Gracie, the Corn Hill terrier (she's one of only 50 of a unique local breed), sits in the lap of designer Arthur Vitoch '69. Despite the potential effects of Gracie's long white coat on Vitoch's blue trousers, he pets her head slowly as he explains how he came to be founder and owner of Vitoch Interiors, Ltd., Rochester's largest interior design firm.
"I just kind of winged it," he says of his transition from fine-art student to entrepreneur. Laughing, he adds, "I just made it up as I went along."
According to industry estimates, only about one percent of the population uses the services of an interior designer. Vitoch, in his 25 years in business, has managed to take a big bite out of the Rochester area's allotment. His lengthy client list includes the homes and offices of some of the community's most notable citizens, including Eastman Kodak Company CEO George Fisher, Frontier Corporation CEO Joseph Clayton and Hickey-Freeman Company Inc. chairman Walter Hickey. Vitoch's location on University Avenue houses six full-time designers, five support staff, a glossy showroom, a huge warehouse, and walls and walls of samples, from Irish wool carpet to hand-painted silk wallpaper and leather upholstery.
When Vitoch left RIT after studying furniture making, BFA in hand, he worked for a short time in radio advertising before accepting a position as a window designer for Sibley's department store. Sibley's shipped him to their Syracuse store, where he composed show windows and model rooms for the furniture department. "That gave me a taste for interiors," he says. "Until then I never thought I'd be a designer."
Pursuing his new inclination further, he became an assistant to interior designer Ron Nichols. Nichols, now deceased, was one of Rochester's best-known local designers and his East Avenue business, with its crystal chandeliers, catered to a traditional clientele. "I used to make tea in china cups for the ladies when they visited," Vitoch remembers.
With a $1,500 bequest in his pocket and some experience on his resume, Vitoch opened his own design business, in a small store on Monroe Avenue. This was 1972 and Rochester's Park Avenue and Monroe Avenue neighborhoods were in the early stages of a renaissance. The eclectic mix of businesses on the avenues offered energy and excitement, Vitoch says. His store was across the street from the fledgling City Newspaper, where he advertised when his budget permitted. He was also next door to a biker bar, and Vitoch would talk with clients over the background roar of the bikes' engines.
"It was hand-to-mouth for me," he says of his finances at that time. Along with design services, he offered a selection of merchandise that wasn't then available in the area—funky items like outsized wineglasses and hanging baskets. ("Real laid-back stuff," he says, chuckling.) He would buy the merchandise weekly, paying for the new with whatever he earned selling the previous week's orders. The $65-a-month rent, reasonable even by early '70s' standards, was occasionally hard to scrape together.
"I had no formal business training to speak of. My bookkeeping was unique; it made no sense to anyone," he says. But the community wanted what he was offering—style and merchandise that reflected the times and the neighborhood. Eventually he could afford to hire a bookkeeper, and leave the nitty-gritty details of accounting to a professional.
"Every year we got a little bigger," he says. In 1975, Vitoch moved into more spacious digs on Park Avenue and then in 1980 to Canterbury Road, where he also had 3,000 square feet of warehouse space. To celebrate that opening, he hosted a huge disco-style party, complete with lights, live music and a fog machine.
In 1991, when his company yet again ran out of space, Vitoch renovated the former paint store on University Avenue. The brick store front, with large windows overlooking the street, acts as the showroom. In back are a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, office space, consultation rooms and even a huge kitchen for the busy staff. Gracie wanders freely through each and every room, quietly nodding at clients and designers.
Since moving to University Avenue, his business has grown by 10 percent a year, Vitoch says. The year the showroom opened also saw the Can of Worms reconstruction. University Avenue is now a feeder road from the expressway, which has brought more business and traffic to the area. His designers are always busy and the building hums with the murmur of voices, ringing telephones, and the beep beep beep of trucks backing up to the loading dock.
With a strong, healthy business, Vitoch now has time for pleasure. He owns two homes in Rochester, one on elegant East Avenue and another, a Nantucket-style cottage, on Lake Ontario. He opens up both homes for benefit events, like house and garden tours; he has also used his University Avenue location for benefit dinners, clearing out the showroom and dressing it up. "Oh, it's fun doing creative things that help out other people," he says. He enjoys cooking and traveling, and recently returned from the French Alps.
Arthur Vitoch is a soft-spoken man, quick to smile and lean forward to explain a point. Turning 50 made him take a look at his life and consider new challenges: "You wonder just what you should do with the next half of your life." Consequently, he bought an apartment in Manhattan, smack in the middle of the design district, and plans to develop a big-city clientele, while taking classes at the New School University. "I'm looking forward to being close to the hub of our industry," he says, adding, "and so is Gracie."
Despite the public's perception, interior design services are not just for the rich, Vitoch says. Most of his clients are working people who are simply too busy to furnish and decorate a home. "You'll never see them in a carpet shop or wall paper store – they just don't have the time. We meet with them, find out what they like, and then steer them in the right direction." There are services to fit any budget, he says. "And I've been fortunate to have great clients."
Budding designers often ask Vitoch for advice. He counsels them to study the rudiments of business—accounting principles, for example—and to intern with a design firm before making any costly decisions. "This business is only about 25 percent creative design. The other 75 percent is follow through: working with contractors, doing paperwork, offering quality customer service. You need to enjoy that 75 percent as well as the creative portion."
"What I tell them is to do the best you can, give people the best design, the best service and have fun doing it."
The University Magazine, Fall 1999