A family affair

Jean Stoffer and her daughter, Grace Start, have turned their love of design into three bustling businesses.
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When Jean Stoffer and her daughter, Grace Start, began working on The Madison, an 8,500-square-foot home in Heritage Hill, it was supposed to be a flip. The pair went to work on transforming the entire home, putting their design skills to work. Three years later, the massive project was completed — and Jean and her husband decided to move in.

“The home is a beautiful piece of architecture and although it needed to be almost completely rebuilt, it was a treasure,” Stoffer said. “It was supposed to be a ‘flip.’ Ha! Three years later, my husband and I decided to move in, and we love it.”

The sprawling home offers historic charm with modern updates and is a display of the quintessential style Stoffer Home Design is known for.

The home has become a hub for the Stoffer family, which consists of Jean and her husband Dale, their four adult kids and several grandchildren. The day Grand Rapids Magazine spoke to Start, she was working out of the house.

The Madison is Stoffer and Start’s most recent completed project. The mother-daughter duo began working together in 2016.

By that time, Stoffer had a long career in home design behind her — mostly focused on kitchen design projects. She had started Jean Stoffer Design in Chicago, where the family originally lived.

“After getting a business degree, I went to work as the business manager of a small interior design firm. This is where I learned that there was such a thing as interior design and I loved it. I went to night class at the junior college to learn to draft, read everything I could get my hands on and started decorating my own home. Soon after, people started asking for help, and I started my own business at 24 years old,” Stoffer said.

“We both absolutely love, particularly, British design,
that is our favorite. … They just did things perfectly, all the proportions are right, it was made to last, it’s a simpler style, less ornate, but we also love to throw in a modern light fixture or furniture here and there.”
Grace Start

She was drawn to kitchen design because of its analytical nature.

“I realized the things I enjoyed most in design were the more analytical things like cabinetry design and space planning. In 1994, I narrowed my focus to custom kitchen design and lived in that place for over 20 years,” Stoffer said.

She also raised her family during that time. Her daughter left home — and Chicago — to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids (where one of her brothers had previously attended), and Start said that was really the catalyst for the whole family eventually relocating to Grand Rapids and the events that would follow.

Her parents began looking at real estate opportunities in Grand Rapids and ended up purchasing the house Start and her college roommates lived in. “That was their first entry into rentals,” she said. “They bought quite a few houses in Grand Rapids because it was a great market.”

Start ended up meeting her husband while at Calvin, and the pair married and decided to stay in the Grand Rapids area. Her younger brother also began attending Calvin around that time, and the Stoffers hired their oldest son to manage their rental properties, prompting him and his wife to make the move to Grand Rapids. With three of their four kids in Grand Rapids, Jean and her husband decided to sell their Victorian house in Chicago and make the move, as well.

“My mom thought she’d slowly retire, taking a few jobs in Chicago and commute,” Start said. Little did she know, rather than wind down her business, it was about to take off and grow into multiple businesses and a partnership with her daughter.

After graduating from Calvin College with a degree in education, Start began working as a teacher, but during her second pregnancy, she began to reconsider her career path. “I was looking for something different because of the children,” she said. “I told my mom, ‘I know you are slowing down, but if you could give me a few hours a week,’ basically to make ends meet. So, she lovingly hired me.”

It turned out to be fortuitous because soon after a couple approached Stoffer to complete a full house interior design project for them, another full home design project soon followed.

“When Grace joined, Jean Stoffer Design 2.0 was launched, and it has been a remarkable journey,” Stoffer said.

The pair’s first two projects quickly gained attention. “It took about a year to finish both of those projects,” Start said. “When we had the pictures taken, that’s kind of when everything went nuts. Then we were officially on the map as a design firm. We began getting a lot of inquiries.”

Start said the pair’s existing relationship has made it easy to work together and their shared love of British design has helped them collaborate so effectively.

“We both absolutely love, particularly, British design, that is our favorite. … They just did things perfectly, all the proportions are right, it was made to last, it’s a simpler style, less ornate, but we also love to throw in a modern light fixture or furniture here and there,” Start said.

Stoffer added, “Grace and I have very similar taste and values. So, we are going the same direction on projects. My specialty is kitchen design, space planning and making sure all the elements we choose are correctly proportioned, and art selection. Grace is very good at putting finishes together, color, light fixture mixtures and finding great furniture pieces. We work well together.”

Q&A with Jean and Grace

Grand Rapids Magazine: What does the word “home” mean to you?
Jean Stoffer: Home is where love meets place.

GRM: What was your home like growing up?
JS: The home I grew up in was comfortable, warm and inviting but very little thought was given to aesthetics.

GRM: What are three big design mistakes you see people make?
JS: Wrong proportions, wrong placement, wrong combinations.

GRM: How has social media changed things for you as a designer — it seems like clients might be eager to bring more of their ideas to the table — which maybe makes things easier or harder?
JS: Social media is a double-edged sword. It has been the vehicle by which we can get our work out there where people can see it. Homeowners use it to find inspiration and product information. However, it can be very confusing as there is so much good design out there, so many ideas, it can be overwhelming for people.

GRM: With technology and social media, where do you see the industry heading in the next 5-10 years?
JS: I think home offices, or at least an area that can be used for working from home, will continue to be very important. COVID has taught us that we can actually be very productive at home.

GRM: What gets you up in the morning and ready to create?
JS: Deadlines!

GRM: What’s your day like?
JS: I spend a lot of time communicating with clients, contractors, my team, vendors and makers. And I also spend a lot of time drawing, measuring and problem-solving.

GRM: Obviously, your mom loves working on kitchens, what is your favorite room to work on?
Grace Start: I love a kitchen too … when you see a good kitchen your breath kind of gets taken away. I also love choosing furniture … and we design a lot of bathrooms and that is fun too. There’s nothing I really don’t like about homes. I’m kind of obsessed with houses in general. Every part of them.

GRM: What current trends in interior design are you seeing?
GS: Most recently, the trend is I’ll describe it as grandma chic. Prints are coming back, and curtains and antiques but mixed in a modern way. Any prints or plaids or that kind of thing with fabrics and then more color, that is something that goes with that. The prints on chairs or curtains or lampshades, custom lampshades. We are seeing more bold color choices for cabinetry for kitchens and that sort of thing.

GRM: How has HGTV and other design shows influenced interior design?
GS: We all know how “Fixer Upper’s” farmhouse style was absolutely everywhere — more than any of us ever would like. It definitely is influential, and you see design trends come and go so quickly because of social media. Bohemian style can come and go in a matter of a couple of years. That is why we like to mix styles … that way it has a more timeless feel, it’s more eclectic.

GRM: How does it feel to have been a part of creating three successful family businesses?
GS: It is mind-boggling and something we never set out to do but organically happened. Sometimes we laugh about it and sometimes we are blown away by it and sometimes we are overwhelmed by it.

After those initial projects, a new business idea began to blossom. Start said one of the biggest challenges to emerge was finding the right products to style a home — things like pillows, blankets, accessories. So, they began to talk about starting their own home store.

“That’s when we brainstormed the idea of opening Stoffer Home, a cute home store, to help with that side of the business,” she said.

Today, Stoffer Home sits at 714 Wealthy St. SE and is a destination for home décor. It also offers an online option so people from anywhere can purchase items they see on the store’s social media feeds and website.

A third business, Stoffer Home Cabinetry, also was an offshoot of the pair’s design projects. “We also got a lot of inquiries about our cabinetry. It’s very beautiful and there are not a lot of places in the U.S. where you can get that kind of cabinetry.”

With three flourishing businesses and a small staff at each, there is little sign that Stoffer will be slowing down any time soon, nor will the rest of her family — many of whom are now also part of one or more of the Stoffer businesses in some way.

“My husband retired in 2017 and has taken on an important role at our retail and online store, Stoffer Home,” Stoffer said. “He handles all the recycling and garbage, does many pickups and deliveries to and from our local vendors and makers, and takes being grandpa to an elite level.

“Our oldest son, Dave, is involved in managing our rental properties in town. John and his wife Maura do all our photography. Grace’s husband Ted does some of our cabinetry installations. Dan manages all the Stoffer Home Cabinetry inquiries and estimating. He also just opened The Bradbury, a French-inspired café inside our retail store on Wealthy Street. His wife Marisa does beautiful work with florals for all of our events, which we sell at Stoffer Home regularly.”

The business also has attracted the attention of the Magnolia Network. “We filmed a pilot for the Magnolia Network, which is streaming on Discovery Plus. It is called ‘Point of View, A Designer Profile.’ It shows Grand Rapids in such a nice light. If I didn’t already live here, I’d want to move to Grand Rapids after seeing it!”

Stoffer said her and her husband’s move to Grand Rapids turned out to be much more than they expected. “Little did I know that moving to Michigan would facilitate something so wonderful.”

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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