HGTV-era home stager/designer discusses compelling job
As a youth growing up in southeast Michigan, Jessica Smith remembers visiting Ace Hardware to buy a gallon of paint while her friends went shopping for clothes.
And she maxed out her first credit card (Sears Hardware) purchasing power tools.
“I came up with the brilliant idea that I could hang drywall,” she recalled, chuckling. “It didn’t go so well.”
Years later — given her passion for home improvements — it’s no surprise that Smith is the ultra-successful owner of Spotlight Staging and Design, a five-year-old company that stages occupied and vacant residential homes (among a list of other services) that are being prepared to hit the market.
“I’d like to thank HGTV for bringing a lot of positive attention to our profession, which recently marked its 50th year,” Smith said, adding, “but at the same time it has kind of heightened expectations that every staged home should look beyond dazzling.”
She released a light-hearted laugh, revealing she doesn’t invest a ton of time watching shows that mirror her life, but when she does, there are a few that earn her attention.
“Probably the most-realistic (staging-related) show is ‘Dream Home Makeover: The Magees’ because they’re out to appeal to the masses with neutral, safe designs. If I had to pick the coolest show, though, it would be ‘Good Bones’ with the mother-and-daughter team (of Karen E. Laine and Mina Starsiak Hawk). I like their designs and they’re not afraid to step a little out of their element and use some unique accessories.”
Thriving as a stager of residential homes requires imagination, versatility and a relentless work ethic — all among the skills and qualities Smith has honed throughout a career that has been nothing short of super-compelling. She ramps up the appeal of homes whose values range from $100,000 to $5 million.
And she’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
“Last week about half our staff was out with the flu, so I put on my truck-driving and mover hat,” she said. “On a lot of the TV shows, the stagers are wearing high heels and nice clothes. I’m usually the one in the sweatshirt, leggings. Our finished product always looks magazine-worthy, but the actual process isn’t always glamorous. At the end of the day, the house is pretty, but I’m not.
“We’ll do multiple stagings in a day, so just think back to when you moved into your new home — lugging things up and down stairs, unpacking boxes — and doing it twice in one day. It’s hard work, but there’s no better feeling when you’ve finished a home and it looks fabulous. It’s especially satisfying when the home is still occupied and you can sense that level of appreciation from the owners because you’ve just transformed their house to a point it hasn’t been at since they moved in.”
Given her keen interest in maintenance projects as a youth, Smith was destined to be a home stager, right? Not quite; in fact her career path almost veered 180 degrees away from the home-design field.
“I remember sitting down with my grandmother my junior year of high school and she asked me, ‘So what are you going to study in college?’,” Smith recounted. “I told her interior design, of course. My grandmother is a very logical person — she worked in accounting for Chrysler in the ’60s and ’70s during a time when women usually didn’t hold positions like that — and she educated me on how fragile the economy can be. She asked me if there was a downturn in the market, what would I do. I didn’t have an answer. So she said, ‘What’s your option number two?’ I was a dancer my whole life, so I decided to study sports medicine because it seemed like an easy transition.”
To help pay for her degree at Oakland University, Smith secured a job with Cort Furniture Rental, which helped furnish temporary housing for Detroit’s professional athletes who were seeking non-permanent living arrangements, international short-term employees and people who were displaced by fires and floods.
“Due to confidentiality agreements we weren’t supposed to know the names of the particular athletes we were staging for, but after a while we kind of new that if it was in the Shelby Lofts it was probably a Detroit Tiger, f it was in another building it was probably a Piston,” she said.
Encounter with star QB
Smith described one story involving a recently-traded Super Bowl-winning Detroit Lions quarterback that she can chuckle about now, but was “red-faced” when it unfolded.
“I’m one of those people who is rarely ever late,” she said. “I pride myself on being on time. But there was this one day we were preparing a house in Birmingham for an athlete and I was running about an hour behind, for one reason or another. When I finally arrived, Matthew Stafford’s wife and their two dogs were there along with some a whole slew of people, including some interior architects. When we’re furnishing a house, we’re usually the only ones there, so I was slightly embarrassed, to say the least.”
During her lengthy career with Cort, Smith was limited to six lines of furniture she could use to decorate a temporary residence.
“It was big, bulky furniture; not a lot of variety,” she said. “That’s what kind of inspired me to start my own business.”
Which she did in 2018, following the birth of her second child.
And the lifetime lover of paint and power tools is living her destiny.
“I’d never want to do one of those HGTV shows,” she admitted. “But I’m perfectly happy with my work being showcased in glossy magazines.”