Straddling the line between business and family can get tricky, so figuring out whether to take on a relative or friend as a client may be a daunting decision. We asked eight designers—Laura Chappetto, Shelagh Conway, Lucas Goldbach, Melinda Kelson O’Connor, Katie Labourdette-Martinez, Lauren Lerner, Brad Ramsey and Olivia Wahler—if they ever do projects for friends and family, and if so, how they manage expectations and set boundaries.
Maintaining Strong Bonds
“Designing spaces for our own family [the design partners are also sisters-in-law] has been so fun and rewarding, but it can also come with its challenges. For example, when we agreed to design The Farmilia House for our parents, we knew that adding a family relationship to a process that’s already massively personal would run a risk of heightened emotions and possible tension. That’s just the nature of working with family … but we’re used to that over here. We knew we had good communication skills and a strong enough foundation and bond with them to be able to execute the project in a fun, healthy way. So, when those moments of tension came up, it was all about communication. We loved designing this home for so many reasons, but mainly because it gave us the rare opportunity to collaborate in a creative environment with our family while having the flexibility to play with the design and take some risks that we might not typically take with a ‘normal’ client. The ultimate bonus, though, is that we all get to enjoy this space together once the project is wrapped—a rare phenomenon in the world of design!” —Olivia Wahler and Katie Labourdette-Martinez, Hearth Homes Interiors, Santa Barbara, California
Bring It On!
“I happily and frequently do projects for friends and family. Ideally, clients who start as strangers or acquaintances also become my friends by the end of the process! The client relationship, for me, is based on trust, mutual respect and transparency. With an unknown client, there is a discovery period where you look to establish those qualities, and the most successful projects always do. With friends and family, ideally, those fundamentals are already present in your relationship, which makes it truly easy. Collaborating with and working for people you already like is the best. I am especially careful to be upfront about what to expect from my costs and services, in the same way I would with any client, and that typically removes any potential conflict or awkwardness.” —Melinda Kelson O’Connor, Melinda Kelson O’Connor Architecture & Interiors, Philadelphia
Lay Out the Ground Rules
“I have actually found that friends of friends or family turn out to be even more difficult relationships for us. When it comes to any new client, clear communication at the onset of the project is key. When it comes to friends and family, even more communication is key. We set out firm boundaries, structured pricing models that show our regular pricing and their courtesy discount pricing, and a full project overview. They are informed early and often about what is and is not included in the scope of work and what any additional work would cost. Let’s face it: No one is giving you anything for free, so why are we expected to? And if anyone tries to take advantage of our relationship, I tend to make a joke that clearly points out how they’re in the wrong. Anything beyond that gets a direct conversation.” —Laura Chappetto, Element Design Network, Chicago
“This is a delicate subject! I have helped family in the past and will always give advice when asked, but just like when taking on clients, you want to make sure you can communicate effectively with them. More often than not, the family member is looking for a cheaper alternative to accomplish what you charge others full price for, so it typically isn’t a good fit. You can, however, guide them to make the right decisions without doing all the work. To complete a cohesive design plan, one party has to make all the decisions. It is more challenging with family because they typically won’t take your advice and do what they want anyway. Our reputations are important. You don’t want your name associated with a less-than-stellar design plan that you had no control over.” —Shelagh Conway, Triple Heart Design, Austin, Texas
“This is always a challenging question because friends and family can be fantastic clients due to the trust you share with them. These folks can also be a challenge because they know the social you and the familial you, which can be very different from the professional you. A few years ago, we did a major renovation with our founding partner Mike Shively’s parents. The project and the result was a great success because they were able to set boundaries about when it was appropriate to discuss the project so that the relationship didn’t become only about that. Being upfront about fees, payment terms and so on in the beginning can be really key to ensuring that the stress of a project does not have a long-lasting effect on the personal relationship. I find there to be parallels when doing personal projects. I am currently working on a renovation of a home for my partner and me. While we are very much aligned on what we want the home to be, there can be challenges when designing for yourself and your significant other. I need to remind myself that I am not the only client and that involving my partner in decision making and essential to make sure it feels like ‘our’ home.” —Lucas Goldbach, En Masse Architecture and Design, Chicago
Let’s Be Real
“The key to making a friend-client relationship work is having a realistic budget. Just because I work in the design field doesn’t mean I can make magic happen! You have to be willing to spend money to get the desired outcome.” —Brad Ramsey, Brad Ramsey Interiors, Nashville, Tennessee
Charge in Full
“As my business expands, I find myself receiving more requests from friends and family to work on their projects. I have come to realize that these projects can be more challenging than regular client work. Often, this is due to my emotional connections with these relationships and the way design fees are handled. In the past, when I did take on projects for family and friends, I would often maintain the same design fee or significantly reduce it. However, this approach proved problematic, as these projects often took longer, required more revisions, and were more price-sensitive. Therefore, my recommendation is that if you decide to take on a project for a friend or family member, it is important to charge the full price or consider referring them to another designer friend.” —Lauren Lerner, Living With Lolo, Scottsdale, Arizona