weekly feature | Jun 1, 2016 |
How Laurel & Wolf is changing the client-designer relationship
Boh staff

Forget the frequent-flier miles: Digital design isn’t just about saving time, it’s also about changing the client-designer dynamic. Celebrating its two-year anniversary this month, Laurel & Wolf is pioneering a model where traditional face-to-face interaction has nothing to do with the changing face of interior design. It’s a purely digital relationship: Consider the company’s Port Charlotte, Florida–based designer who recently completed a project in Chicago, or Alabama-based Michelle Mansfield, who has clients across Los Angeles, Tennessee, Illinois, Georgia and Colorado. Designers don’t meet clients in person, and according to the startup’s philosophy, they don’t need to.

The West Hollywood–based startup was founded in June 2014 by CEO Leura Fine—who formerly ran her own firm and had also worked for Martyn Lawrence Bullard Design—in large part as a response to the tedium of typical client-designer interactions. Explains Aisling Ackerman, the company’s director of design community, “Working online with clients versus in person saves both the designer and client time. Prior to Laurel & Wolf, clients and designers would communicate in a variety of ways, including one-off emails, text messages and phone calls, leaving a lot of room for error and frustration.”

How does it work? Designers apply to be a part of the virtual team; the company analyzes their experience, certifications and portfolios before granting approval. Currently, the virtual firm has a roster of 1,000-plus designers throughout the U.S. Clients fill out an online survey about their aesthetic and what rooms they’re looking to decorate; at least three designers from L&W’s team submit “First Look concepts,” and clients choose one concept and its corresponding designer. Designers and clients work one-on-one, communicating virtually, via the site’s platform. A single-room projects requires about two weeks to complete.

Design packages with the startup’s designers who have received the Premium Designer distinction—the site’s “most experienced designers [who are] experts in designing, sourcing, and space planning”—command a $599 flat fee, versus the $399 flat fee associated with a Classic Package. (Premium designers also earn the ability to set their own custom fees.) Every designer starts out at the Classic level, where she’s matched with five preference-based projects, and after she has successfully won four projects, she gains access to additional projects. Designers earn 75 percent of the flat fee once they complete the project; taxes are not withheld, and designers are paid semi-monthly.

Three of the Premium Designers chatted with EAL about the ways the firm is changing the game.

Laurel & Wolf’s exposure—the site reaches users across the country and boasts a 1,000-person roster—is first and foremost a draw. “I am now visible to a huge audience who is specifically looking to work via e-design, so I’m able to grow that side of our business,” shares designer Michelle Mansfield. “My clients have already chosen this method of working with a designer and seem to be well educated about the process and the many benefits it offers them.”

Another appealing benefit is the fact that the digital office is open 24/7. “The online nature of the interactions is wonderful, because it allows you to work whenever it is convenient, even if that means odd hours,” says Julian Porcino, a Los Angeles-based designer who recently joined the company.  “Since I love what I do, I’ll often find myself logging on to L&W and working in the evening or even on the weekends. I haven’t really had any challenges that would differ from working with a client offline, besides the fact that, with the nature of the competition and the limitless earning potential, I can sometimes become addicted to submitting for project. But, personally, I think that’s a good thing!”

Working remotely allows Nashville-based Samantha Culbreath a certain flexibility: “It allows me enormous freedom to work as I travel,” she explains, adding that she has developed her own process since signing on with L&W: “I spend two to three hours carefully selecting products and uploading my ideas. By using the platform, I receive alerts when a client responds, and overall, I have found it to be very user-friendly.”

Mansfield cites a similar benefit, calling the flexibility “enormous”: “I can work with clients based on what suits my schedule and travel plans, I can pick and choose the projects that appeal to me, and also supplement my income stream. The only challenge I have had so far is learning Photoshop in order to enhance my presentations and provide a more professional look to my designs—but even that has not been too difficult.”

A founding feature of the firm was its elimination of the time-consuming back-and-forth between designer and client. As Ackerman says, “Clients provide all the important information designers need to design their space in an organized and efficient way. Our platform streamlines the communication between client and designer, which saves time and confusion.”

But there are challenges, too, when that interaction becomes so seamless. “There was definitely a slight learning curve to working with clients online,” says Porcino. “Face-to-face interaction is something I consider a strength of mine, so figuring out ways to convey my personality, opinions and ideas was something I needed to work on. When it comes to decisions, the only challenge I can think of is not physically being able to see the space, because often when I walk into a new space, I automatically know what I want to do with it.” 

Reflects Culbreath, “I did have a challenging adjustment period related to my communication with clients. I went from making calls and site visits to then joining Laurel & Wolf and transitioning to online chats and messaging with clients. Since joining L&W, I have definitely stepped up my communication methods and am learning how to understand clients without ever meeting them in person.” Her single gripe is about the rest of the digital design landscape: “The only challenges I have found are some retail sites do not have high-quality images to use in style boards, so in those cases, I have had to spend more time sourcing alternative pieces.”

In other ways, the digital environment has bolstered certain skills, designers say. “The need to create realistic 2D looks is something that has also changed the way I work with clients in person,” says Porcino. “I think the 2D style boards are a great way to bring ideas to life, as it is way less time-consuming than and just as effective as 3D renderings. Because of this, I have begun to incorporate the 2D style boards as a jumping-off point with local clients as well.”

Culbreath has noticed that interacting online helps certain clients to speak their minds: “I still provide clients with digital floor plans and style boards, and we now communicate online as opposed to in-person. In my opinion, this gives clients the opportunity to express their honest dislike of something in the design, allowing for re-selections until they are 100 percent happy. Comparatively, when working with clients in person, they can be shy and nervous to express their genuine thoughts and feelings.”

The site is far from the only game in town: There’s Homepolish and Decor Aid, which offer both online-only and in-person services; Havenly, where packages begin at $79; Decorilla, which charges an hourly $75 fee and offers packages starting at $345; Hamlet, which connects clients to decor advice and product recommendations via text message, and the list goes on. “E-design is where the industry is headed,” Culbreath says. “And Laurel & Wolf is paving the way for future generations.”

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