This post started out to be about other interior design mistakes. As I was writing it, I was falling asleep… So, I figured if I was, you would be too. haha
I realized what you probably want to know is the absolute worst…
The real-life daytime nightmares.
In the last 22 years, it was three really big things that took the fun out of my interior design business and more…
Oh, it’s not that I haven’t had other unpleasant things happen. It’s the usual; damaged furniture, a vendor who wasn’t up to snuff, or took waaaaay too long to produce a piece of furniture, a delivery company run amok. Those sorts of things, while unpleasant, got resolved fairly quickly and life went on.
These three biggies are the ones that took me months or even years to recover from both financially and spiritually.
There ARE yucky people in the world.
We all know that. Oh, we want to believe that most people are decent and kind, but the reality is, not everyone is. And I’m not talking about just having a random bad day, but a bad life kind of yucky.
But, let’s focus on the very worst soul-sucking experience where my interior design business lost $30,000, the first year
It was 1996 and 5 months into my first year of my brand new interior design business.
I was out shopping one day and ran into an acquaintance, N. She had bought a few things in the decorating store I had worked in before I started my new business. I knew about the fire that had gutted their lovely home in Katonah. Thank God, no one was hurt but the home was totaled and was about to be rebuilt.
She told me that she didn’t want to hire my previous boss because she wanted a different look; somewhat more contemporary and stylish, but still classic.
I got the job.
N was/is the perfect client. Nice, nice, nice, with a handsome budget, great taste and as easy-going as they come.
Dang it all! I saved that magazine for years and cannot find it. Maybe it got tossed before I moved? However, since I don’t have it and the only photo I found online is literally the size of a stamp, I found a somewhat similar Barbara Barry room to give you the idea of the styling and colors.
The furniture and fabrics we chose came from Baker Furniture, HBF, Donghia and Edward Ferrell. I designed and had built, a gorgeous mahogany dining table. The design was inspired by Barbara Barry’s vintage mahogany dining table that had been on the cover of House Beautiful
It was a good-sized home and required a lot of carpeting and area rugs that I was going to have custom fabricated.
My previous employer had used a gentleman in Manhattan, a Mr. Swindler, is his name, as a source for fine carpeting. [name changed of course, to protect the slimy] She had always spoken highly of him and so I thought that would be a good place to go for this job. He carried a lot of the same styles as Stark Carpets, but the prices were lower and the place wasn’t a zoo.
Formerly, Swindler was the head of the rug department at Schumacher— for 20 years.
Since there was no longer any rug department, I assumed that was when he started his business. As a matter of fact, his compact showroom was housed just above where Schumacher had its showroom back in the mid-90’s. That was at 57th and Lex in New York City.
I made an appointment and N and I were graciously ushered in by an elderly woman with a kind demeanor, who sat at the front desk.
It was just her and Swindler who presented with a soft-spoken gentlemanly manner. He appeared to be in his late 60’s. It was a pleasure to visit the showroom as Mr. Swindler was extremely knowledgeable but also knew when to step away. It was all very low-key; love that. And, we made our initial selections within an hour.
One of the carpets was this beautiful wool and sisal blend broadloom by Crucial Trading.
It was the exact same material that Barbara Barry had in her Hollywood Home! We would have this fabricated into 3 area rugs bound in heavy linen. There were 3 other high-end broadlooms, all monochromatic pale taupe colors for every room in the house. It was a sizable order and we were quite pleased.
One day, I was in the city shopping for clients and stopped in to give Swindler a check for another carpet we were ordering. He was sitting at his desk. I thought nothing of it at the time, but he was engrossed in about a couple dozen or so invoices spread over his desk like swatches of fabric he was trying to decide on. I guess I just figured that he was organizing things.
Weeks went by and I called Swindler to check on our order but there was no answer.
So, being overly conscientious and figuring the carpeting would be coming in soon, I sent in the final payment. I wanted everything to be perfect for N and her lovely family. They were moving back, in less than two months, so needed to get cracking with the carpeting order!
After a few days, I called to see if Swindler had received the check and still no answer, just the machine. I thought it was odd, but went about my business. Later that day, I tried again and still no response. The next day, I tried again and still no answer.
It was then, that it dawned on me that something not-so-good was up, but I figured that someone was ill or something like that.
At the time, my husband was working a few blocks away, so I had him go over to investigate.
He called me from a pay phone. (remember those?)
“Laurel, there’s a marshal’s notice on the door and a huge dead bolt. The place has been shut down!”
I don’t remember many details of what happened next. Nauseated beyond belief and more scared than angry at that point; that crook had 30,000 dollars of my client’s money! Money that was supposed to go for expensive carpeting for my client’s new home! No trust funds laying in wait for things like this.
That money would have to come out of my pocket because my client still needed her carpeting!
I was supposed to go to a business luncheon, but instead, I spent the rest of the day on the phone–spinning my wheels.
One call of course, was to N. I braced myself because I had no idea how she would react and she had every right to be mighty upset.
N was her usual wonderful self and felt horrible for me. I’ll never forget what she said.
“I want to rip his eyeballs out for what he did to you!”
Part of being nice is having a great sense of right and wrong and knowing the appropriate way to express an injustice. I’ve since borrowed that line a couple of times for others. My way of paying it forward.
I told N not to worry. I would take care of everything as quickly as possible. She told me that she wasn’t worried and she knew that it would all come right.
While that much did make me feel better, it didn’t stop me from being worried sick.
I called the wholesalers. At least I still had the samples so I knew where everything came from. Back then, it was not a common practice to give an interior designer– without a storefront, a wholesale account, but they took pity on me and granted me wholesale accounts!
Can we say, silver lining?
Meanwhile, I had a connection at the DA’s office through a close friend and pressed criminal charges.
This is the district attorney of New York City. You got that, right?
Granted, they had far larger fish to fry than an unsavory miscreant running off with 30k worth of carpeting sold to some Westchester pillow-fluffer. But, they should’ve been straight with me from the get go. Instead, it took them nearly a year to blow me off.
Again, I was devastated. Horribly depressed.
I know what you’re going to say. Why didn’t you hire a lawyer, Laurel?
Right. That’s a reasonable question. I didn’t have a lawyer, but our three-year-old’s psychologist (yes, you heard that right. Our three-year-old had a psychologist) recommended a local White Plains lawyer, Ed Frey.
So, I called him up.
And, told him the entire story.
What happened next shocked me almost as much as finding out I had been robbed.
This lawyer in Westchester County KNEW all about Swindler— our kindly carpetbagger. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had been robbed. Swindler had other businesses and aliases and a long stream of angry chumps.
Frey matter-of-factly told me that he was all-too-happy to put the screws to this guy. I had every confidence in his abilities to do that. Interestingly, I never actually met Ed Frey face-to-face. All of our business was done with faxes, (remember those?) phone and of course, snail mail. After all, it was 1998. I felt fortunate to have found him. It was also fortunate that Swindler hadn’t declared bankruptcy.
I can’t tell you how much time went by and I wasn’t counting on ever seeing that money again. That’s life. However, one day I received notification that Frey had won a handsome judgment on my behalf against Swindler. It included lawyer’s fees AND interest.
Now, we had to pray that Swindler would pay the court’s decree.
In short order, I received a check every week. It went on for years until all of the money had been paid back.
Shortly after that, N and family renovated another even larger home and she hired me again!
Here is their current home. Sorry, not a great shot. But you can see the dining table I had commissioned and Barbara Barry’s dining chairs for HBF and Baker. (both are no longer manufactured)
The HBF chairs were reupholstered in a Donghia fabric which I think looks amazing on those pretty chairs. I mentioned in a recent post that I don’t have this home in my portfolio because it’s so different from all of my other work. It was published, however in Westchester Magazine several years ago.
Is there something to be learned from this story?
There is always the possibility of great financial reversal with any young company and even an older company. One has to be prepared for this possibility and hopefully weather the storm.
Could the whole thing have been avoided?
In this case, I don’t think so. I wasn’t going to some shady dude in a shabby part of town. He had an elegant showroom in the heart of midtown one block from the D&D building. He had an excellent reputation as far as I knew.
How could I have known that the invoices spread all over his desk meant something nefarious? I realized after the fact, that he must’ve been taking from one order to pay for another! It was like a carpeting Ponzi scheme of sorts. That is, until he was caught and shut down!
It took me a long time to get over this. Certainly, getting the money back helped enormously. I lost large amounts in the other two situations, as well and did not get any of it back.
I’ll save those stories for another time. Or maybe I’ll just let them stay buried. We’ll see.
Any of you have any horror stories you wish to share? If the mood strikes you, please let us know in the comments.
Thanks again, to all who shared their gallery wall stories in the last post. That was a lot of fun and very helpful!