Clients stuck inside looked for ways to spruce up interiors, designer says

Clients are able to meet with designers Diane Torrisi and Candice Kelber their design studio on Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs, photographed on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.  (Photo: Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News/USA TODAY – FLORIDA NETWORK)

Diane Torrisi opened an interior design studio in downtown Bonita Springs in February 2020, marking a new milestone in her life.

The country’s economy came to a screeching halt two months later — a nightmare scenario for an independent business owner like Torrisi.

“When everything started closing, I was freaking out,” Torrisi said. “Nobody knew what was happening.”

COVID-19 swept across the country, causing immediate quarantine and closures in late March. Torrisi spent a couple of hours every day at her shop on Old 41 Road to get out of the house.

“The studio saved my sanity,” she said. “It let me plan for the future.”

The pandemic forced many Bonita Springs businesses to close their doors, especially restaurants, but the Old 41 Road area came out intact, said Trish Leonard, president of the Bonita Springs Downtown Alliance.

“Businesses reinvented themselves to accommodate their needs,” Leonard said. “They became creative instead of caving in.”

It became clear to Torrisi that the pandemic wouldn’t pass quickly. Calls trickled in to her business, and she had new clients as April turned to May.

“People were siting inside all the time and looking at their home,” she said. “They wanted a change.”

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Some people grew bored in their homes and turned to Torrisi for a change. Business boomed in the interior design world. What could have been another lazy summer turned into nonstop business, Torrisi said.

Part-time residents were calling Torrisi from their northern homes asking for renovations before their winter stint in Southwest Florida. Thoughts over social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 faded to the background as clients brought Torrisi into their homes.

“I was surprised how many people let us in,” she said. “A few people asked us to wear masks.”

Other downtown businesses saw a similar customer boom, Leonard said. A bicycle sales and repair shop and an Imperial River kayak rental shop were always in business. 

Diane Torrisi Designs celebrated a successful first anniversary in February with local city leaders.

Candice Kelber opened her business in the same downtown office. The two own separate companies but share resources and support each other. They two are busy enough and aren’t competing for clients.

Kelber worked in a studio in Naples before opening her self-named interior design business last month. She shared Torrisi’s worries of the impact of a total COVID shutdown but also saw business boom instead.

The biggest hiccup the studios face isn’t lack of business but lack of products, Kelber said.

She pointed to a window blind display as an example. Some companies laid off workers at the beginning of the pandemic before the interior design market boomed during the summer. Now, those manufacturers can’t keep up with demand.

Some condominium associations are also limiting the times when designers and contractors can work in the buildings, creating further setbacks.

But the two interior designers said they are already looking ahead to when vaccines are distributed and people feel comfortable to go out and about.

“We have big plans for the future,” Torrisi said.

Torrisi said she wanted to host a hands-on seminar to get people introduced to interior designing. She said some people can be intimidated by the redecorating process, but there’s an open-door policy at her downtown studio.

After a unique first year featuring the first worldwide pandemic in generations, Torrisi came out on top with a strong customer base and a busy schedule of renovations ahead.

“We had a better summer than I planned,” she said. “We’re doing great.”

Thaddeus Mast is a south Lee County reporter for the Naples Daily News and The Banner. Support his work by subscribing to our local news organization. Find him on Twitter as @thaddeusmast.

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