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  Topic Review (Newest First)
Mar 31st, 2003 12:49 PM
Lighter Side

March 30, 2003, 1:03AM

Venus Williams adds delicate touch to ferocious power

Cox News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the American Red Cross Designers' Show House opens Friday, visitors will be able to walk onto the west terrace and gaze upon a glamorous stone pedestal table with beveled glass top, an antique chandelier and champagne flutes etched with a dainty floral pattern.

The woman responsible for this elegant, ladies-who-lunch look?

None other than Venus Williams.

Yes, that Venus. The one with the sculpted biceps and the handshake like a vise. The one who routinely blisters opponents with her 100-plus-mph serves. The No. 2 women's tennis player in the world, who, in addition to selecting plump pillows for the show-house terrace, also played -- and suffered an unusual early-round elimination -- this week in the Nasdaq-100 tournament in Key Biscayne.

Last November, Williams -- all of 22 years old -- decided that on top of maintaining a world-class tennis career, she wanted to open her own interior design firm. Never mind that she doesn't have an interior design license or formal design schooling (though she's working on both). In the Williams family, as the world has come to understand, you don't say "What if." You say, "What next?"

"Sometimes it's scary," she says, "But I'm always really positive, so I always believe I'm going to make it."

It was with that level of confidence that Williams hung out a shingle on Prosperity Farms Road in Palm Beach Gardens for V Starr Interiors (a play on her full name, Venus Ebone Starr Williams); hired licensed interior designer Bonnie Nathan to run the office and work with her on projects; and began taking clients.

She's only had a couple, but that's by her choice. She says she's turned down jobs so she can grow the firm slowly, which allows her to select china patterns and kitchen tile while keeping a chokehold on women's tennis.

"It's challenging," says Williams, looking a little tired on a recent afternoon just before the start of the Nasdaq tournament. "In the mornings I practice, and then I come in (to the office) in the afternoons, and if I have time off, then I come in all day. Or I sleep a little late and then come in -- spoil myself a little bit."

And at this point, Williams laughs. It's a happy, genuine laugh that regularly punctuates her conversation. She laughs about sleep ("I like to sleep, and I love to dream"). She laughs about making all her friends and family use her decorating services ("Of course, nowadays, their projects come last because the clients come first"). And she laughs at those who've speculated that opening the design firm signals her imminent retirement from tennis.

"I can't give up my good job," she says. "I like it. I enjoy not just winning my matches, but not giving up a game. If I give up a game, I can't wait to play the person the next time because I just don't want to let them get another. Not everybody's able to make it to the top level, and I'm not going to take it for granted."

But clearly, Williams is serious about V Starr, too. The company is in the process of hiring more designers and plans to move into a bigger office in Jupiter at the end of May. ("It's exciting," says Venus. "I had a dream about it.")

Nathan is excited, too. The native of Utica, N.Y., had her own interior design firm in Syracuse for 25 years before moving to Florida 10 years ago. While she's helped her young boss learn some of the technical aspects of interior design, Nathan says Williams has taught her a lot about staying cool under pressure.

"I've learned to take the bumps in the road with dignity and get on with it and not obsess," says Nathan. "And most interior designers really get frantic about deadlines and presentations, but she has taught me how to temper that and go with the flow, to rise above it."

The pair met the new-millennium way -- over the Internet. Nathan had posted her resume at the same time that Williams was looking for someone to run her new firm's office. But even after several phone interviews, Nathan didn't know exactly who she was talking to until the pair finally met face-to-face; until then, Williams had used an alias to make sure interviewees were serious about the job.

Still, Venus' star status hasn't been a factor in the business, says Nathan. The two women are so comfortable together that "half the time she's my boss, and half the time she's my daughter," Nathan says.

Williams and Nathan also have established a division-of-labor system for design projects: They meet with new clients together, each writing down her vision for the project. Later, they compare notes. Nathan then handles the business side of the job, such as placing orders and dealing with contractors, while Williams weighs in on the creative side, selecting the different elements of the design such as colors, fabrics and furniture styles.

"She's got great taste and a great sense of color," Nathan says of Williams. "She knows every fabric swatch in our office, and she has a great sense of balance without having learned it yet, although she is studying."

In fact, Williams can't legally call herself an interior designer -- only a "decorator" -- until she completes the necessary courses to earn her licensing. But she's trying to squeeze it in. "Give me a couple years," she says -- and there's the laugh again.

By then, she will have finished the London-based correspondence course through which she's studying interior design. In the meantime, each project she works on with Nathan teaches her more.

"The hands-on experience I'm getting now is really good. It's like with tennis -- when I look back, when I first started, I don't even know how I was winning matches because I knew zero. But now I understand the game."

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