business advice | Jul 18, 2018 |
Am I a stylist or a designer? 

Dear Sean:

I am weighing an offer from a potential new client. The fee is great. However, her existing home is a disaster: a mix of conflicting aesthetics, a jumble of clashing furniture, atrocious art … The list goes on. Of course, I want to do an entire revamp, but she’s making it clear that she wants me to do an edit, or a curation, using her existing stuff. Do I take this on?

m Not Your Editor!

Dear Editor:

Here is the issue with editing. It is actually harder than designing from scratch. If you are given a white box, you will be able to create as you see fit without constraint. When you are limited by existing pieces or fixtures, you are going to have to figure out how to do work you are proud of given these constraints.

Apart from the fact that this potential client may never see eye to eye with you, you are starting from a point of deep misconception. It should actually be more expensive for your client to hire you to edit than for you to design from scratch. If it is not, then you are in the very tough position of having to do more—and riskier—work for less money than will no doubt be required for the project.

Pair a misconception of how much work is required along with the divergence in aesthetics and you are asking for trouble. Here’s a financial solution:

You have to charge a fee that would be reflective of the work you will be doing. If you charge a flat fee, that fee has to equal what you would charge for a complete revamp. If you work on a combination of fee and percentage of purchases, you would have to value those pieces that you both agree to keep as if you were going to purchase that item now.

For example, if you agree to keep items she currently owns that are valued at $50,000, and make new purchases of $50,000, and you earn a 35 percent commission on purchases, your commission would be $35,000.

Of course, I would argue that your commission and fees might need to be higher given your constraints here, but that is likely a “right in theory, won’t fly in practice” idea, so it’s best to stick with being consistent with all of your other revamp work.

As for the aesthetics and taste level, I would absolutely invest in presentation and communication of your vision. I spoke of this in my last column. Do what is necessary to demonstrate and present your design and get signoff on both the overall design as well as on each element. You need to make sure you are on the same page and can develop and manage your client’s expectations for what you will do, versus what she wants you to do.

The question is whether you are a stylist or a designer. Designers get paid for their vision and it is irrelevant in terms of your cost where the tools come from in order to implement that vision. If you permit your client to draw the distinction between existing pieces and new purchases, you are tacitly signing on to be a stylist. No judgment there—just know that you cannot be a stylist and a designer at the same time.


Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his monthly Business Advice column for EAL, he answers designers’ most pressing business questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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