Interior Design, In Detail
Susan Dickenson -- Home Accents Today, February 1, 2014
For this special report, Home Accents Today spoke with Kevin Mulvaney, ASID VP-marketing and communications, Kerry Howard, KMH Interiors, Atlanta; Victoria Lidstrom, Leggy Bird Designs, Libertyville, Ill.; Corey Damen Jenkins, Design With Vision, Michigan; Denise McGaha, Dallas; Jason Oliver Nixon, Madcap Cottage, New York; and Kishani Perera, Los Angeles.
Interior design is a $6 billion industry. It grew by about 2% in 2013 and is expected to grow by nearly 6% in 2014, according to Kevin Mulvaney, vice president of strategic marketing and communications for the American Society of Interior Designers.
It's also an industry in which home accents play a major role. "Ultimately, home accents and decorative accessories finish the space," Mulvaney said. "With interior design, as with any process, it is important to see things through to completion. It is amazing how much details matter."
The bigger picture, said Mulvaney, is that the interior design industry is more confident than it was a year ago. "Positive indicators are certainly stronger on the residential front. From housing starts to remodeling spending, that sector of the market continues to look strong," he told Home Accents Today. "While the mood is similarly optimistic on the commercial front, trends in office space - square footage per employee, new business models, technology, etc. - make the positive outlook a little softer."
Although the ASID interior design billings and inquiries index showed a slowing growth rate as 2013 came to an end, Mulvaney said the index has remained positive month over month, a trend he doesn't expect to change any time soon.
But even though the number of designers continues to grow, he said the industry is still far from the highs of its pre-recession days. "Growth is really scattered. While there are small to mid-size markets in Texas and the Southwest that seem particularly strong, we're also seeing growth trends look strong in places as diverse as the Dakotas and the Northeast."
Asked about current demographic and cultural influences - aging population, multigenerational households, and sustainability, for example - Mulvaney said such influences and "movements" are more integrated into "good" design. "That being said, demographics and resource demands, even a stronger sense of responsibility, will have a continued impact on the spaces in which we live, work and play," he added.
New technologies are playing a bigger role in the design process. "From iPad apps allowing room visualization and sketching features, to furniture companies and publications offering highly curated experiences - digital and otherwise - technology is having an undeniable impact on design and its influence will only continue to grow."
The industry's biggest challenge, however, is not new. "The tension between the price of design services and the value of design has been a long-standing issue," he said. "As design and its awareness has become more democratized through DIY and other influences, designers must rethink the ways in which they work with, and provide value to, their clients."
For a more up-close and regional look at the interior design industry, Home Accents Today spoke with: Kerry Howard, president-elect of the Georgia ASID, KMH Interiors, Atlanta; Victoria Lidstrom, Leggy Bird Designs, Libertyville, Ill.; Corey Damen Jenkins, Design With Vision, Southeastern Michigan; Denise McGaha, Denise McGaha Interiors, Dallas; Jason Oliver Nixon, Madcap Cottage, New York; and Kishani Perera, Kishani Perera Interior Design, Los Angeles.
How has your interior design business been over the past year?
Kerry Howard: We've seen a major pickup, but I was lucky that my business was even better during the economic downturn - we were lucky to be published in some local and national magazines a couple of times. I did a television show in 2010 - Top Design on Bravo - and last year I was on HGTV's Design Wars, so that was huge. Any of that kind of thing is great PR. Plus it was a great experience.
Corey Damen Jenkins: In 2013, our design firm saw huge burst of enthusiasm from the affluent community here in Southeastern Michigan. It's almost as if people have grown weary of depressing their own spending, which is understandable residue from the economic meltdown. Many have embraced the idea of investing in themselves and the way they live again. As a result, we've seen a return to form in terms of new construction, renovation and historic restoration of residences ranging from 8,000 to 15,000 square feet.
Victoria Lidstrom: Our interior design business has been steadily growing over the past three years. This past year, like the years before, we grew over 35%.
Denise McGaha: While our business sales are flat, our profitability on projects has increased and new starts have also increased in the last quarter due to a rise in new construction projects for our market in Dallas.
Jason Oliver Nixon: We have dipped our toes into new ventures with much success, have tackled an assortment of interior design projects stretching from Florida to Manhattan to London, and we'll soon be unveiling product. Speaking of veils, we like to lift the veil on design and make it accessible. Why should design be rarefied? Life's too short. Why be a lemming when you can be a lion?
Kishani Perera: 2013 was our busiest year to date. So much so that our project load allowed me to expand my business by adding several new full-time employees. I'm very grateful!
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Describe your average project in 2013.
Howard: We do 99% residential and they range from about $300,000 to over a million, in and around Atlanta; plus we have some clients in Colorado Springs and South Carolina.
Jenkins: Generally, the scope of work for our average projects has consisted of the entire home - including construction on estate grounds, i.e. terrace/ pool exterior design. When the economy was tighter, people were delegating only one or two spaces at a time, but this past year we've had requests to address everything unanimously. In terms of project type, most of our work in 2013 was residential, but our design firm was recently tapped to design a six-story luxury penthouse building that will be constructed in one of our downtown districts next summer. So we're seeing some commercial requests starting to come through, too.
Lidstrom: This year our projects have included the architectural and interior design of 2,600- to 14,000-sq.-ft. homes. We completed remodeling projects that included architectural and interior design ranging from entire homes to a bathroom. We also designed kiosks for businesses in malls and are currently working on a boutique hotel.
McGaha: We designed one whole-house project (6,000 square feet), two commercial projects (one showroom and one high-end auto dealership), and multiple main room projects, including kitchen and baths with living room, master bedroom and dining room designs. We were just hired for a 13,000-sq.-ft. whole-house project.
Nixon: We are a residential design firm, but we would love to tackle a small hotel. A little hostelry that we would turn into a bijou gem with glorious details and heaps of whimsy. The Madcap Cottage gents tend to design full homes with our soup-to-nuts, first-class service, but we also offer a component that allows an engaged, design-savvy client to tackle a project with our guidance at a very affordable price point.
Perera: My projects were all residential, with the exception of one executive office space. The homes ranged from the $1 million price point to $9 million, and almost all were top-to-bottom renovations.
Describe your clients.
Howard: Most are in about their late 30s to mid 50s.
Jenkins: My firm has been blessed to have a very diverse clientele. Most are young 30- and 40-somethings that want something traditionally rooted but with leanings towards modernity. We have worked with bachelors, but most of our clients are married and self-made successes. In terms of geographic locales, we designed homes both in the city, and in the Michigan countryside. We haven't done much in the urban circles this year, but we've recently begun construction on a large lake house that I'm really excited about.
McGaha: Average age is 45, in Dallas and surrounding areas; mainly married couples (80%) and single/divorced men (20%).
Nixon: Our clients tend to be in their 30s and 40s and have a similar sensibility to the Madcaps. You spill some wine. Your kids have toys. You like to put your feet up. We get it. We create environments that account for the travails of daily life but that still offer up loads of fun and sophistication.
Perera: Many of my clients are in their 30s and 40s and in the (entertainment) industry - actors, writers or producers.
When you start from scratch on a new project, where does your inspiration come from?
Howard: We collect ideas, postcards, fabric swatches, artwork, photos, etc., on a vision board in the office. I brought my whole staff (to Americasmart). And I said, if you see anything at all that you like, take a picture, and we'll put all of it on the board when we go back. After I meet with a client, I go to that board first.
Jenkins: My design inspiration always starts with the clients. I view their dreams and hopes as if they're bricks stacked on a pallet waiting to become something special. As an interior designer, I become the mortar needed to hold those ideas together until we build something tangible that they can call home. The fact that they trust me with their needs is such an honor and I don't take that privilege lightly.
Lidstrom: Our inspiration for new design projects grows out of our clients' preferences and our creative interpretation of that. Often one item, like a light fixture or rug or piece of fabric, drives the style, mood and feeling of an entire project.
McGaha: When I start a whole-house project, we start on Pinterest with ideas in a secret board for our clients to share. They also pin to the board and we are able to use that as our discovery phase of the project. Art also plays largely into our design, and we make sure that we are leaving space for original art and space for the client to collect more as they travel or find engaging new artists. With single-room projects, client function is also high on the list for how we begin, as well as the existing style or look that the client's home currently possesses.
Nixon: The Madcap Cottage gents spend several months of the year traveling the world, and that might be a week-long jaunt to Des Moines or a month in India or China. We assimilate and then distill our adventures to bring some giddy glamour into our clients' homes, whether in the form of an overall design plan or a spot-on pillow that helps take a sofa from so-so to sublime.
Perera: I love to take inspiration from my clients' cherished pieces first, then I set out to find other beautiful elements for their home. Often the textiles and floor coverings I choose are the jumping-off point for the color palette and look in any space.
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What is the most unusual project you've completed?
Jenkins: The most unusual project I've completed recently involved two guest coat closets. One closet I converted into a full-fledged dry bar. The other one was transformed into a refrigerated wine cellar, complete with an 8-foot-tall commercial-grade glass door. The wine bottles are "floating" in the space, suspended by an unusual chrome cable system.
Lidstrom: The mall kiosk was a uniquely challenging design and incorporated an entire business concept and marketing base that we developed.
McGaha: We were engaged this year to redesign a mirror and glass showroom that caters to the design industry. This was our first foray into showroom design, but it has been exciting because as a past and current designer for this showroom (and many others), I have been able to design details that work specifically to how a designer works with their client in the showroom.
Nixon: John (Loecke) and I are game for anything. The more "madcap" the project, the better. We designed an Asian-themed restaurant in the Hamptons several years ago, and we loved the project because it was truly mixing high and low. We paired bespoke furnishings with Asian trinkets we collected at the Pearl River department store in New York City. The result was magical and a lot of fun.
Perera: The most unusual project I've completed is a two-story trailer for an A-list actor.
How do you charge for most of your projects: Flat fee, hourly, percentage of project fee, retainer, cost plus or per square foot?
Jenkins: All of the above. It really depends on the nature of the project, its duration, geographic location and value to the firm's success. I reserve flat fees for my established clientele - the ones with whom I have a trusting relationship.
McGaha: Design fees - flat fee; product - cost plus. I mainly buy furniture at stocking dealer pricing from the manufacturer, not showrooms. Construction design fees - priced per square foot.
Nixon: We charge by the square foot for a design plan. We also charge a separate implementation fee should the client wish to follow that path.
Perera: Hourly, with mark-up.
How important is social media in your marketing efforts?
Howard: We do Pinterest, Houzz, Facebook is huge for us, and Instagram - I've gotten two jobs off Instagram. I also like to take and post photos of things that inspire me. That Instagram page is like my inspiration page. It's so easy - I can snap a photo, expand, filter it and make it look totally different, then send it out there. I try to hashtag everything in the photo description - where I took it, the weather, what it is...
Jenkins: Social media has been crucial to the success of our firm, especially after the airing of my HGTV television series last year. Houzz has been amazing: it has made it so much easier for people to reach out to us and vice versa. But social media also comes with sobering responsibility - I'm always telling my staff and college design students that social media is the new way that clients are qualifying them as professionals before they make that phone call for a consultation. So take those brazen party profile pics down!
McGaha: I use almost all channels of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are most effective for me. Houzz tends to bring clients with a lower budget for projects than what our firm offers.
Nixon: Social media is huge for us! We are all about building an engaged, enthused community, and social media perfectly dovetails with that goal. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. And Houzz. We love to demystify design and speak to the design community and design enthusiasts alike, and social media is the perfect platform. Our platform just happens to be wrapped in toile de jouy with contrast welting and buttons.
What home accents voids do you see in the marketplace right now?
Howard: One thing I dislike is silk botanicals. I wish there were more dried arrangements that look real because it bothers me when I go into someone's home ... I will clean out some silks real fast. That's that final layer. You can have a beautiful design but when I come in and put - even if it's a beautiful alabaster bowl with a mound of green moss ... if someone could come up with a great idea to keep things fresh, more preserved instead of dried things. There are so many great organic pods... things like that, with texture. I love shopping Global Views' showroom because they do all fresh, and I know that whoever does their styling took enough time to go and get fresh flowers. Every one of their locations - that just makes their showroom.
McGaha: We always struggle with towels that are different or customizable. Also less Old World accessories and more simple, organic pieces. Clients never seem to understand the cost of accessories when designing a job and there is often a struggle when I set aside 30% of the budget for it. They always squeeze that number down in the budgeting portion of the relationship.
Nixon: I'd like to see better shower curtains and lampshades. Lampshades are just so dull. Give us a good ruched Robert Kime-styled lampshade any day.
Perera: I could always use more options for floor coverings in a mid-range price point.
If you could suggest one or two things to your furniture and home accents vendors that would make your life easier, what would it be?
Jenkins: Keep things in stock longer and stop discontinuing everything so fast! It's almost as if these manufacturers have such little faith in the longevity of their own products that they cut the umbilical cord before the stuff actually catches on. This is especially true with fabrics. It's getting very annoying.
McGaha: Downloadable large images that we can pull from their site into our design presentations and easy copying of dimensions from online sites. We copy these into our design presentations and our accounting system and often it's hard to find them or they lock them so you can't copy them. Frustrating.
Nixon: A faster turn-around time.
Any styles, fabrics, trends you've identified that seem to be popular with customers?
Howard: Large overscaled architectural patterns - like an exaggerated Greek key, in a drapery panel for example. And I really see a surge in paisley. Last week I got some new fabric books from Robert Allen and paisley - it's always going to be there - but someone had taken it and exaggerated it in jewel tones! They're coming back - hunter green, merlot, fuchsia - but they're much richer. You are going to call me one day and say, "You were right."
Jenkins: Chevron is everything.
McGaha: It may sound trite, but comfort still reigns over design and if it doesn't feel good, forget it. Fewer sectionals. Ottomans with built-in trays. Drinks tables. Murano glass bowls. Anything acrylic, especially trays and furniture.
Nixon: We don't believe in trends. Like Linda Ronstadt, we travel to the beat of a different drum. Speaking of music as metaphor, we are sort of like Sheila E. when it comes to playing percussion. We make a lot of noise. In our big brown Mercedes sedan.
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What will you be shopping for at the winter and spring markets, and which markets do you plan to shop in 2014?Howard: We're shopping for a large full-scale home that's under construction, and we've already placed our accessory orders - which we don't usually do. Normally we order our accessories last and by that time we've spent everything, then we miss that layer. So I said that this time we're going backwards, and we're going to buy our accessories first. I shop Atlanta and High Point regularly.
Jenkins: I'll be shopping for advances in decorative lighting and case goods this upcoming year. I'm really hoping to be blown away by what's coming next. I'm booked for the Las Vegas Market in January, New York, and both High Point markets. I'd like to do Dallas, too, but we'll see how the schedule pans out.
McGaha: We will be shopping for our new whole house project, everything from antique rugs to furniture for every room. We always need special art prints for secondary bath and bedrooms, as well as outdoor furniture for our outdoor living spaces here in Texas. I will shop High Point and Dallas. I may also head to New York for tabletop and special finds.
Nixon: Chinoiserie sends us to the moon and back. And we practically jump up and down with wild abandon when we spot anything with fretwork. Vintage Fitz & Floyd is like a drug. As for markets, High Point, always! Las Vegas. And perhaps Maison and Decorex.
Where do you shop between markets?
Howard: I'm here (Americasmart) at least once or twice a week.
Jenkins: I prefer to shop at our local design centers, especially the Troy-based Michigan Design Center and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.
McGaha: We preview at market and do most of my shopping from my desk chair and our manufacturer sites after seeing them at High Point or other markets.
Nixon: London. The divine Miromar showrooms in Naples, Florida. HSN on television. And eBay.
What is the biggest challenge affecting the success of your business?
Howard: Because of the economy, a lot of people didn't keep inventory, and when we would specify something, when you got ready to order, it was on back order. Literally that just happened. We were working on a huge home here, got a check last week, and we went to place orders and the entire bedroom is on back-order right now, from the time we specified it at the beginning of December. So we always have a backup. We'll show two dressers, two nightstands, etc. so if we have to, we'll go back to that second and say "Okay, here's the situation." And they're aware of that - it's in our contract.
Jenkins: I believe the internet is the biggest challenge affecting the design industry. Unfortunately, it has created an impatient monster in some homeowners. They don't realize that interior designers don't have a "Quick Ship" function in our brains when it comes to developing couture interior design. So I kindly remind them that their patience will be rewarded which is code for "I need a minute!"
McGaha: Creating service offerings that address the challenge of clients to be able to access trade pricing and access to furniture lines. Also, finding design assistance due to the increase in business across the board - lack of good, affordable help for employment.
Nixon: We don't believe in challenges, we believe in making lemonade from lemons - with a jigger of vodka, natch. We are currently rethinking our social media and blog strategy and tweaking our brand perspective to make it more holistic and all encompassing. We have our eyes firmly set on world domination. Tra-la-la! Here we come!
Uttermost and Surya at the Dallas Market Center