trade tales | Jan 10, 2020 |
When do you charge friends and family for design advice?

For designers, being asked for decorating advice comes with the territory, but when friends and family want help, at what point do you ask for compensation? We asked six designers—Doreen Chambers, Vanessa Deleon, Meredith Ellis, Grant K. Gibson, Jennifer Mehditash and Sarah Willett—how they know when it’s time to stop doling out free expertise.

Sarah Willett
Sarah WillettCourtesy of Sarah Willett

Small-town values
“One of the advantages of running our company from a town of a few thousand people is that I am (thankfully) surrounded by an amazing crew of family and friends. We take care of each other. If someone needs a little pretty or some design therapy, I’m there. I’m delighted to share anything I can to make the process amazing for them. I adore change and anyone tapping into my eye is another canvas for me. They know, in turn, that the next time I need a little of their expertise—whether it’s gardening, doctoring, carpentry, painting or photography—I’ll be asking right back!” —Sarah Willett, Patina Vie, Ripon, WI

Doreen Chambers
Doreen ChambersCourtesy of Doreen Chambers

Tread lightly
“I found what works best is to offer a friends-and-family discount. If they’re just asking for paint recommendations, advice on furniture placement, or what size sofa they need, I’ll do it gratis. I have learned to be wary when being asked by friends and family for interior design advice. As often as not, they just want me to sanction design decisions they’ve already made. Keeping this in mind, I measure my responses and have managed to lose neither a friendship nor relationship with a family member.” —Doreen Chambers, Brooklyn, NY

Meredith Ellis
Meredith EllisCourtesy of Meredith Ellis

Pay to play
“I’m usually more than happy to offer my 2 cents on favorite paint colors when a friend or family member asks on the spot. So many people enjoy interior design and the process of creating beautiful interiors, but they often don’t realize the business behind it. It’s not just come in, snap your fingers, and make it pretty. If it requires me to go back to my office and spend time on the concepts, whether it be a floor plan, shopping, scheming or communicating with workrooms, then it needs to be addressed as a client-designer relationship. I’ve found, through much trial and error, it’s best to treat everyone equally, meaning I charge them like I would any other client. Out of the necessity and the expense of running a business, I have to put paying clients first. It’s pretty simple, and being up-front and honest about compensation with friends and family allows me to give them just as much attention as my regular clients, and prioritize the needs for their project.” —Meredith Ellis, Austin, TX

Grant K. Gibson
Grant K. GibsonCourtesy of Grant K. Gibson

“I should start by saying that a lot of times, people are afraid to invite me over to their homes, as they feel like I will judge their spaces. If a friend has a few minor questions, I am delighted to offer advice casually over a glass of wine after work or on the weekend. But if anything starts to get more involved, my policy is that it is best not to work with friends. I like to refer them to a few designers who have worked at my office and since gone out on their own.” —Grant K. Gibson, San Francisco

Vanessa Deleon
Vanessa DeleonCourtesy of Vanessa Deleon

30 minutes or less
“My family, friends and casual acquaintances receive a personalized 30-minute free design consultation. However, more often than not, the consultation goes beyond 30 minutes and turns into a social hour. This is when I realize they will come back asking for more. As a small business owner, I draw the line when I get the first call geared toward additional advice. Instead, I offer a family-and-friends discount. If they accept, I assign one of our in-house interior designers to manage the project. This works, since it keeps out the emotions and it’s harder to take advantage of a stranger than it is a family, friend or casual acquaintance.” —Vanessa Deleon, Vanessa Deleon Associates, New York and New Jersey

Jennifer Mehditash
Jennifer MehditashCourtesy of Jennifer Mehditash

School ties
“I don’t usually work with friends or family, even though many clients do end up becoming my friends. I especially try to avoid mixing my children’s lives and my work life—that’s where things can get a bit messy. I realized this after showing up to school one cold morning in New York for kindergarten drop-off, when I was stopped by a client whose child attends the same school about some pillows that still hadn’t arrived. I really just wanted to show up to drop off in a ponytail and sweatpants and not start my work day at my kid’s school. Outside of that, when friends, family or neighbors ask for advice, I am always happy to help get them started or find the perfect piece. Payment? Coffee and cake!” —Jennifer Mehditash, Mehditash Design, Newport Beach, CA, and New York

Homepage photo: A New Jersey project by Vanessa Deleon; photo by Gieves Anderson

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