I remember vividly the first time I entered New York’s D & D (Design and Decoration) building on the upper east side of Manhattan. I saw beautifully dressed designers shopping with their clients, a surprising number of dogs on leashes accompanying their shopper/owners, and tastefully decorated showrooms. The showrooms had miles of fabric racks to comb through, and the room settings were magazine perfect. I recall envying the “insider” status that some of the designers enjoyed with the showroom staff. They represented significant purchasing power, and that air of power permeated their presence. The showroom staff (aka salespeople) afforded them significant respect and attention, and I felt clearly like the newcomer that I was.
And now, after making hundreds of purchases at Brunschwig & Fils, Scalmandre, Donghia, Lee Jofa, Cowtan & Tout, Kravet, Osborne & Little, Pollack Associates, Patterson Flynn, and so many others, I have “earned” the attention of showroom personnel. I am smiling as I write this because, in the scheme of my design practice, that solicitous attention, while appreciated, suggests an elitist attitude that is far from the reality of my daily activities.
First, there is the mutual respect that is essential to my relationship with my clients. I don’t always agree with their preferences, and while I will endeavor to influence their decisions, they ultimately will reside in and enjoy their space. Ideally, the collaborative relationship I try to foster will result in a creative, imaginative outcome that integrates good design with client needs. I’m happy to make all the purchasing decisions when a client wishes that I do so, but it is essential to get to know how the person plans to use the space!
Secondly, I feel a tremendous responsibility to spend my client’s resources very wisely. When you are allocating $50,000-$300,000 of a client’s budget, you’d better be darn confident that the furniture arrangement will work, that seating will be ample, and that the fabrics selected will wear “well”. Will the coffee table have any sharp corners that could hurt children? Is the space uncluttered enough to accommodate aging in place? Should we plan on creating a master bedroom on the main level? Will there be pets in the house, and what accommodations are needed for crates, kitty litter, etc.? Are area rugs non-slip? How and where will guests be accommodated? Are there any special needs? It would be counter-productive to insist that I know what is best for my clients; the exchange of ideas delivers the outcomes we all wish to achieve.
Rather than relying on subordinates, I attend to all of my client needs personally. This has its benefits, and its challenges! Rather than the glamorous, deferential treatment I referred to earlier, my work on a daily basis often borders on those life experiences that prompt laughter, provided that enough time has passed from the crisis you’d rather have avoided in the first place!
One project included custom-made cement side tables. These are made in a variety of colors and sizes, have recessed casters for ease of movement, and can serve as extra seating. I was at a client’s home to receive the pair of tables when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer arrived with the delivery. The driver refused to take the large truck up the winding driveway, and wanted to drop off the heavy boxes at the side of the road. He also wanted me to sign that the tables had arrived in good condition, which obviously I could not do! After much negotiation and a promised gratuity, the driver loaded the tables into my car, hopped into the passenger seat, allowed me to drive him and the tables up to the house, where we both unpacked and inspected the tables in the client’s garage. He was tipped, his paper was signed, and I drove him back to the truck, which was waiting on the side of the road.
Working with absentee owners from Boston, New York, London, and elsewhere, I am often entrusted with house-keys and alarm codes. I thought I had most systems down pat until I set off an alarm recently in Richmond. That was mild compared to the time that a dog, for which I was responsible, was inadvertently released by a delivery crew. They couldn’t get the sectional I was receiving through the front door, decided to use the dining room sliders, and came through the rear yard, leaving the gate open for the dog I thought I had secured there. There I was, outside, humbly calling the dog’s name, praying for it to return, trying to entice him with treats, and feeling as inept as I had when I first entered the D&D! I finally left, exhausted and relieved, the sectional AND the dog in place and looking good!
I relocated my design practice to the Berkshires for many reasons, not the least among them is the care and kindness we feel for our neighbors. During our recent blackout, a neighbor I hardly see came down my driveway late at night, flashing his lights so as not to frighten me. He just wanted to know if we were all right, and to see if we needed anything. That sense of care and concern has deliciously spilled over into my design practice. My clients are my neighbors, and I’m sure you feel that way about many of the stores and restaurants you frequent. Going the extra mile, and working collaboratively, creates a working environment in which I feel lucky to participate. And I will take you to the D&D if you’d like, but I’ll be wearing my Berkshire blue jeans and feeling very proud of the perspective we bring.