Fancy a career change?
Two local mums are both now living their dream, running interior design studios and transforming rooms for their clients.
Michelle Henry (51), from Bangor, and Bernadine Mallon (41), who lives in Ardboe, decided during lockdown to pursue their love of interiors by going back to school and studying for professional qualifications.
South Eastern Regional College (SERC) is the only college in Northern Ireland offering interior design qualifications in a year-long course with one day a week classroom study and the rest at home.
A big part of the course is project-based learning, where the girls got the opportunity to work on live briefs for residential jobs.
Michelle, who is married to NHS worker Johnny and is mum to Finley (19), was midway through the course when she lost her job as head of homewares for a company that folded in January because of Covid.
What initially appeared to be a disaster soon became a blessing as she went on to open her own interior design studio, landing her dream job in her 50s.
“I have always had a great love for interiors and family and friends always said I should go into interior design,” she says.
“I studied art and art history along with economics at A-level and then did a business degree at Ulster University.
“I then went to work in retail management for a leading jewellery company and online retailer.
“When Covid came I had just got a promotion to head of homewares and gifts in a local shop and that really ignited my passion for interiors, so initially I decided to do the course thinking it would benefit me in my new role.
“I had been working at home from the first lockdown and it was nerve-wrecking going back into education at my age but the minute I walked into the first class, I knew I had made the right decision.
“I was surrounded by like-minded people, and we all bonded really quickly. Our tutor, Sharon, was brilliant, and brought a lot of positive energy and fun into the class. I went home buzzing with excitement every week.
“I was halfway through the course when my employer folded from the impact of the pandemic.
“I couldn’t face applying for jobs and going for interviews, so I established Skollop Design in June, a week after I finished the course.
“Starting my own business was a bit overwhelming at the start, but I loved it so I didn’t mind putting in the hours. I’ve worked in business for a long time, so I knew what to expect.”
Michelle spends three days a week in her Skollop Design studio, based in Shivers Bathrooms & Interiors in Toomebridge, and the other two visiting clients and sourcing products.
Although just five months old, her business has taken off with both commercial and domestic projects.
As interiors have trended on social media during the last 18 months when many of us were forced to spend 24 hours a day at home during lockdown, it is here where Michelle is now showcasing her work.
“The interiors industry has changed so much, and a lot of my work comes through social media, so posting content and marketing myself is a very important part of the job,” she explains.
“The past 18 months have been challenging to say the least, what with Covid-19 and Brexit, sourcing certain items has become slightly more difficult and sometimes more expensive.
“I feel very lucky to be busy and doing something I love.
“At any one time I would be working with several clients, creating visual digital mood boards, preparing sample, sourcing and ordering all the furniture and accessories. It’s so exciting to be doing something I loved and never dreamt I would do.”
Michelle reveals the course gave her the knowledge she needed to turn her hobby into a career.
And it’s not all about the placement of pretty cushions, as Michelle rolls up her sleeves to ensure every project is perfect when she hands it over.
“A home visit with a potential client is always exciting,” she says. “I do get to see some wonderful homes which is a brilliant part of the job.
“But for me, the best bit is completion day when you are handing over to your client. I will have been cleaning windows and wiping down surfaces right up to the last minute, making sure everything is sitting perfect for them. The sense of satisfaction on completion is fantastic.”
Bernadine Mallon from Ardboe has had to twice rethink her career and is thrilled to be finally doing something she loves.
Travelling to Belfast after becoming a mum proved too difficult and led to her giving up her early career in human resources in the health service.
She started to work for her husband’s family business, GMT Furniture, a successful local business which manufactures and supplies high quality furniture to hotels restaurants, bars, clubs, leisure facilities as well as education and health care providers.
Working for her husband Thomas ignited a love of interiors as she explains: “When I started working for GMT Furniture, my passion for design and interiors took over.
“At the time, my husband and I were building our own home and that helped me flourish as I planned and added character to our new home to suit the needs of our family.
“I completed an online course but was keen to develop my skills and knowledge and that’s when I discovered the course at SERC.
“I wanted a professional qualification, and it was the only one I could find in Northern Ireland, I enrolled and haven’t looked back since.
“The course has helped me develop my role at GMT Furniture. I was doing more and more floor plans, but we needed to grow, so picking up the skills to use specialist programmes such as Sketchup has been a real bonus.
“Even before I finished the course, I knew I wanted to develop the interior design side of the business, so I set up Bernadine Mallon Interior Design and have a studio based in GMT Furniture.
“I work on both commercial and residential interiors, so no two days are the same. One day I could be working onsite planning layouts for a coffee shop or restaurant and the next day working on a master bedroom or living room for a residential client.”
Bernadine managed to study while also juggling home schooling with her children Ultan (15), Darcy (13), Ollie (10) and Allie-Mai (7).
While it was hard work, she is now living her dream, albeit with a little apprehension.
“It is nerve-wrecking, especially if you are dealing with a client who is afraid of colour,” she admits. “I honestly don’t feel I can really call myself an interior designer until I have a good bit of experience under my belt.
“But I do love giving clients my vision for their homes. Some clients come to me and perhaps only want kitchen breakfast stools but leave with a full scheme put together — for curtains, wall coverings and paint.
“When you show them the potential to update a room or change the function or use of an area in their home, you can see how amazed they are. I absolutely love being in the position where I can give clients what they never knew they wanted.”
Of course, being based in her husband’s furniture business has had its advantages as she has easy access to a host of master craftsmen.
Bernadine is currently designing a new showroom for her business.
“The past 18 months has been challenging and as with any new business there are problems and stresses, but I just try to work through them one by one,” she adds.
“Covid-19 and Brexit have presented additional issues around sourcing certain items which has become slightly more difficult and often more expensive.
“The flip side of all the upheaval is that many of us have come to put more personal value on our homes, even particular rooms or spaces have become a source of sanctuary where we can close off what is going on outside.
“That’s where I am able to provide expert advice, guidance and inspiration to make my client’s vision their reality.”
- Visit www.serc.ac.uk to find out how you could change your career