Make Life Beautiful with Rita Donahoe
Rita Donahoe makes life beautiful for both herself and her clients.
After chasing a career in the non-profit and corporate worlds, Rita found herself seeking new inspiration. Her true calling, she found, was in interior design. Since making the decision to launch her own firm, she hasn’t looked back for a moment. Her design firm, Rita Chan Interiors, takes on a wide variety of projects, from furnishing to renovating, to building homes from the ground up.
Rita has a passion for sustainable design and a penchant for a clean, natural aesthetic. More than anything, she loves working with her clients to bring meaning and personality into every livable space. You can find Rita and her team in Santa Barbara, California, where they are influenced by the abundance of beautiful, historic architecture and are constantly looking to the mountains and the ocean for inspiration that will translate to timeless design.
What was your very first job?
My first job ever was when I was 15. I was working for a local smoothie shop. It didn’t last long but I learned a lot, like how to provide great customer service, how to stay cool under pressure (those smoothie lines were real!), and of course how to make a mean Orange Julius.
Tell us about your journey into the creative industry—and when you realized you could turn your passion into a career.
I didn’t grow up with much exposure to the design world. While my parents emphasized the importance of the arts, when it came to professions our attention seemed to be directed everywhere but the design industry. After graduating college, I worked for a non-profit, traveled a bit, and then fell into a path in advertising sales, working for magazines and digital brands.
Eventually, I landed what I thought would be my dream job representing a group of amazing brands including Sunset and Coastal Living magazines, but ironically it became the end of my career, as I realized what I really loved about the job was reading about all the beautiful homes and gardens. I was rather miserable and feeling a bit lost. Fortunately, my career dissatisfaction led to a lot of introspection and reflection over how I wanted to spend my time and what I wanted to bring into the world. As I learned to tune into my intuition, I began to connect with my gifts and deeper purpose. That’s when I realized that creating beauty and connecting to nature were my greatest passions. These had always been strong themes throughout my life, but I had never allowed myself to believe I could make a living from these passions. Eventually, I could not ignore the call, and I made a plan to quit my job, go back to school, and start over on an entirely new path.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
You are wiser than you know. Trust yourself and trust your intuition, regardless of what others may say. Ultimately the big answers live within you, they cannot be given to you by someone else. So listen to that inner voice and if you are having trouble hearing it, go and be in nature. You’ll find it there.
Where do you find the most inspiration for your work?
I am the most inspired by the feelings that can be found in the stillness of nature, which for me, are a sense of peace, calm, and connection. There’s a fluidness and an order to nature, but also moments of surprise that are thrilling. I think that thread of calm simplicity runs through most of my designs which I think you can feel when you walk into the rooms my team and I create. Typically, the clients contribute to the moments of surprise. Designers may chuckle at that, but really, we do love pulling inspiration from our clients and incorporating or working around meaningful pieces, which make a home truly special. I also love books, magazines, and the beauty found in unexpected places. As most designers do, my eyes are always in search of beauty and I will log any and all lovely moments, from a flower growing between a crack to a grand architectural moment, to a pebble on the beach. Beauty can be found everywhere and getting out into the world and experiencing it all is the best.
What does your creative process look like?
For client projects, it has to start with getting to know them and their hopes and dreams for the project. We will record all of this and also write down the feelings we want the home to evoke and will use this as a guide throughout the project. Walking the property and taking in the natural surroundings is also so important. Once we have a good feel for the site and thorough understanding of our clients, we start to build our vision. Concentrated visualizing is a big part of the process for me. I feel like I do little meditations all day long, where I close my eyes and envision and feel what I think the space wants to be. From there we draw (I mainly hand sketch), and pull images and samples from various sources to create mood boards and a flat lay which we will edit until it feels the most aligned to the overall concept for the house. I also like to stay as open and flexible as possible throughout the project to make space for new ideas or the incorporation of the unexpected.
What was the most significant business or creative challenge that you have encountered and grown from?
So many aspects of owning a business are challenging but it’s also the most rewarding and empowering adventure that I never actually intended to embark on. I had to get over so many fears and embrace skills that I always thought were not in my wheelhouse (like bookkeeping and managing people), but once I changed my perspective from “I have to learn this” to “I get to learn this,” it all became so much more enjoyable.
My most significant challenge, this is something I haven’t shared before because it was such a difficult time for me, but ultimately it became a gift of valuable lessons, which I hope that others can learn from. Early on in having my own firm, I worked with a client who not only refused to pay their design bill, but also physically stole from me. It added up to what was a lot of money for me at the time. It’s a long ugly story in which there were moments where I actually reconsidered running my own firm. Fortunately, I chose to push forward and let the experience inform my future business. I learned how important it is to trust my intuition and if red flags present themselves early on, head in the opposite direction. Those red flags appear for you for a reason so if something doesn’t feel right, explore that feeling. A potential project may dazzle you with its grandeur but if the clients don’t treat you with respect and kindness, I don’t think it’s worth it. Fortunately, almost all of my clients have turned into wonderful friendships and I am grateful for that, and now I know how to be more discerning when accepting clients.
What has been your biggest achievement? When was the last time you thought, “wow, I can’t believe I just accomplished that!”
An achievement that meant a lot to me was being featured in Sunset magazine. This was truly a dream for me and a full-circle moment from my days working for the brand. Back then the idea of being a designer seemed so far out of reach. I didn’t even allow myself to consider it. Also, I grew up in the same town as the Sunset headquarters, where it was revered in the community. I coveted that magazine throughout my entire life and I still do. To have a project featured there was truly an honor and one of my favorite articles to date.
Which upcoming project or endeavor are you most excited for?
I am the most excited about our launch of Good Ancestor Co., an online resource my husband, Brogan, and I have built to connect people to sustainable design options. We are launching an online shop this fall with the intention of promoting a thoughtful, eco-friendly lifestyle with elevated, beautiful homeware. Our desire is for everyone to honor sustainable and thoughtful household acts such as compositing, minimizing plastic use, tending to the garden, or daily mindfulness rituals, by elevating these moments to reflect the true beauty of the act. Each piece is meant to serve as a beautiful symbol of your commitment to doing your part to make the world better. At my design firm, we have many wonderful projects, including a full renovation with lovely sustainably driven clients at Hollister Ranch. I love everything about that project and putting our sustainable efforts into action. Lastly, my own home renovation is finally underway after a long hold-up with permitting, so that will be a wonderful process that we will be sharing on our Good Ancestor site and social.