Finding Career Satisfaction in Interior Design

Success was never a problem for Kelly Finley, but it took a career swerve to add style to that legacy of advancement

Working 80-hour-weeks as a corporate lawyer drove Kelly Finley to look for something else.

That this something turned out to be a drafting course with us, and, ultimately, a career in interior design surprised her friends and family—and perhaps Kelly most of all.

Beginning in Business

Kelly Finley, founder and principal designer of Joy Street Design

Design had never been in Kelly’s sights. Her twin brother liked art, but she had always found it kind of a bore. Math and science were her go-to subjects: “I was kind of a geek,” she says.

Ultimately, she got a business degree from Emory University and a law degree from Stanford University. She started as a judicial law clerk for a U.S. District Court before entering the corporate legal world. Most people would call that a fine life and leave it at that. But that same drive that got her to a prestigious legal career also led her to a chance encounter with design.

A Small Step Into Design

She came across a listing in one of our catalogs that piqued her curiosity: a drafting class that took up a small space in her imagination. So while working as a lawyer at Covington & Burling, Kelly took that drafting class.

Then, while still working, she took another. It gave her active brain a diversion from a career that was starting to pall.

And then she took another. And another. Before she knew it, she had almost completed the entire Certificate Program in Interior Design and Interior Architecture.

“I like problem-solving, and that course let me figure out how to make the most of spaces.”

“In hindsight,” she admits, “I probably should have taken a semester or two off. Sometimes work and school demands were too much. I didn’t connect with some of the courses, but I persevered,” she says of her academic journey.

Kelly pinpoints the analytical parts of design that first grabbed her real attention. “I loved the Space Planning course. I like problem-solving, and that course let me figure out how to make the most of spaces.”

At this point, more chances arrived. Her husband had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles, and Kelly decided not only to embrace the move, but to shed her career in the process. Not entirely, though! Kelly was the same cautious, analytical, driven person she had always been, so she interned and worked part time in interior design, while also doing part-time legal work.

Starting a New Venture

Nursery by Joy Street Design

It was the couple’s move back to Oakland that marked the dividing line for Kelly. She thought, “I need to really commit to interior design before I can tell if it’s for me or not.” So she took a deep breath and started her own company, Joy Street Design, where she is chief executive officer and lead designer.

It started slowly, like most businesses. She leaned into her existing network of friends. “It took four years until I got a client who wasn’t part of my friend group or someone they knew.”

In those early years, though, Kelly was learning and growing at an incredible pace, both as a business owner and designer. “Frankly, the analytical parts of the job are still what drive me,” she shares. “I love fabrics and furniture, but I want to make sure that the furnishings and fixtures that I choose work for my clients and their lifestyles.”

She attributes her success to her attention to detail, not only in creating beautiful spaces, but providing them on a schedule and within budget. “Project management is an important part of the process. My clients know that I will take care of them and their interests, as well as their designs.”

Success and Stability

With a long roster of clients who now come to Joy Street Design for its reputation and its history of designs, Kelly is still thinking bigger. She is incorporating more community work into her and her firm's efforts.

The idea started from a near catastrophe: She and other volunteers were painting a room for some community members in need. While their intentions were good, Kelly noticed that the craftsmanship was poor. At that moment, Kelly wanted to provide the same excellent design and build services to all of her clients, pro bono or paid. In fact, at that moment she arranged for one of her employees to come back and redo the painting job that had so dissatisfied her.

Elizabeth Street interior by Joy Street Design

Commitment to Community

Kelly thus started the Joy Street Initiative (JSI), dedicated to “creating spaces that support healing and growth.” She decided that the clients she worked for in this volunteer effort would get a professional level of design service.

One of the recent projects that JSI has been working on has struck a deep chord with Kelly. She and her team have been redoing rooms at Elizabeth House in Oakland, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services for pregnant women and their children experiencing homelessness. The JSI-designed rooms look simple, neat, clean and professionally designed.

The new residents come to these spaces having experienced trauma and poverty. The simple beauty of these rooms help the in-need women realize that they are finally in a space where they can relax. Kelly shares that this comfort level helps them settle into the counseling and services they get at Elizabeth House.

Joy Street Design contributes at least 10 percent of its profits to JSI projects, along with the services of Kelly and her talented team.

Moving Forward

The sky’s the limit for Kelly and her crew at Joy Street Design. They’ve been featured on HGTV, profiled in both the local and national news media, and are now firmly ensconced as a go-to East Bay firm. That success is all due to the business savvy and design acumen of Kelly, and the hard work that she and her team put in every day. We are pleased to have played a small role in setting Kelly on her interior design path.

Thinking of taking charge of your own career change? Visit the Certificate Program in Interior Design and Interior Architecture and start with a class.