When it comes to interior design, Joni Vanderslice, President and Owner of J. Banks, does it all. She’s been at the helm of Hilton Head, SC-based J. Banks for more than 30 years, which covers hospitality and residential design with a resort viewpoint. J. Banks also has a retail showroom in Hilton Head, and Vanderslice has several product collaborations with such upscale brands as EJ Victor, Kravet and Niermann Weeks.
For Vanderslice, it seems, interior and home furnishings design was inevitable. She grew up in High Point, NC, where she says her love for the business began. After getting her degree in interior design, she moved to Hilton Head, where she started working for Sea Pines Resort. That role was her introduction to resort design, which quickly became her specialty.
Today, while Vanderslice is based in Hilton Head, her design work can be found all over the world. The design business has grown to a level where 50 designers work for J. Banks, and the company handles resort design jobs — residential and commercial — from Hilton Head to Hawaii, Colorado, Tuscany and beyond. “The resort interior design world was fun for me,” Vanderslice says. “We were primarily designing people’s second homes, and they’re not doing what they do in their primary homes.”
Landing the designer role for the Melrose Resort on Daufuskie Island, SC, was a big break in the beginning of her design career, Vanderslice acknowledges, as she designed the entire project, which included 52 rooms, 40 cottages and a golf club. While that partnership has since ended, Vanderslice says, “Every client we’ve had has grown out of that. I dove into hospitality design [there] and it went really well.”
A Treasure Trove and Meeting Place
With such a robust interior design business, why add another layer with a retail store? Vanderslice points to key reasons the store was the next step in the evolution of J. Banks. “We were carrying an enormous amount of accessories in our own warehouse to accessorize the homes we were renovating,” Vanderslice says. “We started talking about how our clients loved it when they could get in there. We realized we should do this in a space where people could see it.”
Not only did the new retail shop (downstairs from the design offices) give customers a glimpse of products they might want in their homes, it was also a way to stay connected with past clients who would come into town, often with friends, and stop by to visit. It turned out that not only did the new retail store showcase product — from home furnishings to wedding gifts — with Vanderslice’s aesthetic that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Hilton Head, it also introduced her to new clients.
“The scary part is we opened the retail store the June before the economic downturn. I was thinking I had blown it all,” Vanderslice says. “As it turns out, people stopped traveling and spending big money. But they still had money, and they’d come into the shop to try this or that, and then they’d ask if we could come take a look at their bedroom. We did a lot of business with people who wouldn’t have otherwise picked up the phone. The timing I thought was horrible turned out to be a blessing.”
Vanderslice says her retail shop is quite different from most furniture stores. There are chairs and sofas because “you want people to sit in the upholstery,” but primarily, the store is a place to come for accessories and unique things, Vanderslice notes.
The retail part of J. Banks’ business has done well enough that a second storefront is being considered, in part, to give the designer another outlet for her own products, which are showcased in the Hilton Head store as well. “We are looking at some other similar coastal resort communities where we already have business to see if we want to open a second shop in the next couple of years,” she says. “I have a team that’s interested in doing that.”
Capturing a Design Aesthetic in Product
Focusing on resort living has given Vanderslice a unique design aesthetic. “There’s a different vernacular for each place we go, but I love mixing styles. I love to find the mix — something more traditional with something contemporary and then some artisan pieces — so everything doesn’t match,” she says.
“The client has a need and we’re designing to that,” she adds, noting that 11 years ago, furniture was all one scale and that’s not the case today. “If you walk into a room with 20-foot ceilings, you want a sofa with a higher back and you couldn’t find it. Or you need smaller chairs in a resort area.”
Necessity is often the mother of invention, and to solve her clients’ scale and design needs, Vanderslice developed relationships that allowed her to work with manufacturers to build the scale of furnishings she needed. She put a collection together with Stanford Furniture about 12 years ago, and today she has numerous licensed collections, including furniture with EJ Victor, fabrics with Kravet, lighting with Niermann Weeks, and more on the horizon.
How does one person design, shopkeep and create product? Not by herself. Vanderslice gives credit to her team and a consultant who taught her 23 years ago how to mentor that team so they could grow and she was not the funnel. “I have good people who handle the things I can’t and let me stay at 10,000 feet. I’m in the details but not every day,” she says. That sounds like a good recipe for a successful, multi-tier business.