Waiting. Haven’t we always been friends with our decorators? When Jacqueline Kennedy needed a fresh start in DC after leaving the White House, who did she turn to for company and curtains? Your designer, Billy Baldwin. Years later, when she was newly married to Aristotle Onassis and needed a friend thousands of miles from home—no less than on their honeymoon—whom did she summon to join her? Baldwin again. (She also had to set up a new home on a Greek island in time for Christmas.)
Modern examples? Kris Jenner met her decorator, Martyn Lawrence Bullard, more than a decade ago, and they hit it off so well that he began attending her Christmas parties and now counts her famous children, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie, among her befriended clients.
And earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow posted a photo of herself with her decorator, Brigette Romanek, on Instagram. “There’s an old saying that you should never work with friends,” she wrote to her eight million followers. “But when there’s clear, intentional communication, lots of love and lots of trust, it’s the best thing in the world.”
How could there be a downside?
phases of friendship
About half a century ago, decorators were the closest companions and associates of many American housewives in their personal lives. These household advisers tended to be charismatic tastemakers whose presence did not jeopardize domestic bliss and whose advice opened both aesthetic and social doors. Parties were celebrated together, excursions were undertaken and if everything went well, a fruitful creative partnership developed, albeit with a clear hierarchy between patron and artist.
But the balance has shifted in recent years such that the sought-after decorator occupies a new tier of American society where the top players are themselves celebrities and power brokers. They write books, appear on TV, enjoy corporate sponsorships, and have really good Instagram feeds. Meanwhile, decorative arts consumers have made their own transition, abandoning the “upstairs/downstairs” attitude about the people they hire and seeking new creative opportunities. How to navigate in this new world order?
The F word
“I love her as a person,” an acquaintance told me recently about her decorator. “But she screwed it up so many times. I’m afraid I might have to fire her.” As a well-connected creative professional with a spacious Brooklyn apartment, my friend has often reached out to respected interior designers in her social circle to help her with the decor. Each arrangement starts out promising enough: “We bond over online vintage finds or even have kids the same age for playdates.” The line between friendship and professional relationship quickly blurs.
In each case, budgets were ignored, costly mistakes made and awkward moments created. She is now working with her fourth. “If you disagree about something or they’re pushing for something you don’t like, it gets awkward very quickly,” she explains. “And I don’t like confrontation.”
BFF or W2: Set boundaries
My friend would do well to heed the words of the late decorating legend David Easton, who once said, “No matter what, even when we’re at the table with our customers, we still let our people come in through the service entrance.” For many moderns Practically speaking, a designer’s greatest skill is knowing where to draw the line between friend and professional.
“You have rules, stick to them, and both parties need to know what’s going on,” says Brigette Romanek, who, in addition to designing Gwyneth Paltrow’s Montecito house (the one Paltrow stayed in for the cover of the February issue of was photographed Architectural Digest), counts Beyoncé and Demi Moore among her clients. “Stop everything before you start and share immediately if something goes wrong or gets out of hand,” says Romanek. “Don’t hold bad feelings and talk about them until you’re both comfortable. Have fun. It could be incredible.”
You don’t have to agree on everything
Joy Moyler is one of those designers for whom friendship is key to any design job, but also knows that there are limits. “There must be lines in the sand,” she says. Even with her good faith — she’s done three projects for singer John Mayer and considers him a friend to whom she would donate a kidney — she appreciates when the relationship is spelled out clearly. This arrangement can help both parties navigate choppy situations and personal waters.
That recently played out with a Washington power couple, from whom she received an email before they began working together, which made it clear that their views on politics differed significantly from her own. At a dinner party with the couple, she got ready as current affairs were addressed. She cautiously offered her opposing view, then changed the subject back to the project at hand. “It wasn’t a verbal ping-pong match. Everyone respected each other’s perspective,” she recalls. “It was important to have all the cards on the table.” Their relationship and the project at hand were better than that. “We have a wonderful time together. We just don’t discuss politics.”
Decorators were once celebrated for their ability to find rare and wonderful items – antiques, art, fabrics – for their design projects. The best still are, but today they also have to deal with the decorative equivalent of what doctors go through with WebMD: Anyone can search for vintage pieces on sites like 1stdib, and anyone can check price tags on Google.
This has resulted in a new level of input from an already eager clientele that manifests itself in two ways. First, a constant barrage of DMs with screenshots with the caption: “How about this?” And second, redirected links with “Found it for half price here” notices.
“I love getting ideas from my clients,” says New York-based designer Nicole Fuller, a former model who counts Steven Klein, Usher and Questlove among his clients. “But I had to remind certain people that I have a team of researchers working on their project.”
Fuller also had to teach himself not to react immediately. “When I started, I made myself available 24/7. Today I’ll get back to someone within 24 hours. It was very difficult.” And the second price calculation? Fuller provides its customers with an explanation for every purchase decision, from their choice of a particular supplier to their price premium. And that after the costs have been outlined in advance and in detail. “There is no gray area,” she says.
Familiarity breeds… contentment
So, should you be friends with your always-on, follower-hungry decorator? “You really should,” says veteran designer and French transplant artist Robert Couturier, known for his lavish interiors. “There is no escape. I think working for friends is the best thing you can do.” For Couturier, a family bond with his clients ensures a job is done right. “Being friends forces you to be a lot more careful because you don’t want anything to happen. It’s always better when you’re very, very close. It’s more specific, more precise.”
As an example, he cites the core renovation of a burnt-out mansion in Biarritz for a number of long-standing customers. As he drew up floorplans, he knew his client had three grown children who were very close to her, and he gently reminded them that love comes first, then marriage, then babies in strollers… with au pairs. Separate wings and additional bedrooms were planned in advance and today, a decade later, the client has seven grandchildren to visit with room for all. “If I hadn’t known her,” he says, “I would have designed the house in a very incomplete way. I could picture her better than she could picture herself.” To him, a degree of intimacy — and honesty — is the only smart thing to do.
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