Interior Design Business Practices That Erode Trust

freaking-out-over-your-paint-colors

 

This is part II from Sunday’s post about why the residential interior design profession might be in trouble. One reason is from outside forces and/or misguided marketing decisions.

 

However, even more insidious problems, happen because of some common interior design business practices that give our profession a bad rap.

 

And, I’ll just go to the main idea. From what I see and hear, there is still a prevalent idea in the general public’s mind that interior designers and decorators can’t be trusted.

Here’s Why:

 

  • Nobody can figure out how designers charge.
  • Designers will use every angle they can to filch money out of you.
  • Interior designers are cagey, shady and dishonest.

 

Now, before I go on… Do *I* think that?

 

HELL NO! Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, I am sure that in every business there are criminals, but most of the designers I know, do not make a lot of money. In fact, I did a search and the highest average income for an interior designer in the United States, I could find was about $81,000 a year. But, some reports such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the average at about $51,000.  Whatever. Most interior designers are making well under six figures and in 2019, if you live in my area that doesn’t go very far.

 

Sure, there are some A-list interior designers who make well over a million dollars a year.

 

Some make millions. But, their income is usually not all from client-work. Most of the top interior designers have multiple income streams including, licensed products, book deals, online and/or physical shops and speaking gigs. And, we are talking about maybe the top 200-300 or so in the field.

 

But, the other day, I got an email from a reader who is considering taking legal action against her designer, because she thinks that the designer acted unethically and deliberately mislead her into thinking she was charging one way, when she was actually charging a different way.

 

Let’s begin with the initial email. It is edited for clarity, not meaning.

My words in teal are me musing, here, not what I said to her.

 

Dear Laurel,

I enjoyed this blog post about interior designer’s fees:

Unfortunately, I’m having a dispute with my designer.

I agreed to pay her a flat fee of $2,000 for a small project (master bedroom and an open living/dining area of a 1750 sq. ft. townhouse). I assumed this covered design and procurement services with material purchases at cost which would get passed on to me.

 

There should be no question in the clients’ mind about how her interior designer or decorator charges.

But, I am struggling to understand why this woman feels entitled to get merchandise at the same price her designer is spending. The design fee, I always told my clients covered my time before orders were placed. It was a flat fee to do the drawings, shop, specify, mood boards, shop… travel… You get it. Still, it should be spelled out.

(back to the email.)

 

The total material costs I paid ended up at ~$17k (couch, coffee table, dining table w/ chairs, accent cabinet, pendant light, king bed, 2 fans, and accessories.)

 

At the end of the project I asked for purchase receipts and she flatly refused.

 

When you go to Bergdorf Goodman, do you ask them for their purchase receipts? I didn’t think so. Why is a designer different? I always told my clients that I am a walking talking store. And then, it makes sense.

She admitted that she charged me more for each item than what she paid. I do not know if she marked up prices, already at retail, or sold to me at retail and kept the discount for herself. She says I paid retail.

She will not disclose the receipts, where she got the materials, the manufacturer, or the receipts for ~$1k in shipping costs.

 

We had a written contract that listed the design fee but made no mention of how materials would be priced.

 

I wrongfully assumed that she was fully compensated with the $2,000 design fee and that I would pay for furnishings and materials at cost.

 

Per the ASID code of ethics interior designers must disclose all sources of project revenue.

 

I’m not understanding this line fully. She should be disclosing her sources or most of them. And she should be disclosing your price for each item. This happens before you write out a check. But, it’s two separate things.

This was not done verbally or in the agreement. She says the code of ethics is inapplicable because she’s not a member, but I reference this only to demonstrate generally accepted professional standards.

eww… Yes, that’s not the right answer. But, she did put herself in this position by not being clear.

 

Her unethical and blatantly dishonest behavior is causing me to consider arbitration. Can I please have your take on this situation? I’m not sure how prevalent this practice is, but from your article it sounds like it certainty occurs.

 

This is how I responded.

Hi Debbie,

It sounds like the two of you have had a break-down in communication and/or a misunderstanding. Without seeing her letter of agreement, I cannot say if she mislead you or not, but based on the numbers and everything you said, I have to say that it is unlikely that she purposely mislead you.

 

In addition, 17k for all of that sounds exceedingly reasonable.

 

find out how much it costs to furnish a room.

 

For instance, below are average prices I would charge for the items you purchased.

 

But, actually, they are mostly below average. These are average for a more casual client, not the formal mahogany dining table client.

 

couch (including fabric) 3,500 – but could easily be $6,000 or more depending on manufacturer and fabric!
coffee table, 1,500
dining table 5,000 (actually a range would be between 2,000 – 12,000)
w/ chairs, 3,600 but could be 8,000
accent cabinet, 1,200
pendant light, 600
king bed, 3,000
2 fans, 800
and accessories 1,000

17,500
Plus, I came up with about 1,900 for S/H. I don’t know how she did all of that for 1,000. Maybe 20 years ago.

1,900 (total with S/H)

Plus tax in NY 7.38%
sub total 19,400
1,430.75 = tax

$20,830.75 – That’s a low average. Most of my jobs that number would’ve been closer to 30k.

 

Here’s the problem. Like me, and most designers, she undoubtedly gets her products at numerous sources.

 

And these sources have varying discounts to the designer. That’s an important point. That discount would be anywhere from 10% to 70% off from the retail price. The retail price being the MSRP.

 

Otherwise, any price to you, the end-user, from a designer is the retail price, whether she marks it up $1.00 or doubles the price.

 

And, if she is able to get some of that product at rock bottom wholesale, then if she doubles the prices, she is still selling you at well-below the MSRP by from 20%-30%.

This is why I have a big problem with the “cost-plus” system. The cost-plus system was developed primarily for designers selling only the very highest-end merchandise, or they are also charging a substantial hourly fee.

However, I never divulge my net prices. Never. Or, as I’m fond of say. “When Bloomingdale’s tells everyone how much they’re paying for the items they’re selling, I will too.”

 

In my case, I charged a nominal design fee and then only a markup on the products purchased. But, that system is more old-school. However, it worked very nicely for me 97% of the time.

 

It doesn’t matter what system one uses for compensation. In discussions with colleagues, it always appears that our bottom lines are similar. What’s important as is the main point of this post is that we are as CLEAR as possible with our clients – up front.

Frankly, for the size of that job and the time that I know it took her to do this job, $2,000 isn’t nearly enough money.

 

It is standard for an interior designer to earn at least a third of what you are spending. Although, some designers double the price of EVERYTHING.

 

In any case, it only makes sense (to me, anyway) that designers purchase their merchandise at the lowest possible price. That way it’s a win-win. He/she can put on a bigger mark up AND still save her client money.

For me, I would’ve charged the $2,000 design fee up front and then I would work in a mark up of about a third over what the client is spending, before tax and shipping. That number would be roughly an additional $5,750.

 

There is no way, I would ever give my entire discount to a client. NEVER. And I recommend that other designers don’t either, unless they don’t mind going bankrupt.

 

Therefore, if she is only going to charge you an up front design fee of $2,000 the protocol, would be to charge the upfront design fee as she did AND a hefty hourly fee of at least $175.00/hr. Based on approximately 40 hours of work, of which I’m sure that she spent that much time.

That would be an additional $7,000 +/-. That is another way that some designers charge, but I preferred to work on a markup on purchases because I feel that the hourly fee discourages good communication from the clients. In any case, the client always gets an itemized cost estimate so they know beforehand, exactly how much everything is going to cost. No surprises.

 

What I told my clients to avoid any misunderstanding is exactly what I’m telling you, except that I worded it as a discount off of the retail. I did that my entire career

 

I told them that they would never pay more than retail, but that was only if I was ordering from a catalog that was giving me a measly 10% off, like Pottery Barn, for instance. (ohhhhhh, they’re having a great sale.) The other items would be sold at from 20-30% below the MSRP. This was also stated in my letter of agreement.

I always felt that psychologically, it sounds better to say a discount rather than a mark-up. Right? Everyone wants a deal.

Again, since I can’t see the wording in her LOA, I don’t know if she conveyed this to you or not. If not, that is an error on her part.

 

However, I sincerely do not think that you were ripped off in any way.

 

And I would strongly advise against taking any kind of arbitration against her because I don’t think that there’s much of a case here, if any at all. After all, she must’ve told you before you paid for everything, the price, otherwise, you wouldn’t know how much to make the check out for. That was the time to speak up and ask questions, not at the end of the project.

Now, if you had told me that the bill came to $50,000 and the shipping alone was $5,000, I might think differently. But her pricing for what I’m sure are quality products, if anything sounds a little low. And I know from all of my years of experience, that this job took her dozens of hours from start to finish. It definitely did.

 

And, it also sounds like me, she probably ate some of the S/H costs. I frequently did that, so as to avoid the client freak out.

 

Believe me. I was barely scraping by with the money I earned when I had clients. I’m grateful that I found a better way for me. Nobody goes into this business because they want to make their clients angry.

Best,

Laurel

 

This is an unfortunate situation.

I am put out by the designer not divulging any sources and being specific with how she charges and makes money. And, I was disappointed that when asked, she still acted cagey and like she’s hiding something. So, I don’t blame Debbie for thinking in kind. The designer set her up beautifully. I don’t think that is her intention, but none-the-less, that is what appears to be the case.

 

Does she HAVE to divulge sources? I didn’t answer that earlier.

 

That is a personal decision. If she has a special custom upholstery company, I have no problem with her “white-labeling” that info. And, the same for her custom workroom. But, every fabric, accessory, table, etc.? I feel that’s a bit much. And while I don’t think it’s ethically wrong, it’s certainly not endearing.

 

Fragonard, The Swing - with Laurel Interior Design Business Practices

 

And we NEED to be endearing. After all, don’t we want her continued business and her friend’s business and her children’s business 20 years from now?

This is why it’s crucial to look at the big picture. You might lose money with one client, but they’ll be soooo impressed that they’ll refer you over and over.

 

Over-all, from what I can see, this designer was not clear with her client and that’s a big problem because in this case, it perpetuates the idea that we’re a bunch of sneaky, dishonest and price-gouging pillow fluffers.

 

And, if there’s no trust, it’s all over.

 

if there

 

But, Laurel, excuse us for interrupting, but don’t your clients “shop” you cause they sure shop us!

 

Yes, yes, of course, they shop us! I shop me too and I recommend that you shop yourself, as well.

 

By “shopping,” if that’s not clear, it means doing an online search for a lower price of the same product.

 

And, if you’re getting your products for the lowest prices possible, you SHOULD be competitive.

 

This is the premise of Laurel’s Rolodex with over 180 designer friendly sources! Many of these sources will sell to interior designers at rock bottom wholesale.

 

Laurel

 

However, I was also disappointed that the client appeared to have no idea what went into putting all of this together for her. With all of the hours the designer needed to complete this job, that $2,000 would’ve netted her about $25.00/hr. Most of my colleagues have an hourly fee of between $150-$250/hr.

 

And, an A-List interior designer will charge between $30,000 and $150,000 for a design fee– ALONE,  PLUS a hefty hour fee.

 

Now, they might be working on a cost-plus basis of 30%, but that is because they are doing the highest of the high-end in furnishings.

 

Jonas Upholstery - custom high-end sofa - Interior Design Business Practices

A custom high-end sofa from Jonas upholstery, for example might start out at about $10,000 at the designer’s net price. (that price is a guesstimate) The designer tacks on her 30% to make the sofa $13,000. BUT, that doesn’t include the fabric. The net price on the Lee Jofa hand-blocked print is $250 a yard and they need 20 yards because of the large repeat. Yes, that’s an additional $6,500! But, we haven’t figured in S/H and tax.

 

However, you can see that this sofa is already going to cost well over 20 grand. But, this is an entirely different level of business. So, for that designer, cost-plus works.

 

Please note, I am not annoyed at this reader because she didn’t spend 20 grand on a sofa; but, I’m disappointed that there is STILL a pervasive attitude that what interior designers and decorators do is not valuable. My impression is that Debbie thinks of her designer as more of a personal shopper. And, of course, it is much, much more than that!

It appears that many do not have an inkling of what it takes to complete a job. Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to wave and poof, it’s all done.

 

And, then Debbie sent me this response back:

 

I sincerely thank you for such a detailed response and frank, honest answers. I’m kind of blown away lol.

Yes, I really dropped the ball in not fully discussing the details of the agreement. This is a shared responsibility of course. The LOA was rather vague. There was no mention of material pricing in the contract or specifically what the design fee did or did not include. I thought paying a flat fee obviously meant she was simply procuring materials on my behalf, but she views it as though she’s a store owner, although she doesn’t have a showroom, hold inventory, or utilize working capital to obtain materials.

 

uh oh… I better clear outta here before you guys torch the place!

 

She probably should not have charged a high flat fee up front for a simple floor plan since she made thousands off the materials, but I suppose it could have been worse and she may not have had any bad intent.

I guess at the end of the day this is yet another learning fee. I just wish I wouldn’t repeat these mistakes!

Thanks again

 

Yes, designers. I see the smoke coming out of your ears. But, this woman is teaching all of us an important lesson and this is why I’m writing about this.

 

My response below:

 

Well, you caught me on the right day. [she did!]

But, Debbie. I don’t think you’re understanding several things and it’s fine if you don’t, at this point. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to make you see the reality of this situation.

I don’t think you made a mistake. In fact, I think that you would’ve most likely paid more had you gone to a store and tried to do all of this by yourself. Only, you might very well have made some whopping mistakes. Plus, she did all of the leg work. It appears that it is not understood what goes into every decision she helped you make. And, I do know the machinations she undoubtedly went through to make sure that things went as smoothly as possible. I know, because I went through them with every job I took. It’s incredibly stressful and exhausting. But, that’s the part you didn’t see.

 

Interior designers provide a necessary and valuable service.

 

And, we carry a huge amount of financial responsibility even if there is no physical shop. You have to understand that I LOST thousands of dollars in the years I was taking clients. If something goes horribly wrong and it’s the vendor’s fault or the delivery company’s fault and they won’t make good on it. Guess who has to shell out the bucks to get it taken care of?

You can read here about the time a vendor ran off with over $30,000 he was supposed to use to purchase carpeting for an entire home. My client’s money. I had to use money I didn’t have to purchase 350 square yards of expensive carpeting out of my own pocket. It was very early in my career. At the time, I had a six-year-old and a two-year old. Honestly, I wanted to die. (You can read the sordid story in the link)

This is only a tiny fraction of the sh*t I had to swim through for 22 years!

If we don’t charge a mark-up, we won’t be in business very soon!

 

Debbie Wrote back:

 

Thanks again for your time and insights!!

Debbie

So, let’s recap and see what’s missing and how we can do better. If we do better, the public perception of us as professionals will improve and that can only be help us get more work, as I see it.

 

The problems, in this case, IMO, stem from the interior designer. It is her job to inform and if necessary educate her client. And, it appears that she failed on both counts in some key areas.

 

If she deliberately mislead the client because she feared not getting the job if she divulged all, then she’s only perpetuating the myth that designers are liars, sneaky and not to be trusted.

I very much don’t recommend that. If this client can’t afford her services, then she needs to find clients who can.

The designer made things worse by stonewalling and being defensive when questioned.
However, the client should not be questioning pricing at this late date.

 

As stated, I have not seen the designer’s letter of agreement, but from the sounds of it, it is inadequate.

 

Jean-Léon Gérôme Ferris _Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776-good model for interior design business practices

Jean-Léon Gérôme Ferris _Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776

 

The reason for the letter of agreement is so that it is very clear what the terms and conditions are.

I found a FREE Interior Design Business Practices manual that you can download. It’s hundreds of pages!

 

Here’s the link to it. There is a ton of useful information here about how to charge, what needs to be in your letter of agreement (contract.)

 

Another post you may enjoy which links to other similar posts is another post about a designer whose client is giving her sleepless nights.

 

My closing thoughts are this. Being a good interior designer requires one to wear many hats. It is not enough to be someone with “good taste.” But, my hope is that designers continue to learn and grown. I do believe that most of my colleagues elevate our profession immensely. I’m so proud!

 

For clients. Never ever be afraid to speak up.

 

And don’t work with someone who you don’t feel 100% comfortable with. That goes both ways.

Decorating and designing for a client is a very personal business. But, it can be quite gratifying and a lot of fun, too.

I also believe that it is possible for clients to get great value AND for interior designers to make a good living.

 

One last thing I learned and it was only after I had been in business for 17 years.

 

Always charge for the initial consultation. It’s a horrible feeling to give tons of advice for two hours and then you don’t get the job and have nothing to show for it either.

You are coming to meet them, AND to work. The clients will get to see you in action without you holding anything back. When I started charging for the initial consultation, EVERY consult except for one or two resulted in a job offer. Before that, it was only about 50%.

Happy Spring!

xo,

PS: I’m including another free gift! Please enjoy the letter of agreement I used for over 20 years.

You are welcome to use it as a template or adapt it for your own business.

PPS: It’s Thursday evening. Thank you so much to all who’ve taken the time to contribute to this important topic. However, I need to turn off the comments because I’m supposed to be working on other things, today. I appreciate all of you very much!

And, it’s even later. Someone got upset and thus, I deleted several comments. Unfortunately, I went against my policy and published a comment which did start a shitstorm of other comments, some, with a bit of a snarky or “I know better than you” tone.

So, I should’ve followed my own policy and not published it. However, I couldn’t see what was coming.

While this might be a controversial topic for some. It isn’t for me. And, it isn’t for other designers. We all do what is comfortable for us, the area we live in and the focus of our businesses. I used a particular way of billing for over 20 years and it worked beautifully for me and my clients loved it.

It might not be right for another designer and her or his business. I respect that and it is my hope that others will respect our right to conduct our businesses as we wish. There is no ONE way and as long as we are doing it with integrity, and clarity, it is fine.

Thanks guys!

5th edition rolodex-post-graphic - November 2018 - A unique shopping guide with hundreds of sources created by Laurel Bern

  • Rachel - March 21, 2019 - 5:16 PM

    Thanks Laurel!

    Yeah, I’m way more intimidated and nervous about design school than I was about law school.

    But as I start mentally preparing myself for design school, I am so intimidated by all the new skills I’ll have to learn and then demonstrate.

    In fact, one of the most immediately impressive people I’ve met in a while (you know, the kind of person who is clearly extremely bright and competent and you just know that they’re great at what they do?) was the director of my future school’s design program.
    I had the thrilling experience of being both incredibly inspired and intrigued by her description of the program and the career paths to which it could, and being completely intimidated by her knowledge and experience.
    I had that with only one law school professor, and very rarely in my professional life since.

    So yeah, after meeting her, I absolutely knew that this would be a challenging intellectual journey. I mean, I thought it before I met her, but I knew it after I met her.

    And thanks for correcting my terminology! As someone with NO design experience who doesn’t want to embarrass herself too much, I need all the help I can get.ReplyCancel

  • Laurel Bern - March 21, 2019 - 3:40 PM

    Susie, your comment was fine, except that we ARE saying the exact same thing! It’s in the post. Below is a direct quote.

    In any case, the client always gets an itemized cost estimate so they know beforehand, exactly how much everything is going to cost. No surprises.

    ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - March 21, 2019 - 1:44 PM

    Laurel,
    Reading your blog is fascinating.

    For better or worse, I am going to be starting an interior design master’s program in the fall. I already have a law degree, and though I’ve never practiced, I have been a professional for a decade now.

    In telling people that I’m going back to school for interior design, I am struck by the jerk responses I get. Yes, my husband is an attorney and makes a good salary and so we can afford to go without my salary for two years and pay my tuition.
    But NO, I am not doing this because I want to play around with fabric swatches for the rest of my life.
    No, it’s not a waste of my intellect or previous degrees.
    It’s extremely irritating that I have to constantly push back against these sexist attitudes.
    Most recently, it was to a friend’s husband who is a photographer. And like, an artist, not a portrait or wedding photographer. He was asking me about the utility of design (as in, how in the world does this have value), and I had to actually return the volley: how does his art have value? And he was very taken aback that I would DARE question the value of his art, but he had no problem questioning the value of a career that can have immediate, every day impacts on people’s lives.
    Anyway. I imagine this will continue to happen, especially if I go into residential design. As it is now, I think commercial design is more my speed, but maybe not?
    I do enjoy smashing misogynist assumptions, so that part isn’t so bad.
    All of this to say: yes to assumptions about women who do work like this.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 21, 2019 - 3:33 PM

      Hi Rachel,

      Keep fighting the good fight. Of course, we can’t change people’s perceptions unless they’re open to it. Ahh.. we can’t change people, period. But, if enough of us speak our truth, perhaps, over time, we can erode away at some of this erroneous thinking.

      The art photographer’s response is mind blowing, however.

      In addition, in case anyone thinks otherwise; it is in no way a waste of your intellect. In fact, your mind will be challenged in ways it never has been before. And, at the speed of lightening.

      Here’s wishing you every success in your future studies and career path wherever it may take you. Very excited and happy for you! Yes, commercial (usually referred to as contract) and residential interior design are two completely different animals.ReplyCancel

  • Pamela Bozanich - March 21, 2019 - 12:22 PM

    If you want to get a discount on furniture and accessories, the internet provides countless opportunities to do that on your own. As a former public prosecutor with low pay, I have been doing this my whole life. If you want a design expert, you hire a designer. Luckily, I am wholly without creativity, but a good copier. Hence blogs and magazines have been my guide.
    If I were to hire a designer, I would expect to pay for their expertise, just as I would be justified in asking for money for my expertise (i can put you in jail! LOL). $2000 for a floor plan and decor and choosing furniture is a very low price, and really unsustainable for any trained professional.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 21, 2019 - 1:18 PM

      Hi Pamela,

      Not all of this directed at you. Just want to make it clear. I like your comment very much, however, the discounting thing is yet another common misconception that I need to clear up.

      The problem with the internet and discounts, is that it’s a discount off of what? Please read this post and learn how one man got badly burned supposedly purchasing at a “discount.” BTW, there’s another post where this company vastly lowered their prices and went to the other extreme. I should check them out again. I would not do business with them.

      All-in-all, I have never seen a discounted price online that was less than double (2 times) the wholesale price. Unless it was a mistake. And yes, I’ve seen some mistakes and I love sharing them on hot sales. And I’ll tell everyone that this is definitely a mistake. It is very common on One King’s Lane. Like right now, Mike Seratt giga-gorgeous vintage pieces and pillows (which are new NOT vintage) are on sale, but you can get an additional 20% off with the promo code on the Hot Sales Page.

      That is definitely a mistake. As is the promo code working for ALL of their beautiful vintage and antique furnishings.

      But, double wholesale IS a very good retail price. However, a common discount is at least 2.5 times wholesale. I never charged that much for anything. Full retail is usually at least triple the wholesale price. But sometimes more.

      Now, some may get all up in arms that I am divulging this much about wholesale vs retail markups. Tell me, what is the difference between me telling how much retail in the home furnishings industry actually is and us stating to our clients what our net price is?

      That’s right. Nothing. There’s no difference. And yet, I’m still hearing (not from you, just saying) that people expect us to divulge our net pricing.

      Why the double standard?

      I’ll tell you why. :]

      It’s because there is STILL a prevailing perception that this is not a real profession. And that we’re really just a bunch of bored housewives and/or socialites who are biding our time.

      Well, not this girl. And, actually not anyone I know, either.

      And yes, a total earning of $2,000 for that size job is not sustainable.

      In addition, I can guarantee that if the designer was a man, I would not be writing this post, no matter how well he communicated. This is not letting you guy designers off the hook. But, there is a perception STILL in 2019, that men NEED to earn a living and women, well, not so much. The evidence is overwhelming. It’s still a man’s world. And, I daresay that it always will be.

      That’s reality too, my friends.ReplyCancel

  • Shelby - March 21, 2019 - 11:48 AM

    Thanks so much for this, Laurel! It’s so important to be aware of and address our public perception.

    I haven’t been a designer all that long- 4 quick years, but I’ve started to notice that difficult clients usually only become real problems when we designers fail to communicate or manage expectations appropriately. I’ve seen that it’s easy to blame the client- and will shamefully admit to doing so occasionally- but usually there is a lot we can do to eliminate issues!

    If we try too hard to accommodate/change our business practices to meet a new client’s expectations, rather than educate a client on the reality of the industry and the valuable services we can provide (including being clear in our pricing structure, whatever it may be), we’re setting ourselves up to be mistrusted. I know those adjustments usually come from a great place- trying to keep a client happy, trying to avoid pricing ourselves out of a job, or realizing design is expensive and trying to be respectful of client budget. But I think there are other ways to address those things without setting the expectation that our prices are arbitrary/flexible/confusing or whatever the case may be, as it can start to look shady like Debbie experienced (even though it isn’t), and sets the client up to not respect our time or skill. Why should they? We’ve taught them not to.

    Of course, there is always the client that may not be the best fit for whatever reason, and it likely would be better to professionally end that relationship; I think you’ve written about that before also?ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 21, 2019 - 12:51 PM

      Hi Shelby,

      Thank you for this terrific comment. One thing I did in the very beginning. On the phone call was discuss price range. I would say something like. “Sofas start as low as $1,800, for a small love seat or a piece that’s not custom. But the average customized sofa with a nice linen or performance fabric usually runs between $2,800-$3,500. But some fabrics are very expensive and/or vendors, so the price could be higher, but most are in the mid-range as stated.

      And then, I would discuss the price of chairs. Usually half the price of a sofa. And coffee tables, etc. That way, I could see and they too, if the products I sell are in their budget.

      I was sure to tell them that S/H and tax are extra and on average add an 18% to an item, but for fabrics, it’s less and some items it’s a little more. And then, I would add in that when they read “FREE SHIPPING” This is not for inside your home. This is the end of your driveway, or maybe just outside your front door. There is always an additional charge to bring a large piece of furniture inside, unpack it and cart away the packing materials.

      It’s all about educating our clients and just telling them what we ourselves as consumers would want to know.

      Many of my clients came to me because they started to do it themselves and realized that they were in over their head and/or they were working with a store and realized that they weren’t getting what they really wanted and/or mistakes were made.

      This isn’t to say that one can’t have a terrific experience working with a store. It depends on the store and the expertise of the designer who is REALLY a salesperson. We all are. It’s one of our 30 hats we wear. :]ReplyCancel

  • Gail Caryn - March 20, 2019 - 10:05 PM

    After 4 years of DIY renos and design, I wish my pockets were deeper so I could hire someone to pull it all together! I have spent 100s of hours researching and sourcing. I hired designer a couple of times for a consult. She was fabulous and it was worth every penny. Clarity and contracts are so important and often overlooked in home renovation projects. Debbie may have had a surprise, but I bet the finished result is far better than if she’d done it herself. The services of a reputable pro always prove their worth in the end.ReplyCancel

  • Kristin - March 20, 2019 - 3:59 PM

    Just for the record, let me say I have never yelled at a designer. Wanted to, maybe, but I haven’t, nor have I sent any mean emails. (I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at anyone other than my parents and little sister, actually, and that’s been a few decades 🙂 ). And as for the scratched piece, the designer ‘fessed up that it was something she’d had in her dual purpose office/showroom of years, hence the many scratches on the finish. She was the same one who dented my drywall and never got it repaired – she never even managed to reschedule the repair after the workman flaked. When I’m in a more charitable mood I think she must have been going through a rough patch, and the height of my project happened to align with it.

    I think I’ve had a combo of bad luck (interspersed with good experiences, by the way), but I also really do think that quite a few designers, at least who I have encountered, would benefit greatly from business training or support. (Perhaps being in a fairly small town is a factor?) No matter how creative you are, business skills matter, too. The most successful will learn them or find a partner or staff member who has them.

    If designers are reading this, that’s the key message I’d have for them. Clear communication, contracts, timely responses, etc. are just as core to a successful business as creative skills.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 4:59 PM

      The last paragraph is the perfect summation. Thank you, Kristin!ReplyCancel

  • Anne Davis - March 20, 2019 - 3:39 PM

    Remember the famous lawsuit against interior designer to the stars (who I won’t mention – S/H) back in the late 90s? Yikes. That scared a lot of people from using designers for a while.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 4:58 PM

      Oh yeah… I used to drive by their estate in Mount Kisco (aka: Bedford Corners, but it is NOT Bedford). Gorgeous. Funny, but some time probably shortly before all of that, I had cut out a bunch out of AD mag. It was long, sure. But made of wood and they were selling it for $60,000. That’s why I cut it out. Shame, when greed sets in.ReplyCancel

  • Janet L Pederson - March 20, 2019 - 3:33 PM

    My contract has been missing some important words – this article is goddess sent!! Thanks Laurel, your the best.ReplyCancel

  • Mh - March 20, 2019 - 2:10 PM

    I think part of the problem is a typical person does not comprehend how much furniture costs. They don’t really comprehend roughly $20,000 per room. Although they look at these beautiful pictures in magazines, etc., they do not really understand how much they cost or how much design expertise goes into it. And they cannot really afford the total for a house and maybe not even a room.

    It like this tantalizing treat is dangled in front of us and we really want it, but when we go to get it – it is wayyyy more expensive than we thought. And that expert does not just design it all instantly but has to spend a lot of time figuring it all out. And sometimes we just can’t afford it.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 4:31 PM

      Well, these days, there are designers for just about every budget. But, they might only offer help with the basics. And/or be a sounding board. However, I remember the days when we couldn’t afford ANYTHING. I mean, not so much as a lamp.ReplyCancel

  • Janet Lorusso - March 20, 2019 - 2:02 PM

    This post is another triumph, Laurel! You are my hero (heroine?) anyway, I know this is all confusing for clients, and I appreciate the ones that value the expertise a designer brings and understand the time and talent and experience it takes to do it well. Thank you, again, for your continued mission to educate everyone and for your generosity in sharing this letter.. You explained it so well, and STILL there are people who don’t get it or don’t think designers deserve to make money for some reason. There is so much public misconception…thanks for continuing to chip away at it!ReplyCancel

  • Kristin - March 20, 2019 - 1:58 PM

    In my personal experience, mistakes by designers, particularly on the business end of things, are a huge factor in eroding trust in the industry. We’ve used several designers over several houses. All came as references from trusted individuals and we checked references on all. We had problems ranging from minor to major. And now my husband has concluded that they’re all flakes at best, and washed his hands of the industry, so I’m muddling my way through new house construction with a lot of research time. What were some the issues?

    ALL failed to bill on time, so much so that we just became resigned, if frustrated. We’d get bills six months after the last time we talked to the designer for hours spent months before for which they just had forgotten to bill us. Sometimes these bills wouldn’t have any description of what the hours were spent doing. When I’d ask for clarification, it would be several more months before I’d get the info. Another designer would forget to bill us for major purchases for months, and I’d only get the bill after repeatedly asking.

    Designers would promise designs or proposals by a certain date, and I’d get nothing. A few days later I’d email to check in and be told it would be another week. Great. Two weeks would go by with nothing. Another check in, with a promise of soon, soon. One literally NEVER sent some of the work for which we were contracted, but we’d just given up and moved on.

    Items arrived in the wrong finish or the wrong size. One sofa wouldn’t fit through the hall to the desired end destination (designer hadn’t verified dimensions). An item was delivered badly scratched and clearly used; I have no problem with used items in theory, but that the condition should be disclosed to me before I make a decision about whether to purchase. A proposed “special” accessory item arrived STILL BEARING THE HOMEGOODS PRICE TAG, which showed the designer had marked it up over 400% above retail.

    Another designer did a great job with overall looks, but insisted that he had zero idea of what the pricing was on materials, as only the builder could provide that. It’s hard to choose things when you have no idea of comparative prices. And as for how to get the prices? When I went back to the showroom, it turns out MSRP is on the back of the sample boards, and the contractor discount was a pretty standard percent. He then sent the wrong tile info to the builder (forgot to update the spreadsheet), resulting in the builder and I having to spend hours fixing his now incorrect bid.

    The most maddening was the designer who damaged the drywall in a prominent corner of our house when carrying another item in. She said she set up a repair, I rearranged my schedule, and the repair person never showed. She promised to fix it and said several times she’d set something up, but she never did. We we just have a majorly dented, prominent drywall corner.

    All of the designers have been good people with good aesthetic vision, and I believe they meant well. The degree to which they failed to manage their business, communicate, and bill in a minimally competent manor has been pretty stunning, though.

    As a customer, let me say that in my opinion designers need to recognize they’re running a business, not just providing aesthetic vision. If you can’t handle that, hire a good office manager who can keep the trains running, so to speak.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 3:39 PM

      Hi Kristin,

      Okay. First of all, there’s a professional FB page and the designers are reading this post and paying close attention to the comments– particularly from their potential customers.

      Some designers ARE flakes. Some are overwhelmed. Some should probably be doing some other line of work.

      Marking up something from Homegoods 400% is disgusting.

      However, some of this is not the designer’s fault. The scratched piece for instance. Very typical. It may have looked used but that doesn’t mean that it was. It could mean that folks who were delivering it weren’t careful and they put a box of pitchforks on top of it. And then ran the truck into a ditch. Who knows? Furniture coming in damaged was as common as cornflakes. It made me crazy.

      See how crazy I am??? ;]

      Workmen not showing up. Again. Typical. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t called and an appointment wasn’t made. It happened to me ALL OF THE TIME. And you can imagine how angry it made me. Deliveries not happening that were scheduled, or they showed up four hours AFTER the four hour window. They tracked in mud. They were rude. On and on…

      So, I’d wager that many of these issues are not the designer’s fault. However, over the years, there would always be a job or two, where so many things went wrong, that were completely out of my control, I’m sure that my clients felt as you did. And, maybe because I made one mistake, like a measuring error (which of course, I fixed ASAP), my clients felt as you. That I was an incompetent butthead. But I can assure you that I did my best and was acting in a responsible, professional way at all times. This is Laurel who sends her blog posts out like clockwork.

      Taking six months to bill? Guess she doesn’t need the money. That’s just plain weird.

      I’m sorry that you had these experiences. However, much of it goes with the territory, I’m afraid, no matter who you use. The fact that it’s all of them, and they all had great references leads me to think that you were largely unlucky. It happens. People even scream at Bunny Williams. Hard to believe, but that’s what she said at the Design Blogger’s Conference (now, design influencer’s conference) four years ago.ReplyCancel

  • Robin - March 20, 2019 - 1:44 PM

    You say you’re worried that your designer will go to where she gets the biggest discount…but how do you know she won’t pass some of that on to you? I take my clients to where I know I’ll get the best price AND customer service. If it’s a good price but the customer service is bad…I’m not working with them! But…I’ll pay more for GREAT customer service…because when there’s a problem, you need GREAT customer service!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 3:18 PM

      Absolutely! And clients who trust that you are going to take care of it, not screaming in your ear in a blind panic!ReplyCancel

  • Robin - March 20, 2019 - 1:41 PM

    Laurel…I agree hands down…homeowners wouldn’t THINK of asking their doctor to break out their fees, but it’s ok to ask an interior designer or contractor to show LINE BY LINE every single cost.

    I sat on the Ethics board for ASID for several years. I would say just about every complaint that came to us was because the designer did not have a CLEAR contract that laid out exactly what they were and weren’t doing. If they had had that…it would’ve saved them so much headache. However, I think many designers don’t take what they do “seriously”…because you’re not taught business when you go to design school. You’re not taught how to run a company. And many designers that have been around for a long time, basically “shook hands” with a client…that was the way people did business…in the OLD DAYS! But now, you can’t run your business that way and if you’re a solo-entrepreneur – where do you learn that?!

    Thanks for a GREAT discussion…ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 3:17 PM

      Hi Robin,

      At the New York School of Interior Design, there was a 2-credit professional practices course I took. One of a handful of great courses. It should be a four credit course that meets twice a week for 90 minutes each time. Still, it was better than nothing. Two lawyers gave one piece of advice that I’ll never forget. And, I’m going to pass it on, right now because they are 100% right.

      “If you even think that a client is going to be trouble, before you get in too deeply, you need to gracefully remove yourself from the situation. Because if you even think they’re going to be trouble. They ARE going to be trouble. Guaranteed.”

      But, your mind will play tricks on you and tell you, “oh, they’re not that bad. You can handle this…” Tell your brain to STFU. :] Because you CAN’T handle this. Nobody can. They’re whiny, entitled, sneaky, selfish, seedy, greedy and couldn’t care less about anyone but themselves. They will lie, twist, contort until you don’t know what day it is…

      Pinocchio…Save yourself!!!

      But, you will know you did the right thing when you set yourself free. You will know, because suddenly you will realize that you haven’t had a deep breath in 6 weeks and then, you will feel 20 lbs lighter and like the world is once again, a beautiful place.

      Even if you are poor.ReplyCancel

  • Mary E - March 20, 2019 - 1:32 PM

    Oh Lordy!
    I’m exhausted just reading all that! I think if every design student knew what you know about being a designer, they’d find a different career path.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 3:04 PM

      LOL – YES! Or else, they’d just think that it’ll be different for them. Sowwy.ReplyCancel

  • Pamela Bozanich - March 20, 2019 - 11:49 AM

    so did this woman expect to pay the designer $2,000 for her time and talent, then benefit from access to her discount? that seems enormously stupid to me.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 12:30 PM

      Well, let’s just say that she didn’t understand and/or didn’t get the value her designer was providing.ReplyCancel

  • Emily - March 20, 2019 - 11:33 AM

    Thanks for this post. As a consumer, let me explain where my mistrust comes from. I have been squeamish about hiring a designer for my living room because I don’t want their selections for me to be influenced by where they get the biggest discount, and can therefore charge the highest markup. Does that sound awful? It’s the same reason I work with a financial advisor who charges an hourly fee rather than one who who works on commission. I think everyone deserves to be paid well for the work they do, but I like transparency and want someone who does not have conflicting motivations of what’s in my best interest vs. what makes her the most money.

    I’ve done two home renovations and was much more comfortable with the contractor who worked on a cost-plus basis. He shared what his discount was with every vendor and marked everything up a fixed percentage. It was so much easier to pick this faucet vs. that faucet when I knew what his and my prices were.

    I’ve seen friends get burned by designers who picked expensive furniture that looks great but is uncomfortable or not suited for families with kids, who spill things. It’s not just about the photos. You have to live with this stuff. It makes me wonder if they are picking what’s best for the client or trying to get the client to spend the maximum possible amount of money.

    I worked with a designer when we bought our first house 22 years ago. We could not afford to buy all new furniture at once, but knew it was important to have a plan in mind. I paid an hourly fee, and she came up with a floor plan and some general advice, and showed me some photos of the type of furniture and accessories she would recommend, but our agreement from the beginning was that I would procure it myself, as we could afford it. I live in NC an hour away from High Point, and there are deals to be had. Plus I’m picky about comfort and will not commit to an expensive sofa without sitting on it first. Maybe I’m just too much of a control freak to let someone else pick out my furniture.

    Are there still designers out there who are willing to do a floor plan for an hourly fee? Is that a reasonable thing to ask, or will they be offended? What would a reasonable hourly fee be if they are not generating any income by sourcing items for me?ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 12:18 PM

      Hi Emily,

      You bring up some great points.

      A designer with integrity is ALWAYS going to do what’s in their clients best interests over how much money they are going to make. Of course, the designer should already have great sources lined up where they are also able to earn a decent profit.

      It’s no different in a store. Stores can be plenty slimy. Of course, not all. Remember the ol’ bait and switch tactic? There are unscrupulous people everywhere. Therefore, one must get references and lots of them and call them! Look for online reviews. Although, some people complain about things like damaged furniture like the designer went and took a hammer to the box while it was in the truck! It’s HOW the designer deals with problems like this that matters.

      There is SO much that goes into being a great designer. But I’ll tell you, if one is doing anything not-so-great, the word will spread quickly. Especially, these days, with social media and online reviews.

      But, yes, absolutely! There are many designers who will work ala carte and do a floor plan and leave. Hell, I would’ve loved doing that. The yucky part for me, was after all of the designing was done. Then, I had to get on the phone, place orders, deal with all of the problems. Why haven’t I gotten that cutting for approval? FINALLY it comes. Oh DRAT FLIES, the dye-lot is waaaaaaaay off! Gotta get something else.

      Another shopping trip if the something else isn’t in my library.

      It’s on back order? Is there any stock currently on hold that might become available? There is?

      Does the general public know to ask these questions?

      No.

      Do they see the machinations their designer went through to get the order going.

      We tell our clients but sugar coat it, unless that’s not an option.

      A call comes in from the workroom six weeks into the order.

      “Laurel, there’s a flaw in the fabric.”

      (laurel) can you work around it?

      “No.”

      (Laurel) Shit! Have you cut into the fabric, yet?

      “No.”

      (laurel) okay, let me see if there’s another bolt. Hang on and I’ll get back to you shortly.

      Laurel calls the vendor and gets voice mail.

      “The office is currently closed and will reopen (a week from now due to the Christmas holiday.)”

      Laurel makes a note to call January 3rd, first biz day of the year and then calls the workroom to tell them what’s up. Jan 3, first thing, laurel calls but gets voicemail again. They haven’t changed their message. She calls later. Same thing.

      She emails. No response.

      Next day, laurel has to take her sick son to the doctor and the pediatrician decides he’s severely dehydrated because he was throwing up all night and now he needs a couple liters of IV fluids at the ER.

      Laurel forgets to call the vendor, (i wonder why) but then still worried about her son remembers the next day, but only at 5:05 and it’s Friday.

      We’ve now lost two weeks.

      On Monday, she makes contact.

      New stock is coming in, in two weeks. Great, we’ll take it. Oh, drat. I should really get a CFA to make sure the dye-lot is okay.

      (laurel) can you ship the fabric AND send me a CFA, concurrently? I just need to make absolutely sure. If it’s not okay, we’ll ship the fabric back.

      Now, I have to make sure that the flawed bolt gets shipped back. I have to wait to get the UPS label to give to the workroom………

      Are you with me?

      This was my life for 20 years. Day after day. Did I tell my clients every sordid detail? Or how many times it took me to make contact with a human being? Of course not. Or the times, I goofed, like not sending enough fabric because I was trying so hard to be economical for my client?

      Can a non-designer do this too?

      If they understand what can go wrong and protect themselves so that they don’t upholster the sofa with a fabric that’s the wrong dye-lot or worse. The wrong COLORWAY!!! It happens! Not to me, but I’ve heard some unbelievable horror stories. Like $30,000 worth of window treatments created in the wrong fabric! The fabric alone was 16,000. That was 30 years ago. That job would be at least $50,000 now.

      That’s a bad day.ReplyCancel

  • Lorri - March 20, 2019 - 10:56 AM

    I think Jo Chrobak touched on something intriguing in her comment at the bottom.

    Over 20 years ago, I was reading a design magazine and someone made the point that the American model of “To the Trade” products and vendors didn’t exist much in Europe. Everything was available to everyone (as long as they knew the products existed) and designers simply charged MORE for their design ability and project manager skills.

    I have no idea how true this was in Europe, or if it has changed over time.

    Here in the U.S., hiring a designer to get access to restricted items is definitely used as a selling point. I wonder how much this business model causes a lot of the misunderstandings and suspicions between designer and client?

    I’d rather see the selling point be a designer’s expertise in design and project coordination. In other words, even if the public could get their hands on everything, they should ideally be mainly hiring a designer to create what they can’t create themselves and to avoid expensive mistakes.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 11:41 AM

      Hi Lorri,

      I see your thinking on this topic, but when you go to a store, you’re buying from someone who got a “to the trade” price. The only difference is that the store has a building where they conduct business and the designer might or might not have a shop/studio where they conduct business.

      Not everything in a store is available directly to interior designers. Some vendors like Lee Industries, for example will only sell to “stocking dealers.” So, if we want Lee for our clients, we have to purchase either from a design center or a store or a colleague who has an account.

      Some vendors require hefty minimum orders and the like to keep the account open. Therefore, some designers have begun buying groups where one person in the group holds the account and takes a commission on the orders the others in the group place. I love that model for designers.

      But, generally, designers will always be able to get a lower price than the general public and especially if they are able to make many repeat orders. However, as stated, that lower price varies widely with various vendors. And sometimes is contingent on how much the designer orders. If a designer is able to get a wholesale/stocking dealer price either because the vendor sells at that price to ALL people in the design trade and/or they met a minimum, then it’s not fair to the designer to pass the entire discount onto to their clients, unless they’re charging a hefty and I mean hefty design fee along with a hefty hourly fee.

      The problem with this, is that clients have no idea how much things are going to cost. And sometimes they’ll avoid communicating because they know the clock is ticking.

      Working more like a brick and mortar store does, is a viable business model. It worked beautifully for me, with rare exception. There’s always going to be the odd bird who takes advantage of your time with endless emails, etc.

      So, yes, the public CAN purchase almost everything that designers sell on their own without a designer, but not at the same price.ReplyCancel

  • GGG - March 20, 2019 - 10:44 AM

    We have used a designer twice. The first time, I paid for and received blueprints for a master bathroom renovation that I then used to work with my contractor. The designer had suggested moving a sink, which was brilliant and really helped the new design work. She also did some suggested room plans for our family room.

    The second time we used her, I asked for the same space planning and design services and received blueprint plans for a kitchen reno (still waiting to do that one!) This time, I also paid for the designer to help me choose tile for flooring in living/dining room. I paid for an initial consultation, but I was the one who drove around visiting tile stores and bringing back samples. And then paid for her to give her opinion. After we chose the tile, we bought the tile through her. Then she coordinated for a contractor to install and we paid the contractor through her, so there was a markup from her on the contractor services. Overall, we were very happy and knew that we were paying for her “thinking” and “supervising” time. (Also paying for her choosing a good contractor too.)

    I agree that a clear contract makes a happy client and a happy designer. I felt like I knew what I wanted her to do, and what I could do to save some time/money.

    So maybe the industry is transitioning to more of a buffet and less of a full-course meal? I mean, that some people may pay for room design but the client sources the pieces, and some may pay for the “turnkey” experience, where the designer is compensated for handling everything.

    You can see this happening at the low end with the “design in a box” services that are cropping up online. I would guess that with those services, the designer is making something from the links to products for sale? (that’s probably another blog post for you….)ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 11:26 AM

      Hi GGG,

      I love this! And yes, I think many designers will work ala carte. In fact, I did. I used to get the clients who got turned down by all of the designers who wouldn’t take any jobs where the clients weren’t spending at least 100k. But a few, over time, definitely spent that much.ReplyCancel

  • RMCD - March 20, 2019 - 10:34 AM

    As someone who is trying to decorate a whole house as best I can on my own, with the help of whatever I can learn online (THANK YOU, Laurel!), I can attest to the fact that designers earn every penny they charge and then some. I have more time than I do money, and am a researcher by nature, so I’m enjoying the hunt and can take it slowly, but man! If I added up the time it’s taken to do my homework, look for just the right things, and then find something that comes close enough for a price I can actually afford, and figuring out what to do with them once they’re in my house, and then crammed those hours into a typical client timeframe instead of the indefinite ether of “eventually,” I’d hope to earn a lot more than Debbie paid! And that’s before finishing even one room. As for revealing net prices: I scour obsessively for sample sales, store closing sales, the right-time-of-year clearance sales, vendor price comparisons that are NOT apples to apples, etc.. Almost everything I’ve bought so far has been at an insanely good price, but that’s because I invested a ton of my time to find those prices. If I had invested that time on behalf of a client instead of myself, damn right I would mark up what I paid for them, because the Debbies of the world would pay a lot more than my markup if they simply went shopping. And I would not feel inclined to invite bean-counting or justify my markup by telling clients what I paid. As for revealing sources: one of my insanely lucky finds is a huge, amazing, high-end antiques warehouse that happens to be right down the street from my new house. I never would have known it was there if not for my research, because they don’t advertise. Why? Because they sell primarily to the trade (though will sell to anyone who walks in, lucky me!). Their prices are amazing (truly), because they’re SUPPOSED to be marked up. And believe me, even if a designer did a 50% markup, Debbie would pay less than if she bought the same thing in a high-end shop. The warehouse owner makes her bread and butter from not having the overhead of a retail operation, and by building relationships with designers and shop owners who represent steady pipelines vs. retail customers who come in for a one-off purchase occasionally (because really, no one person is going to decorate an entire house in French antiques, are they?) The designers also invest their time building the relationships with the warehouse owner, who keeps an eye out for the things they’re looking for and gives them a heads up when she finds them. Why would a designer want to tell her client where she bought that fabulous chaise lounge so that the client can cut her out and go buy it cheaper herself after the designer spent the time to find the warehouse and cultivate the relationship with the owner and positioned herself to pounce when just the right thing came through the door? At the end of the day, yes, Debbie’s designer should have been a LOT clearer up front. But I’ll never understand people who think they shouldn’t pay for someone’s time and professional expertise when they themselves lack said time and/or the expertise.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 11:23 AM

      Very well-stated Risa. The clients don’t understand what goes into it, is all. It’s the same thing when they go into my house is ten years old and has hardwood floors throughout. The trim is painted ____________ and the living room is painted _________ but I’m stumped for the dining room. The furniture is mahogany. Any ideas?

      lol – I get these types of notes numerous times a week.ReplyCancel

  • V - March 20, 2019 - 10:08 AM

    I’m wondering would you hire interior decorator for yourself, Laurel…Let’s say to help you shape your vision? How much would that cost you? designer to designer discount lolReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:42 AM

      I would love to hire a designer. I guess that’s like a doctor going to another doctor. Monetarily, it would probably be on an hourly basis.ReplyCancel

  • Ana - March 20, 2019 - 9:59 AM

    I won’t comment on this particular situation and I am not in the trade. At different times I have hired designers. I never start from the perspective that they intend to rip me off. I have researched the trade to learn how they generally work. I typically ask the designer in a non-confrontational way “how do you make your money?” I know it sounds crass, but I use the right tone. No one has ever been offended by my question. I much rather work with someone who is earning a decent living. With contractors, I want them to treat their employees right. That always costs money, but wanting something for very little ignores the realities of life for other people. I much rather do less and with quality than expect a lot for next to nothing. I have come to appreciate what a good designer can do to help create a space that is beautiful, inviting, and functional. And, yes, I always pay their bills on time. It’s all a matter of priorities. I drive a beat up, old car; I make my coffee at home; I don’t have cable TV. I try to treat people right. I am a retired lawyer. Having been in business has taught me how hard it is to earn a living honestly, but for me, it is the only way to live.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:38 AM

      Hi Ana,

      Over the years, the vast majority of my clients were the loveliest people ever. Working with them was nothing but joy. And many of them went on numerous rounds as few do an entire home all at once. With, me that is. I loved those jobs the most because there was less pressure. And also there is such a thing as “design fatigue.”

      And I was asked “how do I make my money” all the time and also had no problem explaining if they didn’t understand. The question a client should not ask is “What is your markup?” As I said in the post, unless it’s a super-duper Bunny Williams level high-end client, then the mark-up IS going to vary. I mean, if there’s a little end table from China and the WHOLESALE is $150.00, you can be sure that I’m going to double the price! The same table in a store would be $375 to my $300. However, I certainly wasn’t able to double everything. The only exception would be if there’s an hourly on top of the mark-up. Most designers ARE doing that these days. However, since I’m generally lazy, except for my mouth, lol the thought of having to keep track of every hour was distasteful to me.

      Plus, I would give a cost estimate and 99.9% of the time, that WAS the entire price. Never a surprise. Clients really loved that and it removed a tremendous amount of stress from both of us.ReplyCancel

  • Kristen - March 20, 2019 - 9:47 AM

    Thank you for the post, Laurel. As a consumer who’s been through two subpar designer experiences I’ve come to realize I had a lot to learn about engaging a professional and setting my expectations. I think I took the “designer as personal shopper” approach too! Both designers I’ve used are rather young (that was on purpose, as I desired a more modern aesthetic than that which I’m prone to) and while I think they could have both been more clear I could have and should have asked LOTS more questions. It’s my money and both of our time and I hate wasting either! There seems to be (at least where I live) an influx of young “Insta”-designers and I don’t think they know what they’re doing as much as a true, seasoned professional. But you get what you pay for and I chose to go low. My fault. I do hope to engage a designer again in the future but I’ve come to realize a good designer costs money and I need to figure that into a total budget – as they should. Like any professional they invest in their training and education. I wouldn’t go to a “bargain” Doctor or Dentist – likewise I won’t try a “bargain” designer again, either.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:28 AM

      Thanks so much Kristen for sharing your perspective as a client. I’m writing these posts for both sides. There are a lot of “insta” designers these days. And I know of at least one big blogger who had never designed and found out the hard way that it’s not as easy as it looks. That was several years ago, so by now, she has learned what she needed to know.ReplyCancel

  • Christine - March 20, 2019 - 9:46 AM

    Hi Laurel,
    Thanks for the insight. I’ve never used a designer and definitely know now that I could never afford to use one for a whole entire project. BUT hopefully in the future I can find one to give me a plan that I can implement in stages as monies become available… is that a possibility? I totally understand that one is paying for a designer’s experience, education, insight, legwork, quality of materials/items, etc. which is why the cost is what it is.
    Thanks again though for laying it all out for average person like me to understand.
    Love the blog!! Happy Spring Day.
    ChristineReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:24 AM

      Hi Christine,

      I think that most of my colleagues will work on a consultation basis. And I think it makes a lot of sense to come up with a master plan that one can implement over time. In fact, I had some clients who did this. We came up with the plan and then started with the basics and gradually added in other items and a year or two later, the room was more or less done.ReplyCancel

  • Michelle - March 20, 2019 - 9:34 AM

    Hi Laurel,
    What a great article! As an interior design client, I learned that transparency was always important. I had one designer that would try to manipulate me into her perspective. People can always tell if someone is trying to work them over.

    It would have been much better if she had said, “I don’t recommend that because _________, and if you do that then _____________”. In terms of the billing, you are right. If you lay out the ground rules in an agreement, then it makes the whole business relationship clear. And even though you may have a great relationship with the person, a clear business arrangement will keep money from getting in the way of your fun.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:22 AM

      Hi Michelle,

      Absolutely. And, if the client had an idea and I didn’t think it would work, there was always a clear explanation why. Not, “I don’t like that idea.”ReplyCancel

  • Sarah McGee - March 20, 2019 - 9:33 AM

    Gulpity Gulp.

    I really feel for both parties here, and I think you’re right in your perspective, too.

    Though it’s disheartening to read the reply letter that implies the designer made a “simple floor plan” that didn’t deserve the flat fee charged.

    I think that a lot of clients don’t get a full of idea of how emotionally connected designers are to each job. It’s a form of creative arts, after all, so it’s especially personal. Additionally, the time! SO MUCH TIME. I know I can’t be the only one who reports LESS hours sometimes, simply because I became stumped and had to work extra long to get the solution
    (hmmmm. A flat rate is looking better and better…).

    I also think your overall advice here is exactly what would solve a lot of problems in life in general: more communication. Like, as much as humanly possible.

    And thank you so much for sharing your letter!!! That was very generous. xoReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 10:20 AM

      Hi Sarah,

      Oh, I know! Those “simple floor plans” that took six hours to figure out! Yes, clear communication in all aspects of life. Plus secrets and lies are never a good basis to create a long-lasting relationship. wink, wink.

      And, if I charged by the hour, I’d also have to throw in some of the hours. I once had a desk from Pottery Barn for a little girl’s room that would’ve cost $10,000 if I had charged by the hour. I’m not exaggerating. Actually, that was one client I should’ve charged an hourly! And warehousing fees, too! In my car and basement! Oy!ReplyCancel

  • JJ Taylor - March 20, 2019 - 9:26 AM

    I’m about to hire a designer for the first time in years and this is timely, excellent advice. Just started reading your blog a couple of weeks ago and already love it.ReplyCancel

  • Naomi - March 20, 2019 - 9:14 AM

    Hi Laurel, This was a very interesting post and I mostly agree with you except for your final statement about charging for an initial consultation. I’ve spent a considerable sum on my apt (all custom furniture, etc) but never considered a designer who charged this fee which, in my mind, was an interview. Ditto when I was on my coop board: we interviewed various professionals who would give one or two freebie suggestions in a limited way. Plus the interview was a time to review pricing policy and to see if both sides were compatible.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:55 AM

      Hi Naomi,

      Well, this is for individual residential not for a committee. That’s possibly different. But… my initial consult that’s free was on the phone. I would spend 45-60+ minutes chatting and qualifying to see if there’s a job there, and of course, they were qualifying me, as well. And yes, we were going over all of the things that you did in person.

      The rest, I was coming over to WORK. I can tell you that I did it the other way for most of my career, but the last four years of charging, I had more offers than I could handle.ReplyCancel

  • Barbara Sheehan - March 20, 2019 - 8:54 AM

    As usual, sage advice from Laurel. Be Clear in your Proposal!! It sets the tone for the whole project and (this is the hard one for me even after 20+ years), it is OKAY to have clients know you need to make money. I am transitioning (slowly) to charging more per hour to pay for my Design Expertise since regardless of my discount at trade only sources, some clients seem to be able to suss out the same products for less somewhere. I am very clear about my 25% markup over my designer net and if clients want to see all the receipts they can but they will pay my hourly fee to do all the copying and organizing. If they don’t trust you enough to take your word for that, you shouldn’t be working with them. If I charged every client for the time I actually spend on their project, which I don’t, they would be shocked how long it takes to pull a successful design together and installed. Tim Gandy of Gandy-Peace Design said it best when a client questioned him about it taking 4 hours to find a sofa fabric. He said actually it took 20 years of experience to do it in only 4 hours! Thanks for clearing the air here LaurelReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:51 AM

      Oh, I love that Barbara! Yes, 20 years of experience to find it in only four hours! But, then, guess what? They forgot to pull the sample. The fabric has been discontinued and there’s no more stock. Or how about the back order that then turns into in discontinuation four months later. You’re already into the order and now you have to scramble… Oh, I could write a book!

      And yes, absolutely. If they want to see the receipts, they need to pay for that service. But nobody ever asked for that.

      The only time I had an issue was with Surya. grrr… they were giving rugs away to Joss and Main and J & M was selling them for BELOW WHOLESALE!!! I got on the phone with my rep – LIVID, as you can imagine. How is it possible that my client can purchase a rug for below wholesale? They just lost my business! And then, I got some BS about the rugs being “seconds” or “returns.”

      It’s a tough business.ReplyCancel

  • Sandy - March 20, 2019 - 8:44 AM

    I’d dump this client like a hot potato. Seriously!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:45 AM

      I think the job is over. But, if they started acting distrustful and going behind my back and other such behaviors, I first would have a little chat with them unless they were starting to act obnoxious. It was rare, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.ReplyCancel

  • Elaine Peterson - March 20, 2019 - 8:25 AM

    Goodness! We sure got schooled! Two thoughts. If the client is paying for a professional’s time by the hour, his/her expertise by the job, and retail pricing for the merchandise, might the potential client not in a position to afford a full on magazine spread worthy redo not be inclined to go to a retail brick and mortar and take advantage of their free design service? Of course, they’d be limited in choices of merch and talent and scope of service….apples and oranges. Can we meet in the middle? Is there a way to make design services less tres cher? The elite client base pool must be pretty small for a whole industry full of talented people to fish in. Maybe the closer to average home owner would pay a fair (there’s the rub?) price per hour consult and design fee if they thought a bit of a discount on the furnishings were part of the deal?
    My 2nd thought is that if one is charging MSR for products, one must remember to remove the TJMaxx price tags (true story.)ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:43 AM

      Hi Elaine,

      Don’t get me started with the free “interior design services” at stores. Now, you might luck out and get someone fabulous, but most are anything but. I mean, I have some monstrous work. The client would’ve probably done better on their own.

      My way of working was with an experienced designer who over-all was charging less for the furniture than stores were and still making a good profit. I’m sure that there are other designers out there, who’ve figured out that getting the furniture for less and charging a decent mark-up but still less than full retail is a good way to go. I can’t say it enough. Designers who haven’t figured this out definitely need to get Laurel’s Rolodex! ReplyCancel

  • Parnassus - March 20, 2019 - 8:13 AM

    Hello Laurel, Perhaps some of the confusion comes about because design fees are more complex than most transactions–they include expert advice, products, and outside services such as upholstery, and each may be charged for in different ways. Again, this is why designers should be clear about their charges, and why clients should ask lots of questions.

    I think that the burden of this should be on the designers, because the clients’ being new to the field means that they do not know how it is structured, or what questions to ask. Also, design is an expensive, infrequently used service, and emotions will come into play in reaction to “surprises”. Just think how other expensive, infrequently used industries, real estate and cars, are known for sharp practices, so designers should work hard to distance themselves from these and be as up-front as possible about their pricing. In fact, this is also a good time for them to emphasize the depth of their expertise, and how recondite and high quality are their sources.
    –JimReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:37 AM

      Hi Jim,

      I agree that the burden is on the designers. Absolutely. So, these two posts hi-light some things that people looking for a designer need to look out for when hiring one.ReplyCancel

  • Valentina - March 20, 2019 - 8:00 AM

    Let’s imagine, a potential client goes to book store and makes photos of “sources” page on all books from Rizzoli. So, he knows all the sources someone takes years to put together. Then he or she hits the google looking up all them. He went to ebay, etsy and etc and find deals on fabric like citrus garden for $ 125 for 6 yards, which is way way below any decorators discount. Then the client find dealers at Paris Flea markets, US flea markets and China flea market. He finds the quintessence YouTube channel and looked up all details top decorators has at their homes. You get the idea, this type of client, how to impress him if he is very impressive on it’s own? What would he expect from a decorator, probably something like being more resourceful than he is just after 2 weeks? would he hire even someone like Miles Redd for $130 00 for…a good taste and years of experience going to all the same vendors for years and taking his mark up on that furniture?? BTW, Just a thought, what if even Miles Redd want help with decorating his own apartment, how much he would pay someone to help him and what level of work he would expect?? To be fair for someone like Miles I would say, I’m an artist like Sergant, but in interior design field. And you would pay me *$$$ put any number confidently* for my work. That is fair to me, Laurel! Not shady at all. It’s all clear and nothing wrong with it. And potential client wouldn’t have to figure out all this price per hour, mark up on furniture or I have kids I need to feed thing (of course, but quite that low work, designer, get real, sell and design your line of furniture, write books. iPhones are everywhere, so designer, just wake up, stop complaining and adjust. That shady industry “to the traide” is going to end soon). Laurel, any thoughts??? Am I wrong… Am I just being negative? Excuse my bad English, I’m from other side of the world and learning it. You are amazing designer and ahead of your time IMAOReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:36 AM

      I’m sorry Valentina, I am having trouble following your point, I think. But, the point in charging is not HOW MUCH the fee is, but that it’s clear that this is going to be the amount charged.ReplyCancel

  • Jo CHROBAK - March 20, 2019 - 3:49 AM

    Love that you are writing about this Laurel! As someone who works in Europe and the UK with experience in Australia and Asia I do feel like the US market is heavily focussed on purchasing fees like no-where else in the world. I find that crazy! We are designers, we should get paid for designing. I never saw myself as a shop, (but I do like that idea!)

    Love your honesty here and as always your wonderful humour xReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 20, 2019 - 9:31 AM

      Thanks so much Jo! I hope that somehow we get to meet for real one day! xoReplyCancel