I’ve been knocking around the world of decorating for a while now. I’ve done a few projects myself and have developed a lot of friendships with some of the best designers both locally and nationally. One thing that I hear from those in the trade in Kansas City, on both coasts and everywhere in-between, is a common frustration. Everyone, of course, is happy for the work, but there is an underlying sense that while clients want help, they don’t quite understand the business.
Decorators can structure their fees in a number of ways. Some require a retainer, a lump sum up front that ensures the designer that the client is both interested and committed to the project. Most designers charge a combination of an hourly fee and a mark-up on product, though the structure can vary. This one charges a higher amount for time and a smaller mark-up. She keeps her hourly rate lower but takes a small discount off of retail. A more seasoned designer may be able to charge both a hearty fee and a mark-up, as he has the experience and position in the field which allows it.
Regardless of how a designer structures his compensation, the fact that he is charging money for his skills and that clients are willing to pay it implies two things: he’s a professional, and he has something—likely skill, talent and experience—that you don’t. In this area he is no different than your attorney or your accountant. Can you balance your checkbook? Of course. Does that mean you are up-to-date on the latest tax code changes? Probably not. Interestingly, in the areas of law, accounting, even lawn care, people seem comfortable deferring to the experts, but when it comes to design, professionals are often treated as buddies with good taste.
Part of this, of course, is that when choosing a designer, we gravitate to people whom we like, both their aesthetics and their personalities. Let’s face it, designers are creative people; they have a lot of flair. I’m rarely happier than I am in a room of people in the trade; taste and wit run high. But this relationship, which muddies the line between professional and personal—indeed many designers become friends with their clients—can be tricky. (I mean, I really like my accountant and my lawyer, but I rarely hang around and chat about the latest show or fashion with them.) That said, there should be some clear ground rules when working with a designer. They are remarkably talented and knowledgeable people and should be treated with respect.
If You Could Do it Yourself, You Would
Some people are hopeless when it comes to color and furniture arrangement and the gentle mix-mastering that results in good design. These folks happily defer to a decorator’s advice. They are thrilled to be relieved of the burden. But a lot of us hire a designer because we are passionate about design ourselves. This can lead to a remarkable creative tension that brings out the best in both people. What becomes challenging is not allowing the designer to do his job. If you discuss the wingchairs that will be covered in camel silk velvet and trimmed with the exquisite brown suede welt, don’t be surprised when your designer does not find it “fantastic!” when he arrives at your house to find that you have purchased two khaki-colored twill somethings from a big-box retailer as a replacement. It’s not the same thing. Not that you are not allowed to make decisions on your own, but be aware that this changes the overall plan and further, that a heads-up would have been welcome.
The Internet Has Changed Everything
As in every successful relationship, there has to be trust. It’s smart to make your business arrangement clear before you begin, but time and again I hear designers tell me that they make presentations to clients who then shop the items online, only to come back and say “I found it cheaper somewhere else.” The thing to keep in mind is that this is a business. Designers are professionals; this is not their happy hobby. They are in it to make money. To pay their rent. I can guarantee that it took some time, either in actual legwork or through years of experience, to select that fabric for your curtains. You should not expect them to meet online pricing, which I have found to be a bit nebulous anyway.
Time and Mark-up
I know, especially if you are having custom work done and buying high-quality product, that you are writing big checks. With this often comes an impression that designers are making a lot of money. If the overall budget is large, this may be true (and warranted) but usually mark-ups are relatively small. The chair is a good bit of money, but the designer’s take is not. In addition, I know from my experience and my relationships that most designers are more likely to underestimate their time than take advantage. It takes a remarkable amount of legwork to track down the elements of a tasteful and interesting room. On the hunt, there are lots of dead ends. At the end of the day it can be difficult to discover that one has spent three or four hours trolling for fabric and come up with only a few candidates, or worse, empty-handed. More often than not, in this case designers shave time from the bill.
Designers Have Lives, Too
I fear the ease of electronic communication is the culprit of this last offense. It is so easy to shoot an email or a text while reading the Sunday paper about a product that you’ve seen or when you realize you will be in town next week to meet. Only in the most serious situations would you communicate with your attorney on a weekend. Only in crisis, I imagine, would you call your doctor at home in the evening. There needs to be professional courtesy for designers, too. Creativity is a muscle, but it needs time to relax and recharge. Allow your designer to step away from the project. I guarantee that he will more likely be inspired weeding his garden or taking a run than he will be by your screen-shot stream of images that ping his phone while he’s in the bath.
WORD OF ADVICE
“A designer can educate clients on quality and help them understand the difference in the range of items they see on the internet. Understanding value helps clients make good decisions.”
Lisa Curran Interiors
“I think people think using a designer is going to cost them a lot of money, but we can actually save them money by keeping them from making costly mistakes. Also, our resources are so much greater. That is a huge added value.”
“You need to trust your designer. If you do, he or she can offer a good education. If you take on too much on your own, you may derail the process.”
Wells Design Studio
“Most clients think a designer has a specific design style. A tenured designer is not tied down to one style,
but has the ability to learn the individual style of each client and take it beyond the client’s expectations.”
M. Sudermann Interior Design
“My hope for clients is that they strive for quality and beauty in their homes, but not perfection. Putting together a thoughtful and personal interior may take more time and effort than seen on today’s decorating shows, but it will be well worth it.”
Taylor Interior Design
Q: I like doing some of my design work myself, but I feel like the finished product isn’t as polished as I’d like it to be. I’m afraid a designer will take over the process and my house won’t look like me. How do you stop that from happening?
— Lee Young
A: The best designers are not interested in a blank slate or a blank stare from their clients. The most successful rooms come from the collaboration of a professional and an engaged client. You need to find someone whom you trust to keep your needs in mind from aesthetic, lifestyle and budget perspectives. As in all relationships, balance is best and conversation is key. A good designer won’t bully, and a good client will be open to the advice of a professional. You may be surprised that your designer will become a close friend. (Who else knows how much wine storage you need and that you must have a high shelf in the pantry to hide your favorite chocolate?)
Do you have a design question? Send your query to firstname.lastname@example.org and it may appear in a future issue.