Architectural expertise meets high-end closet design

Photo By Laurie Haefele, Haefele Design

Laurie Haefele, owner of the award-winning Haefele Design in Santa Monica, California, is a well-known designer who has been featured in numerous publications and on TV.  She also has spoken at numerous conferences and will be a keynote speaker at Closets Conference & Expo. 

Haefele creates upscale kitchens, boutique closet and wardrobe and luxury bath designs but she got her start in the industry as an architect.

“I actually went to architecture school, and I have an undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute in architecture.” She worked for architectural firms including Gwathmey Siegel and William Nicholas Bodouva – “some pretty big New York firms,” she says, before moving to California.

While working for a design-build firm in La Jolla, Haefele earned her masters at UCLA for architecture history in theory.

The pivot in her career path happened when the design-build firm she was working at decided to open a kitchen design showroom and asked her to help them with it. “And I kind of did it kicking and screaming. Like, ‘Oh, I’m an architect. I’m not a kitchen designer.’ I was very snobby about it. But, after doing it for a few months, I fell in love with kitchen design and [came to believe] that kitchens are like small versions of architecture. The details and everything that goes into the cabinetry, the appliances, and countertop edge details – and all the integrating.”

Initially, Haefele said, she thought she would get tired of kitchen design and go back to architecture, but kitchen design parlayed into bathroom design and then bathroom into closet design. 

She now calls herself a hard surface designer and will design any room that incorporates cabinetry.  “Closets,” she adds, “are becoming some of my favorite rooms to design.”

Company startup

It wasn’t long before Haefele decided to branch out on her own and start her own company. In 2002 she launched Haefele Design in Santa Monica, California. 

“I always knew I’d have my own company, I’d have my own firm,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to be my own boss, and I think I had just gotten to a point where I’d outgrown the cabinet company I was working for. Basically, you sell the cabinetry and you design based on their system....there was not really very much creativity in it. And I like to do very custom, unusual things.”

The transition to business owner was “very easy,” Haefele adds, and she had new clients quickly coming aboard. 

Her initial projects were high-end kitchen and bath residential projects. It wasn’t until 2008 during the Great Recession when she first designed a closet project. Her office manager encouraged her to do it, telling Haefele she needed to expand into designing closets if she wanted the company to stay alive during the downturn. 

Although reluctant at first, Haefele took up the challenge.

don’t want to do that. That’s not going to make me happy. I don’t want to count people’s underwear.’ But I did [expand into closets] and now I love it, it’s so fun and challenging,” she says.

Design process

Her process starts by doing a full inventory of her client’s closets, measuring exactly what they have – including the heights of shoes and boots, lengths of belts, and more. Haefele says she does that because one of her pet peeves is that she doesn’t like anything touching anything else. “I don’t want the top hanging to touch the bottom hanging or the shelf, or anything. So, I’m very particular about that,” she says.

“So, I go in and do a full inventory. And then it’s like a puzzle, because of course you want symmetry, and you want some sense of rhythm in the design. In order to do that and get the proper amount of needed storage is pretty challenging. It is literally like a puzzle.”

Haefele describes her client base as very particular and emotionally intelligent. They are thoughtful people and so smart, she says, and their design preference tends to be modern and contemporary. “Sometimes they’ve even seen stuff or researched stuff that I haven’t even seen a researched yet.”
She adds, “That part makes it very challenging, just trying to stay on top of the trends and trying to stay on top of everything and go to the trade shows to see what’s out there before they do.”

To stay ahead of trends, Haefele frequently attends the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) and the Builder’s Show, as well as Dwell on Design, Closets Conference & Expo, a local show – West Edge – in Santa Monica, and EuroCucina in Milan, Italy. 

EuroCucina is the show where she gets the most insight into future trends, she says. “It’s really like two years ahead of us. It hits us later. So, that’s where I see the future.”

She uses the information – and images/pictures – gleaned from those trips in meetings with clients, introducing them to new concepts, colors, designs, hardware, materials and accessories, lighting, and more, that she’s seen.

Haefele says that in closet design, lighting is key and options could be everything from LED rods, back lit panels, task lighting in the ceiling, and more. “In order to make a closet look like a boutique when you open the doors, it should light up like a boutique.”

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About the author
Michaelle Bradford | Editor

Michaelle Bradford, CCI Media, is Editor of Closets & Organized Storage magazine and Woodworking Network editor. She has more than 20 years of experience covering the woodworking and design industry, including visits to custom cabinet shops, closet firms and design studios throughout North America. As Editor of Closets & Organized Storage magazine under the Woodworking Network brand, Michaelle’s responsibilities include writing, editing, and coordinating editorial content as well as managing annual design competitions like the Top Shelf Design Awards. She is also a contributor to FDMC and other Woodworking Network online and print media owned by CCI Media.