A Designer’s Secret Weapon
Originally published in Delve Magazine, August 2020.
By Susan Mulholland
Any designer who has been in this business longer than a decade will likely tell you that they are largely successful because of a strong team.
Like an athlete, an interior designer should have a natural talent that can be honed and fine-tuned. Good design takes practice, experience, and training for that talent to excel. A design team is comprised of many different players, all working together, just like a sports team. Each player is equally important and needs to have the opportunity to express their particular talent; so does each member of a design team.
The players of a good design team might change depending on the project. But one thing is clear, the ‘MVPs’ or the “Most Valuable Partners” are always there. For me, my most valuable players are my manufacturers’ representatives. No matter what the project is, I rely on them the most. Let me tell you why.
When I first started working after graduating from college as an interior designer, my first job was in a furniture dealership in Phoenix, Arizona. Like many new designers, I was certain that my education would be enough to get me through. The reality was, my education had just got me in the door of the design library; not working on large-scale projects or even meeting clients – just this weird place where there were countless three-ring binders with names I was not familiar with and furniture that I didn’t even know existed!
This, of course, was before the internet, Google, Instagram, or Pinterest. These endless shelves of three-ring binders were not only bulky, but some had terrible pictures, while others looked like a high-end fashion magazine. I was tasked with “updating” these binders, ensuring that the information was current, the products that were shown were available, and that most importantly, the price books were there. This didn’t seem like a task that a college graduate should be doing. In reality, this is precisely the task I needed to do.
Why? Because I learned more about the real business of interior design than I could ever learn in a classroom or a design lab. This is where I met my real teachers and eventually created some of the best partnerships and friendships I could have ever have in any business.
Manufacturers are in the business of selling things. Many times, those things are a necessity for an interior design project,. like chairs or desks, for example. A client has a need that needs to be specific to their business or activity. If all commercial furniture and finishes were equal, then there would be no need for designers or even manufacturers’ representatives. But they aren’t. Knowing what your client needs comes from asking the right questions to the right people, not just your client.
Relying on other design team members, like an architect or sub-contractor, are critical to the project’s success, but what about the rest?
As an interior designer, your job is to make this new or existing space work for the people who are going to use it. Not only does it have to look good, but it has to work. Remember, your client is paying you for your expertise and to be their guide to help them make the right design decisions. In order for you to do that, you need to have the expertise that comes from the relationships you have with manufacturers and their representatives.
To be clear, there are good reps and there are bad ones. I have worked with both. The difference is when they see themselves as your partner and not as just a salesperson. Good reps are the ones who will answer all of your questions, no matter how elementary or complex. If they don’t have an answer, they tell you! They don’t guess, and they don’t make something up to get you to buy their product. They want you to be successful with your designs. One more thing a good rep will do is tell you if what you are trying to do will actually work. Not that it won’t be possible, but that their product isn’t going to work for what you want to achieve.
For example, if you are having a problem with getting a client to agree to actually using the product you specified because of price, lead time, or even something as simple as color, many times, your rep can be your inter-mediator with the factory or the installation. They can help you if an installer isn’t following the installation instructions that the manufacturer requires or get a special order through the production line. If pricing is an issue, a rep can often help you find something that will work, but at a less expensive price point.
Think about it this way: if you are your clients’ advocate and guide when it comes to making good design choices, your design team needs to be your advocate and guide when it comes to making finish and furniture selections. If you really want to use a fabric, furniture piece, or another type of finish in a space just because it looks good, and you ignore what the manufacture tells you because you are the talent that got the job, and it fails, don’t expect that manufacturer to come to your rescue.
Manufacturers very clearly note what their products will and won’t do. The manufacturer’s representative is there to help you understand that before you specify their product for your client’s project, not after. This is why I will always ask my rep for advice. They are your coach, your cheering section, and your best lead-off hitter. They are the reason we have grand slams with our projects; they will also get you through any extra innings, and in my opinion, they are the most valuable player on the design team!
I value every single manufacturer’s rep who has helped me. Whether that project was simple or complex, they were there when I needed them most. You know who you are, I just want to say Thank you!