50 states project | Mar 19, 2022 |
How changing her contract transformed this Hawaii designer’s relationship with her clients

The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii–based designer Barbie Palomino tells us about bouncing back after two challenging partnerships, how staging offered a quick creative fix and financial stability, and how island life has forced her to reassess everything from the materials she specifies to her definition of success.

How did you become a designer?
I grew up in a house in Miami where all of the furniture was covered in plastic. My grandmother immigrated from Cuba in the early 1960s, and she thought everything was too precious to be used. The house was filled with porcelain Persian cats and ornate pretend-Regency furniture. I think because of that, I always wanted the rooms in my home to be usable spaces. As I got a little older, I was always rearranging my room and buying those sets-in-a-bag to redecorate. But when I was thinking about a career, my stepdad told me that I could never be a designer because I would never make any money doing it, so I went to University of Florida for business management.

Where did that degree take you?
I was in retail management, managing Abercrombie and Hollister stores—and I was so unhappy. I was still so obsessed with every shelter magazine. So two years after I graduated, I applied to FIDM in Los Angeles. They had a one-year program for people who already had a bachelor’s, and when I got it, I just knew I had to give design a shot. I sold everything, picked up and moved to L.A.

I started interning out there with an alumnus from UF, and I learned so much more working with her than I really had in the classroom setting. This was back in the day when most presentations were on foam core, with actual fabric swatches tucked around cotton swabs. I was sourcing for her, making presentations, and she taught me more practical ways to use CAD.

Then I landed a job with a hospitality design firm that designed for chain hotels like Marriott. I consider that my first real design job. My mentor there—she actually just passed, but she was so fabulous—she really let me be the creative behind the scenes because I had a lot of social anxiety and could never present to clients. She really held my hand and let me run with the design. I was there until the recession hit.

You were still in L.A. at that point?
Yes, and I loved it. Los Angeles was so different from Miami—and now that I’m in Hawaii, I joke that I just keep upgrading my palm tree location.

What happened at the firm during the recession?
It was a nightmare. The business was all hotel projects, but most of those jobs lost their funding—the brands couldn’t take out millions of dollars to renovate their hotels. So one by one, the firm let us all go. They were devastated. It was a big meeting around the conference table, with everyone sobbing and crying. We were all like, “We’re going to miss each other so much.” It was such an amazing experience, and everyone there was just so kind.

What did you do next?
I took a break. Some of the designers at the hospitality firm were participants in this life-training program called WorldWorks. Because I had such bad social anxiety, they encouraged me to take a series of workshops. It was like the most intensive therapy you can go to, and I came out of it able to start going on interviews and believing in myself. I was able to make eye contact for the first time in my life.

Meanwhile, there were no design jobs. I was working for a tech startup and looking for jobs on Craigslist. I found this unpaid internship at a development firm in Hollywood, and I was like, Well, this is my last chance. I was in my late 20s, and I felt like it was my last chance to get back into design. And I got the job.

What were you doing there?
They started me in as a project manager. I did a good job, and they started paying me—I think they paid me $100 a day to babysit these jobs for them. It was all of these beautiful mansions in the Hollywood Hills and the Bird Streets. Eventually, I started designing for them, and I got to work on these really high-end luxury homes. I was finally doing work I loved, creating spaces that are beautiful and practical, where you didn’t have to sacrifice form or function. But although the work was so exciting, it was miserable there. It was a very toxic environment. I kept wishing for a way to go out on my own, but I wasn’t confident enough to do it.

What changed for you?
They had so many projects that they brought in another interior designer, and we hit it off immediately. Aesthetically, we were so in sync. Our desks faced each other, and at some point we just looked up at each other and were like, “Should we start doing this ourselves?”

That’s such a great visual.
I think it was like 10 o’clock at night. We had to work such insane hours, and that night we had walked to Trader Joe’s for a bottle of wine and were back at our desks working. And it was just like, “Let’s go work from home and not be miserable all day.” And so we did.

She had contacts from her previous role at a showroom, and we started doing little projects on the side with the few hours that we could carve out for that. We started doing projects at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in downtown L.A. for the developer. And we started to meet real estate agents there who loved us and knew we could execute designs. There was enough work that we left the firm and started a partnership.

Was it a success?
We started doing lots of great projects together, and creatively we totally saw eye to eye. But she is purely a creative, and I’m equally left and right brain. Looking back, I think we did not define our job responsibilities properly from the get-go, which led to a lot of conflict around how to run the financial side of the business. We ended up parting ways two years later, and I started my own LLC. After that, I kept getting referrals, mostly from real estate agents. They’d be like, “I have this client who just bought a 2,000-square-foot condo at the Ritz. They need all new furniture, and they want to renovate the bathroom. Can you handle them?”

How changing her contract transformed this Hawaii designer’s relationship with her clients
In her own home in Los Angeles, Palomino added playful, modern updates while staying true to the property’s midcentury modern architecture.Sara Tramp

When you went on your own, did you have a sense of how you wanted to do it differently?
Well, I swore I would never have a partner again. And then I did, and it was a disaster. But besides that, I wanted to focus a lot more on the client experience. A big problem of mine with that partner was that she would not respond to clients—she’d have all these unread emails—but I wanted a lot of communication with clients. When you’re asking clients to trust you with hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s very important to renew their confidence in you over and over again. To let them know that they’re a priority, and that you’re not going to run away with their money. Every client, especially at a luxury level, wants to feel like they’re your only client, even if they know they’re one of 10.

One mistake I made again was not hiring someone. L.A. is expensive, and I just kept thinking that I had to make all the money and then not spend any of it on help. It took me at least a year before I realized that I couldn’t grow unless I had a full-time assistant.

At about that time, Noa Santos reached out to me about Homepolish, which was just getting started. He was like, “I’m trying to create an agency for designers, and I want you to be on this team.” It obviously didn’t end on the best note—I was part of that group of designers who got stiffed thousands of dollars in the end—but they did match me with some really amazing clients that are still in my portfolio online today. In that way, it was a great opportunity to connect with clients who would’ve never found me otherwise. It finally got me out of working only at the Ritz, and I started getting projects all over L.A. And it was all different styles—I was doing Gothic art deco downtown and Spanish Mediterranean modern in West Hollywood. I really got to stretch my creative legs.

You said you never wanted a business partner again, but then you took one on. What happened?
Oh, my God. I can’t get too into it, but basically I started a second company—I still had my own business doing all of my residential projects, but I started a staging business with a partner. It ended when she embezzled. To make a long story short, I ended up having to hire an attorney.

I’m assuming that business is done, but are you still staging?
We got out of the business and sold off our inventory. Then the pandemic hit, and then I moved. I’d love to get into staging here on the island in the future, but with the shipping costs and delays, I think it’ll be a few years out. They have to get rid of the Jones Act [a piece of legislation from 1920 that requires cargo transported between U.S. ports to be on U.S.–flagged ships that are owned and crewed by Americans, and that is cited as a contributing factor in the high cost of living on Hawaii] so that shipping is affordable!

How did you get into staging in the first place?
The developer I’d worked for had started a staging company, which is where I learned how to do it. For my business, I started acquiring inventory from all of my wholesale accounts, and then we’d get brought in a lot to do quick-turnaround decorating projects. I love the immediate gratification of staging. There’s something to be said for the renovation process and waiting a year to see my design come to fruition, but that quick in, quick out process of designing a space in three days and seeing it complete really fueled my creativity. It was also so satisfying, like crossing an item off of a to-do list. It wasn’t my bread and butter by any means, but it was a nice side project to mix in with the larger long-term projects. And we never got too big—we didn’t need a huge warehouse or anything, because a lot of the homes would sell furnished and we would instantly get our money back.

You were constantly rebuilding your inventory.
Exactly. That’s how we really got paid—we made a ton of profit on furniture and then were onto the next one.

Was it like a good business to be in, in theory?
Back then, absolutely. And to buy wholesale and do half- or full-container loads at a time was great. You got the best discounts. We were doing high-end properties—these weren’t tiny apartments with very small budgets—so we were able to charge MSRP and be profitable when the unit was purchased. I don’t think I could ever be like Meridith Baer and have all these warehouses and huge teams of people—I don’t think I’m ready to scale up to that at any point—but it was fun for what it was.

Left: The designer channeled modern Parisian style to transform a West Hollywood penthouse—a project that was completely remotely during the pandemic. Jess Isaac | Right: Palomino’s Los Angeles living room. Sara Tramp

You moved to Hawaii. How did that happen, and how did you make it work for your business?
It was in May of 2020. This big article came out saying that my husband’s company was going to have massive layoffs. He is the most positive person on the planet—literally nothing gets him down—and for the first time, I saw his face drop and he looked so sad. We weren’t even two years in at our home in L.A., and he was like, “Barbie, if I lose my job, we’ll lose our house.” I knew that I couldn’t be the sole breadwinner.

We’ve always talked about moving out of L.A. at some point before our daughter gets to high school. We had already been dreaming about that, and we thought it was 10 years away. But we got on Redfin and started just looking up and down the California coast, and it wasn’t really any more affordable.

My husband had always teased me about moving to Hawaii. I was like, "Absolutely not. It’s too hot." I’d been to the big island once on my babymoon, and I was miserable the entire time because I felt like my internal body temperature was 500 degrees. But this time he was like, "Well, let’s look at Hawaii on Redfin." And I was like, "OK, this looks pretty. I could do this." For some reason I was like, "Let’s put our house on the market and see what happens." We had been in Northern California visiting family when all of this happened. But when we got back to L.A., we contacted our real estate agent and had everything photographed. There was a bidding war for our house, and it sold in three days.

So now you’re really moving.
Right. We had found an agent in Hawaii and she was doing Zoom walkthroughs with us, and we bought a home on an acre in a rural part of the Big Island on the Kona side.

What did you tell your clients?
I didn’t tell any of my clients at first. I didn’t know if it was going to work! I told them that we were spending the summer in Hawaii while the pandemic was going on, and I continued to do my work. At that point, everything was remote anyway. I wasn’t comfortable going to the few job sites that were still active—it was back when we still didn’t really know what this was. And what I said was true: I didn’t know if it would work out. I didn’t want to put words out there into the universe that might then limit my options. But when we got here, we loved it.

I took on a condo remodel in West Hollywood, so I would fly back every couple months to meet with the client, do measurements, stuff like that. But it was really challenging. My screwup was that I didn’t dedicate a project manager to the project. I thought I could trust the construction company to handle that for me, but it was a disaster—and with pandemic delays, it took a year longer than they were originally quoted.

I was working mostly on projects in L.A. for a long time, and then slowly I started to get projects in Hawaii. My goal is to eventually shift to mostly projects here so I don’t have to come back to L.A. as often, just because I don’t even want to travel anymore. I love it here so much. Right now, my projects are split 50-50 between states.

What kind of team do you have to support you now?
I had an amazing assistant who was based in L.A., so she was my eyes and ears on the ground. She would meet with my clients and contractors, and source things from showrooms that were open. It made the transition pretty seamless, all things considered. She recently had to quit for health reasons. I have an assistant now, but she just had a baby. And I’m still looking for someone who is Hawaii-based, but there isn’t a lot of design talent out here. I’m not on Oahu where there are tons of designers!

If this were my staffing situation two years ago, I’d probably freak out. But I feel like the pandemic has made people more reasonable about what they can get and when they can get it, even in terms of assistance. Especially living on an island, you learn patience. Getting angry or reactive doesn’t ever solve the problem or make you happy. So I went online and found a renderer and a CAD person. I have outsourced things as needed on a project basis while I figure out what post-COVID life will look like living on an island.

You’re in L.A. for the week now. What’s on your to-do list when you come into town?
I came back to shoot projects that were finished either during the pandemic or before. I’ll also do some project management and get some face time with clients. I have a project starting construction in the beginning of June, so I was meeting with a contractor to make sure all the details were handled. I will be looking for a project manager that’ll be here for the renovation projects, but I still have to come back to do some project management here myself.

How changing her contract transformed this Hawaii designer’s relationship with her clients
A smoked glass mirror is the backdrop of the bedroom lounge in a West Hollywood condo.Jess Isaac

Did your move change the way you approach your work?
It helped me redefine my definition of success. Living in L.A., it was that constant keeping up with the Joneses—always chasing the dragon of more. It’s like: I need more clients. I need a licensing deal. I need all these partnerships. I need a team of 20. I need office space. A bigger house, a nicer car. But I was working 12 hour days from home, and I was exhausted. My baby was two at the time, and she was like, “Mommy is always working.” She’d say that all the time. And had the pandemic not happened, who knows how long I would’ve burned the candle at both ends?

I no longer think productivity is a measure of success, or that it defines me. And it’s been wonderful. I have such a better work-life balance, and I’m not exhausted all the time. I’m able to be so present with my daughter now, and I love our relationship.

What’s the ideal number of projects for you these days?
Definitely less—probably five or six. Right now, I have six projects and that feels good.

How are the clients and the projects you’re getting in Hawaii different from your work in L.A.?
Aesthetically, it’s very different. If you look at homes over $1 million or $2 million in Hawaii, they all have the same dark wood and travertine, the same beamed ceiling. It’s just the same thing over and over—you cannot identify one house from another. A lot of them were built in the 1990s, but the homes being built today still look like that. I’m not sure why—I wish I could become an importer to give people more options!

Is that what clients are looking for, then?
A lot of the time, it’s all they know. I have to figure out a way to make it mine, but where they’ll accept it and it’s not too far outside of their comfort zone. I now have some clients who moved to Hawaii from the mainland. They are a bit more open-minded in their aesthetic and they love color. So now it’s about taking my style over and making it practical for the climate, and for the overall architecture of these homes.

Sourcing is difficult here, too. Unless you’re at the high-end of the market, everyone is going to Lowe’s and Home Depot to get whatever is in stock. When I first got here, I was like, "I cannot design a kitchen from Lowe’s cabinetry. That’s not how this works." It took a long time to figure out what vendors I can even use here? Not just who has things available during this pandemic, but also just who ships here?

Where do you shop?
I still try to shop everywhere I did before, but it all comes down to shipping. So many things do not ship to Hawaii. The majority of my business has always been wholesale vendors, but I used to be able to go to a store like Crate & Barrel when I was looking for something fast. But they won’t even ship to Hawaii unless you have I think a $5,000 order—and then your freight bill is like 30 or 40 percent on top of that. I had an order that was $7,500, but my freight was $4,000. I’m paying a premium over MSRP just to get something here! I’ve had wholesale vendors that were like, “We don’t ship to Hawaii. You need to figure out who can receive this and put it on a boat, because we don’t know how to do it.” And this is a national upholsterer!

Sometimes it’s more affordable to find what is available from Amazon or Wayfair. You’re looking at the cost of the items, but so much of it is looking at shipping prices. It’s exhausting. I feel like I need to charge more just to compensate myself for the time I spend trying to figure out the shipping.

You also mentioned that you need to specify items that are appropriate for the climate. How does that impact what you source?
A lot of homes are open air. I’m at 1,200 feet elevation, and we have no air conditioning. When we first moved here, I bought all this beautiful wallpaper for our home—and it got mold in the glue and we had to rip everything out. Mold is a huge problem here. If you’re not working in an air-conditioned home, you definitely can’t use leather, wallpaper or even linen fabrics. My wood furniture gets mold on it! For wood, you can spray it down with alcohol or vodka to get the mold off. There are moths everywhere, and they’ve eaten all my sweaters. You also have to accept that there are geckos in your house, so your stuff is covered in gecko poop all the time. It’s a very different lifestyle than the city.

I’m sorry, I’m still stuck on the geckos.
I have this beautiful round upholstery piece from Global Views in my office, and I’m just constantly vacuuming up tiny little specks of gecko poop because they hang out on ceilings. Or you’ll go to brush your teeth and there’s one in your skylight, so there’s poop on your counter. It took some getting used to, and I was really grossed out for a long time. They can come in through the tiniest crack in your ceiling—and everything is open air, anyway, so all of your sliding doors are open.

What are the materials that perform best?
Definitely paints and wipeable surfaces. You cannot do anything woven, so I don’t bother with baskets or wicker pendants anymore. And if it’s not the mold, the rust will get you. We’re close to the ocean, and it deteriorates metal finishes. Even where we are at, this high up, I have a brass pendant that’s starting to get rust spots because it gets humid and windy. It can feel like you’re constantly beating back the jungle.

How do you talk about it with clients?
Well, I’m thankful that I’ve mostly had clients who’ve been here long enough that they’re aware of it. I had a client who was right on the water and all their fixtures had rusted out, so we looked for rustproof copper fixtures—those were very expensive—or you kind of cheat it. I was like, “Let’s just do dark bronze and black oil-rubbed finishes so at least you get a few more years out of them as it rusts.” I will say, there’s a lot of acceptance for the challenges of living here. Amazon Prime takes two weeks to get here—that kind of sums up how you approach daily life, too.

How changing her contract transformed this Hawaii designer’s relationship with her clients
Palomino painted the walls black and kept the furnishings sleek and modern in this West Hollywood dining room.Jess Isaac

How have you approached billing for your work?
I’ve been flat fee for a while. I read a lot of Business of Home articles, so I know not to be chasing payments. I bill for design before it happens; I bill for products before I place orders; and I do not deviate from that. Ever. I have to tell you, though, I just took on a client in L.A. that was a referral from another client, and they hadn’t worked with a designer before so they had a lot of questions about my markup and how I billed for design services. It was things like, “Why are you billing in advance of design? Should we pay you after we get the design? And if you’re getting a trade discount, are you making money off of the product we buy?” And I was just like, “Please hold.” I went to Business of Home, typed in all these things, sent them links to six articles, and was like, “Here it is from a trade perspective. These are the ins and outs of how it works and why.”

That is not a use I’d ever imagined for our reporting, but I love that! Did it work?
I didn’t hear from them for a bit at first. I told myself, If I don’t get this job because they’re not comfortable with my pricing model, it’s on them, not me. And I don’t want to be working with a client where I have to feel like I’m defending myself, or where I feel like I’m the villain every time I send them an invoice. But it turns out the delay was because they had a family member who was sick. They just sent me the first 50 percent of my design fee and were like, “We’re so excited to start. Here is your money.”

We’ve been talking as designers about how we need a more consistent system or more transparency between designers for so long. And now you’re putting it out there and making the business model transparent. Everyone can have their different pricing model, but it shouldn’t be a secret because that’s what creates distrust and chaos with clients because they don’t know what you’re doing. And I was there! When I started, I had a kind of sketchy contract for a long time—I didn’t explain what markup was, or how I was pricing product—and a lot of those projects were torture because the client was always thinking there was some nefarious intent with my pricing.

When you say it was a sketchy contract—was that on purpose?
No, it was what I had seen other people use. Now I just tell every single client: “Listen, I do get trade pricing at a lot of places. I will never charge you more than MSRP. You’re not allowed to shop me. And that’s it.”

Did making that switch change the dynamic for you?
I definitely felt the difference. It’s allowed me to be more forthcoming from the get-go. It’s easier, and I am happier. There’s not that weight of, “Do they think I’m getting one over on them?” And once they understand it, people don’t question the business model.

What does success mean to you now in your business?
I’d still love to take on some amazing projects in L.A.—the ones that I absolutely want to feature in my portfolio and that I’ll be proud of—but I’d like to be 80 to 90 percent based on the island. I’d like to have a larger reputation here, where I become a go-to designer, and I’d like to have an assistant who is based on the island.

More than that, I want to keep being able to pick up or drop off my daughter at school. I want to not be working on the weekends, which is pretty much where I’m at right now. So far as the number of hours spent, I don’t want that to grow. I wouldn’t ever want more than one or two assistant designers on staff—I’ve liked outsourcing to reliable people, which keeps my overhead low. I like that I’m able to pass some of those savings on to clients, too. It makes me maybe a little more affordable than some of the larger designers here, and I’m happy with that. I just want consistency and higher quality and larger projects, but not a bigger time investment.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you would’ve known from the beginning when you started your firm?
I think it would’ve been nice to know what I’m worth. I still struggle with that a little bit. I do undercharge based on competitors, but at least I’m aware of my struggle with it now. For a long time, I’d price it at whatever it needs to be to get the project and whatever project, but now I’m comfortable turning a client away if we don’t see eye to eye.

How do you decide what you say yes to now?
When the client goes into it trusting me immediately. You have to say no sometimes to the people who are like, “I want to collaborate with you on this—look, I went to HomeGoods and I liked this chair,” or whatever. When it’s more like, “We’ve seen your work. We like what you do. Can you make our home amazing?” Yes. And then once I speak to them and see the bones of their home, I know whether or not it’s something that excites me, and that I want to show off when it’s done. If I don’t think it will be worth it to photograph the project, I’ve decided that it’s not worth it for me to work on, either. Now I just need to charge more now so that my photography fees are included. I struggle, I struggle, but I’ll get there. This will be a good year.

What are you most optimistic about in the year to come?
For things to be in stock again.

I don’t know that that’s in the cards this year…
I know, I know. But I’m putting it out in the universe.

To learn more about Barbie Palomino, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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