Day in the Life of a Sorority House Interior Designer

Day in the Life of a Sorority House Interior Designer

  • Liz Toombs is a Lexington, Kentucky-based interior designer who mostly works with sororities.
  • Her work varies from designing a newly built sorority house to styling one room in a facility.
  • Toombs walked Insider through a day in her life and shared her favorite parts of the job.

Interior designer Liz Toombs said she found her way into designing sorority houses “by accident.” 

“Someone approached my husband and said, ‘We know what your wife does, would she be willing to help us with this fraternity house?'” Toombs, who owns interior design firm, PDR Interiors, told Insider. 

After refreshing some rooms in the house, Toombs was approached by a sorority who needed work on their house, too. From there, she got connected to the sorority’s national housing officer and property management team, and started building relationships.

“They were the first ones who asked me to travel out of state, so I went to Maryland to do a project, then the rest is history,” Toombs said.

Now, Toombs, who runs PDR Interiors out of her house in Lexington, Kentucky, mostly focuses on designing sorority houses and facilities. As a former Alpha Gamma Delta member at the University of Kentucky, Toombs said she understands from personal experience what her clients want and need, even though it changes over time.

Toombs walked Insider through a day in her life, from designing interiors on her computer, to being on-site for installations.

5:30 a.m. — Wake up and workout

Toombs wakes up around 5:30 a.m., and for three days of the week, prepares for a 6 a.m. workout with a trainer who comes to her home.

“That really helps me because it gets me going for the day without jumping immediately into work and feeling like I have no time for myself,” Toombs said.

The workout finishes around 7 a.m., and Toombs attends to personal chores, like feeding her dog and cleaning dishes.

“I work in my home — if there’s a lot of mess and chaos, I don’t really focus well,” Toombs said. “I need to know that life is handled in the kitchen.”

She has tea and reads a devotional before showering and dressing to start work between 8 and 9 a.m.

9 a.m. — Starting the workday 

Her workday has “three personalities,” she said.

One day can be working on design plans on her computer for hours, which mostly happens in the winter. Other days, she meets residential clients and local vendors around Lexington.

The “third personality” is traveling to a site, either to scope out a current project, or gather initial information and check on construction.

Liz Toombs with her back facing the camera, working on her computer, there are notebooks open on her desk, and her dog is under her chair

PDR Interiors is based out of Toombs’ home.

Courtesy of Liz Toombs

Toombs said designing a sorority facility is very different from working on a residential house.

“As homeowners, we don’t necessarily go in and do our entire house in one fell swoop,” Toombs said. “When we’re building a new sorority house, we’re doing everything. We’re putting in bedroom furniture, all the common spaces, drapes, everything. So then that naturally translates to a different budget as well.”

Toombs mostly works with the national headquarters of the sororities she works with, but the housing department communicates with the local level as well, which includes alumnae and current students.

The design also has to support a study environment, and Toombs includes a lot of outlets in her designs because she knows students have to charge a lot of devices.

“That doesn’t always mean go sit in a cubby desk against the wall or sit at a table,” Toombs said. “Sometimes it means they need upholstered pieces where they can sit cross-legged and put their laptop in their lap, or use a little C-shaped side table and work on their computer.”

Liz Toombs, right, wearing a blue hard hat, her coworker Erica Wilhelmi is on the left, also wearing a blue hardhat, and they are standing on a construction site

Toombs, right, and her coworker, Erika Wilhelmi, on a construction site.

Courtesy of Liz Toombs

A lot of sororities also request makeup mirrors, specific lighting, and a bar-style space where they can get ready together.

In recent years, Toombs said she started receiving requests for mental wellness spaces intended to allow a resident to comfortably and privately take a therapy appointment, telehealth meeting, or job interview.  Toombs has been converting closets, and in older houses, telephone booths, into small rooms for this purpose.

“I’m just proud of them for asking for that, and also utilizing those spaces,” Toombs said.

Depending on the scope, Toombs can work on between 10 to 20 projects a year. So far, she’s worked on over 90 campuses across 25 states, she said.

For a new sorority house, Toombs said whatever furniture goes in one bedroom goes in all of them.

“We make sure there’s equity across the board, so if you have an extra-long twin bed and four drawers, so does your roommate,” Toombs said.

Toombs on a later preparing the wall to install a painting

Toombs prepares to install art on a wall.

Courtesy of Liz Toombs

Toombs said colors and symbols are tailored to whatever the organization wants to match their sorority’s aesthetic. The design aesthetic also changes between the schools, depending on where in the country it is.

“Typically, the South is what you would imagine, they want the trims on the draperies, tons of pillows, all the accessories, just really beautiful, kind of over the top in their way,” Toombs said.

Sororities at Northeastern and Midwestern schools can go either way, Toombs said, but mostly take a more practical approach to the design. On the West Coast, Toombs said sororities want a more “chill vibe” in general, and a sleeker, no-frills design.

“It’s been fun to work in all these different regions and just see what people want,” Toombs said.

When it comes to a budget, Toombs said for some sororities, the sky is the limit.

One recent renovation Toombs worked on cost $6 million, including $400,000 for furniture, fixtures, and equipment, which is under her purview.

In addition to costs for things like rugs and window treatments, there are installation and delivery fees, and the creative fees Toombs charges.

“I love creating a living room, a space where they can go sit and hang out,” Toombs said about her favorite room to work on. On the other hand, the dining room is the most challenging room to design, she said, because she has to make sure all of the members in the house can fit in the space.

3 p.m. — Taking the dog for a walk

In the winter, Toombs can sometimes take the dog for a walk or read a book during the workday since she’s mostly working at home. She said she feels more control over her life, because she guards her nights and weekends for personal time.

In the summer, Toombs said she has less control over her life, because she’s traveling to observe installations or put rooms together for clients ahead of the start of the school year. 

5 p.m. — Making personal time

Toombs tries not to work after 5 p.m., and weekends are for personal time.

Every Friday, Toombs takes time to reflect on the week and note what she’d like to get better at. 

One of her favorite parts of being a business owner is mentoring women that come to work with her after college, and seeing how they grow professionally and personally. Her coworker, Erika Wilhelmi, works remotely in Louisville, and joined PDR Interiors out of college.

Ultimately, as a designer, the work itself makes her happy, Toombs said.

“It’s all about the looks on people’s faces when they see that finished product, when those students walk in the door, and they see their new chapter house and just light up,” Toombs said. “That is a cup filler for me, and it makes me very excited.”