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Enlivening Spirits with Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole of Ashley Cole Design.

The interior of The Pump House, designed by Ashley Cole.

The interior of The Pump House, designed by Ashley Cole.

Ashley Cole wants people to live and work in better spaces.

The interior of The Pump House, designed by Ashley Cole.

The interior of The Pump House, designed by Ashley Cole.

Interior designer Ashley Cole doesn’t have a trademark style -- but she designed it that way.
 
The entrepreneur has built her business by being different, catering to clients' individual tastes and needs and creating spaces that feel good and lift the spirit. From conception to completion, Ashley Cole Design specializes in full-service design offerings for residential and commercial spaces in West Michigan and beyond.
 
"I don't work in any one particular style," she says. "I try not to put a brand on it; I don't want all my houses to look the same. I want someone to walk into a space I designed and literally feel like their spirit is enlivened."
 
Her aim: Warm, welcoming, inviting and comfortable – spaces that reflect the personality of the homeowner or function well for the business owner.
 
Cole’s early inspiration came from her dad and visiting work sites with him. He made wind chimes in the basement, worked as a glass artist making stained glass for Pristine Glass, and later started Echo Etching, a glass etching company.
 
Seeing raw spaces transformed into functional, yet aesthetically pleasing places turned her on to design.
 
"I was a little scared of being a starving artist," she says. "Interior design seemed like the perfect fit."
 
Cole, now 35, returned to the Grand Rapids area in 2004, bringing extensive experience, big city influences, and insights gained through world travel with her. She moved to Chicago after graduating from Hudsonville High School to study at Harrington Institute of Interior Design.
 
At Harrington, an internship landed her at an architectural firm, Atria Studio, where she specialized in kitchen and bath design. She stayed for five years and gained experience in project management, working with clients, contractors, and marketing and branding firms.
 
"I was able to really dive in," she says. "I learned a lot about what it takes to run a small business."
 
She also worked under Mick DeGiulio, of de Giulio Kitchen Design, a world-renowned designer recognized for innovative kitchen interiors and developing kitchen products and furnishings.
 
Initially, Cole never planned to leave Chicago. But some health issues with relatives and cost of living concerns prompted her to reevaluate her priorities and life. She wanted to branch out on her own and knew it would help to have the safety net of friends and family nearby. Grand Rapids also had started to experience rapid growth and change. It seemed like a good time to move back and be part of the resurgence nearly a decade ago.
 
"I left (Grand Rapids) in1996 and the downtown was completely different," she says. "You could see the changes happening in the city. I thought it would be fun to be part of that."
 
Cole knew she didn't want to work for anyone else and launched her business right away. It took a lot of hard work in the beginning.
 
Through trial and error and learning the West Michigan market, Cole's business focus changed from kitchen design to full-service interior design for residential and commercial spaces. She can handle projects as simple as selecting fixtures, furniture, fabrics and color schemes to full-on preconstruction planning for new builds and renovations. 
 
"I'm not an architect, but I also don’t just decorate," she says. "Commercial projects are fun because they're just such a different animal. There’s a lot more creativity involved. I like to get to know the business owner and marketing team."
 
While she leans toward modern and minimalistic, with clean lines and little clutter, Cole works with clients to develop their vision for the space. She says her training at Harrington included psychology classes, color theory, and space planning, but much of interior design comes down to intuition and observation.
 
"I have a knack for bringing things out in people, listening to them, showing them one thing versus another and seeing how they react," she says. "I can see it by their body language, the way they look at it. Their mood changes a little."
 
Cole's residential work ranges from sleek city flats to custom parade homes, green homes, Lake Michigan cottages, and historic and traditional styles. Her services include upscale kitchens, one-room makeovers, complete interior remodels of existing homes, or working with builders and architects on new home construction.
 
"Clients usually feel overwhelmed when we start out," she says. "With every project I've ever done, one selection leads to another. It's me trying to put that story together. I use my eye and expertise to bring it together."
 
Cole picks up new ideas while traveling to Chicago, New York, and abroad. She likes to sit and study the interiors of restaurants, hotels, and other public places.
 
Commercial projects different from her residential work in that they involve integrating the brand message into the overall design, Cole says. She considers everything: the location, size, and height of the cash register and checkouts to help with flow; the lighting throughout the store to create ambiance; and the fabric and comfort of the seats to encourage people to sit and stay awhile, if that is the goal. Call it cohesive space planning, where the concepts of size, structure, material, light, color, feel, flow, function, and furnishings come together.
 
"With commercial design, it's much more important the space express the brand and feel of the business," she says.
 "It's the psychology behind the space -- if the space works well or not, if they want to spend time there. They might not consciously think about that."
 
Some of her commercial projects in Grand Rapids include CG's Prep Kitchen, Kingma's Market, Republic, The Establishment, and Trailhead Café. One of her "pinch me" moments came last year when, through word of mouth, she landed a job designing a children's store in Austin, Texas.
 
Tom Smith, owner of Trailhead Café, connected with Cole after he bought the former CG's Prep Kitchen and Creative Toys, Tools and Experiences on East Paris Avenue. He reconfigured the businesses into the Grand Rapids Bicycle Company and Trailhead Café and plans to use Cole for his next venture, Trailhead Tavern.
 
"Ashley's very talented, a very likeable person and very resourceful," he says. "She's a delightful gal who is very easy to work with."
 
Her ability to bring big city trends alive in Grand Rapids attracted Karen Avery, owner of The Pump House Frozen Yogurt Bar, to Cole after seeing her work at other Grand Rapids restaurants. Cole helped Avery redesign and renovate a strip mall storefront into the yogurt bar on Celebration Drive.
 
"I liked her look," Avery says. "I like how she brings a bit of an urban contemporary feel into the environment."
 
Cole lives and works out of a second-floor flat in the Heritage Hill area and enjoys being active in the community. Like many small business owners, she says surviving the last few years presented its challenges. She watched builders, suppliers, and others go out of business. She feels fortunate and still feels like she is living the dream.
 
"If you have a passion for it, it will happen," she says. "It doesn't feel like I have to get up and go to work in the morning. I get to do what I love to do every day."

Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website: marlarmiller.com

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hotography by Adam Bird.
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