The Elements: A Study in Reinvention

Kathy Sorbe, owner of The Elements, says she is proof positive. It’s never too late to reinvent your career and launch your entrepreneurial adventure.

Kathy got her start as a floral designer in the small northwest Iowa community of Alta. It was an endeavor she says she did “way, way too long.” But she learned to create something pretty out of nothing and appreciate it.

Kathy is the youthful and statuesque owner and lead designer of the uber-successful interior design and furnishings firm The Elements. She launched the business in Storm Lake after an already full career. She expanded to add a second location in The District at Prairie Trail in Ankeny a decade later. The business has been an unequivocal success. A darling among those with an interest in all things interiors.

Creating With Elements

It’s a philosophy that The Elements name embodies and is a guiding principle of the interior design firm. “We use a lot of Mother Nature, natural products, natural fabrics to break up the flatness of objects that are man-made,” says Kathy. She loves putting elements like bark, branches and rock materials to work to bring new life and energy to a space.

But back to floral design. “When working with people on their custom florals, it was a natural step to start helping them with other things in their space,” she says. And so 18 years ago, Kathy and her sister-in-law launched their brand of “house call” in the Des Moines area.

“A lot of people can really put themselves together beautifully but draw a blank when it comes to their homes,” she says. “And people are busy so don’t get it done. Our vision was to show them a finished room on approval. Everyone is visual so it was really important to make it easy for them to envision.”

Time for a Brick and Mortar

Kathy continued freelancing her design services in northwest Iowa, including Storm Lake, where she lives. And it became clear to her that a brick and mortar interiors store was needed there.

Those who have since been to The Elements are probably not surprised to learn that Kathy drew inspiration from Kansas City’s Nell Hill’s, one of the most popular home interior stores in the Midwest. To say Nell Hill’s is a fabulous haven of furnishings and accents is an understatement. Nell Hill’s was originally launched in Atchison, Kansas, an hour out of Kansas City. Kathy says the first time she went in to the store she could feel a truly special energy. “I had no idea what I was going to buy, but I knew I was going to buy something,” she remembers. “I knew if Nell Hill’s could do it in a town of 11,000 on a river I ought to be able to do it in a town of 11,000 on a beautiful lake.”

And so The Elements was opened in Storm Lake in 2004 in a 1944 brick facility that once housed a small manufacturing firm. It has since had four major expansions. Sales year one were nearly double what Kathy had projected and the shop’s entire inventory turned. Even during the recession in 2008 the business grew by 10-15 percent per year.

The Elements Expands to The District

The popularity of The Elements expanded into central Iowa. To meet the demand Kathy opened a second location in The District at Prairie Trail in late 2016. The business has been a hit. “The opportunity to expand, especially into one of the fastest growing and most progressive communities, was so exciting,” says Kathy. “We broke our sales goals before the end of the first year.”

“In a business like ours, the space is important. In The District we were able to build out our showroom exactly as we wanted,” says Kathy. The end result – a gorgeous 9,000-square-foot destination where customers can experience the quality, style and sophistication of The Elements.

“The Elements is a perfect complement to The District,” says Ashley Johnson, marketing director of DRA Properties, which manages the area. “We’d been searching for a store like this for years. It’s truly one of the most interesting and inviting concepts in home furnishings and design out there.”

Anything But Ordinary

Today The Elements offers award-winning residential and commercial interior design throughout Iowa and the Midwest. Its website boasts “Anything but ordinary” and its showrooms exemplify that. The Elements showcases unique and quality artwork, lamps, bedding, gifts, tableware, kitchen tools, rugs, and vintage finds. It has custom furnishings from brands like Lexington, Highland House, Century and Norwalk. The firm’s interior design team can help with everything from paint color selection and room layout to large scale construction and remodels.

“But it’s really our ability to put things together that we’re selling,” says Kathy. “Our edge is our presentation, our creativity, our problem solving and our customer service. We work on it every day. How to surprise clients when they come in the door. How to give them something they didn’t expect. We always try to put things together that are a bit of a surprise, and we are trying to surprise you every single time.”

A solid aspiration, no doubt, one that has served the business quite well. In a twist on an old saying, Kathy’s career and The Elements shows…reinvention really IS the mother of success.

Kathy’s Advice to Keep Interiors Fresh and Surprising

  • Think outside the box. There are no rules, though there are guidelines.
  • The best interiors reflect the lifestyle and personality of their residents.
  • Consider repurposing items in a new way. For one project, part of the floor of a 100-year-old school was converted into a kitchen island.
  • Conversation areas should be intimate with tables close enough that a cup of coffee (or cocktail!) can be set down from any seat.
  • A rug has to be big enough to hold most of the furniture of a setting…it becomes a “tray” for the furniture.
  • When considering interiors, it’s function first, then comfort and then aesthetics.
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