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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interior Designers: Designing The Way Into A New Era

Some of the topics I write about work well mixed with a little humor or sarcasm. Some, like the one I'm writing about today, are best left as they are. This is written for designers who are feeling a little discouraged with the economy. There is hope. We are designers. We make a living out of turning nothing into something. We can make a difference.

If there's one trend that I've noticed over the past few years it's the concept that the good times are gone. People are complaining about jobs, taxes, gas prices, loss of home values, etc. It's become a national pastime to find something wrong with everything. Just listening to people who complain all the time can put otherwise happy people in a poor mood and it propagates the whole situation. It's contagious. Those things do exist and of course, it's a concern to everyone. What most of us forget when things get rough are the opportunities that present themselves. It's during these times when creative minds have a little more time to think, they think harder than ever and as a result, we usually end up better in the long run. Remember the late 70's and early 80's? A global recession was going on, mortgage rates were at 18%, but it was also a great time of inventions. MS-DOS(Microsoft Software), Cell phones, the Hepatitis B vaccine, the IBM-PC computer, CD-ROM, Apple Mac, Sony Walkman, MRI's, and of course, Prozac to name just a few. Apparently, not everyone was sitting around relishing in their misery.

In the past, most designers in my area relied heavily on new home sales. South Florida was in a building boom for many years and designers rode that gravy train to the last station. Clients were spending like there was no tomorrow, some of them as if they were posting their W-2 forms on their front door. It was a great time for everyone. Many designers took for granted that another big job was always around the corner and lived like celebrities, spending every dime they made. Unfortunately, many of those same people, and now some of the biggest retailers in Florida have been forced to close up due to the economy. It's a sad story that's being played out over and over. But fortunately, this will not be the end of the story.

The late famous designer, Jay Spector, always had a positive outlook on life and business. He used to say "The time to take the cookies is when they pass the plate." In other words, when opportunity comes your way, grab it. And while the economy appears to be in the toilet to most people, it is creating opportunities for those who have the ability to adapt to the business of the future. It's a time to slow down, put a little more thought into what we do and make sure we are giving our clients the best possible design.

A good example of one of the opportunities is that while new home sales are at a halt, more and more people are deciding to stay in their current home for the next several years. In doing so, many of them will be doing renovations and additions to make their homes more comfortable. They are realizing it's cheaper to do this than buy a new home and pay the higher property taxes or sell their home at a loss. These projects may be a little more work for the designer, and a little less profitable, but it's a great opportunity to add new clients to their portfolio. Who knows what lies in store for the future with these new clients? It's an opportunity for a whole new market of design clients. It's also a great time for clients to save money as many vendors and workrooms have lowered their pricing in order to survive.

Another positive result of the economy is that many people need to sell their homes and the competition is brutal. The market for staging firms is increasing dramatically. It may only cost a small amount to stage your home professionally but for most homes, it will increase its marketability and value. This may be especially true for the condo market where several identical units may be competing for the same buyer. Don't kid yourself into thinking that all buyers are just looking for the cheapest price. If they are from out of town, they may want something that is already done rather than deal with the headaches of construction or decorating a new home via long distance. Even in this economy, there are people who will pay the price for convenience and good taste.

The economy has also misplaced a lot of homeowners into rental properties. Some of them will stay in the rental market for some time while they are rebuilding their credit and savings accounts. For those with families and careers, a rental home does not mean living like a college student. They still want the same comforts of a home to raise their family. Some of these new clients are renting luxury properties. These customers may not be looking to make lifetime investments so for those designers who have well-priced resources and ideas, this is a whole new market. Creativity is what will count with these customers. And creativity will require more than just giving them the first thing that pops into your head so you can get the job done quickly. Sometimes the best ideas come after your first ideas.

Case in point: When I was in college, I had a very gifted design instructor. He got his Masters from Pratt Institute and owned his own design firm while also teaching at the University level. He was no stranger to hard work. He had what I thought at the time, was a cruel concept for getting us to rise above what we thought we were capable of. During our fifth year, he would assign actual design projects that had been given to the University by local private and public businesses. The class size was small and was extremely competitive at that level because it was the final year of what was then a prototype design program. Most students had left the program a year earlier with their bachelor's degree. Only a handful continued on for the extra year. Anyway, a couple weeks after getting our assigned projects, he had us put up our design concepts for the entire class to critique. Some of the student's designs were, to put it simply, outstanding. At the end of all the critiques, including the instructor's, he took them down, thanked everyone for their hard work and creative efforts and then threw them in the trash! To say we were stunned is an understatement. Hours and hours of work in the garbage. We sat there dumbfounded. Then he made his point. "Now that all of you got that obvious crap out of your head, let's move on to the good stuff." His belief was that your first idea is never your best. Knowing that you couldn't go back to that design concept forced you to think beyond and come up with a new one. He was no less than a genius. The final design projects that came out of that class were award worthy. I still find myself looking for that better idea on every project.

The economy has had an effect on everyone, not just the design business. I strongly suspect that it's one of the driving factors why contemporary furnishings have made a strong comeback over the past few years. People may be wanting something fresh, something less complicated and heavy. It's not unlike during the depression, the most glamorous decade of the American century. It was the zenith of an era of unbridled, unapologetic and authentic luxury. While our economy was at it's worst, people were finding comfort by throwing the most lavish parties our country had ever seen.

The times we live in are a challenge for most everyone to some degree. But then again, life is a challenge. It's like one big fat puzzle...we just need to figure it out one piece at a time and to find a way of enjoying it during the process.

William Philby, ASID is the co-founder of Retro Interiors and Island City Traders in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is a Florida licensed interior designer and professional member of ASID. A graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Mr. Philby has been practicing interior design for 30 years and currently resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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