A Match made in Heaven

By staff February 1, 2004

The couple had diverse backgrounds but they felt an immediate connection. Despite the hurdles and challenges they faced, they shared wonderful moments together and glowed with happiness at the beautiful results of their partnership.

A bad romance novel? No, a good relationship between interior designer and client that resulted in a stylish and comfortable home. Unfortunately, not all such partnerships succeed. How do you ensure that yours is a design match made in heaven?

Get Personal

Local design professionals agree that, as with any good relationship, an interior designer should get to know the real you. Fred Hind wants his clients "to really open up, to give me priorities and time lines, money problems and health problems. Maybe one has a bad back. Then I won't put in a soft sofa. Where do they like to have their meals, at the dining table or in front of the TV?"

Whether the project is a new home or remodeling, a good interior designer will ask questions about how the client uses the space, whether children or pets share the space, which requires more durable fabrics and finishes, and, of course, the owner's favorite colors and styles. As designer Suzanne Sultana says, "It's called 'programming' and we learned it in school. You interview the clients and the answers go in their design book. There is a rhyme and reason to what we do; it's not just because things look pretty."

Bill Tidmore uses an interview sheet to set the groundwork. He even has a surprising question for women; he wants to know if they're pregnant. "Women don't see colors as brightly when pregnant, then when they have the baby they hate us because the colors are too bright!"

Designers frequently suggest that homeowners search magazines and catalogs for pictures of rooms, objects, colors, or patterns that appeal to them. The more information you provide, the better the designer can create a room that works for you.

Feel a Connection

Each designer has a different personality, style and working method, so most expect that clients will interview several to find their match. The client and designer will work closely together on the space and the client must live with the results long after the designer has packed up the last fabric swatches. So it's essential that they can relax and communicate with each other. "Trust is a huge issue," says Sultana, "because the designer is going into the client's personal space. Like a marriage, if you're not connecting, you might as well give it up. I have a dream client right now because she's open and I got incredible results. If it happens, it's like a magical thing. It just takes off."

Clients should request information about the designer's credentials including training, experience and references. Fred Hind, however, doesn't believe that a designer should always show a portfolio. "Some designers want to show off what they've done but those projects reflect other people's personalities. I want to look at the client's house and focus my whole attention on them."

See how the designer suggests approaching the project you have in mind. Discuss deadlines and availabilities. If the designer is busy for the next six months and you want the project completed in three, keep looking. Once you choose a designer, a contract should make it clear what the expectations are on each side.

Tell the Truth

Most interior designers insist that if you don't like what they suggest you should say so. And say it quickly. Don't let the designer go down the wrong path in a time-consuming search for the perfect 18th- century desk when you really had a contemporary slab of marble in mind.

"The client has to be honest, and the designer can't be hurt if the client doesn't like something," says Sultana. "The natural thing is to avoid hurting feelings but you have to not worry about it."

The same goes for budget. If the designer is getting carried away, or, conversely, isn't being lavish enough for your taste, 'fess up, and the sooner the better. It will help avoid unnecessary and costly changes.

Agree on a Budget

The number one cause for relationship rifts in marriage is money, and the same problem can sabotage a design relationship. Clients also need to be upfront about their budget. It will save time by enabling the designer to concentrate on acceptable solutions. The designer can help assess needs and create priorities about which projects to tackle first or which ones have more importance. Sultana thinks many people fear working with designers. "The misperception is that it's a luxury. But it isn't, because we can work within any budget. We save people from making mistakes that ultimately cost more because they come back and say 'help me' after they did things that didn't work."

Expenses will vary depending on the size of the room or house, quality of the furnishings and d├ęcor used, and the time the project takes. If a client is nervous about costs, Sultana suggests they ask for a "not to exceed" design fee based on an estimate for the time needed to complete the project.

Develop Trust

"Most people want to be in charge but some will say, 'Yep, I like that idea, do that,'" says Hind. But often, he adds, when clients call a designer, "there's a problem somewhere."

He does have a solution for the mish-mash of furniture that results from a marriage with a combined household or someone who's inherited Aunt Hettie's cherished lamp. "If there's an ugly piece of furniture that doesn't go but means something to the client we will just say, 'It's an exquisite piece but let's give it a rest for now.' Then they don't feel bad about it."

Stay Flexible

Sultana is adamant that "the designer must be flexible and not have an ego that insists something be done their way. Ultimately it's the client's happiness."

Alternatively, clients have to realize that the designer can't control some aspects of a project. Products aren't always available, contractors have a scheduling problem, or custom work takes longer than planned. Sometimes delays are unavoidable. Clients can help by not trying to do too much too fast or plan a party, as one couple did, for six o'clock the evening that the bathroom remodeling was scheduled to be finished. The workers were still trotting through the house with equipment as the hostess panicked.

"When something is delayed, we tell the client so there are no false expectations," says Tidmore.

Avoid the Big Mistakes

"The biggest mistake people make is when somebody has gone to retail stores and picked sporadically," says Sultana. The Asian might not go with the Floridian, which doesn't go with the modern pieces. To solve the problem, Sultana and most designers do a design book that incorporates all the fabrics, finishes, and furniture for the project, putting it together cohesively to show the client.

Hind is an interior design liaison to the Ringling School of Art and Design. He's seen students graduate, go into business for themselves, and fail. "When a designer blew it, generally it's because he or she didn't realize that the client is really asking for assistance. You don't just walk in with paper and pencil and tell someone what they want."

The process, he says, should be enjoyable. "I tell people when I'm doing their house that 'it's a great project, thanks for getting me involved. We'll have fun here.' And they start having fun, too."

And more than anything, that's what distinguishes a design match made in heaven.

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