“The Last Supper”


I love meeting with new clients.  They are always so full of hope.   They have enough dreams and wishes to fill volumes of notebooks.  I wish I had written down some of the most “original” ones over the years but on the outside chance one of them might read this blog, I think I’ll save that for my autobiography when I retire.  After all, you know us designers are all about keeping secrets.  Right.

One of my favorite ones comes at the end of a long interview session with a new client.  They’ve just told me how they want their house to be an extension of their own personality.  Ok, stop here for a minute while I digress.  The client I was speaking with has about 65 cigarette burns on the carpet next to the bed.  True story.  Just the thought of “drawing upon their personality” to design their home conjures all sorts of ideas…of course not many of them would win any design awards.

Anyway, the interview continues.  They would like seating for at least 10-12 in their dining room which is approximately 12’ x 15’.  Figuring that the chairs alone take up at least two feet each, that should leave about 2” for walking…oh, and let’s not forget they must have a buffet for serving when guests come over.  I guess they need more room for ashtrays.   As I’m about to explain the issues of space planning they push me into to the living room.  We proceed to go room to room.  They’ve obviously given this a lot of thought before I arrived.

And so the interview and walk-thru goes…on and on…and the list has gotten so long that I’m wondering if I have a backup pen.  After we’ve spent hours going through each room and learning about all their little quirks that must be met, we sit down to discuss the design contract.  Mind you, our interior design contract is fairly simple and straightforward.  All is going well up to the point where we need to discuss the budget for the job.

First, let me say there are a few standards in figuring budgets.  I have developed my own rules of thumb over the years but that’s my little trade secret.  Suffice it to say considerations need to be made regarding size of home, cost of home and location of home.  But budgets are important to know before starting a project.  I’ve seen so many designers, and some pretty experienced ones that usually work on a cost-plus basis (go figure… the more it costs, the more they make) take clients down the spending path without any sort of barometer of where they will end up until it’s too late.  Unless the client has given you carte blanche and you know for a fact that cost is no issue, this will have devastating results.  My advice is get all your selections and costs determined up front before you start making purchases.

Anyway, getting back to my story, I’m sitting with the clients.  I have my 62 notepads of wish lists.  I ask them what they feel would be a comfortable budget for the work we’ve discussed.   For a second I thought I could cut the silence with a knife.  Then, as if they’re offering up their first born, they lay it on me.  Of course, the budget isn’t even close to what it needs to be.  Seriously, the dining room set they wanted is more than half their whole budget.  Somehow they expect me to install new floors (hopefully not carpet in the bedroom again), purchase new furniture, paint the interior and let’s not forget about accommodating all the little quirky requests like the fact the granddaughter comes to visit and she needs what seems like an entire college library set-up in the guest bedroom.  You get the picture.  You just have to wonder how such otherwise smart, successful, worldly people could be oblivious to the retail world for so many years.  Personally, I don’t buy it.  After all, the car in their driveway cost twice that of their entire budget.  And, they have another one parked in the garage.  The apartment is a luxury oceanfront condo in Boca Raton, Florida.   I know when I get clients like this that the only way to get them to accept a realistic budget is to walk them through the process piece by piece so they can see for themselves what the actual costs will be.

I take out a floor plan and roughly sketch an entire furniture layout for them.  After 30 years, you sort of have a knack for this.  I draw in ¼” scale in my sleep.  I give them the sketch and ask them to sit down together and put a price on each item that they think is a reasonable amount they would expect to pay.  Every sofa, end table, lamp, rug, etc.   I also make a short list on the side for items like paint, flooring, electrical, etc., so they can put a number on those items even though I know those amounts will require a little more research.

Somehow I have a feeling when we meet again, the list of requirements will have decreased or the budget will have been miraculously infused from The Rockefeller Foundation.  Funny how that happens when they realize they either have to rise to the occasion or do without.  And so, the hour of reckoning has arrived.   I never like to feel too sure that this method will work.  I always run the risk of having a client realize they can’t afford to do the whole project as they had expected and both of us leave the negotiating table empty handed.   That is never my intent.  Sometimes it might mean doing the project in phases.  I always feel there are options to some degree.

Thankfully in this case, the option was determined by the fact that the client knew exactly what they wanted but were trying to lowball the job.  They were very aware of their taste level and expectations about quality.   The estimated budget that they came up with was not that far off from what I had originally thought it would be.  Thankfully, there were in a position to adjust their numbers.  We settled on an overall range in price and the project was a go.

The next step takes us to the point at hand.  One of things I find that is a huge waste of time for both the designer and client is that whole notion of shopping together, fashionable lunches and making a day out of finding a new sofa.  I’ve been around that barn so many times I’m embarrassed to say.  It’s fine for a beginner or someone who doesn’t have many clients but it just never worked for me.  Worse, the clients are subjected to what I call “The Last Supper” effect.

This is how it works.  Let’s say that the first item on the list is the main upholstery for the living room.  This sets the tone for the room and usually it’s one of the first rooms you see when entering the house.  Of course it’s a very important piece and should make a statement.  The details are crucial.  The fabric chosen should be something that is unique, tasteful and luxurious.  Let’s not forget some crucial decorative pillows are a must, trim included.  And while we’re at it, we should upgrade the cushion cores to make sure when someone sits in it that they notice this is no ordinary sofa from a furniture store.   Let’s add some special cording and some nail heads to finish it off.  Perfect.  We can cut some other corners down the road, but not the sofa.  DUMB IDEA!

This client just bought the sofa like they were ordering off the menu at the Last Supper.  This is not going to be the last sofa they will ever buy, and let’s remember they have a budget.   If you have the budget for an EJ Victor sofa, then by all means, go for it.  It’s probably one of the finest made in the United States.  But if your budget is $3000, you might consider another brand that offers comfort and style.  That’s a reasonable amount for a nice sofa.  Once you start the trend of upgrading items, there is no place to stop without it being obvious.  This is where the dog and pony show needs to end or your bank account is going to be in for a rude awakening.  This is where you need to step back and let the designer do their homework before making any more purchases.

This is a good example where a client can be led down the primrose spending path, each item having the utmost of importance and the budget is thrown out the window.  This is a bad practice that has given way to the notion that only the rich can afford a designer.  My design staff and I work very differently.  The designers select the items and make a comprehensive presentation.  Otherwise, we lose control of the job and the client ends up unhappy with the final outcome and costs.  In contrast, once we know the budget, we have a handle on what level of goods will fit the budget and we only select from vendors in that price range.  After we have assembled the complete job, we do all the pricing and make reselections where needed.  By the time the client is called in for a presentation, every detail and cost is worked out.  In doing so, the client can focus on the overall design.  They can see what the entire job will cost down to the penny before they spend their first dollar.   At that point, they can make whatever changes are needed.  There are always a few fabrics or pieces of furniture that they might want to change but overall it has kept them in budget.  Most of the time, we hit the target on design and price in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

No one realizes how important the final outcome of designing a new home can be.  We stake our reputation on it day after day.  The decisions we make in the selection process are based on experience and education.   It’s more than just style we’re looking for at that point.  We’re considering the price, the construction, delivery times, sizing, comfort, the reliability of the vendor and most importantly, the expectations of the client.  Multiply that times the thousands of decisions that each client requires, and you’ll understand what goes on behind the scenes.

So if you’re starting a new project keep your wits and wallet about you until you have your ducks in a row.  Determine your budget if you need one and wait for your final presentation before you start writing blank checks.  Trust me, this won’t be your last supper.

Bill Philby, ASID

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About Bill Philby, ASID

Bill Philby is co-founder of Retro Interiors of Fort Lauderdale and Island City Traders of Wilton Manors, Florida. He is a professional member of American Society of Interior Designers and licensed by Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design. Mr. Philby is a BFA graduate of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and currently resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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