Survival of the Fittest?


On any given day, as an interior designer, I may be invited into someone’s home to talk about how that home is working for them and how it is not.  It’s an introductory meeting and I do them all the time, but I’m still struck by their intimate nature.  

I mean, I’m not only asking you to share your home with me, but I’m also asking you how you live in it.  And how we live?  Well, that’s a cornerstone of how we define ourselves as humans.  I’m honored to be part of that conversation and even more honored if I’m hired for the project.

Each home is as different as their owners are—yet there seem to be questions that are common to all.  The first thing most potential clients wonder is, what do interior designers actually do?  And then they wonder if they really need one.  And if they do, they wonder if I’m the right one for them. 

All great questions.  I just wish there was a one-size-fits-all answer. 

In general, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that the designer-client relationship is all about the right FIT, and an introductory meeting is a great way to assess that. Don’t ignore your first gut instincts.  Did your designer communicate clearly?  Were they on time and professional?  Do they seem generally knowledgeable about their field?  Were they listening?  Did they ask questions?  Did you like them?  This is a relationship you may be embarking upon — you need to make sure it will work for you.  

You can also google additional questions regarding experience, references, billing practices, etc.  Those questions are important too.  But don’t ignore those first impressions.

To be honest, as an interior designer on an introductory meeting, I’m running through a list of questions of my own.  Like you, I too am trying to tap into my gut instinct about the fit.  But I’m also asking myself if I fully understand your aesthetic.  And if what you are trying to accomplish is realistic.  And is this project one hundred percent in my wheelhouse, because if it’s not then someone else could do it better, faster, and cheaper—and that’s who you should be working with.  Basically, do I think I could go into your home and be a rock star—because that’s what every client deserves.  And happy clients lead to a pleasant work environment.  And pleasant work environments lead to beautiful results.  And beautiful results lead to referrals.  So, it’s all a process that I take very seriously.

But do you actually need me?  Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.  It’s an easy yes if I’m talking to a couple of scientists (for instance) with no creative sense because they’re busy coming up with vaccines and saving lives.  If that’s you, I can really help.  I’ll look at your home holistically to make sure my recommendations are in line with your needs.  I’ll provide 3D drawings, so you are able to visualize the results.  And I’ll add a level of thoughtful detail into that design which will elevate your project beyond what you could have accomplished on your own.  Additionally, I can manage the construction process, handling the details and making sure your contractor has everything they need, and that your crew is smiling.  

I can’t completely eliminate the stress you’ll feel living through a substantial renovation, but I can certainly make it easier.  So, yes, I say to potential clients like these.  I have this one fabulous skill set, and you have a completely different, but equally as fabulous, skill set.  So let me help you achieve good design, and I’ll leave the vaccines to you.

The question is a little trickier when my potential client seems to be capable and knowledgeable and expresses an interest in doing some stuff themselves and also wants to save money.  (You GO all you adventurous DIY-ers!)  If this is you, you really might not need me.  I might offer you some advice and encourage you to, well… go have at it.  Especially if I don’t think your budget can afford me.  I don’t want to be like the grinch reaching down and taking your last can of who—hash!  I want more for you than that.  

So roll-up-your-sleeves, arm yourself with a good contractor and lots of pictures of what you want, and keep your design as simple as possible.  There is so much free design advice out there between Pinterest, and Google, awesome salespeople, and friends with great taste.  Will it be a part-time job for you?  Absolutely.  But that’s how sweat equity gets earned.

There are certain situations that I think hands down really benefit from design help.  One of them is if you are living in a tricky house.  These homes may be tricky just because they have an open floor plan where all the elements really need to work together.  But they can also be houses with problems.  Maybe you live in a rambling post-and-beam, and you want it to be more homey.  Maybe it’s making sense of an unfortunate addition.  Maybe it’s taking a spec house with it’s cheap finishes and making it feel more custom.  

These problems are tough for me to tackle, and I’m a design professional, so don’t go it alone.  I mean, the stakes are high, right?  This stuff isn’t cheap.  And keep in mind that you’re also protecting the investment you made when purchasing your home.  So get some help and get it done right.

Other situations where I think it would be silly to go it alone?  Large projects are in that category.  Like when you want to renovate that house before you move in.  There are just so many moving parts to manage.  Or a high-end project — when you desire a level of design that you just simply need a design professional to help you achieve.  Or a make-it-go-away project like updating some bathrooms in a second home.  Or an investment project when the goal is to get it on the market as quickly as possible.  There’s help out there for all that.

The good news is that an initial introductory meeting is usually just that.  You’re not getting married.  You’re not even committing to a series of dates.  Just follow your gut and do your research, and don’t settle for anything less than a rock star.  It’s the same advice your mother would give before you go on that blind date.  And you know your mom is always right.

Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester.

american culture, good contractor, jen coles, interior designer, designer, manchester, professional home designer, arthur desmond, home design, interior design