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Building Moxie Hangs With Elizabeth Cb Marsh :: Projects & Pricing
By: Jb Bartkowiak
In earlier parts of this four part series, I introduced you to Elizabeth CB Marsh, an Associate Interior Designer with the Baltimore-based firm Jenkins Baer Associates. In Part 2, we talked a little bit about some the projects she had working and some of her thoughts on writing contracts. Here, we discuss her take on initial meetings as well as how she manages her many and varied projects. Enjoy!
On Initial Meetings
Our discussion turned to the topic of initial meetings, “As always, the first meeting is the most telling,” Elizabeth says. “It’s a way for designers to gage clients, what they’re comfortable spending, how far are they willing to go with the design, etc….”
Speaking in terms of strategy for initial meetings, she says she typically selects a few different price ranges to present clients. “Will they love and be okay with the $6000 area rug? Will they think all my options are overpriced, even the less expensive ones? Will they totally defer to me for the selection? How long will they take going back and forth, showing a husband for example, how much input will he give?”
Continuing with Elizabeth, “I always find the beginning stages of a client and designer relationship to be interesting – it’s amazing the insight I can gain from just a few meetings, and I know I’m not the only designer who feels that way. But what do we all hope for? Well, that the client defers to us AND is okay with the $6000 most beautiful area rug.”
On Project Management
Beginning with our discussions about managing her active projects in Part 2 of this series, I get a glimpse of a fairly evolved (though not necessarily super hi-tech) system. Tucked in a modest office upstairs in JBA’s Mount Vernon rowhome, I was fortunate enough to catch Elizabeth during a recent visit.
A good bit of the space in her office is taken up by a large horizontal 3-drawer file cabinet, one drawer filled with archives and another dedicated to active projects, contracts, and bids delivered but not yet signed. (Sure she has hard copy.)
Immediately in from this file cabinet, there is a set of shelves lined exclusively with clear Rubbermaid-type tubs. These tubs hold fabric samples, paint swatches, images and notes; maybe 15 of them (tubs, that is) active the day of my visit. These tubs are not unlike the one passed back and forth with her clients in Ohio, during the “Long Distance Décor” project discussed also in the last post. Oh, and the third drawer in that filing cabinet seemed to act almost as a sorta staging area for these tubs.
Her back sits to this work as she proceeded to show me folder after folder on her computer, each filled with project spread sheets. I had asked her earlier, “How she does it … and how much exactly is up in her head?” Elizabeth’s response to that, “Well, yeah a lot!” She pauses and continues, “But I make do with lots and lots . . . I mean – a ton of todo lists.”
On Utilizing a Large Firm’s Resources
As I learned during this visit, Baltimore, as one of Elizabeth’s colleagues put it, has no showrooms. Likely because of this, the 2nd floor of JBA’s converted Mount Vernon rowhome is devoted almost solely to a source/sample, fabric and furniture scheming space. In multiple rooms here, a dizzying array of products from local, national and international vendors sit, from curtains to counter tops, from carpet to moldings – You’ll find it here.
When I asked Elizabeth if she frequently finds her way down into this area, she says, “Absoutely!” She continues, “Beyond obvious reasons … if I get stuck on something, I’ll walk down to clear my head. Plus, there is always someone I can bounce an idea off of. Since everyone here has great style, I know I can always find and get an opinion I can trust.” You may remember from my first post, Elizabeth cites “the firm’s talent” as what makes JBA just so unique.
From the Part 2, and while discussing the elaborate bookcases from the project “Bach Pad Redo,” I asked how she handles complex design work. On drafting, Elizabeth says, “I find that I’m most always drawing for a client, whether it be furniture/floor plans or elevations of built-ins, etc.” While JBA does have a CADD department, for small drafting needs, it is often most cost effective to have the designer do the work on these themselves.
She continues. “Since I typically work with a certain set of contractors, they’re comfortable with my style and can fill in the blanks as necessary. If I’m swamped or if the project will be very drafting intensive, I’ll direct my clients to our CADD department. In that case, I meet with my CADD person and review the hand sketches that I create. She (CADD) inputs, tweaks, and takes the drawings to the next level of detail through their software.”
…The Deal (Pricing and Products)
I recently saw an article posted on Fox News and written by Surroundings editor Linda Merrill, “What’s Behind Interior Design Services Prices?”. We obviously discussed pricing before that article was published, but I wanted to share … and I did ask Elizabeth, “What’s the Deal?” … with pricing and products.
Elizabeth explains, “While every firm handles this differently, my hourly rate is $125/hour. Each designer sets his/her own rate and the company takes 1/3 of our hourly rate. We as a firm get most furniture and items at wholesale, due to our longstanding vendor relationships. Our firm for the most part marks items up 43%. This is still less than retail. So, for example, if a client were to look on Serena and Lily and find a chair for $1000 that means our price for that chair to a client is probably more like $800.”
To this she adds, “… So yes, I prefer my clients to proceed with purchasing through a source that I’m (JBA) affiliated with. Do I sell specific products? No, because I want what I select to fit the space. It’s not about making an extra buck or selling the highest end design possible. ”
Here Elizabeth highlights Restoration Hardware for clients, and she continues, “At the end of the day, I want the design to be perfect.” At the same time, she does mention her frustration with presenting a design to a client and then having that client openly “shop (her) around,” looking for something similar (or the same) but less expensive. “That does dishearten me,” she says.
The retainer she asks for is often based on the scope of work. It is different for every project and is usually determined after an initial phone or email conversation with photos of the residence, and/or after an initial walkthrough.
“As an Associate Designer,” she says, “I work on my own under the umbrella of the firm. With this position comes a certain flexibility (making my own hours) but also a certain responsibility. Part of what I financially bring in goes to the firm to assist with covering costs of support staff, library, etc. But the truth is – it would be extremely difficult to survive solely on my hourly rate.”
Thanks for reading and I’ll be back soon at a blog near you with Part 4, which includes notes on her style, more of her take on working as an Associate in Baltimore (pros and cons) and tips for homeowners looking to work with a designer.
- JB Bartkowiak is blogger-in-chief @ BuildingMoxie.com, a site dedicated to Pro & DIY Home Improvement.