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Success Stories: Olafsen Design Group

When it comes to designing living spaces, the customer may bring the personality, but the designer brings the expertise. Learn how Bill Olafsen, of Olafsen Design Group, in Chicago, has traveled the world to deliver high-end design.

Olafsen Design Group
High-end, large-scale designs take Bill Olafsen all around the world, as he connects clients with their living spaces. (Olafsen Design Group photo)

Bill Olafsen doesn’t adhere to one solitary design aesthetic.

In the 30 years he’s been designing interiors, the owner of Chicago-based Olafsen Design Group has put his stamp on many impressive properties.

There’s the light-filled, contemporary duplex within a Beaux Arts building, a space that’s been enhanced with a collection of ethnographic art, antiques and objects gathered from around the world.

Then, there’s the “home in the sky,” a high-rise unit in Chicago that’s surrounded by terraces, provides expansive views of Lake Michigan and is furnished with a mix of 18th century Italian and Russian antiques. That project took four years to complete.

“It was such a labor of love,” says Olafsen. “We were so involved in it. Even with all of the antiques, it was a very child-friendly home for the young couple and their two children.”

Perhaps his most prized project was the hilltop compound in Umbria, Italy, a colorfully furnished 17th century residence. His work included the creation of suites for visiting friends, the design of a pool area and enhancements to grounds and surrounding property.

Olafsen’s firm specializes in high-end, large-scale residential interior design. Living rooms typically range from $75,000 to $200,000 or more, but Olafsen has also worked on art galleries, theaters, restaurants, retail stores, corporate offices, health clubs and spas, automotive dealerships and senior living facilities.

“I really like working with clients to help them develop living spaces that they enjoy,” Olafsen says. “I like getting to know them, their lifestyles and their interests.”

The firm focuses mostly on large residential interior design projects, typically located in, but not limited to, the Chicago area. His work takes him all over the world, to places such as Hong Kong, Japan and Italy. Olafsen’s projects vary from historic homes and contemporary city dwellings to residences on beaches and in the countryside.

“My work really varies by client,” Olafsen says. “I’ve worked with one client for 35 years on their Chicago home, Montana ranch and various other locations. Getting to know clients, their way of living and their preferences is a real advantage in the work we do.”

Besides space planning, lighting design, and fabric and finish selection, Olafsen designs furniture and selects artwork and accessories. He also consults with clients on landscape design, and in some cases, product design. Olafsen works on entire homes at one time, but a few clients opt to design one room at a time.

Olafsen, who grew up in rural Caledonia, Ill., says his love for design started as a young boy. He headed off to college intending to study international relations, but couldn’t resist the pull of his original interest. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Beloit College and a B.F.A in environmental and interior design from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Additionally, Olafsen has studied at the Institute of Human Environment in Florence, Italy, and with architects and designers in Bergamo, Como, Milan, Venice and Zurich. He’s studied country houses and urban architecture in England, Ireland, France and Mexico.

“My work doesn’t have a signature look,” he says. “There’s a mixture of old and new. Things don’t have to match, but there’s a certain continuity that pulls everything together. It’s all driven by what I think will inspire people. I try not to impose my feeling on any specific project. Ultimately, it’s the client who’s going to live with the decisions that we make.”

Olafsen spent five years as director of design development for Bruce Gregga Interiors, in Chicago, before forming a partnership with Elise Schreiber for the next 15 years. The pair worked on residential and commercial projects, also designing board rooms and reception areas. When Schreiber ventured off into other avenues, Olafsen started his own firm in 2000. Olafsen is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and is registered with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation.

On average, Olafsen takes on two new projects each year, in addition to his many ongoing projects. “I never know what’s going to come my way,” he says. “It’s a balancing act. I can’t really take on much more than that, due to the attention I like to give each project.”

Most of his work comes from word-of-mouth and repeat customers, who appreciate Olafsen’s willingness to go the extra mile to understand their interests and lifestyles. He does this so he can deliver a result the client will enjoy and fully appreciate, Olafsen says. The designer is hands-on with every project because his staff consists of himself and project manager Michelle Goncalves.

Currently, Olafsen is working on an estate in Italy and updating several residences in Chicago and California. His work has been featured on national television and national publications including Interior Design and Architectural Digest.

Before starting any project, Olafsen meets with prospective clients to make sure they are a right fit for each other. “When it’s a good match, we have the ability to go a step further on our projects or go a completely different direction,” he says. “There’s always something new.”

The key to a successful project is making sure everyone is on the same page.

“It’s important to listen to what clients are saying and what they’re not saying to you,” he says. “As a designer, you have to have the ability to turn that conversation into meaningful spaces. My job is to get them excited about their living spaces.”

Olafsen recognizes that lives change and, thus, so do tastes. He’s observed that his firm’s younger clients tend to have a strong interest in design, which is a change from when he first started out. He appreciates their enthusiasm, but it doesn’t change the way he views his work.

“I don’t design things in a regimented way,” Olafsen says. “I look at each project differently. It’s not a very scientific process. I simply look for things that are different or unique and will be interesting to the client.”

Olafsen is also involved with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Institute for Classical Architecture and the Garden Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the restoration and stewardship of important gardens throughout the country.

Olafsen has no bucket list of dream projects. He just wants to do more of what he’s been doing for decades. After more than 30 years in the business, Olafsen says he still has the fire in his belly for great design. One thing that has him excited, though, is a shift in philosophy. Instead of only taking on larger projects, Olafsen is now starting to accept “smaller, quicker online design” projects, in spaces like townhouses and apartments where clients are downsizing or just starting out. By expanding into these areas, Olafsen says, he can help a new population to achieve its dreams.

There’s no telling what’s around the corner, and Olafsen prefers it that way.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, but it keeps me young,” he says. “I love traveling and seeing new things that inspire me to try things that I’ve never done before. I love new challenges. I have no plans to retire. I love what I do.”