Los Angeles–based Jaqui Seerman worked for design greats Waldo Fernandez and Martyn Lawrence Bullard for nearly a decade before launching her own firm. Those roles showed her not only how to structure her business but also gave her an innate sense of just how much a seamless design experience is worth.
Before you founded your firm, you had a front-row seat to how two wildly successful designers ran their businesses. How did that shape your own approach?
I gleaned a lot about the value of our work. When you’re starting out, you underestimate that value due to lack of confidence or lack of experience, but I feel like I hit my stride early on because I had mentors with years of experience behind them. Everyone has a different billing structure, and everyone needs to figure out what works best for them—but ultimately, I was able to recognize in my mentors, and then recognize in myself, the massive amount of work that we’re producing and the value it contributes.
I’m guessing there were some business practices you brought over to your own firm, and also some you left behind?
Absolutely—yes to both. There was a time within the industry when designers didn’t have to show what the actual purchase price of an item was, which was a frustrating experience for clients. But the industry has changed a lot. What we source is often available online to almost everybody, and there are a lot of big-box companies offering incentives to the average individual, like giving them access to a discount if they sign up for a membership. All of that puts our role and how we bill into question in the client’s eyes.
I’ve found that my role is to help direct my client through the maze of chairs, tiles and light fixtures because the options are endless, and the prices are all over the board. My value—what they’re paying me for—is to help them navigate, source, provide, purchase and install items that are going to reflect their personality and be perfect. So one thing I pride myself on is complete transparency.
What does that look like in practice?
We have no issue showing actual vendor invoices to clients. For example, if we are reupholstering a piece or buying something vintage, we will show what we’re paying—and our client appreciates that and pays our markup because of the service we are providing.
One of the default settings on Studio Designer buries the cost of your consultation fee into the cost of the item, but it does give the option of showing what your fee is. A lot of designers don’t like to show that, but I saw how some of the designers I worked for were very transparent with their fees because that was the luxury service that they were providing. We are a luxury industry, and people are willing to pay a percentage to have it be perfect. So that was something that I also took pride in: I’m not charging you more, I’m giving you a luxury service.
You’re talking about your markup, but you often use a different word for it.
We refer to it as a designer consultation fee. Even if the client was to purchase something on their own, we would charge a fee if we played an active role in consulting on the purchase of that item. We are happy for our clients to purchase things directly, or to extend our designer discount to them, or to let them go out into the world and find things on their own—but we also play an active part in how their residence is coming together, and if they’re going to consult with us on it, then there is also that designer consultation fee that is associated with it. That’s across the board for all items.
It seems like there is a sliding scale of what percentage is appropriate for a consultation fee across the industry— when I worked for very established interior designers, it was 30 percent and upward. Even with the best designer discount, that’s often more than what you would be spending if you bought those items off the shelf at the list price. Early in my career, I understood that I needed to be competitive if I was going to get projects, so I lowered that fee, which was comparable to saying, “You’ll never pay more than if you bought it off the shelf yourself.” But now as I’ve established myself, I’ve adjusted my fee to reflect a turnkey level of service: The client walks in and every single detail is perfect.
The designer consultation fee is separate from the fees for your creative work. How do you explain what those fees represent?
The project fee is for our company’s involvement—for wrapping our arms around the project and being available to the client at every whim. It’s for the actual creation of the overarching design of the space, which includes consultation with contractors, consultation with vendors, being on-site, being available to go shopping with them on a day-to-day basis, reviewing questions and presenting. And then the designer consultation is exclusively related to the actual procurement of the items that go into the residence.
I provide turnkey installations. We do everything from sofas to curating book collections to custom sheets to custom-made mattresses to putting the toilet paper on the roll and custom drawer organizers for your toothbrush to sit inside of—every detail is thought of and taken care of before the client ever lays their head on the pillow. Knowing the amount of work that goes into that made me feel very confident every time I readjusted my fee. I know that fees can be very emotional and very intimidating. But if you remove the emotional aspect of it and you think of the product that you’re providing, you are literally carving from a block of stone—it’s this epic sculpture that they, as the client, cannot see. It’s a brick, but you can see the completed sculpture in your mind. When you realize how valuable that asset is, and recognize that is the service you’re giving to someone, it really takes away the insecurity of what your worth is.
Homepage image: A California kitchen by Jaqui Seerman is bathed in warm wood tones and natural light. | Madeline Tolle