50 states project | Jun 18, 2021 |
How this Mississippi designer turns difficult clients into great ones

The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Jackson, Mississippi–based Nancy Price tells us how she cultivates a consistent aesthetic when shopping abroad, why having versatile staffers is key to her firm's success, and how she puts difficult clients at ease.

I’m catching you in the middle of a big move into a new studio—after 20 years, I heard?
We had a showroom studio and designed there for over 20 years. It was a great little design community called Fondren, and my building was very reminiscent of buildings in New Orleans where I grew up, going down Magazine Street.

What prompted the move?
We have a couple of different divisions [of the business]. I have, of course, an interior design firm—that’s the mother ship. Then we have the showroom where we carry different lines, but I also import antiques. We also have a wholesale division for art, and those pieces were located in an off-site warehouse.

What I learned during COVID is that I’m such a hands-on, old-school type of designer—you’ve got to be there and see it and touch it and talk about it. That’s what led me to this new building. My husband is a contractor—he builds custom homes and does commercial work—and so he built this beautiful showroom/gallery/studio so everything will be [in one place]. All my antiques will be on hand, we will still be able to receive all of our vendor shipments for our design clients, and I’ll have my office. We will also have an art studio for my daughter, Abby, whose art we sell—her work is based on beautiful architectural fragments and antique pieces that we’ve procured from around the world. [Together], I just think that it will be much more organized than right now.

That’s a good COVID lesson to learn.
Yes, COVID taught me that we can do a lot of communication now via Zoom or FaceTime, but that all of us being together is so much more effective—especially when we’re dealing with something like a commissioned piece of art. It all falls under the heading of Nancy Price Interior Design, so sometimes we’ve had to stop and call Abby and say, “Hey, this client wants you to create these beautiful angel wings for her daughter’s room; what type of fragments do we have?” Now we will literally walk up the stairs and say, “Let’s FaceTime with [this client together].” And for my clients who come into our design studio but love to see where we’ve gone in the world—it’ll be on our floor, as opposed to having to drive to another warehouse. It’ll be like shopping in Europe, you know?

That sounds magical. To take it back a little, what was your earliest memory of being drawn to design?
My grandfather was a master builder—he taught my husband and took my husband under his wing. We were young—really young—when we started building homes, and I was doing the design work. Art was my love—that’s what I studied, and I was using that artistic ability to work through these new construction projects. I’ve always had a love of antiquities and architectural elements, again, because of my grandfather, so we would be down in New Orleans digging through The Bank [Architectural Antiques] for doors and architectural fragments to use in new construction. The more we did that, the more we became known for that, and that just exploded my design vision. I moved to my original location and opened a storefront studio so that people could come in and see the antiques, and it just evolved from there.

Did opening a store feel like an essential step to getting your business going when you started?
I am all about the unique, beautiful antique door, or antique fragments that we inlay into plaster inside the house—that’s what’s so central to me as a designer. I wasn’t finding that, which caused me to start importing. I was like, Well, if I’m gonna bring in a 40-foot container, then I might as well show it all the time [instead of keeping it] for the warehouse. It also helped with needing inventory for clients—and needing immediate access, because in Mississippi, we don’t actually have a design center. That’s what drove me to it—clients can come in and sit on a sofa or see an antique or an original piece of art. It’s not like you can take your client over to ADAC and show them something, so it [felt] like a necessity.

How this Mississippi designer turns difficult clients into great ones
Nancy Price uses a pair of long, back-to-back sofas to create separate seating areas in a large entertaining space.Courtesy of Nancy Price Interior Design

How do you get yourself set up logistically to run an import business like that? The idea of bringing over a 40-foot container is certainly not for the faint of heart.
It was baby steps. I would do it on a more local basis, across three or four states—you know, let’s just send a transport to Scott [Antique Markets in Atlanta] and shop there for a couple of days. There were a lot of great dealers there who were buying overseas and then showing at Scott, and we’d drive there, load transports and bring them back. I started thinking, I could do that. A designer friend said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go get a container.” So we did.

My first big buying trip—my own 40-foot container—came out of Buenos Aires, and it was so invigorating. We left Houston at nine at night, landed at nine the next morning, and hit the ground and never stopped for seven days. It was the best time in my life. You can imagine the adrenaline of negotiating—and I’m from Louisiana, [where] we speak a little fast. I’ve got a translator and I’m getting him so excited that he’s confused. He’s speaking English to the guy from Buenos Aires and Spanish to me. It was a little comical, probably.

Then you have to learn the ropes to actually land that container. There’s a lot more to it than you think—you’ve got to have the content, you have to have what they call their “stuff,” then get it on the water, get it to a port, and then once you land, the customs people can be difficult. It’s a process. That 18-wheeler doesn’t just back that 40 foot container up in here—it’s exciting when that happens, but at the same time, it was a lot of work to get it here.

When you’re on a buying trip, how much of what you source do you already have a place for, versus thinking, “OK, I know I can sell this”?
On the four-hour drive home [from the airport after a buying trip], I was always categorizing, “This client needs this, it is perfect.” I start buying and then I start working. I don’t have an exact formula, but I’ve been true to myself, as far as my aesthetic, and I buy what I really think is very unique. It’s always in my mind that if I am moved by a piece, I know that my clients will be as well. Not every single client loves every single piece. I’ve got clients who strictly love the religious artifacts I source—altars, ecclesiastical pieces, beautiful saint carvings, all of that. And then I have a client who is a purist about midcentury who loves it when I find the true Maison Jansen pieces or Jean-Michel Frank. My religious clients are not going to buy those pieces, but I’m still true to the overall aesthetic.

When you’re on a buying trip, you are always contemplating your clients and what their needs are. Then we buy what we love. I’m really specific about my 40-foot, because I don’t want any airspace. I’m buying smalls to fill it up with. But I think as a designer, depending on your square footage, you should allow yourself 30 to 40 percent of your container for [items to display] on your floor—pieces that will show your aesthetic and your picking ability. I think it should tell a story in your retail environment. That’s how I operate, anyway, and it works out for me.

If you’re true to your aesthetic, it will work out.
I did a speaking engagement at Universal Furniture during High Point Market—this was before COVID—for designers who were interested in opening a store, and I was like, “The one sage piece of advice I can give is to be true to yourself and your aesthetic.” It’s easy to walk through and say, “I like that piece, and that piece, and that piece.” But if it doesn’t tell your story, it’s just a bunch of stuff. You’ve got to tell your story in your retail environment as well as in your design world.

Do local designers browse your shop?
We do sell local, but we also have other designers that buy from us, and it’s wonderful to be a part of all that—to meet the people who desire to purchase, and then to see the pieces when they put them up on Instagram. It’s like a little foster puppy—that baby found a great home. And so it’s really nice to see that, and I’ve missed that a lot. I’d like to see that continue to grow for us.

I think that the bottom line is that we love what we do, and I know that sounds so cliche— I’ve probably heard that a million times. But we really do. I mean, I love being a part of my clients’ lives and providing them this environment. And that’s the most important part. Everything else, you know, it’s all part of the puzzle, but the biggest part is your passion for what you’re doing. Or your clients. That is it. As a designer, if you’re just looking at something like it’s a job, you might pull that off for a little while, but I just don’t think you’ll ever be successful.

How do you navigate the trickier personalities? Because I know not everybody’s a cakewalk to work with.
Oh, my God, no kidding, right. It’s the funniest thing—they’re usually our best clients. It’s the craziest thing. I cannot explain it.

The best clients financially, or the ones that let you do the most creative things?
Like [the ones who] you think are gonna be so hard. We laugh about this—I’ve got a client right now who has been absolutely amazing. And to begin with, she was like, “My husband doesn’t want to do anything. He’s not gonna ever want to change or furnish the city house. … ” And within 30 minutes, you’re like, “OK, we’re ripping all the furniture out and we’re changing everything.” And he’s like, “Great. I love all of this.” It’s been the best job because they are totally invested in my designs. I think somehow, I get the ones that other people [think] are so difficult, and they end up being such great clients.

What do you think it is about you that puts them at ease or makes them excited about your vision?
Because I think I’m truly excited about it. I think I have the ability to read that client, and see [their vision even if they can’t articulate it] and demonstrate that to them. And then they are at ease. It’s the art of being able to share your vision.

Is that something you can cultivate, or is that something you just have to love?
Part of it is that I’m a great talker. I would imagine for someone who’s more withdrawn or shy, this would be a hard job to take on. But also, if I had a client who struggled with other designers, [it’s a chance to change their experience and achieve their vision]. I just enjoy the process so much.

How this Mississippi designer turns difficult clients into great ones
A collected living room features layers of new pieces, antiques and artwork.Tom Beck Photography

How many projects are you typically working on at one time?
You know, it is kind of cyclical. We’ll be crazy, like get 10 full-on clients, and then we’ll have 10 that just want to do one or two things. We do a lot of new construction where we work with builders all over the globe. At any given time, we can have 10 to 15 projects going.

What kind of team do you have behind you, and how hands-on are you with each project?
I’m a super control freak. Again, it’s me [wanting to] be able to tell the client story. So I have junior designers that I pass jobs on to—whatever I can dream, they facilitate making it happen on the procurement side. I do all the design selections, but I could definitely not do it without a team, especially in today’s environment.

We check stock on everything we show the client to make sure that it is available. We recently had a project where we had done our due diligence to get stock, pricing, availability—and then we showed the client and they loved it. So we’re all excited, and we get back and the team starts to secure it. And [the brand] is like, “Oh, no, sorry. We don’t have that in stock.” When you’re the assistant doing all that, it can be really frustrating. They do all that labor to get us to the proposal table, so to then have to turn around and do it yet again—that’s been a little frustrating.

We recently had a real quick, 11-week turnaround on a surgeon’s office. He shut one office on Friday, and opened the new one on Monday morning, eight o’clock. When you’re on a tight timeline like that, you can’t have those types of situations. We pivoted there, but we never sacrificed or compromised our integrity. It’s just a lot of extra work. You have to just suck it up, Buttercup—this is what we tell ourselves over and over. Because you can’t compromise your integrity, your design aesthetic, or on any of the pieces. So instead, we’ve learned to not be as upset.

In the past year and a half?
Yes, we’ve learned to not let it rattle us as much. We’re like, “OK.” Then we’re on to the next thing. Two years ago, if that piece was not available and I had presented it, I would have been like, “You’re kidding—you said that was available. I did my end, you should do your end.” And now we’re just like, “OK.”

You move on.
Yeah. I really am trying to take away what I’ve learned in the past year and a half and use it to be better.

How big is your team right now?
We have gone down since COVID—we were on a really serious lockdown because I have a family member who is high-risk—but we usually have four to five on our team. My right-hand, she has been there through COVID—after a month or so, she and I were able to go into the office, just the two of us, for about six months. Then we have my daughter Abby, who’s on the art side, and a young gentleman who’s worked with me for more than 15 years—he is our other right hand, helping with delivery and install for our wholesale shows. He is my clients’ very favorite person. He can fix and repair and refresh anything, or refinish anything.

My staff gives me the confidence that I can get anything done. Instead of thinking, “OK, we’re going to a big install and I need someone to come hang 25 pieces of art,” it’s nice not to have to outsource that—having that in-house is extremely beneficial. Also, clients appreciate that we come as a little team and get that install done.

You do big reveals at the end of each project, right?
Yes. I learned early that you never get another chance to make that big impact. It’s wonderful. If somebody just goes in and installs the drapery and the rest comes later, it’s always disappointing because the entirety of the design concept is not there. You’re putting that at risk by dribbling in pieces. It’s very rare that I let a client talk me into a dribble. It has to be such extenuating circumstances. Obviously, there are times when one or two things aren’t there. But overall, and as a standard for my design firm, installations happen as an entirety.

How this Mississippi designer turns difficult clients into great ones
A window seat at the elegantly appointed Country Club of JacksonDempsey Photography

How do you approach the billing piece for the design side of the business?
There are a lot of design coaches out there that talk about billing, but honestly, I’ve just pretty much stayed the same [over my whole career]. I mean, of course, as I gained experience, that changes my rate. But I developed a formula early on that I felt was appropriate to be able to give clients a design fee. That’s not for everybody, and there are a lot of different ways out there to do things. I don’t know that any is more right or wrong than another.

Is your formula to give a flat design fee?
For construction and consultations, correct.

And then when you’re doing decorative elements, is that hourly?
No, that comes as a quote per room, essentially. Then we add the markup into that quote.

So do your clients know before they start the project how much the design work will cost them? Is that important to them?
I definitely think it is. Again, you could go ahead and just charge hourly, but as a designer, I think it’s difficult to keep up with every phone call or every text. So because I’ve been in construction for so long, I can tell how much I’m going to need on the job. Also, based on good relationships with the contractors I’ve worked with for so long, they understand what my expectations are and they make it happen. If I had to start with some new contractor that I had no experience with and no idea of what their capabilities are, I might look at it a little bit differently, but the guys that I work with are top-notch.

When it comes to discussing design costs, do clients want to interact differently now than they used to?
I haven’t seen that change for us. But again, we have pretty nice clients. And they hire us because they know what our project abilities are. What I have seen change is the need to finish or take on projects that before had just been talked about. With people in their homes during the pandemic, they really want that feeling of a cocoon and a safe, feel-good space. If there was any hesitation before to do a project, there’s no hesitation now. And I don’t know in your area, but in Southeastern areas, the pool people, it’s crazy.

If you want a pool, you’ll have to wait till next year?
It’s closer to a two-year wait here at the moment. Isn’t that crazy? I even read on a national level that chlorine is not available, like: “Get saltwater pools, because chlorine’s not available.” Again, that tells you that people want their environment to be everything they’ve ever dreamed of. My goal is to create every dream job and give it to them. Even if they never dreamed of it, I’m like, “This is what you need.”

How do you want your business to grow?
I don’t know that I ever want to be this huge firm. I’d love to get back to importing again, to procure again. I’m still importing right now, but it’s all done through photographs and FaceTime calls.

I’m sure it’s so much harder—and less exciting.
Exactly. It’s like being back at Market. I went back to High Point this month, and it was so exciting to be there.

I was there. It was amazing!
The energy was awesome. And it makes you want to do more and be better. In the last year, things were just kind of rock steady—like, we’re busy. But you’re not getting tons of stuff in, because you can’t, but being there makes you want to bring more in. I would like to be able to have that experience of getting on a plane at night and waking up next morning in whatever country we’re in and hitting the ground running.

To learn more about Nancy Price, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

Homepage photo: Nancy Price | Courtesy of Nancy Price Interior Design

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