28 September 2009

Follow up to a follow up to a post from two weeks ago: the wall tile that nearly did in my client

So by popular demand, here's an image of the kitchen that caused the ruckus I wrote about on 15 and 16 September. I think it's pretty mild, but to the eyes of my client, it was pushing so far into the realm of the avant-guard she could barely stand it.

The tile:

The cabinet color:.

The counters:

The lights are showing up really orange-y in this image. In life, they are an amber-y brown that plays against the wall tile nicely. Here they are:

The pendants are the Sasha II from Besa Lighting with an "Amber Cloud" shade.

This was by no means a bad kitchen or a bad job or anything I think is unattractive. It's a reasonably-priced job that I made look a lot more expensive through a couple of the tricks and tips I've learned over the years. Even so, it's not something that would make it into my brag file under ordinary circumstances.

Again, there's nothing wrong with it and I'm having an epiphany here. Hold on a minute. I see myself as a high-end designer and in a lot of ways I am. The work that ends up in the file I show prospects is from high five-figure (and more than a few six-figure) jobs. But now that I think about it, I haven't landed anything with a budget that high since the stock market crashed a year ago. The biggest job I have going right now has a budget of $60,000 that's going toward a major kitchen overhaul, a master bath and a significant reworking of the interior walls on the first floor of this house. Two years ago, that job would have had a budget twice what it is now and would have been a significantly more ambitious project.

But it's not two years ago and in this market at least, people are spending less money on home renovations. I'm thrilled for the work and the project I'm describing will most definitely make it into my brag file. But since the bulk of everything I've done for the last year has been more along the $28,000 renovation pictured at the beginning of this post, is my glamor job brag file spooking people? I wonder if I should show off my lower-budget jobs in these troubled times.

Seriously, what do you think? If you were a client interviewing designers, what would you want to see? Is an aspirational portfolio a turn off?


  1. My short answer would be Yes, and Yes.

    I'm sure you have a feel for a potential client well before the portfolio comes out, so I think it would be beneficial to have a version with both types of jobs.
    I think there are far more people than one would think willing to consider hiring a designer these days for the simple reason that they *do* have a tight budget and don't want to waste any on mistakes they could make themselves.
    That said, a look at a portfiolio of grand, cutting edge work could be enough to spook this type of potential client right back to the home depot 'specialists'. Presenting a collection of more modest, yet exceedingly stylish work, could cement such a client, for the designer who knows where to put the 'real' money in a project.
    That's my 2 cents anyway (5 Canadian)

  2. Thanks Susan. That mid-range client you describe is precisely the kind of person I want to stick with me. Of course I tailor my presentations to the client in front of me, but I tend to show the glamorous stuff and describe the more modest stuff. I realize that I can't be all things to all people, but I want to scare off as few potentials as possible.

  3. I think people have gone from one extreme to the other-from extravagant spending to hide-in-the- basement frugality. I've always thought that having one or two "luxury" elements, like your backsplash, can elevate an otherwise lower budget design. Like leather seats in a Honda Accord-nobody is going to mistake it for an Accura, but there's a lot more people buying Accords right now. Plus you're taking business from the home centers and that's a good thing.

  4. Hey Richard, how goes it in Rochester?

    I agree, I tell people all the time to put the money into places you can see. Or more precisely, leave the impression that the money's in places that are visible. I am convinced that going to an independent designer for a kitchen remodel means someone will spend less money and have fewer headaches than if that person went to a home center. I believe that as an article of faith, and I sometimes wonder how true it is. I know it's true anecdotally, but do my anecdotes reflect the bigger picture? I wonder sometimes.

  5. Sorry for the odd user name above...I'm having trouble with my commenting profile-Richard Edic

  6. I don't know, Paul, I've actually thought of going through the process of walking into Home Depot and pretending to be a customer just to see what happens. I do think that in general right now clients see a buyers market and expect a deal on everything. I've had quite a few customers come to me after going to a big box and I can tell you that the one thing they're not getting is real design. They do a quick drawing with as big an island as they can fit in the room and then rush to talk about cabinet styles.

  7. I get the big box aftermath from time to time too. The designs are invariably bad and formulaic. Fluted fillers! Arched doors! Forced work triangles that don't reflect how the client actually lives. Worse than the bad designs though is the expectation that I'm going to design something for nothing and provide a competitive "bid" on a job. I don't work that way and I resent being asked to.

  8. I am one of the most practical (thrifty...cheap?) people I know, but I believe in paying fair prices. I tip generously for good service, and I believe in paying well for good work. That said, I am easily intimidated by things that seem bigger than me/my personality. I'm intimidated by items beyond my budget. Instead of thinking creatively about getting glam on a budget, I just shy away from all of it.

    Perhaps for someone like me, you could show a mix of projects--dream big projects that exceed my budget along with talk about how you can help me get what I want...or close to it...on my budget. Then you could show projects in my range and highlight how you used your creativity and talent to achieve the look in budget.

    That said, maybe I'm more sensitive than most other people. But you know, our bathroom has been gutted and untouched for a year precisely because I'm too intimidated to think I can afford a designer. ;)

  9. I am doing a whole house remodel, and love looking at the aspirational stuff - then, when I find out how much it costs, I try to figure out how/where to scale it back. I enjoy working with professionals who help me do this, and not with ones who think this is "cheap."

  10. Paul, here is my 500 lire worth of experience: Although I don't do full kitchen designs, I have a fair amount of experience meeting with clients at the "dream" phase of the project. You, Richard and Susan are right. You can usually gauge a client's situation from the first phone call and adjust your presentation to fit their tolerance for pricing and high-end design. Although I've had a few dream commissions where there seemed to be no end to the construction budget, 9 times out of 10 they start big and ambitious, only to scale back when the bids come in and reality rears its ugly head. So I think you're right to have all levels of projects in your bag of tricks. You have the big, impressive projects to ensure their confidence that you are the man - you can handle anything they need or desire. But you also show the more modest projects, so they don't feel intimidated or "too small" for your attention.

    I'm starting to get more selective as my portfolio grows; the other day I flatly wrote off a fellow alum at a college reunion who wanted his fireplace mosaicked. When I showed him these cool African ammonite fossils we could use, and told him how much the fossils cost alone, he said that was more than he expected to pay for the whole project. ($1,100?) Hmm. If the base materials are "out of his budget range," how did he expect to get a finished artwork? There are some people who have absolutely no idea what things in the design world cost. And they prefer to huddle in that cave despite our best attempts to educate them. They are "home center's" best customers...

  11. Brain Phart #3,402 for Paul:

    Steal from the design magazines' "The Look" and "The Look for Less" sections in putting together your portfolio.

    You have a talent for getting people the most bang for their buck. Why not come from that place? That way they will clearly see that they are paying for is your brains, eye, and experience.

    The images don't have to be exactly the same rooms -- maybe you could organize by elements like back splashes or cabinetry or flooring.

    It also might be fun to put together a "Big Box Disaster" section -- even if it's just spec drawings so folks see the difference.

    Aren't you glad you asked?

  12. Speaking as a consumer who is looking to remodel a kitchen....
    If we were meeting with you as a potential designer for our kitchen (in Colorado), we'd love to see what you think is the ultimate of the work you've done. We'd also like to know, however, that you can realistically design AND deliver something within our budget ( mid 5 figures).
    We started our process with a well-regarded design/build firm. We told them our budget. We cut DOWN the scope of our project somewhat (no wall moving, for example), and they came back with an estimate that was double our stated budget. That was a disappointing suprise, and we are no longer doing business with that firm.

  13. Rae, Erika, Julie, Nancie and Howard: thanks for the feedback. I'm not so much looking for advice as I am looking for ideas about where peoples' heads are with this.

    Rae, I get the intimidation thing and a lot of designers wrap themselves in the trappings of high end stuff in an effort to screen people. All of us do it to a certain extent, but I think one of my strengths is that I can delineate clearly the difference between aspirational and actual. I tend to concentrate on how we cut expenses in less obvious ways when the occasion calls for it.

    Erika, you're my ideal prospect and customer!

    Julie, I am with you completely. Most people don't have an idea of costs and I feel like it's a big part of my job to educate people without pandering at the same time. I wish I could spec custom work more than I can, but alas... Anymore, I'm just happy to have someone ask!

    Nancie, I love the idea of a Big Box Disaster file. I've certainly cleaned up my share of them.

    Howard, thanks for that anecdote. I am pretty bald faced when it comes to asking about budgets. I'm always surprised when people take offense and think I'm peeking at their cards. But I can't do my job unless I have a number to work around. That you were forthcoming with your budget and they still doubled it is inexcusable. I can't blame you in the least for working with someone else after that.

    I wrote this piece in the hopes of getting some feedback from different people and this is great, it's really helpful. This is the sort of thing I can't get from my clients as everyone has too many vested interests that come into play. NBobody has a dog in the race here and this conversation is precisely what I was looking for. Thank you one and all.

  14. You know the old saying in the industry: "A good installer can make the cheapest cabinets look like a million bucks and the worst installer can make expensive cabinets look cheap."

    Same can be said for a talented designer. Inspiring design can be a challenge with a limited budget and fearful clients. Photo worthy inspirational design happens when the client trusts the designer. That's when great things begin to happen.

  15. Limited budgets I can handle, it's a fearful client I have a hard time with. But then again, it would take a lot for me to trust anybody with the kind of money I routinely ask for. I put myself in my clients' shoes a lot. "What would I want to hear before I wrote a $20,000 check?" It helps to keep my focus on them, where it ought to be.

    This was a great day-long conversation!

  16. As someone who is beginning a home renovation project, I think it's nice for prospects to see that you can work with a lower budget. BUT also show your high end work so they can see all sides of your work. In reading blogs and home magazines, it's incredibility frustrating to only see high end designs and products. It's not practical.

  17. Thanks Kathy, that's helpful feedback. Part of my New client Schtick when I go through my previous work is to talk about the budget accommodations we made on our way to the final project. Everyone starts high and works their way down. Everyone. I don't care if the budget's $150K or $10K. I feel your frustration with the all high end all the time focus of the design press. What's doubly frustrating for me is the lack of price tags on anything in those same media outlets. People end up falling in love with things that are completely out of question and never hear about the good things they can afford.

    One of the things that keeps me blogging is hearing from people like you. I can rarely have this kind of a candid conversation with someone who's in the market. I don't have a dog in the race when I'm writing a blog so I can hear more candid opinions. Thanks for the feedback. It's invaluable!


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