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Julie Laughton: Committed to the plan

Written by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Julie Laughton is a very busy woman. She starts her days at 4 a.m. and she tries to be in bed by 8 p.m. In between she’s scheduled to the half hour. She’s out the door by 6:30 a.m. and is home every evening at 6 p.m. Dinner is always a home-cooked meal (cooking is one of her passions), and her days, like her meals, are carefully choreographed so that she can be as efficient as possible. “I don’t do anything without a purpose,” she says. “I’ve become very efficient with my time. I don’t waste time on things that aren’t necessary.”

This efficiency is something her clients undoubtedly appreciate. And it is one of the things Laughton believes sets her apart from her competitors in the design/build world. It is not the only thing, however. 

Seeing only benefits of being an outlier

Being a woman in a very heavily male-dominated field is something Laughton seems to relish. “It is a plus for me,” she says. “I can multitask, plus my background blows everyone out of the water. There is no competition for me when it comes to a one-stop shop.”

Julie Laughton close up

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Julie Laughton of Julie Laughton Design

Discovering the significance of interior design

Laughton’s background is in design. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University in Interior Design. She says she started in architecture then moved to landscape architecture and then, finally, found her niche in interior design. “I came to understand it wasn’t only decorating but more about how humans live in their space,” she explains. “It is my passion because your home has to work.”

Leaving the family farm for New York City

Laughton left her family farm (literally) in Iowa and headed to New York City to pursue her career goals. She says when she arrived there she found herself in a very different world. “I had never had a bagel before, or real Italian food. I was green. I was hired immediately because I was the girl from Iowa who worked hard.” 

While there, Laughton worked for two architecture firms and served as the senior designer for an interior design firm. She worked with corporate clients as well as individuals. “I have a very high artistic level,” she says. This makes her a natural for hand-drafting, a skill she relied upon heavily while in New York. Despite becoming “a master of social etiquette and worldly experiences,” the grind of New York finally prompted her to make a change.

New York to LA to Newport to...home

“I came to California to visit a couple of buddies, and after a week at the beach I thought, ‘I need to move here.’” So she came to Los Angeles (“a no brainer”) and got a job selling kitchens. Unfortunately, despite doing very well professionally, she says, “I hated LA.” Her work got her noticed by clients who lived in Newport Beach, so she decided to give that a try. “I hated it even more,” she says with a laugh.

So she decided on Laguna and moved to Solana Way in 1991. An uncle had lived in Laguna many years prior. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1980. Laughton tried to figure out where he had lived, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it until one night she was having dinner at Dizz’s. Suddenly all the pieces came together and she discovered she was living next door to her uncle’s former home. “Coming to California felt like coming home,” says Laughton. “Laguna Beach is like my small town in Iowa.”

Becoming a contractor changed everything

It didn’t take her long to get comfortable in her new home. “After focusing on kitchens, because I’m a draftsman, I’d watch these contractors make messes of these projects. Their clients would hire me to fix it. I did owner/builder for a while before becoming a general contractor myself. That changed my world.”

Julie Laughton truck

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Julie Laughton with one of her trucks emblazoned with her motto

It changed her world because now she could be in total control, from concept to completion. “I have an architecture, mechanical engineering, interior design and an artistic background in my 25 years professional experience. I have a lot of God-given and hard-earned assets in my arsenal,” explains Laughton. 

“It all starts with a good plan”

Once she became a general contractor, her clients only needed to speak to one person: her. “I don’t like to see people suffer. I like it to be done right the first time,” she says emphatically. That’s why she is such a firm believer that before a project begins there must be a detailed, well-thought-out plan. She has 27 trucks that drive around with “It all starts with a good plan” affixed to them so if it sounds familiar that may be why.

Twenty-seven employees and $7 million in sales last year help explain Laughton’s commitment to her schedule. “I’m regimented, not rigid,” she explains. “I’m regimented because I need to get stuff done, but really, I’m a free spirit. I like change. I don’t get stressed. But nothing stops me from getting the job done.”

Laughton is currently working with her “favorite client” Tony Baxter. Baxter is the former senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering. The project is in Anaheim, but most of Laughton’s projects are either in Newport or Laguna.

Julie Laughton view

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The view from one of Laughton’s recent remodels

And, not surprisingly, Laughton says there are significant differences as to how her clients in both cities approach their projects. In general, Laughton says that her clients in Laguna are dealing with remodeling older homes and, as a result, they are more constrained by what they can and can’t do. “Their houses are more charming and they really try to fit into the fabric of the community.”

HGTV has made an impact

In Newport, Laughton says, it’s about maxing out space. “I still have many charming homes I’ve done on the peninsula, but there is a difference,” she says. Laughton credits HGTV for clients becoming more savvy as to what’s possible. The downside is, “They think everything can be done in 30 minutes,” she says with a laugh. As for Laughton’s individual style, she says, “I don’t like trends. I like traditional, timeless, clean lines…things that don’t need to be updated because they’re not over-stylized or trendy – ever.”

Whatever the stylistic preferences and differences, Laughton is so committed to her clients that the longest she will be away from them is a long weekend. Vacations any longer than that will have to wait until she’s ready to slow down, which doesn’t seem like any time soon.

Adding more to an already full plate

Laughton is currently writing a book. She is secretive about the title and all she will say about it is she has an agent and the subject is what she does for a living. She schedules her writing for one hour before her regular Sunday massage. Additionally, she speaks to women at AWA+D (Association for Women in Architecture and Design), extolling the virtues and opportunities for involvement in the construction side of things.

And just so you know she’s not just a work machine, Laughton says she is happily married. “He’s my true soul mate for life,” she says enthusiastically. It’s not surprising to learn he, too, is in the contracting business. 

In order to maintain a full work life and a fulfilling home life, Laughton says she is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. “I don’t involve in negative thinking, period. You are what you think. The power of intention works, period.” She definitely practices what she preaches.