What It's Like to Be an Interior Designer for Really, Really Rich People
An interior designer, who works with A-list clients who spend upwards of $50,000 a room, explains the sociopathy and delusional thinking that comes with disposable incomes.
A friend of mine works as an interior designer at the type of firm that builds those grandiose homes that flood Pinterest and hifalutin architecture magazines. On top of celebrities, his clients include people who don't think twice before dropping more money than the average American makes in a year on Hermès wallpaper (which is apparently a thing).
The last time I spoke with him, he was telling me about a couple who asked if they could obtain a specialty bed frame that showed off their luxury brand mattress, which cost close to six figures. My friend (who asked to remain anonymous) was confounded by the request.Who would go into someone's bedroom and look under their covers to see the mattress?
Working as an interior designer, he explained, offered him a window into people's psyches, especially very, very wealthy people who's attitudes towards decorating their most personal spaces sometimes border on sociopathic and delusional. He said he's witnessed and benefited from the kind of conspicuous consumption that many might find detestable. I called him up to find out more about the lives of the extremely fortunate.
VICE: You're an interior designer, but what exactly do you do for your firm?
Anonymous: The firm I work at does both interior design and architecture, but I work on the design side. When a client comes to us, they initially express a certain end result they wish to achieve in regards to how their home should look, or at least a direction. More often then not, this direction is communicated through reference images—what some may call a Pinterest nightmare. From there, we talk about existing furniture they want to keep and put together a visual presentation that's outlined room by room. Each room includes inspiration images, specific furniture pieces that we suggest, fabric choices, paint colors, etc. Then we figure out the budget and it goes on and on from there.
The ideal project is one that my firm starts from the ground up with a clean slate, and the client has no attachment to anything. Often for vacation homes we purchase everything from rugs, dining tables, and chandeliers to plungers, coffee mugs, doormats, and soap. My dream is a client that has no inhibitions and let's you run wild. The reality, however, is that we are always questioned and clients get nervous to try things they have never seen before or can't envision. After all, many people hire us precisely because they lack the vision themselves and need someone else to have it.
What types of clients do you work with?
We definitely work with a high-end clientele. Having an interior designer/architect is undeniable a luxury that only the very wealthy can afford. We rarely do work in apartments under $3 million, but generally they're worth much more than that. The most expensive I've worked on in New York cost around $15 million. We also do work in California and Europe, as well as a couple vacation destination spots.
That being said, as wealthy as everyone we work for is, everyone wants an end product that requires more than they are willing to spend. We have never had a client with an absolutely unlimited budget, and everyone is shocked when we explain how much it will cost to get the apartment or home they imagined in their heads.
Celebrities, in specific, are the worst. Celebrities always want to trade publicity rights—meaning we can use their name and photos of the job in a design magazine, or something similar—in exchange for a reduced fee from our firm. Or, they want everything for free, which is not only obnoxious but frequently puts us in the awkward position of having to ask for favors on someone else's behalf.
How did your firm gain its reputation?
People hire our firm because they are drawn not only to our final product, which they have either seen published or witnessed first hand, but also because they are attracted to who my bosses are as individuals and the lifestyle they lead. This is all cultured by social media and social circles, I think, which is a large reason why our business is so largely based off of referral. Having someone design your home is an extreme luxury and within that I think competition and status is deeply imbedded in the culture.
How does payment work with interior design?
We try not to do jobs with a furniture budget less than $200,000 but sometimes it is hard to say no once you meet someone. Ideally, we would like budgets around $50,000 to $60,000 a room, and more is even better. Billing varies project to project.
For architecture, we charge a percentage over construction cost that's something between 20 percent and 30 percent. So if a project costs $1 million to build, we are paid $20,000 to $30,000. Design is similar. We also do mark-ups on furniture, but typically we either charge a flat designer fee or an hourly fee that can be close to $300 an hour. We decide upon the specifics of these conditions based on the clients overall budget, but also how we perceive them to be as clients. If we know a client is going to be huge pain in the ass and take three weeks to pick a coffee table, then it is advantageous for us to charge hourly because we know they will take up more of our time and usually they end up buying less.
Describe some of your clients to me. Are they quirky or strange?
A lot of people hire a designer because they want someone to create a lifestyle or image for themselves that you may not be otherwise be able to conceive otherwise. People never hire us just because they want new things. Rather, they have an idea in their mind of what the ideal home or lifestyle is. It's interesting when people really specify how they want other people to perceive their home because it's often for superficial reasons.
For example, we designed this huge, specialty bookcase for a client in the West Village. The person asked us to purchase books that would simply "look good" on the shelf. There's a site called Books by the Foot where you can buy books by color, size, topic, etc. We purchased books for this client based on size and color, but the books were totally random, including romance novels that would embarrass most people if they were caught owning it. I left about 25 percent of the shelf empty so the client could fill it with her own books, but she said something like "It'd look better if you guys just filled it up yourself," implying she didn't own books or wasn't planning on reading them anyway. It's odd getting asked to pick someone's personal collections like their books.
There are individual who want giant bookcases and are very specific about the kinds of books they want. A bachelor may request 500 art books, but presently owns none. In his mind, he is the kind of guy who wants guests to think that art is an interest of his when really it's not. It's a mask. Maybe he's masking that he really doesn't have any interests or taste of his own.
If you reside in a space that exudes a more 'successful' lifestyle—both materially and psychologically—than in some way maybe that's a way to make that lifestyle a truer reality.
Here's another example: A single bachelor wants to live under the guise that he is a family man when he isn't, or an even sadder version where he's so desperate to have a family that he is willing to pay someone to physically build some component of a family-friendly home in order to psychologically construct it for himself. We once built a home for a client where he wanted everything designed for two—a double vanity bathroom, double shower head, double closets—but he had no wife, girlfriend, partner, or anything. We've had similar requests for kid's bedrooms when the client didn't have kids. A lot of friends in the industry have witnessed clients do similar things, too.
Have you noticed any consistent personality trends in people who have a lot of money and hire interior designers?
I think a lot of culture, especially right now, is focused on opulence and living outside of your means. Pretty much everyone comes to us wanting a look that they can't necessarily afford. Even if a client is very wealthy, the home they want often exceeds that.
Does that make sense?
In a lot of ways, I can support that feeling. In my view, when a space is more personal it has the possibility to influence the manner in which you live your life. If you reside in a space that exudes a more "successful" lifestyle—both materially any psychologically—than in some way maybe that's a way to make that lifestyle a truer reality? I like to think that spaces we help our clients create are helping them achieve some sort of ideal regardless of what that ideal might be.
I feel like maybe a lot of this comes off in a negative way, but part of what makes my job so enjoyable is being able to create the ideal sense of what a certain individual or family thinks of as a "home," but can't otherwise create that idea for themselves.
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