Many people don’t end up in the careers they wanted as children — let’s face it, there’s not a huge field for astronauts, princesses and dinosaur tamers. But for Leah Atkins, she’s passionately pursued her interest in interior design since she was a young kid. After graduating Carson-Newman University with a degree in interior design, she got more and more projects in the professional world and attracted more and more clients. Eventually she started Leah Atkins Design, and the rest is stylish history! We sat down with Leah to discuss her thought process, how she combines her aesthetics with her clients and who her design heroes are in today’s Interior Designer Crush series.

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Leah Atkins is an enthusiastic designer who knows how to blend her vision with that of her clients. Image: Glorianna Tjiong

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Leah transformed this space from a dull home office into a playful nursery/playroom by adding built-ins and painting stripes on the angled walls. The clients requested an Americana theme — it was created by adding an American flag rug and red, white and blue accents. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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The use of bright green and light blue creates a fresh and modern living space. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

What is your signature design element?

I love mixing unexpected design elements. So many people say they want all gray, white and black and absolutely no beiges or browns — what people don’t realize is that by using these unexpected combinations, it gives your home a deeper and richer palette. It adds more interest, thus making the design truly something special. Same goes for mixing antiques with modern pieces or traditional furniture with modern art.

How does Atlanta design stand apart from other cities?

I love being in the Atlanta design scene for so many reasons! We have an endless source of local resources including ADAC, the phenomenal antique stores on Miami Circle and all of the amazingly talented local artists just to name a few.

It is such a big city that the styles range widely, which means I never get bored! We have clients who want a French country estate, and we have clients who are seeking a contemporary city apartment. One of my favorite things about being a designer is being able to express my creativity by designing in different styles.

What has been your most challenging project to date?

The most challenging projects tend to be the ones where the clients’ hearts are bigger than their budgets. Our best projects bring the client’s dream home to life, so when we are held back only by the budget, it can be frustrating for both us and the client. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. When you design a home all at once, the cost adds up quickly! We try to be very transparent about that from the beginning to prevent working with a client who has unrealistic expectations.

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Leah built this room around the area rug that was passed down from the client’s mother. A palette of neutrals and calming light blues keep the room simple and elegant, while the rug remains the focal point. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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Leah turned this new home into a modern, yet warm and cozy, space by incorporating bright reds and blues to accent the homeowner’s funky artwork. Image: Adam Pendleton

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Leah turned this bathroom into a bold statement by painting the trim black. A collage wall and oriental rug add an eclectic touch. Image: Home Tour America

Where do you get your inspiration?

The cliché thing to say here would be “from my travels,” but it is so true! My two favorite places in the world (at least that I’ve visited so far) are Greece and India. The cool, calming blue and white color palette of Greece and the vibrant colors of India have definitely played a role in my designs.

I also draw inspiration from artwork. A fabulous piece of art really brings a room together. I will often start a design by searching for the perfect piece of art and building from there.

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What’s something about the design world that they don’t teach you in college?

There are so many things they don’t teach you in college … I don’t know where to begin! The thing that stands out the most is the business side of it all. Finance is a huge part of running an interior design business. College prepares you for the technical side of design — the rendering and software programs. It can’t prepare you for working with clients and their style, not your own.

Share one design secret with us regular folk.

Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. I have suggested black (whether it’s painting trim, using it on a sofa, or painting a wall) to so many clients. Every single time, they question the choice. But every single time, they fall in love with the final product.

Push yourself to see the bigger picture. You may think you hate one piece, but it may be the last piece of the puzzle to creating your dream home. If you stay in your comfort zone all the time, you won’t know what you’re missing!

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Leah surrounded this beautiful antique piece with art from the clients’ travels to create a focal point and conversation piece in the room. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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The oversized graffiti art sets the tone for this bold space. The velvet draperies add a touch of elegance, while the orange ottomans keep it fun and casual. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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Leah chose a traditional poster bed mixed with more contemporary sconces and lamps to give this master bedroom an elegant and tranquil aesthetic. Image: Adam Pendleton

Who are some of your design heroes/mentors/role models?

While going through old boxes at my mom’s house a while back, I found a piece of paper that said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had written “interior designer” — I was in second grade at the time. I don’t know where I had even gotten the idea, but I loved redecorating my room while growing up. My mom always encouraged this in me. Even though we have very different styles and my mom isn’t a designer by trade, she is my design hero! She instilled a love for design in me at a very young age and for that, I am grateful.

What’s the biggest mistake homeowners make in the design process?

Decorating their home piecemeal. It is always best to have a plan from the beginning. If you put together an overall vision before purchasing anything, it will help you to only buy pieces that fit within the plan.

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A simple, clean look was achieved in this dining room by working with warm neutrals. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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Leah created a casual farmhouse aesthetic in this space by using a rustic wood dining table and a palette of neutrals and denim blue. The final touch and a pop of color was added by framing the clients’ German plates — a wedding gift from years ago. Image: Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

Do you ever have designer’s block? What is your go-to way to get the creative juice flowing again?

All the time! I love going to the High Museum of Art for inspiration. When I don’t have the time to get out, I browse artists on Instagram. Original artwork never fails to inspire me! I also love design magazines — Elle Decor is my favorite, so it is also a great source of inspiration.

Thank you to Leah Atkins for sharing insight about her creative process and her gorgeous work!

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