. We’re ready to take on more commercial work, and we’re ready to take on international work. We’d love to help clients in their holiday homes in warmer climates. We’re ready.
Do you find that your respective professional backgrounds create a certain confidence?
RTF: Absolutely. What Jenny said earlier about our complementary skill sets is true. We have intimate levels of trust in each other and that resonates with our clients. I’m very confident that we can handle any project we’ll be lucky enough to work on — large or small — largely thanks to Jenny’s wealth of design experience. As the business and brand evolve, my experience working in marketing and business development for other brands, businesses and graphic design studios will mean we have the confidence to navigate that growth. We’re optimistic as well as well-positioned for growth and success.
JD: Much of my experience includes multimillion-dollar home renovations in Toronto and the GTA. It takes time to build that special relationship with those clients. Projects of this size can range from building a new dream home, to transforming a current home into a forever home, to designing or renovating a second or third holiday home.
We understand how much time it takes to make a decision like this, and the level of design that’s required to execute this type of project effectively. We already know how to guide clients through this complex process. Naturally, every home is unique, but we already possess the confidence and the experience to manage projects like this. Now, with an amazing team of trades in each province, we’re well positioned to take on any type of project.
What inspires you?
JD: I’m excited for Toronto to open after lockdown — to be back in the studio and visit the showrooms. I’m also looking forward to travelling, to discovering new ideas and inspiration in other cities. Museums, art shows, and galleries. Getting out of the country and seeing what’s happening in the world of design. There is so much inspiration to be found!
RTF: History. I love researching the history of a new home or an area. For example, right now I’m learning more about Knowlton, naturally, and about the Swiss Alps, where we’re planning an interior design refresh for a friend’s chalet near Verbier. Travel and history fuel both of us.
Tell me a little about the leap of faith that you both took. What led you to close your own practices and start this partnership?
JD: I was unhappy. I worked for 10 years at various design firms, and then at the 10-year mark, I left the firm I was working with to start my own practice. I didn’t have a direction. As I mentioned before, I’m not as business-savvy as Romina, and I’d never tackled setting up a website or a new Instagram feed. I was hesitant about it all. I wanted to focus on design and fostering relationships with clients — but, of course, you also need to have the proper systems in place. I just wasn’t in the right headspace to do that. Around that time, a mutual friend introduced us, and I was very honest with Romina about what I just described. I was honest with her, and that was kind of it.
RTF: At the time we met, I was quite happy building my business, and it was going very well. I was outsourcing some technical drawings, but I knew I would come to a point where I needed to go back to school, which you can’t do when you’re running a business, or find a partner who would be able to lead large-scale renovation projects. Entrepreneurship can be quite lonely. It’s much more fun now that we are two. I’m very confident that we can handle any type of project — any size, any location.
Everyone has been supportive, especially our amazing clients and our very talented builders and trades. At the very most, in the fullness of time, we may refresh the logo, but, other than that, it’s all systems go. Someone once described it to me as “organizational Pilates.” Which sounds a bit flaky, but it’s the core strength, making sure you have all your ducks in a row. I learned so much working at Taxi, an ad agency, many years ago. We had a very detailed company process or procedure for just about everything. Even the light switch and bathroom signage was designed according to our company brand guidelines. And that’s the type of organizational planning we’ve developed for Fontana & Dames.
JD: We were both at a point where we needed each other. The stars just aligned for us! I was looking for more structure and stability with business development, and someone to work with. Romina was looking for someone with more technical experience to grow the business’s design capabilities. We complement each other so perfectly. It’s quite something. We often joke to each other, “Thank goodness you know how to do that!” It was the right time to meet and enter each other’s lives, and that was kind of it.
RTF: The rest, as they say, is history.
The beauty of true partnership is embodied by the women at Fontana & Dames Inc. We are honoured to share their story with our readers and hope it will inspire you to take a leap of faith in all your endeavours.
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