trade tales | Nov 22, 2019 |
How do you work with a client when there’s an age gap?

Whether they’re decades older or younger, when there’s a significant age difference with a client, your normal design process may need some tinkering. We asked six designers—Susan Anthony, Kelly Cleveland, Nicole Fuller, Armina Kasprowicz,​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Dana Koebbe and Frank Ponterio—how they navigate an age gap with a client.

Frank Ponterio
Frank PonterioCourtesy of Frank Ponterio

New perspective

“I started my firm when I was 23, so pretty much all of my clients were older than me for about the first decade of business. A lot of them owned historic homes on Chicago’s North Shore, so I was fortunate to be working on exciting projects, many times with clients double or triple my age. I had to put myself in their shoes and understand their day-to-day lifestyle, while being careful not to lose my own perspective. I do think my youth was one of the reasons I was often hired, though—it felt like they were coming to me for a young, fresh take, and to bring a sense of modern living into their homes.” —Frank Ponterio, Chicago

Susan Anthony
Susan AnthonyCourtesy of Susan Anthony

Tuning in to life-stage cues

“Our job is to listen to clients even when they are not speaking. When the older husband comes into our office, does he use the arms of the chair to lower himself down? Does the young couple let their dog on their furniture? Clients young and old will disregard the obvious needs in favor of their dreams for the project. It’s our job to give them both. We try to form a collaborative bond with our clients and be open to their ideas. Our younger clients really want their home to be their family’s brand identity, in a way. It can be a lot of fun with the right mindset. Our older clients don’t want what they so often need: When doing bath renovations, we will suggest grab bars and curb-less showers. That’s always a challenge to convince them to do, but fortunately, grab bars are becoming more mainstream and some are elegant looking.” —Susan Anthony, Susan Anthony Interiors, New Jersey

Dana Koebbe
Dana KoebbeCourtesy of Dana Koebbe

Some gaps can’t be crossed

“The only time I have had issues with an age gap was last year when I turned down a very lucrative job working on a large house with a significantly older couple. They were very eager to work with me, but I felt that there was a disconnect between us and I didn’t feel comfortable taking the job. I never like to turn down projects, especially ones of that caliber, but I could foresee them being condescending because of my age. I politely declined and suggested a few other designers closer to their age. It was not easy to do, but I was relieved after and felt I had made the right decision. I believe that age can give you a wealth of experience, but that does not always make you better at your job. My youth offers a fresh perspective and creative vision, and I am vigilant in conducting my research and triple-checking my work to make sure there are no ‘rookie’ mistakes.” —Dana Koebbe, Dana Koebbe Interior Design, New York

Nicole Fuller
Nicole FullerCourtesy of Nicole Fuller

Artful aging

“I recently had a wonderful client who is 87 years old. It was quite exciting, as this was her first time designing her home in 40 years. She moved from a very large house to a magnificent, modern and airy penthouse in Los Angeles with views for days and all the amenities you could ever wish for. The only things she took with her were her incredible art collection and her clothing. She is a major art collector and was thrilled to be introduced to furniture that is collectible as well. She loves color and sculpture, and was very happy to incorporate that in the design of her new home. She is not on Instagram, so everything I showed her, she was seeing for the first time, which was very exciting for me as well. We shopped for everything in person together, which is not typical for me. The [whole] experience was very different for me and a lot of fun. We are almost finished and the home is truly spectacular. I cannot wait to have it photographed!” —Nicole Fuller, Nicole Fuller Interiors, New York

Kelly Cleveland
Kelly ClevelandCourtesy of Kelly Cleveland

Careful compromise

“I recently had a considerably older client [who] had done design work in the past, but it had been quite awhile. [Since then] the business has changed so much, with much of it online. That was the opposite of how this particular client wanted to work. She was used to going into the Merchandise Mart and wanted to see and touch everything. The biggest hurdle was changing her [mental] paradigm of the whole process. My solution was to [compromise]—I spent a little more time with her at the Mart, and ultimately we got through the process, [though] it certainly wasn’t my favorite way of doing things.” —Kelly Cleveland, Kelly Cleveland Interiors, Oak Park, Illinois

 Armina Kasprowicz
Armina KasprowiczCourtesy of Armina Kasprowicz

Incompatible pacing

“I just worked with a young couple in their late twenties. I don't know if it was the age difference or just [that] their expectations were a little skewed, [but] they expected everything to be done for them and in a very short time frame. They’d never had any experience with owning a home and didn’t want to be involved—they just wanted it done. They even wanted me to pick out their mattress. They wanted an experience that was just turn-key and super high maintenance. In the end, they did appreciate the quality and custom touches that I brought, but I would never be able to do it again at that level and speed.” —Armina Kasprowicz, Armina Interiors, Detroit

Homepage photo: A project by Kelly Cleveland

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