Rachel purchased an estate belonging to a former client. She loved what I had done for the last residents and wanted me to decorate the home for her and her family. She was a freelance writer and worked from a spacious home office. She had an 8 year old son, a 6 year old daughter and a husband whom I had never met, as we always met mid morning.
I arrived to find the 8000 square foot house empty, except for a few random pieces of furniture that looked to be temporary. There was a fairly extensive art collection in the formal living room, which was kept shut at the other end of the first floor. When I asked why the paintings weren’t hung throughout the house she said she “didn’t want anything to happen to them”. I dismissed this as a new homeowner not sure where things should go just yet.
When I arrived Rachel was very pleasant and enthusiastic. I knew the home’s layout but needed to see how her family lived in the home. She was very clear about how she wanted to use each space and seemed anxious to put my suggestions into action as we discussed the possibilities in every room in the house. Our next meeting was scheduled and I would make a presentation of proposed furnishings, fabrics and finish selections.
When I returned for the second time, there were some red flags. I heard a lot about the reasons she had moved from her last 2 homes. She mentioned the names of 3 or 4 designers she had “worked with” in the past (yet there was no furniture I was asked to work with). I chalked this up to her not finding the right fit for her spirited personality. I presented the selections I made for her home and everything seemed to be a direct hit. The next step was to go back and price everything to formulate her quote. These were not inexpensive furnishings and the quote did not dissuade her. She phoned a few days later and said she wanted to order everything. We discussed the terms to everything into motion. She was elated.
A few days later she phoned and asked to see the selections once more. It’s actually highly unusual that a client asks to see them again once decisions are finalized, but I ignored that red flag I was seeing and chalked it up to her enthusiasm for the items she had picked.
A few days later there was another phone call and a request to see everything yet again. Although highly unusual, I obliged. This visit was met with a totally different reaction. It was as if she was seeing the things for the first time and was overcome with doubt and fear as she made changes to the design concepts in nearly every room. She asked, “What if I don’t like it when it comes in?”, “What if it doesn’t fit?”, “What if it is scratched?”, “What if it is not comfortable?”, “What if my husband doesn’t like it?” and so on. Sometimes I get one or two casual questions but this was really different. I saw this woman spinning out of control immersing herself in this doomsday scenario loop in her head. Nothing I could do or say was going to be enough to convince her that it was all going to be great, even though she bought the house largely because of the way I had furnished it for the last homeowner.
I am a pretty good judge of character but I broke my cardinal rule about ignoring that gut feeling that says “something is just not right here”. In close to 30 years of being a designer I can count on one hand the amount of clients that I’ve started working with and decided we were not right for one another. I can usually tell in the first minute of a phone call if we’ll be a compatible designer/client match. It’s a very intimate relationship so we have to be on the same page from the onset. If not, there is no way I can give them the end results they are seeking. I ask questions that help me to determine how serious the caller is to making change and they ask questions of me in an attempt to see if I am qualified to do so. Since Rachel bought a house from a really wonderful client I mistakenly made the assumption that she must be too. I didn’t ask the questions that would have told me to pass.
The next morning I called and told her that I regretted parting, but I was not the right designer for her. I told her I was very sorry (and I really felt awful) but I knew that I was always going to be up against that little tape recorded loop in her head that was programmed to expect worse case scenarios. I’ve always believed that if you go looking for trouble you always find it. But I am not in the habit of looking for it and I could see signs that Rachel might sabotage a successful project to prove her belief to be true.
The breakthrough was actually mine. I realized that unless changes are made with optimism and an expectation of a positive outcome the exact opposite will manifest. Rachel’s initial excitement and confidence was sadly replaced by her belief that nothing is ever right. Until she changed that thinking, nothing would ever be right. I wondered how many avenues of her life she transferred that belief onto. I remembered the conversation about her estranged mother and sister, the unbearable editors that made unreasonable deadlines, etc. and the picture became very clear.
I believe that Rachel was attracted to buying the house because it was filled with the energy of a loving and grounded family. Perhaps on some level that’s what she was really trying to buy, but that’s not something you can just write a check for. I realized that it’s one thing to say you want change but you have to want it enough to over ride the little voice that tells you will fail, or you will be disappointed or that nothing will ever be right.
I heard from a client that lived in the same community that Rachel and her family moved yet again. She was in the house under 2 years and never did any of the decorating and landscaping she talked about. This was the 3rd house her young children had been uprooted from. I felt very sad as I heard this news, knowing that she was still looking to buy that idyllic picture of what “home” should look like instead of investing in creating it herself.
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