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The Color of Candles

by Jean Hubbell Asher

To be a decorator (or in today's accepted parlance, an interior designer) means anything that you want it to mean. There are no universal standards for the profession; there are no requirements that must be achieved. In fact, you can wake up one morning, pleased with your own innate good taste and call yourself a decorator. Or, the neighbor next door admires your house and wants your help. Voila, you are now a decorator.

For older women in the suburbs, the two most prevalent jobs are real estate broker and decorator/designer. Real estate brokers actually have a formalized profession than that of the decorator: they are licensed and must adhere to state requirements. Within that framework there are different levels of commitment but there are also strict mandates. For decorators, anything goes: there are no established business practices, no professional mandates. Indeed some of the best decorators -- Sister Parish comes to mind -- began their careers working for their friends. The word spread and they were launched. In fact, they were the ones who created the industry.

It is different with today's top cadre of designers who may have been schooled in the business or apprenticed for the major design firms. These highly qualified designers have set standards for their profession which, at some point, will regulate the industry. But, at the moment, a decorator is one who calls themselves by that name.

The business of decorating has also changed. The time honored way was to buy wholesale (net) and bill retail (list). The showrooms were closed to the retail buying public. Many of the top design firms still operate in this fashion -- with the addition of design fees as a retainer. Today, many of the showrooms are open to the public and products are sold at discount in retail outlets. Without a net/list method of billing, many decorators charge by the hour or by the job or a basic consulting fee.

For clients wanting to purchase the services of a decorator, it's a slippery slope. The finished product might not be what they anticipated. The workmanship may be substandard or they may be dropped in mid stream because the decorator takes a more lucrative job. Indeed, they may be overcharged. On they other hand, they may end up with a decorator who has the expertise and sources to translate their hopes into realities.

A prospective client needs to do some serious homework before they hire a decorator. It helps to have on hand reference pictures of looks that you like. It helps to ask friends whose rooms you admire about their decorator. Most good decorator/designers can work in many different styles but, ideally, you want to find someone whose taste is akin to yours.

Having established a comfort level with a decorator's taste, however, is just the first step. It is equally important to sense a rapport with the person you hire. If it is an ongoing job, this person will be in and out of your house for a considerable period of time. As part of the job, a decorate may need to pry into your personal life -- how you live, what social demands will be made on the house, how much you want to invest in the project, etc. If the most talented decorator available also happens to freely discuss personal details of other clients' jobs, it is prudent to be cautious. Decorators learn a great deal about their clients -- both from what is said and what is observed That information should stay within the confines of the client's house.

And finally, it is important to establish a realistic budget from the beginning, whether small or large. Many clients overstate what they can afford or want to spend because they want the job to be enticing. Other clients understate because they don't want the decorator to take advantage. The best job is achieved when when client and decorator are realistic in their goals.

What I've outlined to date is some of the who, what, how of decorating but the most elemental question is why -- why hire a decorator? There is a long litany of answers to that question. Most people don't have the time or expertise to achieve the look they want. In general, people make mistakes in decorating -- in scale, in allocation of budget, in value of purchases, in fabric selection, in use of color and in furniture arrangement.

Often, mistakes are made because options are limited. One of these errors is to rely on a local store as a primary source as there can be two problems connected with this approach. One, stores only make money when they sell you something from their store. They have a vested interest in selling even if it's not quite right. They also don't know your particular house despite photos, room colors or anything else the client may show them. As with all blanket statements, this is not always true but it is rather prevalent.

The second problem with allowing the store to be your decorator is that they tend to be trendy. As in fashion, decorating has definite mass market trends -- in terms of scale, color and style. Of these three trends the worst is scale. The scale of most available furniture in the market befits the newly sprouted McMansions. This is not the way most people live. I already sense some movement away from these white elephants to a sleeker, more streamlined scale. Very often, decorators are called in after the mistakes have been made. The decorator then states the obvious...the sofa is overscaled; the color of the walls is at odds with the carpet which is at odds with the upholstery; the room is 'correct' but sterile.

I have rarely had the client who owned nothing in the way of furniture when we began the project. More often I begin with a client who has tried to do it by themselves and 'failed' to live up to their own expectations. Usually, they are correct. Or, I start with a client who has furnished their first apartment or small house themselves but now have a family, a bigger house and a real budget for decorating.

This kind of collaboration can go on for years while the needs of the family change. When you get the basics right -- room arrangements, appropriate scale, use of color, lighting, quality furniture -- the project can last a long time. It should translate well to another stage whether you go upscale or downscale. Seating pieces can be recovered, wall colors can be changed; case goods such as an end table or a chest of drawers can be moved from room to room.

What I've described is the classic decorating scenario. There is a master plan, priced out and executed according to the client's budget. The special pieces including accessories, art work, personal mementos are figured into the budget and added when found.

There are alternate ways of decorating which are outside what I've defined. One increasingly common form of decorating is staging a house to put on the market. Typically, the owner has lived in the house for many years and the house looks tired. In the current economy, creating curb appeal and the illusion of a well ordered house can add significantly to its salability. This process is not dissimilar to the more classic approach I've described. It usually involves furniture arrangement, better lighting, sometimes repainting or rehanging art work, perhaps adding plants and almost always reducing clutter. The difference is that you're not building for the future, but instead you're presenting the present in its most eye-catching form.

Lastly, it's possible to retain a decorator as a consultant. An owner may want specific help with an color element, the size of a rug or approval (or not) of a new purchase. In some cases, the client may sense something wrong with the decor but unable to define it. In another case, they may want to do their own decorating but need a decorator's sources and access. Hence, the role of a consultant is that of a professional eye with good sources.

The marketplace has dictated many of these changes both in terms of how decorators work and how they charge their clients. The bottom line is that most homeowners have made mistakes and mistakes can be costly. They turn to a decorator for their expertise in order to avoid these mistakes and to think 'outside the box' about the world of possibilities in home decoration.

Next time: Decorating Case Studies

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