trade tales | Apr 17, 2020 |
The project you had the hardest time turning down

So many decisions go into taking on a new project, from scope and budget to the personality of the potential client. Striking a balance between those factors can make for a great experience, while getting them wrong can be a disaster. We asked six designers and an architect—Joan Craig, Kevin Lichten, Nina Magon, Kendall Wilkinson, Rachel Moriarty, Dana Wolter and Charmaine Wynter—to tell us about the project they had the hardest time turning down.

Big city prices

Kendall Wilkinson
Kendall WilkinsonCourtesy of Kendall Wilkinson

“Last year, we engaged with a lovely couple that had just moved from the Midwest into the Bay Area. After they adjusted to the real estate prices, by the time it came to the design of their new home, they approached us with a budget that simply wasn’t realistic for the size and scope of their vision. They hit a wall financially, and ultimately we decided as a team to put the project on hold because their budgetary expectations were not in line with the reality of what things cost. We all have a perception of value and price, but at the end of the day, we cannot control pricing, and you have to be able to turn down a project that you know isn’t a good fit. When you like the people but know it won’t work, it’s very tough to say no, but often if you follow your instinct, it’s the right call!” —Kendall Wilkinson, San Francisco

Trouble ahead

Dana Wolter
Dana WolterCourtesy of Dana Wolter

“A potential client came to us for help with a renovation project and the selection of new furnishings throughout her home. In our initial meeting, she spoke poorly about two previous designers she’d worked with. I’ve always felt that clients who have worked with several different designers are a red flag to begin with, but I could also tell that she was going to try to control the selection and ordering process. Our firm has a streamlined system we follow for each project, but our clients have to trust us and let us take the lead for it to work effectively. At the end of the day, [we turned the potential client down, since] there has to be more to a project than just a good budget.” —Dana Wolter, Mountain Brook, Alabama

Too many cooks

Kevin Lichten
Kevin LichtenCourtesy of Kevin Lichten

“Aside from the usual reason of inadequate budget, which we have all encountered and are hopefully now adept at squirming out of, the toughest turndown we ever encountered was one where we had already started the project. It was a fantastic job—a large duplex residence in a prestigious building that needed a total gut renovation. We advanced many schemes, and through several meetings with the fantastic clients we whittled the design down to the winner. Only then did the client bring in an interior designer, clearly way too late in the process. She was well known and highly regarded. We were excited to work with her. However, right from the first meeting, she rejected our scheme that the client had loved, rejected the approved budget that one of our general contractors had prepared, and wanted to develop her own scheme with her own contractor. We went back to the office and decided that we couldn’t go on like this. We met with the client and said, ‘There’s one group in this team that doesn’t fit in and that’s us.’ We left the project, which ultimately didn’t go well for the client. From that day forward, we always meet with the designer separately and agree to never disagree in front of the client. We all have to be a happy team.” —Kevin Lichten, Lichten Architects, New York

Boundary problems

Rachel Moriarty
Rachel MoriartyCourtesy of Rachel Moriarty

“I once had a client that lived in a high-rise with beautiful sweeping views of the San Diego Bay. She didn’t work and her husband commuted and was only home on the weekends. Our aesthetics weren’t a match, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she kind of became obsessed with me. She constantly wanted to go to lunch or go shopping and would always tell me how much she loved me. She would purchase or make gifts for me. It sounds like a dream, but it was more like a nightmare. She had a bad habit of online shopping to combat her boredom and then would return nearly everything, which made the design process difficult. I was initially hired to redesign her entire condo but I knew early on that I was going to have to end this relationship early, so I kept telling her that I wanted to focus just on her master bedroom before moving on to the other spaces in her home. It was a super awkward ending, like a breakup, when I told her that I couldn’t continue with the rest of her home. It was difficult turning the rest of this project down, because she could have been a great referral source for new clients in the building.” —Rachel Moriarty, San Diego

California dreaming

Joan Craig
Joan CraigCourtesy of Joan Craig

“We were contacted for a major project in California—a large house, substantial budget, interesting site. We received this call in the middle of the long, gray Chicago winter and were so ready to spend significant time working on a dream project in the sunshine. It sounded perfect: The owner wanted everything to be custom-designed and made by a roster of the finest European workrooms. She was inspired by a specific moment in history, but wanted to capture that in a very contemporary way. Sounded perfect for us—until we met the client. While she was lovely and we connected personally, we realized very quickly that there was little room for us to do our best work. She had a very specific and well-developed vision and needed more of a drafting (and Xeroxing) service than a team of architects and designers. We thought long and hard about it, whether there was the possibility of turning this around, but ultimately decided that there were enough red flags for us to walk away from three years of work.” —Joan Craig, Craig & Company, Chicago and New York

Crunch time

Charmaine Wynter
Charmaine WynterCourtesy of Charmaine Wynter

“A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a 25,000-square-foot residential project for a new client. It was a great opportunity for me to show what my firm was capable of. Then, two weeks before the project start date, the client requested a change that just wasn’t feasible with our prior design commitments. It turned out that they were unhappy with their general contractor and wanted us to broaden our scope and manage the entire project, from concept to completion. It saddened me to have to turn down the request due to prior work commitments that conflicted with their timeline. In the end, we fulfilled our original design scope and kept in touch with the client throughout their remodel process. Ultimately, they were pleased with the results, and we still work with them today.” —Charmaine Wynter, Dallas

Reality check

Nina Magon
Nina MagonCourtesy of Nina Magon

“One of the hardest projects I had to turn down was a client’s gorgeous home that had a tremendous amount of potential. The client came to us because they wanted a luxurious and unique experience, a space that would wow every person that walked in the door. They loved our work and knew we were the firm that could deliver the modern and forward-thinking aesthetic they were trying to achieve. We absolutely loved the architecture of the house and adored the clients, but their overall budget did not match their high level of expectations, and we knew that we could not deliver what they wanted for the budget, which would ultimately result in an unsuccessful project for both parties.” —Nina Magon, Contour Interior Design, Houston

Homepage photo: A project by Contour Interior Design | Courtesy of Nina Magon

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