In many ways, preeminent NJ design group CWI.DESIGN is a family business—passed down from mother to daughter, run by wife and husband. But Rachel Kapner’s path to becoming its president and principal designer took some unexpected turns along the way. And it required loved ones to trust her ability to get the job done.

Changing Course from Fashion to Interior Design

“I didn’t think that this is where I would be,” Rachel admits. In fact, she originally took aim at a different part of the design world. “I wanted to be in fashion,” she remembers. “When I was in high school, I went in and took the test at FIT, and I was accepted under the textiles program.” However, Rachel was not ready to dedicate her life to it. “I decided I didn’t want to go there; I was going on my own path. Instead, I decided to study art, art history, applied arts and things like that.”

Meanwhile, Rachel’s mother Dorothy was running the wallcovering and design business she had founded years earlier with some partners. But eventually those partners were ready to move on. “At that point, I was running clothing stores, so she asked me if I would come and see if I liked working at CWI.Design,” Rachel recalls. “I said, ‘Okay,’ and then, on my last day of work running the clothing stores, I panicked. I was like: ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?'”

The Design Business Takes Teamwork

In the beginning, there were wallcoverings. “My mom had started the business about 50 years ago, and it was really wallcovering, cut yardage, window treatments,” Rachel remembers. But it had been growing, and now there was nobody to oversee it but Rachel and Dorothy “When I came on board, all her partners were gone, so it was just she and I. I was vice president; she was president. And I learned the business—apprenticed for years—and then started taking on more roles and new ways to grow the business.

However, when Dorothy retired, Rachel found herself in a similar quandary to the one her mother had been in. “I was alone for about a year, and it was so busy that I just couldn’t handle it, and I wanted to sell it.” But Rachel’s husband Gary was ready to take a risk to help keep the business in their lives. “Gary said, ‘I’ll quit my job, and I’ll come help you.” That was 20 years ago.

“When Gary came on board, we changed and updated, brought in new computers and phone systems, changed the technology in the business,” Rachel recalls. “That really helped with bringing us forward.” And with the business end running smoothly, Rachel was able to focus on growth. “That helped, from managerial point of view: being able to come up with a plan that helped me have multiple clients at one time and put people in the queue and have assistants that help with project managing and things l that I’d been doing on my own,” She adds: “Ever since then, we have morphed, and the business has grown so much.” Nowadays, CWI.Design is way more than wallcoverings. “I do full construction—small projects, large projects,” says Rachel. “I consult on everything.”

The Value of Education vs. Experience

After finding so much of her success learning on the job, does she value experience over education? “Over the years, I’ve had interns from colleges where interior design was their major,” says Rachel. She often noticed that — even among those who had plenty to offer on the creative side—their education had not prepared them for many technical aspects of the job. It makes Rachel grateful for the education she got through doing. “I really learned from being hands-on, being in the field, working with the textiles, working with the colors,” she says. She suspects that some parts of the creative process can’t really be taught. “I definitely am a strong believer in hands-on field experience as better training,” she says. “For some reason, in this profession, it almost has to be somewhat innate.”

Rachel also values the contributions of those who bring to the table training and experience that complements her own. “When I get involved in construction, I tell clients, ‘I can’t draw plans,'” she admits. “I could say, ‘I see this opening up; I want to take the walls down. But the architect might be like, ‘No, we can’t do that.” It may be her job to have the vision and see it through to execution, but she knows the value of having a strong team.

Looking Back and Ahead with Rachel

What’s still on Rachel’s to-do list today? Taking her show on the road. “I’ve worked in all states and all over the country,” she says. But she pictures working on a far-afield project so ambitious, she’d simply have to be there. “I’m interested in working on a project that would take me out of state for a longer period of time, that needs me to focus on something on site, hands-on, every day: almost a destination project.”

Growing up, could Rachel have imagined coming this far with CWI.Design? “I really can only say that I apprenticed with my mom, took it on after she left, and just expanded it,” Sometimes it seems that the years have gone by in a blur. “You look back and really don’t know how it happened,” she says. However, she still remembers feeling a sense that she was on the right path. “The first day after I started,” she remembers, “it just fit, and everything kind of blossomed.”

And does interior design fulfill the part of Rachel that originally wanted to work in fashion? “Yes,” she says, noting that the two recently collided in her life again when she redesigned her own closet. It reminded her: “Trimmings or bangles—it’s sort of the same thing.”

Get more advice on taking your design to the next level on our blog, and follow Rachel’s work on CWI.Design social media via the links below.