Thursday, June 4, 2009

Our experience: working with a designer

We can't afford not to use a designer. Hooked on Houses is hosting her "Hooked on Friday's" blog party: I'm hooked the value of professional design. This documents a moment in time for us. Picture to right is JoAnn (TK's wife) and Gordon with paint chips picking exterior colors for a yet to be done project.

We've worked with three designers and 1 architect, Wanda, Susan and Bill (architect), and Gordon over the last 30 years. These were great experiences. I think we saved money because the professionals prevented mistakes. We've made some big decorating mistakes and lived with them for a long time. Better to get things right so you'll enjoy them from day one.

I want to think I've learned something about design and decorating in the process. I've learned four things for sure:

  • Everything I thought about decorating was wrong.
  • Everything I thought was wrong about decorating was actually right.
  • I am not a designer / decorator nor will I ever be but I have become a fair critic.
  • I like living with professional results.

So the salesmanship thing is big. Early on in the process when I heard "paint the ceiling blue," I snickered to myself. I had to be sold. When I heard "this would be perfect for ...," I had to be sold. Because we'd worked with Gordon, the sales cycle was shorter this time. Later in the process, when Gordon suggested a jungle rug for the office, I became giddy with the idea. I couldn't wait to see it in the room.

Gordon is still selling us on putting a fountain in the entrance hall. I'm completely sold on the idea but we haven't been able to choose a specific one nor how to deal with spills. This could go on for years or decades.

As things come together, we see results, good results. We're pushovers now.

On opinionated designers. I think design / decoration takes a certain kind of personality. Aesthetics is number one. The desire to create beauty for clients is paramount. Dealing with less skilled and equally opinionated clients and their budgets requires extraordinary people skills as well. The conflict between aesthetics and practicality is always there. There aren't any blank checks.

An opinionated designer isn't going to abandon his opinions when he's not designing. He wants to see beauty in everything, everywhere, and is upset by the ugly. Tact is everything for a long lived designer, but be prepared.

You sense that the designer is meddling in your personal life. He. is. Designers affect the way you live. "The couch has always been there," is one of my mottoes. So when I'm told to move the couch "over there" my lifestyle is under attack. Experienced designers must deal with how folks live in spaces. Customers can be as resistant to design changes as they are to pink bar stools.

Designers have many big chores.

  • Make your space easier to live with.
  • Make your space beautiful.
  • Make your space easy to keep beautiful.
  • Do it on a budget.
  • Sell professional judgment and educate the client.
  • Bite his tongue to keep peace and family harmony.

The client must make compromises but the designer must too. If the client falls asleep on the couch every night while watching TV, the designer has to know about it. It's personal. It seems like meddling. The designer seems like a busybody.

Getting into a fight in front of the designer. It's bound to happen. Rummaging around your house, tracking clutter and wasted space is personal. Sure a doctor's exam is personal. But the doctor doesn't come to your house and go through your junky stuff. So when the wife says, "you told me you threw that stuff out three years ago." tensions rise.

Taste is always an issue. The mere mention of "purple" can trigger fists and tears.

Then there is the budget fight. More spending is always better, and always worse.

The end of every shopping day is like Christmas morning. You shop and shop. You've got bags of stuff in the trunk. You don't have clue why you bought what you bought. Ah, but when you get home, you get to open your presents immediately. A professional picked them out specifically for your home. That's about as good as it gets.

Shopping gives new meaning to infinity. Our visits to "Antiques and Interiors of Sandy Springs" left me hyperventilating. It seemed like fun, but I'm not sure I enjoyed it until we got back to the car. I realize that my untrained eye can only "see" about 5% of the merchandise. I'm not experienced or focused enough to identify anything specific for our home. If Gordon has said, "Terry, find all the green vases you can," I'd have mission. None the less I would have missed 95% of the green vases. There are too many vases, too many shapes, too many "greens." Shopping for a rug in a store that has thousands isn't much better. Looking for fabrics turns me into a drooling wreck.

I'm starting to get a bead on how Gordon manages it.

Today we looked for curtain panels for the jungle office. I'm not very excited about it, I just planned to check prices. Gordon's plan was to find some to take home on approval. We headed for Linens and Things. Gordon looked at every single fabric panel and sheet in the whole store. With a swatch of the jungle rug in hand we checked every single one that was in the ball park. We found three and took them home. Gordon stayed on focus long after I was ready to leave.

But something else was happening. Gordon wasn't just shopping for us. He was shopping for all his customers, for himself, and for beauty itself. We found beautiful curtains that didn't suit us but we admired them just the same.

Our trip to Bombay Trading Company presented another shopping method: Browse cool stores that carry some merchandise in our style. Maybe that's the most fun. There is no pressure to buy anything specific. We're just looking for beautiful things as if we're going to a museum.

We saw a nice sconce with a big candle. Gordon imagined a place for it and we browsed on. At the back of the store we saw an incredible mirror. I thought, "what an incredible mirror."

Gordon's thoughts had a bit more depth:

  • It's more incredible that Terry could possibly imagine.
  • It's a bargain and it's marked down 25% below that.
  • It carries both the colors (gold and black) and design of the red rug.
  • It was big enough to be important.
  • It would be a great replacement for the abstract lighthouse picture in the entrance.
  • It would allow us to glance in the mirror before we left the house.
  • The placement (where the lighthouse is) wouldn't force anyone to see themselves in the mirror (which makes folks uncomfortable.
  • We'd have to take down the mirror over "the thing" and replace it with something else.
  • I must convince Terry to get it, even if we have to return it.

Obviously I ordered the mirror. We had no plan to get a mirror.

Then we stumbled onto the red lamps. They are stunning! I thought, "what a cool looking lamp."


  • It's beautiful, cheap, and on sale.
  • It's perfect for another customer.
  • They are stunning enough to anchor a whole room.
  • These would be a knockout in our bedroom.

We didn't buy them but they were a tough act to follow. We didn't feel like shopping anymore after seeing them. I thought about them all the way home. JoAnn and I looked at the on the Internet. We may do it.


  1. This is a super post!!! And I think you know more about decorating than you give yourself credit for -- or at least how the decorating process works!!

    I usually have the best luck finding exactly what I'm looking for when I'm not looking for it at all -- just like you did with the big mirror. Which I can't wait to see -- you'll post pics after you get it and hang it, right?!

    Kelly @ DesignTies

  2. You have so many words of wisdom. I agree that many people (me included) can't afford not to hire a designer. I find that when I undertake a project, it takes 2 years to complete and still doesn't look as polished as it would if I had hired someone in the first place!

    I agree about the fabric comment - I hate the thought of fabric shopping, there are just too many choices!

  3. If you can't do fearless fabric shopping, I'm not sure you can be a designer. I do love the fabrics, I do understand some of what goes on in the choices but I do a strict time limit in the fabric stores.

  4. Thank you for this post! Trust *is* important when working with a design professional, and enthusiasm is not a replacement for experience!

  5. I love it! What a great (and accurate) description of what it's like to work with a designer.

    I liked this line: "Taste is always an issue. The mere mention of "purple" can trigger fists and tears." Ha. So true!

    Have a wonderful weekend. :-)

  6. This is a wealth of wisdom here! Unfortunately finding a good designer in this area is not easy....(small town) and I'm not a finicky person either! Thank you! Luanne

  7. designers are great at defining what the client really wants. It's important to choose one who understands your particular style and listens but who persuades you to try things you wouldn't ordinarily consider

  8. My problem with Forsyth and Lewis Textiles (fabric stores in Atlanta) is that they have too many choices!!! Which is actually a great thing- their fabrics are great! -But I am always overwhelmed by the choices. You are smart to set a time limit when you enter the door.

  9. Fantastic, honest post.

    Finding a designer that is in tune with who YOU are is the most important thing. Who they are is the least important; their job is to make the client happy, to work with and listen to the desires.

    If a home looks designed (in my humble opinion)then the client had the wrong designer.

    thanks for the great read!!


  10. What a great post Terry; I thought of printing it out for a fussy client, but that may be taking it too far. She may end up with the same beige living room she had before, unable to consider change or input. Drives me crazy. It's about the Gestalt...not any one particular item.

    How's the room going? Do we get to see it? Loved your entry :)

  11. Wow...that was a good book I couldn't put down. And oh-so-true!


  12. what a great post! So funny and so smart! I think every designer and client should read it!

  13. I loved working with a designer. Before our kitchen remodel, we had never hired one but it was the best thing I could have done.

  14. Thanks for sharing some insight into this. I think your statement is so true:

    "We've made some big decorating mistakes and lived with them for a long time. Better to get things right so you'll enjoy them from day one."

    There's nothing that beats that feeling that everything is just right, and you're happy with it...especially when it's the place you have to live!

  15. Terry, how wonderful you put all my daily expirience as a designer into words, I hear your side of the story and mine, what an intelligent analysis!
    You are so right! Just about now I am in a bit of a muddled situation with extremly opinonated and unfortunatly not very compromising clients, the result will be so-so and I simply stepped back after a while and said to myself: They live there, let them have it...
    Thank you!
    I will be back many times!

  16. Terry,
    What a wonderful, insightful post! I hear a lot from the "designers" side of things, it's so interesting to hear the other side as well. Thanks for such thoughtful analysis. Also, thank you for your comment today--it gave me a giggle.

  17. Y'all are so nice to comment. I don't feel the least bit insightful. We spent a lot of time in the design process and we never felt just like the clients we see in magazines and TV shows. Most of the clients seem to be have a lot of money or are getting the TV show discount.

    I didn't even write about (though I mentioned in at the Skirted Round Table) "the design love triangle: One designer, one husband, one wife. 2 against 1 is not good for family harmony.

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  19. I just read this, don't know how I missed it previously. you nailed it, completely. great read, thanks for posting.

  20. I know this is a couple of years old, but I just loved reading it! I had just posted yesterday, as an interior designer, what to look for when hiring a designer. I had to post this morning about your post because you give such a good perspective on the client's end of things. Thank you!!


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