Inside A Designer’s Head

Lots of you are winding down for the year and soon will be looking at 2012! No doubt, a nice break from projects and to-do lists is welcome this time of year.So rather than giving you more how-to tips, I decided to take up a pal who complimented my newsletter recently and asked me if I’d be willing to be interviewed. What a crazy idea I thought…so I took her up on it!!

Bucks County Interior Designer Donna Hoffman

MP.  So be honest.  When you come to my house – are you looking around and judging everything in sight?

Donna: (Laughs). Actually no. When I’m not working, baby…I’m not working! I honestly couldn’t tell you the color of your dining room chairs or the wall color in your family room. And I’ve been there how many times through the years?  I just sort of turn off. I’d be very rude otherwise, don’t you think? Whether professionally or personally – I don’t think it’s ever my place to judge. I think my role is to GUIDE and educate in design – but only where invited. (That’s why when I’m off duty, I’m off duty.) I will say however, if something strikes me as particularly beautiful in a home – THAT I notice. Beauty moves me.  And I am always aware of how a home feels – and that I can recall years after the fact.

So you don’t ever leave a new client’s house thinking, “Ugh…get out the vomit bag?”

Oh good grief. No. Never!

Fair enough! OK – here’s a sticky one. What is the worst client or job you ever worked on

Oooh…you are being naughty! Maybe this interview wasn’t such a good idea!! Hmmm. I never had a worst project – I really do appreciate them all. And I’ve been lucky to work with clients who, for the most part, I really do like and respect. I like to think that “like attracts like,” meaning that I attract clients who somehow reflect some good piece of my nature or character.

Well, that was a very “Miss America” answer. You’re not going to give me any dirt? C’mon..not even a pet peeve?

(Laughing). OK. I do have two pet peeves. No, three. Here they are in no particular order:

#1. It frustrates me when clients hire me to achieve a certain design goal, and then quite early in the process they make some independent buying decisions that result in odd color choices, poor proportion – and then I have to some how fix it. I understand their instinct to save a few dollars by doing their own leg work, but the time to work independently is not at the onset of your project. Once you are well on your way in your project, then tell your designer you want to go look for a few things on your own – and ask for her guidance as to where, when and how – and ask what she thinks of the idea. If she’s good, fair and ethical, she’ll give you an honest answer. If she’s not – you picked the wrong designer!

#2. My #2 peeve is this one:  Time and how it is treated. This is the work that I do, which I happen to love. And – it is also my livelihood. I have had a few clients pass through who clearly very much wanted my perspective, they wanted my service, they wanted my time – but they did not want to pay for it, I observed. They’d “forget” to pay me. Or they’d sneak in lots of emails or little phone calls, saying things like “If you happen to be out and see…” or “This will only take a minute…” What those communications said to me was, “I want you to serve me in this way, and I don’t want to pay for it.” I think they either resented paying me – or they just wanted something for nothing. I’m happy to report that those clients did not stay with me long because I remained boundaried. I expected them to leave my practice and was relieved when they did.

AND Finally –

#3. I don’t understand why a client will engage me to put together something, yet I’ll meet only with, let’s say, the wife. Then after she approves it, after we’ve spent time sifting it all through – her husband, who “didn’t want to get involved in the process” initially – comes in and says he doesn’t like it. Then, we have to start from scratch. My question is, why wasn’t the other glorious half of my client team involved from the get go? All of the key decision makers should be involved from the start. I may make this a new policy now that I’m talking about it – because it wastes client dollars and my time to work in any other way.

OK!  Get tough!  On another note: What do clients do that you love?

Oh – there’s so much! I love when clients share their design dreams and goals with me – I see their excitement. I love when they tell me about their treasured object (an exercise I do on 1st appointments) – I’m almost always moved by what they share with me. I looooove when clients cry because they cannot believe how beautiful their space is after we install something. I love when clients seem to be really learning about themselves in the design process as we work together. I love when I see interested clients starting to understand more about design and learn from me. I’ll start to notice that their observations become more keen and self aware and I’ll think, “Gosh, they really are listening.” Oh! And I also love it when people offer me a glass of water when I’m working for them in their homes! Design work is very focused, very tiring work. I have to be brilliant and know all of the answers on the spot…I get tired and thirsty. Some people never offer. Oh – and one client gives me chocolate now and again…don’t even get me started! Heaven….

OK…you’re easy to please!  Do you have a favorite design style?


Do you have a least favorite design style and what would you do if a client wanted you to do it?

Great question. You know – I can appreciate what is at work in all design styles, but there are some styles I just don’t resonate with. That doesn’t mean my perspective is correct. But, it does mean I wouldn’t be the correct designer. Should a client want me to work within a style I don’t connect with – something that has never yet happened – I’d recommend that client to another designer. Those styles would include uber-contemporary to the point of absolute minimalism, South Western design or the end of the Victorian period known as the Aesthetic Movement. Oh – and although I adore furniture history – if somebody came to me having purchased a Greek Revival home that they wanted to renovate to a historically accurate style, they’d really need a historical design specialist. That has nothing to do with my not loving those periods, but more to do with a recognition that in that case, the client really needs a historical specialist. In all these cases…I know just the colleagues I’d recommend.

OK, last question.  What is the greatest misconception people have about designers or design?

That working in design is easy. This is the most challenging business I’ve ever run or worked in. The range of personalities (not just clients – but within the design community…whew!). The need to be excellent at everything – from design to running a business…one skill is so right brain (which I am), the other is so left brain. The need to juggle delivery schedules with unrealistic client expectations…manufacturers have lead times and that’s just how it is. The amount of back-room follow-up needed on the most seemingly innocuous or simple project or element. Also, I’m a little Type A. I spin my projects in my head all the time and have learned I can’t do that before I go to bed or else I won’t sleep. For example, once, the night before a big installation, I literally dreamed about the project and its installation. In the middle of the night, I actually woke myself out of a sound sleep – out of this dream, by saying aloud, “Wow…this is so beautiful!” I swear I could see it all in my dream so vividly. As an aside, I’ll add that it looked just as marvelous the next day when we really installed it…however I never quite did get back to sleep that night – so I looked like a wreck for that install. Most days I love being a designer. There are those occasional days when I wonder why in the #$#$  I ever got into it, but then something wonderful happens again – a great client, a great project, a new piece of beauty- sounds corny, but even just seeing and touching a phenomenal new fabric and once again….all is right in the world.

So design is like marriage:  It’s not easy, but it’s worth the aggravation.

Perfectly said!  And you have to be in it because you’re in love.