I was 9 years old the first time I met a real Interior Decorator. It was after school at my “rich” friend Molly’s house. She lived in one of those perfect homes, always pristine, professionally decorated with invisible stanchions defining the “NO KID” areas. Molly’s mom, Mrs. C, had an appointment that day with the coveted, locally famous decorator Mimi Caswell. She told Molly we could watch, but to stay out of the way. So Molly and I perched at the top of the stairs and waited for this wonder woman while watching Mrs. C nervously align and fluff the perimeter of the living room.
When the bell rang and the door opened it was well worth the wait. Mimi Caswell looked 7ft. tall. She was wrapped in a big, soft, powder blue blanket, covering a black and white suit that looked like a PSA stewardess uniform and a shiny black helmet on her head. In reflection, I know now that her coat was cashmere, her suit was Chanel and her hair was Sassoon… and I’m pretty sure her lipstick was “Love that Red” by Revlon.
Anyway, she stepped into the foyer, dropped her coat on Mrs. C, who clutched it like a 3-year-old, then glided to the top of the living room. She stood there planted, feet apart, arms crossed and surveyed the space in silence. She took no notes, no measurements, she asked no questions. We all waited breathless. Then Mimi Caswell announced, “Now that’s a smart piece, we’ll keep that!” pointing to an English secretary, (I know now).
Then enthusiastically smoothing the air with her palms she stated, “And for your color scheme I like carnelian, olive and as an accent a pinch of puce!” she purred. “It will be stunning Mary, trust me!” She then twirled and headed toward the door. “We’ll clear the room Friday, Leo will make the arrangements,” she ordered while curling into her coat. Then before reaching the door she stopped and looked up the staircase at Molly and me, remarking, “Good afternoon ladies.” We sat speechless and she was gone.
For years to follow, Mimi Caswell, with her confidence and over-the-top presence, represented the interior decorator icon for me. I was now aware of their existence, and saw that same Caswell style reinforced with each sighting. Like in the movies—“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Patricia Neal or “Pillow Talk” with Doris Day—they were all dressed up in hats and heels, swing coats and girdles, meeting at the clients for a lamp delivery, to ensure proper placement, wave a glove and be gone.
What kind of power is that? The power Mimi Caswell had that left Molly and me speechless and had the home-proud Mrs. C ready and willing to hand over her house keys?
Artists have been beloved and feared through time, believing they have tapped their creativity and know something we don’t. When presented with confidence, or worse, arrogance, it demands a certain respect. Like the Interior Design “style-makers” of the 1960s, with an unspoken patent on a “look” that became their legacy…and that “look” is for sale, with very little regard for the clients taste. “Trust me.” You were simply buying a promise of good taste and style at the cost of your own.
I believe all creators—artists, musicians, architects, chefs, sculptors, dancers and yes, even interior designers—create to appeal to our senses. They show us a new perspective and move us to feel. For designers the canvas is the space, our medium is the furnishings and our goal is an atmosphere—an environment that gives our client the desired feeling, through the color, style and texture of the selected elements. It’s their habitat, their abode, their safe harbor. It’s what makes them feel at home, and in 2014, achieving that is through good taste and style.
My years as a designer were dotted with what I call “fix-it projects,” when the client had hired a designer who disregarded their taste, their budget or their needs. They were left with $8k in full drapes they hated, or the budget went to a glass block wall and 4’ pivot door and no furniture. My challenge was working around furniture too big for the room, a trendy floor treatment (intention unknown) or simply no money left.
Our project goals should not be a good portfolio picture or a funded canvas for our free expression; they should always be a happy, satisfied client. How the client wants to feel in their home, what the client needs to make their life easier, how to incorporate the ratty little chest her grandpa made or dad’s big puffy recliner—these are our challenges.
When someone implies, “give me style,” “make me fabulous,” that’s a slippery slope. When we help our clients discover their own style, being fabulous will naturally follow. The days of, “It will be stunning, trust me!” are over. Engaging your client in the process not only lightens your liability, but makes this creation their own and they will be a big, proud advertisement for you! Trust me.