trade tales | Jan 8, 2021 |
How do you deal with a client taking credit for your work?

No matter what your profession, having someone claim your work as their own is an awful situation to find yourself in. For interior designers, the scenario can be even more complicated because of how closely they work with the homeowner to develop a project, which can lead the client to feel possessive over the end results. We asked seven designers—Meagan Camp, Gary Inman, Maureen Magula, Brian Paquette, Katy Popple, Sarah Walker and Cara Woodhouse—how they’ve handled clients who tried to take credit for their work.

Katy Popple
Katy PoppleCourtesy of Katy Popple

Flagged it
“I made the mistake in my first year in business of ignoring multiple red flags from a client in pursuit of a large project. The issue started out slowly, with the client making comments along the lines of, ‘We did an incredible job.’ It escalated when they refused photography unless they had creative control over the styling, and then peaked when they were quoted in an article in our local lifestyle publication [saying] they did the project themselves and that it had inspired them to form their own design firm. Now, my contract includes verbiage that the client cannot be present during photography, that I have creative control over the images, and that I must be fully credited as the designer in any publication. If a potential client questions those terms, (and a few have), I know we are not a good fit.” —Katy Popple, Katy Popple Design, Pittsburgh

Brian Paquette
Brian PaquetteCourtesy of Brian Paquette

Cease and desist
“Almost 10 years ago, early in my career, I had my first big project. It was a couple who wanted to furnish their new condo from top to bottom, down to the place settings. We became great friends during the process, shopping for the house together and hanging out outside of work, as well. A few months after the project’s completion, they reached out to let me know that they had enjoyed the process so much that they were going to start their own vintage furniture business. I was excited for them, and even purchased pieces from them for other clients. A few months later, my boyfriend alerted me that the couple was launching an interior design business, as well. We followed the link to their new website only to find photos of their condo that I had designed and no other work.

“Trying to deal with this immediately, I met with them later that day, telling them that this was my work and wasn’t theirs to use to promote a new business offering the same services. They did not agree. Sadly, I had to get a lawyer involved to get the images taken down, and the friendship was over after that. Cut to six months ago, the couple is getting divorced and the wife started a new design firm, using the same photos of the condo I designed 10 years prior. I had to once again send a letter insisting they were taken down. I hate that all of this happened, as it sours what was a very big moment for me—this job allowed me to quit my day job at the time and work full-time as a designer. But it hasn’t hindered me in continuing my passion.” —Brian Paquette, Brian Paquette Interiors, Seattle

Maureen Magula
Maureen MagulaCourtesy of Maureen Magula

Live and learn
“Years ago, I worked with a client on a major renovation of their home. I provided input on the exterior elevation, overall floor plan, and the kitchen design, along with typical design services such as specifying paint, lighting and furniture. The client did some legwork on her own, like sourcing materials, so she was very much involved in the process. Fast-forward two years later, and I discovered by chance that she had started her own design business. On her website, the home is featured as her work—the design I had provided to her.

“Needless to say, I was floored. I debated how to handle the situation and eventually decided not to approach her, for many reasons. I did not have this project professionally photographed, so proving intellectual property could be a waste of energy, time and money. I believe she’s blissfully unaware that it’s misrepresentation, as it is her home and she did have some hand in it—albeit a small one. In addition, we have many mutual acquaintances and in pursuing some recourse, it could have created awkward social situations and adversely affected my business—it just wasn’t worth saving face over. Lesson learned: Always photograph your work and make sure your LOA covers this explicitly!” —Maureen Magula, Creative Group Interiors, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Sarah Walker
Sarah WalkerCourtesy of Sarah Walker

Custom fitted
“I have had clients take credit for my work several times. Perhaps the most challenging occasion was with a principal bathroom renovation. The space planning had been particularly difficult due to the client’s extensive wish list. I came up with a floor plan that I had never seen for a bathroom before, so I felt particularly gratified by the strategic thinking that led to a beautiful solution. I suppose that’s why it stung so much when the client took credit for the idea at a party. Upon consideration, though, I realized that their home is a reflection of them. They hired me to design a space that was incredibly unique and custom tailored to their dreams—a space that told their story. While taking credit was an overstep of intellectual property and creative boundaries, it was also their way of saying that I had succeeded in creating a space that felt like theirs to celebrate.” —Sarah Walker, The Curated House, Oakville, Ontario

Gary Inman
Gary InmanCourtesy of Gary Inman

Letter to the editor
“I had one horrible experience with a client that managed to have their home published in a local lifestyle magazine with no mention of my firm. I promptly confronted them and reminded them that our design contract clearly stated that any coverage of their home had to credit me as the designer. I also reached out to the editor, and she agreed to immediately issue a correction of their online article and printed a correction in their next print issue, with my headshot and contact info. I secured other projects because of the correction.” —Gary Inman, Gary Inman Interior Design, Richmond, Virginia

Meagan Camp
Meagan CampCourtesy of Meagan Camp

Left out
“While not necessarily [an issue of] taking credit, we’ve experienced our team being omitted from credits when images of our design work have been published. We want our clients to be proud of their home and feel comfortable sharing it, and what better proof than if they’re actively sharing images of the space! At the end of the day, successful marketing of our design work comes from within the business through continued promotion. If a client is actively taking credit for our design work, we’d rather amp up marketing than risk losing a relationship, and more importantly, a referral.” —Meagan Camp, Meagan Camp Interiors, New York

Cara Woodhouse
Cara WoodhouseCourtesy of Cara Woodhouse

Lawyer up
“I had an issue once with a client that not only took credit for my work, but actually stole my design. I had schemed their entire home and they only ordered a small fraction of what I proposed. Their budget was getting smaller as we were working together. We decided to amicably part ways, until months later, I caught a glimpse of a room I designed for them on social media and they took full credit for my design! To say it was upsetting is an understatement. I had my lawyers reach out, and it was resolved in the end.” —Cara Woodhouse, Cara Woodhouse Interiors, New York

Homepage photo: A project by Creative Group Interiors | Courtesy of Maureen Magula

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