Whether she’s renovating a seven bedroom home or a jewel-box kitchen, designer Molly Singer aims for a finished product that’s like nothing Pittsburgh residents have ever seen.

Written by Juno DeMelo

Photography by Mayabee Design & Photography, @mollysingerdesign

Where did your design journey begin?

Design has been a passion of mine since I was very young. My grandmother used to let me rearrange the furniture in her house when I would come over to visit. I also had a true love for doll houses. I took countless classes on how to make dollhouse furniture and would spend hours decorating and redecorating each of the rooms. I didn’t initially pursue design as a career and instead got a degree in marketing. Looking back, I would argue I probably chose the wrong initial path but am grateful to have landed where I am today. I absolutely love what I do.

What gave you the confidence to take design seriously as a career?

I had a sporadic beginning. I bought my first property in college, a condo, and I did a cheap “renovation,” repainting and making some changes in the kitchen. I then renovated and sold a second house I lived in before moving to California in 2003. In 2006 I moved back to Pittsburgh, where I grew up, bought another house and did a full gut renovation. Since I wasn’t working during the renovation of this house, I was very involved in the process and took that opportunity to learn as much as I could about construction. This renovation reignited my passion for design. I would have been nervous about taking client work at this point, but I felt like I had enough confidence to take a risk with my own resources, so I decided to flip houses. 

I did three very large-scale flips within a year and a half of doing my own home. I received really good feedback on these houses. My real estate agent after bringing several clients through the homes would call and say, “this one wasn’t exactly what they wanted but they would love to buy another house and have you do the work.” At that point I was still hesitant so I passed on those opportunities. My third flip ended up on the market during the crash of 2008, and it was a seven-bedroom, very large house. It took a lot longer to sell this one as the real estate market tumbled. 

How did you build on that confidence?

After that last flip, I moved three more times, completely renovating each of those homes from top to bottom as well. I was able to learn so much from my contractors and I still do today. I try to work with the same partners on every project. It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but I was able to do it at my own risk which helped to dramatically build my confidence. So, while I am technically “self-taught”, it’s not exactly the case because I’m truly taught by those around me. It’s really onsite learning, which is invaluable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

How did you get your first client?

I took on my first client work in 2015. A friend of mine came over for dinner to the home I had just finished and asked if I’d be willing to do the house she and her husband had just bought. She was a good friend, I knew her taste, she had seen my last four houses and I was therefore confident that we could work together. She became my first client. It’s thankfully been referral ever since.

Is there a typical Molly Singer client?

Not particularly in terms of style, but all of my clients share a desire to create something unique and beautiful. I do a lot of complete renovations and partial renovations, and I’ve done several new builds. I have clients in their 40s, younger clients, and clients who are my parent’s generation, in their 70s, all doing different levels of design and style. I haven’t found yet that I’ve been pigeonholed into one style, which is fun. Every project feels a bit different.

You’ve said your drawn to details. Do you think you have a different relationship to tile than most designers do?

Yes, I think so. Tile selection is really important to me. I end up having the same conversation about all the elements in a space, but I largely emphasize tile.  I try very hard to stay away from what you’re going to see in every store you walk into.  Especially in Pittsburgh: It all tends to have a very similar in look and feel and it’s largely because we don’t have a whole lot of resources.

A tile backsplash is almost always a focal point in my kitchens and clients are usually more willing to take a risk with tile than cabinetry. Details like these, especially in a kitchen, are important. I always say, the decorative finishes (tile, electrical, lighting, plumbing and hardware) are the jewelry in a room and it’s the jewelry that truly defines the space. 

Broad, cross category selection is one thing I love about Ann Sacks. I try to pick finishes that no one here has used or seen as repetition is pretty boring.  If a client can look at a photo and recreate the room themselves, they probably don’t need me. That’s why I always try to bring in something they’ve never seen or considered before. With Ann Sacks, I’m never short on choices, whether the project is high- or moderate-budget, contemporary or traditional. Seven out of ten times, the client ends up loving the Ann Sacks tile the most.  It has a real ability to transform a room in a unique yet timeless way.

There’s definitely a thread running through your designs. How would you describe it?

I would say that most of my clients prefer a more traditional style and a smaller subset prefer more contemporary. I don’t necessarily stick with one look and feel for my designs, instead I prefer to gain a true understanding for what my they gravitate towards and deliver designs that reflect their individual homes and personalities. I personally prefer a more clean-lined, what I would call “fresh” traditional for my own homes and I always like to throw in a contemporary element or two. A juxtaposition of styles, no matter what they are, help to create depth and interest in a space.

What does the path from initial client meeting to execution look like?

I would say it varies by project. But I always start by asking clients to send me inspiration photos. I often say that these photos don’t have to be the same type of room we’re planning to work on. I simply need to know what you’re drawn to, and I can always draw a common thread, so I usually start there.  I prefer not to take people shopping because it’s my belief that you hire a designer to edit, so I don’t want to take clients through a showroom and present them with an overwhelming number of choices. Most of my clients would prefer to have two or three options.

I always do a presentation in their home. When it comes to kitchen design, bring cabinet selections, hardware, lighting, paint colors—as many materials as I can gather. I try to present it as a package of maybe three choices, and then we can play with remixing the elements. Generally speaking, I try to edit it down very tightly so they’re not reacting to too many selections at once.

I have created a very robust sample library in my office, so I generally have enough to draw on from here. And my Ann Sacks rep in Washington, D.C., is great about sending samples, so I never feel like I’m short on options. I can almost always do most of the scheming from my office from what I’ve been able to collect. It’s generally a very productive first meeting. There’s isn’t usually a ton of back and forth on finishes from there.

Is there a certain Ann Sacks line you gravitate toward?

I use the whole range. I’ve done MADE, I do a lot of Savoy ceramic, which is a such a great line for moderate budgets, stone, porcelain, ceramic—I’ve done all of it. Sometimes lead time is an issue; other times I have more time to order ahead. And then there’s dreaded budget question. I often tell people it’s truly not about wanting to spend more of your money.  The more opportunity you give me to source, the less I’m pigeonholed. I think that often clients are hesitant to give designers a budget because they think you’ll then spend to it, but most designers just want to know how far they can reach into their toolbox.

Is there anything about your design life you’d like to change in the future?

I love what I do now, and I wouldn’t trade it. I do a lot of kitchens and baths. I would like to do more decorating projects. I always tell people that the last 10 to 15 percent of any project is the most important because that’s the detail in the room. If you don’t add accessories and finishing touches like art and lighting to your space, you’re not going to feel like you’ve gotten the full value out of your investment. Those finishing touches are super important, so I ask clients not  to quit before the finish line. Finishing details matter and not choosing to quit before the very end is tough when you’ve just spent a lot of money, but you have to keep going.

I am actually in the process of relocating my design studio and opening an attached retail shop. My vision for the shop is to offer a highly curated selection of finishing accents that I feel are critical to bringing a space to life. People like to touch and feel things before they buy. I’m hoping to bring in things that people here don’t have real access to and to provide a local resource for that last 10-15% of a project. The store will feature a custom kitchen and butler’s pantry as well as custom furniture. I’m excited about the opportunity to work with customers who aren’t necessarily clients of my design business who may only need only a few things. I’ve wanted to open a store since I was a kid, I used to set up stores in my parents’ basement. My grandfather had a retail business for 60 years, and I worked for him in high school and college. I enjoy people and the process of learning their stories and helping them create homes they truly love.