Tom Chandler loves it when his students arrive early. He’s a stickler for promptness. Sporting his signature round glasses and his white hair neatly combed back, Tom greets each of his new students at the door, one by one.
Tom, eighty-two, lost his life partner, Tim Ellis, sixteen days before the first class of 2022. Still raw with emotion, Chandler stood before the class, his crisp white shirt, untucked from his black slacks that matched his black socks and black Birkenstocks. He has no trouble earning the love and admiration of his students with his quick wit, positivity, and encouragement. And thus, this was the beginning of his ten-week class.
“We stopped counting at 12,000 students,” Tom says of the interior decorating class he’s been teaching for forty years.
As a boy, Tom would rearrange the furniture in his parents’ home, and, for fun, pull every item from a bookshelf in his bedroom and redesign it on a regular basis. Ironically, Tom didn’t grow up in the interior design business, but rather, the shoe business. His family owned 350 stores through Heuer-Williams Shoe Associates, Inc. based in Springfield, Missouri. “My grandmother’s dad was a German shoe cobbler who ended up in Missouri,” Tom said. “My grandmother was one of thirteen children, and they were all in the shoe business.”
Tom joined the family business and by the time he was twenty-seven years old he owned and operated five stores in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Tom and his wife divorced after seven years of marriage. He raised his two sons as a single dad while operating his business. Then he met someone. “I met my soulmate, who became my partner for forty-four years,” Tom says with a smile about Ellis. “We never had a disagreement.” After meeting Ellis, who Chandler says was a master of hair and makeup, Tom longed for a different direction. So, he sold his stores and enrolled in cosmetology school. He and Ellis moved to North Little Rock where they operated a hair salon.
One day a client began telling him how much she dreaded decorating her home for Christmas, so he offered to do it for her. Not only did Tom create a festive holiday home for her, but he also returned to take it all down after the holidays, rearranging her furnishings in the process. She was thrilled, and the very next day he got a call to go to her best friend’s home.
And so, it began. Tom Chandler and Associates, Inc. opened in 1980, and today, Tom and his team provide their services in homes all over the country.
It’s been forty years since Tom was first asked by a client to teach an interior decorating class at South Central Career College in Little Rock. “It was four hours every Tuesday night for sixteen weeks, and that first semester, I had one student,” Tom says, smiling.
Eventually, the number of students grew. Later, his entrepreneurial spirit called again, leading Tom to open his own school, Chandler School of Interior Decorating, an accredited school with thousands of students passing through its doors.
Some students simply want to make their homes beautiful, but some are there to learn the business of interior design and this is where several well-known designers got their start. “Some students have already graduated with interior design degrees, but they come here to learn how to transition between a formal education and the real world,” Tom says. “I never think about why the students are there. I am there to share my life and my talents. I try to teach my students everything I know.”
Depending on what the student brings to the class determines where the class takes them. Tom’s goal is to give every student confidence in their own homes, and to take on clients if they choose.
“He is so encouraging of everyone in his class,” says Julie Cox of J. Cox Designs in Benton, who first took Tom’s class sixteen years ago. “He made it seem like it was possible for other people to do what he does.”
That’s exactly what Julie did. She began decorating for family and friends and ultimately launched her own business, still relying on Tom’s encouragement and advice. She even recently took his class for a second time. “Tom has one of the kindest and giving hearts, and he is an open book. He shares his knowledge freely, and he is so fun to work with.”
An icon in the interior design field, Tom has not only decorated spaces for high-profile clients, but he began his company with what is still a mainstay: the one-day makeover. He and his team can go into any home, take what the client has, and make it look fabulous.
Tom says he doesn’t have a “style,” because his clients have their own styles. However, he does like to incorporate a little humor into his decorating. Some of his clients are more adventuresome than others, but in his own home, there is a little family of turtle sculptures visible under his bed, as if they just wandered in.
“We charge everyone the same, and we have many clients where money is no object, and we have clients where we’re only there to work with what they already have,” Tom says. “It’s all about never leaving a client unhappy. The customer is always right – that’s how we run Tom’s.”
One thing that is unique to Tom’s approach is that the client is not allowed to be home while the team is working. “There are no exceptions,” Tom says. “It takes all the fun out of it. We love to have a reveal. They’re happy and surprised and they cry – we love it when they cry.”
Not many design firms have been around for forty years. Those on the Chandler team are long-term employees for a reason, some having worked with him for more than twenty years. “He had worked for family and friends,” says Martin Potter, who has been with Tom for twelve years. “After I graduated college, I went to work for a landscape design firm in Northwest Arkansas. Tom had a designer leave in 2011, and he called to offer me a job.” Martin shares the same passion for design as Tom and says he probably couldn’t have followed his passion had it not been for him. “He is so generous with sharing his knowledge, work ethic and business acumen,” Martin continues. “Everything [in my career] has stemmed from him.”
Martin appreciates that Tom allows his designers to be creative and make mistakes. “He gives me freedom to make mistakes and not be in fear, and that’s so comforting,” Martin says. “Things can go wrong, but Tom is so honorable. I enjoy working with him so much. It’s been a blessing all the way around,” Martin says. “Sometimes when I think I’ve seen it all, he does something so creative and surprising. He’s always teaching me things.”
It’s not unusual for the Chandler team to hop on a private plane or to drive a U-Haul truck across the country. “This is not a glamorous profession,” Tom says with a laugh. “God takes care of old decorators.” Tom says his Birkenstocks have served him well over the years. He wears them every day, no matter the weather, and he still works around seventy hours a week. “I noticed that I had taken over 11,000 steps the other day,” Tom chuckles. “I have no intention of retiring. My goal is to die at work.” And so, Tom follows the same advice he gives his students at the end of every class, get up early, and be the best you can be.
Tom Chandler and Associates, Inc.
2210 Cantrell Rd, Little Rock, Arkansas