Marissa Whitley Tago sees herself as a storyteller.
Certainly, she’s an interior designer, working with accent colors and complementary patterns and fashionable-yet-functional furniture, but that’s also how she tells stories.
“The way I go about interior design is the way that I would create a story,” she said. “That’s all a space is. You’re telling the story of who lives there … and the things they love.”
Whitley Tago founded and operates The Whitley Company, an interior design business in Columbia. She works on a wide range of projects with a variety of clients, from bachelors looking for a new basement to companies with new additions to furnish.
She prides herself on being versatile, which stems from an intimate design experience. When Whitley Tago takes on a project, she begins with a lengthy interview.
It’s important to learn not just the story of the space, she said, but the people who will be calling it home.
“I feel a little bit like a therapist,” she said, explaining that many customers decide to make design changes after major life changes, like divorce or empty-nesting.
“I get all the highs and the lows of what life has to offer. My clients run the gamut of all of those things, and I’m kind of that person who motivates them to maybe pick out things they would never typically like.”
She holds herself to a high standard in her craft because there’s pressure with interior design, she said. If someone is going to live within Whitley Tago’s work, she wants it to feel natural and for them to love it.
“I want someone to come into their space and cry,” she said. “Just like at the end of those HGTV shows.”
She also wants her clients to love her work because she loves it, too. It’s not about finding the right combination of colors or arrangement of seating — it means more.
“It’s my love language,” she said. “Some people give gifts, and some people will cook you a meal. For me, I would clean your house and rearrange and update what you have so you could see it better.”
Whitley Tago opened her design studio after earning an interior design degree from MU, but it’s what came before her career that’s especially interesting.
A native of Springfield, Missouri, she was named Miss Teen USA in 2001 and has had plenty of experience within the pageant world. She said her time in those competitions gave her “a better understanding of people,” which she now applies to her work.
“There’s a lot of pressure that you have to endure,” she said. “You’re only as good as your preparation.”
That’s why she takes diligent notes when interviewing a client, working hard to prepare before any design project is completed.
Hard work and thorough preparation have become integral to her personality, Whitley Tago said. She brings up competition in track and basketball that still applies to her design world.
“There’s a grind and a hustle that I’ve always had,” she said. “It’s that same feeling of like, OK, I need to deliver.”
She said she feels an added need to deliver for the people who helped her on her journey to business ownership.
“I’ve had amazing support,” she said, “and I think that’s really important.”
Now, as a woman of color who owns a business, she’s working to be an empowering figure in the community for those who might follow in her footsteps.
“That little morsel of influence that they got when they were three grows with them,” Whitley Tago said. “I had that. And that is crucial in building this next generation of entrepreneurs and community leaders and artists and activists.”
What she prides herself on most, though, is her ability to listen. It’s what always comes first in any project.
When she’s interviewing new clients, she finds that “certain aspects are highlighted.”
“They light up when they tell me about family heirlooms that they’ve had for five generations and it means a tremendous amount,” Whitley Tago said. “I could tell in the way that they talk about those things. It’s my job to pick up on those.”
And then comes the real part of her work:
“I’m just there to tell their story in a new and updated way,” Whitley Tago said.