Williams Found Unplanned Designer Career Three Decades Ago

by: Carole Hawkins

Rita Williams thinks fast, talks fast, works fast.

When movers unload furniture to decorate her model home slower than she’d like, she jumps in and grabs stuff to bring in.

“I’m a control freak, I admit it,” she said, blending the sentence seamlessly with six others before it.

Perhaps, there are just too many ideas in her head.

The owner of Rita Williams Merchandising Plus seems to have had a history, though, of being stuck in fifth gear.

Before she came into her 32-year career as an interior designer for home, apartment, condo and senior living communities, Williams was a runner who worked part time creating window displays for a sporting goods store.

A friend once opined that Williams’ rift with her ex-husband of long ago began when she passed him on a bridge during a race.

It was not a race, though, that brought Williams to where she is today, a design leader who’s laid claim to a long string of regional and state awards.

That came from being pushed through a door.

City’s native daughter

Williams grew up in Jacksonville, married and raised four daughters.

In her generation, women overwhelmingly became school teachers or secretaries. Williams attended Jacksonville Business School after high school and learned such skills as keypunching. (It was in the days before desktop computers.)

Her latent flair for design might have come from her mother, a ballroom dancer who saved many of her gowns. Or been inspired by her mother’s friend, who made her clothes, and later, window treatments.

Williams’ talent wouldn’t come to the forefront until she was 37.

She found herself divorced, a single mom and in need of a career. Chester Stokes, an iconic Northeast Florida real estate builder and developer, gave her one.

Stokes’ eyes were set on winning the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce’s membership drive. The contest had always been won by a bank, never a builder.

Stokes hired Williams, who had successfully run a leukemia fundraiser for many years.

Williams was embarrassed. She didn’t know anyone else who was divorced and didn’t want to call on business owners she’d worked with over the years.

Stokes didn’t let her off the hook.

“That was the best thing he ever did,” Williams said. “If it hadn’t been for him caring about me and knowing what I could do and kicking me through that door, I wouldn’t have found all the talents that I had.”

Pushed into merchandising

After winning the contest, Williams continued with Stokes, helping to merchandise the communities he built.

It meant all kinds of things — designing signs and logos, doing radio spots and putting people in pools for print ads.

In time, Williams partnered with Judith Sisler Johnston to become half of the design team, Sisler-Williams Associates.

When Stokes started building condominiums, people were unfamiliar with them and they weren’t moving off the market. Sisler Johnston and Williams put furniture in them.

“They sold because then, we had created a lifestyle,” Williams said.

It was the beginning of decorating models for builders in Northeast Florida.

Selling a lifestyle is something Williams still thinks about for interior design today.

For the Talbot model at D.R. Horton’s Aberdeen Castlegate neighborhood, Williams included décor that showed off the area’s military connections and its art and sports programs at nearby schools.

“It lets people know we’re close to all of these wonderful things,” she said.

Designing to feel good

When working for builders, Williams’ job is to pick out everything a homebuyer would. That means floors, counters, tile, paint, furniture, curtains, lamps and art.

She’s not a fan of neutral white-beige walls that let people imagine whatever they want.

Her signature look instead trends toward cool spa colors, with not too many grays. Williams goes for high light reflective value paint, which “brings more light in and makes you feel good,” she said.

She puts soft watery colors in her bedspreads, curtains and pillows, but there’s usually one “fun” print that gives the room some punch.

On walls, Williams is a believer in “framing,” boxed areas of contrasting colors that set the spaces off.

She’s also a fan of large paintings, occasionally alternating them both high and low, like musical notes on a page.

It’s easy to design an award-winning home on a $1 million budget. Williams likes to design the kind of home a person can really afford.

Basic tile can be turned diagonal. Paint costs the same, but picking the right colors gives a different look.

“You can make anything beautiful, just using your own wisdom of what works and what sells,” she said.

For D.R. Horton’s model, Williams shopped the company’s design center, just like a buyer would. The home she designed is one the buyer could order, without paying $100,000 in upgrades.

“It keeps me in bounds. You’d always like do something very fabulous,” she said. “But, this is just as fabulous.”

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