Leslie Cetingok (pronounced Chet-in-guk) has always had a passion for art, design and all things beautiful. Her early career in higher education administration and fundraising was a natural extension of her formal schooling in business and education but it was her time in art school as an adult that led her to a more creative career. “For years I have yearned to find a career at the intersection of art and business and I finally found it in the design industry,” says Leslie. Those years of painting, welding and sculpting formed the basis of her full-service interior design firm, DesignArt, where she blends her art expertise and her design aesthetic with the vision of her clients. “My personal focus now is the big picture; the vision for each project, communication with clients, project management and business development,” she says. “I think my clients would tell you I have an ability to walk into a space and immediately see what needs to be done. We call it ‘laser vision,’ the ability to look through existing walls, paint and furniture, and to start with a blank slate in your mind to create the optimal design.” Meet our newest Interior Designer Crush, Leslie Cetingok!
Tell us about your early career, and when did you decide to open your own firm?
I spent most of my early career in higher education administration and fundraising but while living in New York near the Chelsea art district, I was intrigued and inspired by the arts and longed to find my way into a creative career. When I moved to the South, I started painting again. Several of my close, personal friends — after seeing my own collection — commissioned works for their homes and offices and from there they began asking design questions regarding color, texture and editing in their homes. The conversations inevitably turned to the specifics of fabrics, furniture and lighting and then after a few referrals the whole thing just snowballed into a full-blown consulting business.
I built on my formal training in art by taking several courses in interior design and I learned how to use technology for space planning by taking specific classes and hiring personal tutors. The building of my own home also served as a catalyst for developing a deeper understanding of the business of design and the importance of the right partners. In the last three years, I have hired or collaborated with several talented individuals who have helped me broaden my offerings, tremendously. It is important to realize you cannot do everything yourself — always pursue growth but know your limitations and rely on the very best in the business to fill the gaps. I work with a small but nimble team — including a design assistant, an architectural draftsman and multiple consultants, as needed. We are truly full service! We have never been busier and I have never been happier.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I have traveled extensively, and my husband Alper and I also have a home in Turkey. Other cultures and the mixing and melding of societies are a huge source of inspiration for me. Because of all of the different elements of life that have to coexist to make those intercultural relationships work, it is often a fine balance to keep peace and harmony in a society. I think there is a metaphor there for the process of creating a beautiful and coherent design. It is the mixing and melding of patterns, shapes, textures and, often times, a great deal of restraint that is the artistry of design.
Who have been your industry role models and mentors, and why?
I have a deep appreciation and respect for Laura Kirar. I think she is truly an artist at heart and I relate to that. Laura has a degree in sculpture and her passion for artistic exploration inspires her work. Her world travels are also powerful influences on her design. I feel a connection to her story and am moved by her work. I also admire the way Kelly Wearstler is just BOLD. I love the attitude that she brings to her designs. And more recently, I have fallen in love with Nashville-based designer Benjamin Vandiver’s minimalist aesthetic, not to mention I love to see Tennessee designers making it on the national and global design stage.
What influences you and how does that get translated in design?
I am most influenced by the personality of the client I am working with. I let their disposition and approach to life lead me in the development of their environments.
What has been your most challenging project to date and why?
I once worked with a very close friend on a set of unusual dining chairs. We searched high and low and could not find the correct fabrics for the project within the client’s budget … so we made our own. We found faux fur hides and consulted a local upholsterer and friend about the viability of using said hides as upholstery material. After much research, we decided to go for it. We had them sewn together and used them as the fabric for her dining room chairs. They are a great conversation piece for dinner guests and incredibly comfortable. They were also a very good price, so if she needs to recover them in a few years we will not cry about it. I think it is important not to be too terribly attached to any item in your house. Everything in life is dynamic — and the home is just another example of an ever-changing creature.
What is your design aesthetic and how do you translate that to a client/homeowner?
I love to bring a bit of luxe into my clients’ lives. Regardless of budget, I feel like everyone should have a little glamour if they so desire. I am also a minimalist at heart. I don’t like a lot of things around, just a few truly beautiful and unique things will do just fine, thank you … I like to help my clients find at least one statement piece for their project, be it art, sculpture or curtains. However I recognize that it is a lot easier to design in a minimalist way with people who are just starting out, whereas with people who have been collecting for a long time, there is often a great deal of time that goes into editing.
Art is something that plays a very important role in your design and is a focus of your firm. Why?
Art as a part of a design inspires a feeling and, at times, a conversation that truly makes an environment enjoyable or interesting. However, I feel like art is something that holds greater value and meaning than any piece of furniture you can buy. I like to help my clients understand and appreciate what art can do for their lives and the lives of others. I think if people can begin to love and appreciate art in their own environments they may find themselves inspired to seek it out in their community, as well. Then perhaps they begin to understand the impact art can have on a society. The more art we have in a city, the more young, vibrant, artistic neighborhoods we can cultivate, resulting in many positives for the cultural health of the community. Our recruitment and retention potential as a city is drastically improved by a thriving arts scene, and making art a part of the design conversation, whenever possible, is a small way of encouraging that understanding in people.
How do you help your clients incorporate their existing art into the design of their home?
I like to show them that art is attainable; that if we use local and online resources to secure their first pieces, that art can be accessed within their budget. Sometimes, it as easy as taking a piece out on approval to show them how a space can be transformed. Other times, I literally need to create something original to pull it all together. Art is also often the final piece that takes a space from okay to magnificent.
Do you help your clients commission pieces to go along with the design you create for them?
Yes. Many times, my clients will ask me if I can create a piece to finish off the design of the space. I have done six pieces for one client and personal friend. We joke that she has the Cetingok Gallery hanging in her home, ranging from metal art to mixed media on canvas.
Currently, I am managing a high number of projects, which makes my time to paint much more limited. I rely much more heavily on local and regional artists to fulfill the needs of my clients at this time. I still do commissioned works but only in very special situations.
Do you turn to local or regional artists for commissions?
I love to work with local and regional artists and artisans to fulfill the creative vision of my projects. It actually goes beyond the traditional definition of art to upholsterers, metallurgy, faux finishing, cast concrete, etc. I feel all of these artists and artisans are what allow me to deliver a creative and unique DesignArt product.
Will you share one design secret or your best design advice with us?
To design and décor enthusiasts: Embrace negative space! Less is more. Also, flowers and greenery go such a long way to making a space approachable. It is one of the least expensive ways to add some life to an otherwise sparse room. Look for inexpensive containers and drop in a simple orchid. Branches are also your friend! It is amazing how beautiful branches can be in just about any ol’ container.
To designers and decorators: If you know a project is not a good fit for you, don’t take it on. Have the discipline to say, “Thank you, but no thank you,” when needed. Take on the ones that are right for you, and give it all your heart and soul! It will pay off.