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Susan Dickenson

The interior designer's evolving role: Ship captain and concierge (Part 1 of 2)

In May, the American Society of Interior Designers released its first business performance index, a quarterly compilation of data on the billings and business conditions in the interior design industry. Information gathering for the project launched in November of 2010 with a monthly survey of 300 firms. So far, the results show moderate improvement in the industry across geographic regions and sectors, with the greatest strength in residential, single-family home projects.

The strength in the residential design market is also consistent with what Home Accents Today's editors have been hearing over the past year, from buyers we interview "on the street" at the markets, and from retailers and designers who participate in our roundtable discussions and panel presentations: "Sales are down, but we ramped up our design business... and that's what pays the bills." "We've been blessed with large projects over the past several years... I just finished up a 28,000-sq.-ft. house." "Year-to-date, sales are down but my profit is up... our design business is booming."

Which is why the results of the ASID Index prompted a few of us here to wonder - just how much, and in what direction, has the interior designer's role evolved in recent years, and to what do they attribute the pickup in residential business?

Residential interior designer Denise Wenacur, Allied ASID, Assoc. IIDA, based in Croton, N.Y., thinks it's fueled in part by the stagnant housing market. "Recently, due to the economy, people have been choosing not to sell their homes, but change the areas that are really bothering them," she said. "Since January, I've seen more requests for kitchen and master bath/suite renovations." The contractor Wenacur works with recently told her that after extensive renovations, many of his clients will use the services of a store designer, buying up to $30,000 in one establishment.

"But that's not for everyone," Wenacur said. "For some, it is fine to buy a room's worth of merchandise in one place. Other clients, however, want a look that is uniquely their own, within a certain budget - and this is where I come in. As an independent interior designer, I often buy from several different places to achieve a certain look and to ensure no two rooms are ever alike. My role is to know when to buy an 11x7 custom sectional, and when to buy a coffee table ottoman in a local retail store to save a bit on the budget. The role of the designer is to not only create a unique design that satisfies all of the needs and functionality of the room for the client, but to know how best to pick and choose, and where to find the items."

Clients tend to be more educated now, she said, because of all of the information and research they can do online themselves. While it can help, Wenacur said most of her clients still need a professional to help make sense of everything and pull it all together.

Alene Workman, an ASID fellow based in Hollywood, Fla., said her role over the last 10 years has expanded as designs have become more complex and detailed. Workman acknowledged that more furniture and accessories are now available to the public directly, and her firm purchases and decorates as part of its overall service, but stressed that interior design is about the whole process.

"The design process and our expanded role is partly due to more intricate technology, a need for leadership and coordination over other design and trade team members, more knowledgeable clients, and our creative vision overseeing all the elements to create the entire story," Workman said. "We create the backbones of the space before any furnishings and finishing materials are selected. We understand the big picture, share the clients' goals, and act as their advocate throughout the process so that the project gets completed as we have envisioned and with their approval."

In doing so, Workman said today's interior designer brings great value to the client and the project. "Our biggest goal is to have the client understand from the beginning that we are experts at what we do and our value is monumental to getting a great result. We really are the captains of the ship."

Peggy Oberlin, ASID, LEED AP, GREEN AP, based in Naples, Fla., said the uncertain economy provides a unique opportunity for interior designers to offer additional services to their clients, in more of a concierge role. "Many clients take advantage of the lower pricing in the home market by actually upgrading their lifestyle," which includes better-quality furniture purchases, Oberlin said.

"They turn to interior designers' expertise to guide them to the best products, act as professional shoppers, stay ahead of new trends, and seek solid input on the addition of classical design pieces into their homes." Oberlin said interior designers are also often asked to give referrals for home security, landscape design, pool maintenance and other specialized services, which can bring additional revenue to the firm.

"Navigating the New Normal" was the theme of the International Interior Design Association's annual industry roundtable gathering in January of this year. Part 2 includes some of the ideas from that, as well as from the IIDA's 2010 roundtable, "No Such Thing as Business as Usual." (Click here to read Part 2.)

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