Meet Your Match
A consultant reflects on the challenge of fixing up interior designers with their dream clients
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Karen Fisher, a former magazine editor, longtime interiors junkie, and Interior Design Hall of Fame inductee, has been matching designers and architects with prospective clients since 1984, when she set herself up as Designer Previews. She now represents over 300 professionals, fellow Hall of Famers Clodagh, Bruce Bierman, Laura Bohn, and Juan Montoya among them. A typical consultation at Fisher's small New York office involves paging through a selection of portfolios to compile a shortlist of recommendations geared to the client's budget and style. As of this past spring, she also offers by-appointment assistance over the Internet, beaming photos for far-flung clients to view in real time, in the course of a phone session.
Where did you get the idea to start Designer Previews?
Choosing a designer is any client's most important decorating decision, but looking at a thousand pictures can be confusing. Clients who need answers to their questions come to me for advice.
How exactly do you work?
I show different options. The client either loves a picture with all her heart or she doesn't. I ask her, "Do you want to live in that room?" Then I listen to what's said—encouraging people to be negative, because most start out very politely. I may respond by showing a new picture. Eventually, the client leaves my office with three referrals. (If there are other people she would like to meet, though, I think she should.) In a given year, each New York designer I represent is chosen by two to six clients for interviews.
How does the service benefit designers?
I don't replace traditional word of mouth, and I've never tried to be anyone's major source of business. I increase designers' access to people who are going to hire them. My specialty is marketing. Commercial firms tend to have in-house marketing people, whereas residential designers don't. They can't afford to invest the money and time to develop a huge referral base. It's unlikely that an individual designer will see 25 potential clients a year. I see 400 to 500.
In general, who uses the service?
We're not dealing with people who don't have a place to sit! Clients who come in to see me are professional, about 60 percent women and 40 percent couples. I would say that more than half of them are in their 30s. They probably have terrific taste—and usually more money than time. The minimum budget that our designers can really work with is $50,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.
How are you paid for the service you offer?
I have a contract with the designers, and they pay me a flat fee for their first year. I also receive a percentage of the fees that designers charge our clients. So designers pay me when they're making money. They're honest about it. I wouldn't recommend anyone I didn't already trust myself.
Describe your talent pool.
I've tried to make Designer Previews a Good Housekeeping Seal, so I don't represent everyone. These are my choices. In New York, I have 300 of the best residential, office, retail, hotel, and restaurant designers and architects. That's going to double and triple as we begin to work nationally. By the end of the year, I think we'll represent every major city across the country.
But you're staying in Manhattan.
New York is always a little bit ahead. But with the Internet, we don't have to live in a localized world anymore. Designer Previews is set up so that clients can hire Los Angeles designers in Aspen, Colorado, or Nashville designers in Cincinnati. I'm able to show Chicago designers to clients in Michigan or Wisconsin. People in St. Louis and Cleveland have homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Asheville, North Carolina, so I have designers in Santa Fe and Asheville.
What makes now the right time for a digital interface?
I couldn't have done it three years ago, because neither designers nor clients were comfortable enough with the Internet. It will never replace one-on-one meetings, but I see it as an integral part of the future. With people in airports half their lives, our service can be anywhere they are. All they need is a cell phone and a laptop. The hardest thing we have to do right now is schedule a session with a wife and her husband at the same time.
You maintain two Web sites?
The public site, dpreviews.com, gives an overview of the service. The private site is for Internet sessions with me.
You've expanded your territory despite the economic slowdown?
We are starting to get calls from all over the country, and this is going to increase. Whenever someone said something about irrational exuberance, the market for decorators stopped, but it picked up again a half hour later. If our kind of clients move, they have to decorate—that's all there is to it. I take an overview of the design scene. I'm doing this for the future.