Determined to make interior design affordable for all, this 23-year-old Stanford graduate recently launched his own firm, 50 for Fifty.

Noa Santos
Photo courtesy Noa Santos

Armed with a joint bachelor’s degree in architectural design and management science from Stanford, Noa Santos took his first job at a Madison Avenue interior design firm in New York shortly after graduating in 2010. Disenchanted with the work, the 23-year-old decided to launch his own company, 50 for Fifty. Established in August, the one-man firm charges a mere $50 for a 50-minute consultation (“It’s more like an hour,” he says). The service is geared toward young urbanites who want to add some panache to their cramped spaces, yet feel hiring an interior designer or decorator is beyond their means. He started working for friends, and now has a dozen clients. Architectural RECORD recently spoke with Santos about his background, his clients, and whether great interior design can be achieved on a super-tight budget.

Do you recommend that all design students take business classes?

The only way to do what I do is with a dual concentration. The right kind of business class can never hurt. One example was a class on the art of creating disruptive ideas—ideas that kindle innovation by seeking an intersection of sorts. Another was a class that emphasized the importance of people—family, friends, networks—in the formation of successful startups. But case studies are, for me, the most useful tools for learning.

You graduated from Stanford with degrees in design and business in 2010 and stepped into a pretty tough employment market. But you actually got a job—why’d you leave it?

It was really high-end residential work—$150,000 a room was the average. I did that for a year. The projects weren’t exciting. In terms of the clientele, there wasn’t the adventurous spirit that comes when you’re younger and more budget-conscious. So on weekends I’d work on side projects for friends. And since I never shed the Stanford start-up bug, I decided to cultivate that idea [into a business].

You’re marketing yourself as a “luxury” designer. Can you talk about what that means—is interior decoration a luxury?

People here [in New York City] have a keen sense of style. They get up in the morning and they’ve already planned what they’re going to wear. They have a closet full of pieces they love. But when it comes to interiors, they hit a brick wall. A lot of the time it’s an afterthought. People come here with a dream and that’s where their energy goes. They expect to live in a closet with no daylight. I’m trying to change the idea that if you’re a starving artist, you don’t have to live in a shit hole.

How does the consultation work? Is it just like a job interview that you get paid fifty bucks for? Is your goal to get hired long-term?

It’s definitely not a job interview. I walk into an apartment thinking, in fifty minutes, we’ll be done. And that has happened. Like one client, his apartment just had a layout problem—so we moved the bed, moved the sofa. I bring my color book—I take it with me everywhere I go—and we pick colors right there, and I tell them where they can order the paint. Maybe they need a new sofa. I tell them where to go and buy it. Or they can hire me.

How often does that happen?

I almost always get hired. Only one or two have finished in 50 minutes.

And then what: Do you charge a different rate?

No, it’s exactly the same, $50 an hour. I have two clients on Central Park West, and I charge them the same rate.

Have you been criticized for bringing down the value of design by charging low rates?

No, but I’ve anticipated that. One of the problems in the interior design industry is that having a designer is like having a Louis Vuitton handbag. It’s a status symbol. And when you become reliant on that, you get fad-like; your work gets homogeneous because as a designer you feel obligated to go along with the fad. The industry needs people who challenge the standard business model.

Like making design services available to everyone, even those with limited incomes?

People realize they would like the service, but they can’t find it. I’m making a service available to people who wouldn’t normally have access to it. I’m bringing the industry up to meet the standards of our time.

What are the new standards? How does the industry need to change?

Designers not showing receipts, charging a 30 percent markup, getting a nonrefundable deposit, and the expectation of clients that just write checks blindly—that’s not what the world is. My generation won’t do that.