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Building Moxie Hangs With Elizabeth Cb Marsh :: Part 2
By: Jb Bartkowiak
In the first part of this four part series (http://www.interiorsbystudiom.com/blog/2012/10/elizabeth-cb-marsh-a-month-in-the-life-with-an-associate-interior-designer/) I introduced you to Elizabeth CB Marsh, an Associate Interior Designer with the Baltimore-based firm Jenkins Baer Associates (http://www.jenkinsbaer.com/). Working to develop a sorta “Month in the Life of an Associate Interior Designer,” we emailed weekly for a month. Here, in Part 2, we talk a little about some the projects she was working on at the time. Enjoy!
. . . Specific Projects
I had the opportunity to discuss some of Elizabeth’s then current projects with her. One specifically, we came call the “Bach Pad Redo.” As that name would suggest, she was working with clients (in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood) to convert a one-time bachelor pad into a welcoming home for a young, but now, growing family.
As with so many of Baltimore’s rowhomes, Elizabeth says the lower level here was a “big challenge.” She attributed this to “a lack of a normal sized access point.” To this end, this project called for the partial assembly of a custom sofa on site. According to Elizabeth, “There wasn’t a decent sofa that could be purchased and … that would fit through the door and down the stairs.”
Paired with this couch, Elizabeth had designed complementing built-ins that gave her clients two bookcases, lots of lower cabinet storage, a desk, and space for a new wall-mounted television. Bragging a little maybe, she says, “We were even able to work in a chalkboard wall for their daughter…next to the desk, but hidden from view when walking down into the room.”
Easy. Right? While, yes, it seemed the prevailing tone with *this* project was … “They are just thrilled with the transformations going on in their home,” I’ll stop. Does Elizabeth (or any designer for that matter) always get everything she champions? Not necessarily. “Of course,” she says, “I tried to get them to agree to beautiful mirrored inset doors for the lower storage and a great panel detail on top (a la Hickory Chair), but the client shot t his down … politely.”
She continues, “We ended up with a simple shaker-style door, painted a light Benjamin Moore gray color. We decided to take that same color and paint all the walls, doors and door trim the same. Doing this really makes the room (a modest lower level in a rowhome) appear larger. We also created two bookcases that flank the sofa, so the sofa will look almost built-in itself – very custom, plus we floated clear acrylic side tables on either side ….”
But as seamlessly as this project seemed to be going, it was not without complications, and (maybe sometimes) nail-biting. The discovery of asbestos, during the week we were chatting, kicked this particular project’s step out of stride. In the grand scheme of things, only a minor roadblock, an interruption from an unforeseen factor, something it seems all projects must face in some degree.
“As a young designer, I’m still very much building my portfolio and appreciate any project that will allow me to add something different from what I have already done.”
Elizabeth was speaking of a project we had dubbed “Long Distance Décor.” For it, Elizabeth worked with clients, friends, who were in the process of decorating a newly built Georgian style home …in Ohio. When asked what the biggest challenge was with working over such a long distance, Elizabeth said, “Finding a receiving warehouse for the furniture that was ordered through me. Since I’m the first designer with our firm to have a client in Ohio, no one here had any knowledge or account with a warehouse in that area.”
After making contact with a high-end firm in Columbus, she was able to connect with a receiving/delivery warehouse. Elizabeth was clearly excited about this, while still nervous. The perception was that they are used to working with high end designers. To this, Elizabeth said, “They’ll know the level of detail I expect.”
To facilitate collaborating over such a distance, Elizabeth and her client had “a package” going back and forth for months. She’d add area rug samples, add paint swatches, add fabrics, remove fabrics – the clients would review items in the package and would send it back with notes, etc. Of this, she says, “I wanted them to physically touch the fabrics and finishes…” one part, to avoid, as Elizabeth put it, “the clients not liking a piece in person after it was eventually ordered.”
On the Business of Business
Despite what you are probably beginning to think, it is not *always* “high end” projects and big pay for Elizabeth. Elizabeth told me of a recent meeting with her “very first client.” She says of this client, “She wants help with a few items and just as she was years ago, she is still a big DIY person on a tight budget.” Years ago, Elizabeth found this client’s Living Room side tables on Overstock, went to Target for her accessories, and sent her to Homegoods for other items. “I so appreciated that she was willing to test out my design skills then,” she says.
This meeting gave Elizabeth occasion to reflect on her business skills, “Having just accepted the Associate position last August (which means I work for myself under the umbrella of the firm, no salary, I pay my own healthcare, etc), I should be making sure I ask for what I deserve to make, and I should be making sure I bill every hour I actually work. My hourly rate is still less than what many other designers charge – I shouldn’t be timid to ask for it. However, the words with this particular client came flying out of my mouth – “I won’t charge you for all my time.” Her internal voice at the time screaming …“What???!!! My hourly rate is typically $125, and she won’t be purchasing much if anything from me because I know her, etc, etc. What?!!!!”
She admits, “It was just this particular client. Remember, I had worked with right when I was getting started, hence my excitement now and the ultimate verbal spasm at the prospect of working with her once again.” What turned from innocent meetings and friendly shares of DIY advice (over wine) has actually grown into two pretty major room overhauls, and potentially more work (most certainly billed and with no exceptions).
“My big lesson learned from the few contracts I’ve written that I wish I could take back – at the end of the day – it isn’t fair to me to make exceptions, and it isn’t fair to those who are paying in full for my services.” She tries to keep her head up with the thought that regardless of what she makes financially, each project will turn out to be beautiful . . . will be photographed and . . . hopefully will get published. (And sometimes it is.)
Throughout our month long discussion, Elizabeth had several initial meetings and brought several new clients on board. To read more about how Elizabeth’s take on initial meetings, how she manages varying projects, and how pricing in her firm works, please check back for Part 3 of this series, coming soon to a blog near you.
- JB Bartkowiak is blogger-in-chief @ BuildingMoxie.com, a site dedicated to Pro & DIY Home Improvement.