magazine | Apr 6, 2021 |
Are hidden prices protecting the industry or stunting its growth?

Designer Noz Nozawa makes a convincing case for dispensing with the mystery surrounding industry pricing—and with the notion that design is a zero-sum game.

The interior design industry has long been comfortable with a certain degree of opacity, keeping the particulars of the trade—notably, price tags—hazy in the minds of the general public. There are good reasons for that, ranging from inertia (It’s always been this way!) to the fact that talking explicitly about money risks cheapening the magic of the process, and more broadly, the fact that Americans are typically shy about discussing the cost of luxury goods. But what if instead of protecting the profession, all the mystery is stunting its growth?

A growing number of young designers are starting to wonder if that might just be the case. Noz Nozawa, founder and principal of San Francisco–based Noz Design, is one of them. Prior to founding her firm in 2014, Nozawa worked in marketing at Houzz—an experience that opened her eyes to the dearth of information available to homeowners about the cost of interior design. 

Are hidden prices protecting the industry or stunting its growth?
Gold resin drips down the walls in a San Francisco project by Nozawa.Colin Price

“There are so many people not working with interior designers because they don’t understand the value or the cost, so they hear the number and are surprised,” she says. “When you feel uninformed about something, the immediate reaction is to withdraw because you are uncomfortable. If the notion of even being allowed to ask what an interior designer charges makes you feel that way—‘Am I going to be perceived as a cheapo client if I ask that too soon?’—it’s an intimidating amount of question marks.”

The point of taking away those question marks isn’t just about making clients more comfortable. Transparency, Nozawa argues, could unlock a wave of new clients eager to invest in design: “In the same way that someone says, ‘I’ve made it, I bought my very first BMW,’ I think our industry would be bigger and stronger if hiring a designer was the other thing that felt necessary when you’re killing it in life.” 

That won’t happen at scale without a lot more clarity around pricing. Anyone with Wi-Fi can find out how much a Tesla costs. The same goes for other luxury sectors, whether it’s travel, fashion or cosmetic procedures. When consumers know the cost of the object, they can begin to strive toward that thing—from there, the investment takes on more meaning, becoming not only a personal milestone, but a point of pride, which plays a large part in luxury spending. The fact that everyone knows a Rolex is expensive makes it more desirable to own one.

“Everyone accepts that nicer things cost more when it comes to categories where everybody knows what everything costs,” says Nozawa. The same can’t be said of design, which is much more like sitting down to dinner and confronting the unknown of a market-price menu—the lack of price can be more of a deterrent than the actual cost, leading many to presume they can’t afford the meal. Professionals are then likely to turn the tables on their clients by asking, “What’s your budget?”—a question they may not be equipped to answer. Those unknowns compound on one another, discouraging many from pursuing work with a designer.

“From my first day in interior design, I felt a competitiveness and this sense that opportunity is zero-sum—that there’s only so many wealthy clients, only so many beautiful homes,” says the designer, describing a perceived scarcity that ultimately pits designers against one another in the competition for good projects. “Our actual competition is the total landscape of discretionary spending categories: vacation travel, luxury services, fashion, sports cars, the list goes on.”

Are hidden prices protecting the industry or stunting its growth?
Nozawa, who transformed this San Francisco firehouse into a vibrant family home, argues that transparency is the secret to a healthier design industry—for clients and designers alike.Colin Price

The conventional thinking is particularly ironic in the era of COVID, where a thoughtful home has never felt more important. If more people viewed interior design as an achievable status symbol, would there be more room at the table?

For that to happen, says Nozawa, designers have to come together to break through long-held taboos and macroeconomic forces alike. “The history of interior design has been at odds with retail, the internet, and making information about our trade resources more accessible—everyone needs to be on the same page about what it costs,” she says. “We as an industry can continue to bemoan greater consumer access to trade-only resources, or we can be at the head of these conversations, explaining how what designers do is so much more than sourcing product.” 

There’s no silver bullet, but Nozawa says a good start would be transparency of fees. If potential clients understand how much a service costs, they’d be more comfortable making inquiries. With more inquiries would come more projects—and more awareness of what design actually is—which in turn would lead to more projects for everyone. A virtuous cycle. 

“Our industry is chiefly interested in catering to people who are already clients, not educating people who could become our clients,” says Nozawa. “A lot of [my prospective] clients are working with a designer for the first time, so even if we never work together, I walk them through how I bill and how other designers might bill—I try to help them feel more empowered. If we would think bigger-picture about opportunity, I think it would raise and elevate the reputation of what interior design is to every person who lives in a home they care about.” Here’s hoping. 

Homepage image: Noz Nozawa | Nicole Morrison

This article originally appeared in Winter 2021 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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