Career Profile: Tommy Cairns

In the first of new Career Profile series we speak with Interior Designer Tommy Cairns with a hope that you will find aspects of his career journey an inspiration for your own creative career. 

Tommy is the founder Worthing based interior design, architectural services and visual development studio, 3 Percent.  We asked Tommy about his career journey, design ethos and plans for the future.

What was your educational background?

I completed a GNVQ in Leisure & Tourism, Marketing & Business Management at Northbrook College, West Sussex, and also studied Interior and Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Art, London

How did you start your career as a designer?

I originally came from a graphic/art/publishing background, producing sports publications and working with sportswear manufacturers. I also really enjoyed picking up manual, hands-on skills by spending time with joiners, plasterers, decorators, landscapers etc. which helped me learn the basics of how to design and implement what were pretty simple ideas and concepts at the time.

How did your career progress?

I took a temporary admin job with a large architectural practice in Brighton in 2001 and ended up staying with them for the best part of 15 years. My art and design experience dovetailed quite effectively with their marketing and interiors requirements and my role just grew over time. I studied interior and spatial design at Chelsea College during the same period which allowed me to combine both theoretical and practical skills which proved invaluable.

What were your highlights during this period?

Looking back I think it was the small, positive steps I took along the way that gradually built my confidence. From relatively simple tasks like creating my first set of sample boards or coming up with a concept for a bespoke floor, through to designing and co-ordinating significant projects and seeing them come to life on site.

Are there any projects which were key to this part of your career?

The architectural practice was a Health and Education specialist and two projects in particular were key. The Montefiore Hospital in Hove and St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne. Montefiore was a fascinating project to work on and seen as a bit of a flagship facility at that time. That project, along with St Wilfrid’s, was the catalyst for me having the confidence to go it alone.

Why did you decide to set up your own interior design practise?

It sounds like a really naff cliché but it was just a case of it being the right time. I felt that I could do more, believed I could do what I was doing better, and wanted to be more accountable. I couldn’t achieve that where I was and knew that I needed to give it a go.

Do you have a design ethos or style? 

I work around the principle that most people, somewhere inside them, know what they’d like to achieve but they’re either not quite sure how to get it out, or there’s a lack of confidence in doing so. I act as bit of a conduit, piecing together a scheme or a design based around whatever knowledge or inspiration I can tease from a client, design team or workshop. This kind of collaborative approach is a much nicer process than me walking in and saying ‘I think you should do this, use this colour, put down that flooring etc.’

One of the reasons I’ve never really looked to develop an individual style is that I’m not interested in any of this being about me. One way I’ve tried to keep things relatively fresh and diverse is by collaborating with other people, practices, studios and being open to influences myself. My role could be exactly the same within two almost identical design briefs but the outcome completely different, based purely on the dynamic of that specific design team. I love the familiar faces I get to work with from time to time and it was important for me to acknowledge that on my website.

What were your key goals when you started your business?

Initially it was survival. Can I earn enough to pay for the office, cover my half of the mortgage and not embarrass myself! Then, can I do all of those things whilst being inherently client-focused in my approach.

Have you achieved these? Have they evolved?

I have and probably to a fault at times, but that’s just the baggage that comes with a particular way of working. I’m a little bit smarter now in terms of how I position myself within a project team and what I sign up to, but the principles of a client-focused collaborative approach are exactly the same.

Which projects have been key to the growth of your business?

St Wilfrid’s was so important because I was allowed to continue working with the Hospice after setting up my company. That one project has been the catalyst for much of the healthcare work I’ve done since and it’s still extremely influential now. I’ve taken something from every single project that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, good and bad.

What hurdles have you had to overcome as an independent designer/business owner?

Leaving a large practice in order to go it alone you immediately lose that safety net. If you make any errors or misjudgements then you’ve no choice but to own it and, although I’ve never made any significant design or specification mistakes, I’ve certainly taken my fair share of lumps from a business point of view.

What are you enjoying most about this time of your career?

It’s still having the ability to help people. My role has evolved so much and goes way beyond ‘interior designer’, but the satisfaction of doing the right thing by my clients, good things for good people, really is the key to what my approach is about.

I notice on your website that you have a unique design partner?

Humphrey! He keeps me sane when I’m at work, if he was better at answering the phone or writing furniture schedules I probably would have lost him to a bigger studio by now. I’ve a few clients and suppliers who visit solely based on his availability and he occasionally makes the trip to site or to meetings with me. They loved him at Woking Hospice and some staff still keep in touch to see how he’s doing.

Are there career ambitions which you are yet to achieve?  

There isn’t anything specific driving me in that sense, but I have occasionally thought about finding someone like minded who could potentially come in and help grow the business. The actual design side of things has always come quite easily to me but it’s a much smaller part of the process than a lot of people realise. There are so many other elements involved and time is always very precious.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a very young daughter so there’s been quite a shift in responsibility. I neither can nor want to be consistently working long hours 6 or 7 days a week anymore so I have to be a bit more considered in what I do without compromising my commitment to individual projects and clients.

Contact Tommy Cairns at 3 Percent

If you would like to feature in this series and tell our readers about your career journey please email


About Alys Bryan

Alys is a knowledgeable design editor who is focused on instigating conversations, both online and in-person, with industry experts which challenge, educate and advance the commercial interior sector. Her training and 15 years of professional experience as a furniture designer for the commercial sector makes her uniquely placed to lead Design Insider as Editor
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