Wait. Haven’t we always been friends with our decorators? After all, when Jacqueline Kennedy needed a fresh start in DC after moving out of the White House, who did she turn to for companionship and curtains? Her designer, Billy Baldwin. Years later, when she was newly married to Aristotle Onassis and needed a friend by her side thousands of miles away from home—on her honeymoon no less—who did she summon to join her? Baldwin again. (She also needed to outfit 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 famously that he began attending her holiday parties and now counts her famous children Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie as friend-clients as well.
And earlier this year Gwyneth Paltrow posted a photo of herself with her decorator, Brigette Romanek, on Instagram. “There’s an old adage that you should never work with friends,” she wrote to her eight million followers. “But when there is clear intentional communication, a lot of love and a lot of trust, it’s the best thing in the world.”
How could there be a downside?
Stages of Friendship
A half century or so ago, decorators were the closest companion and collaborator many American homemakers had in their private lives. These domestic advisors were typically charismatic tastemakers whose presence did not threaten domestic bliss and whose advice opened doors, both aesthetic and social. Parties were attended together, trips taken, and, if all went well, a fruitful creative partnership was achieved, albeit one with a clear hierarchy between patron and artist.
But the balance has shifted in recent years in a way that finds the sought-after decorator occupying a new echelon of American society, one in which the top players are celebrities and power brokers in their own right. They write books, appear on television, enjoy corporate sponsorship, and have really good Instagram feeds. Meanwhile, consumers of the decorative arts have been going through their own transition, foregoing “Upstairs/Downstairs” attitudes about the people they hire and seeking new creative outlets. How to navigate this new world order?
The F Word
“I love her as a human being,” an acquaintance said to me recently about her decorator. “But she’s messed 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 turned to respected interior designers in her social circle to help her decorate. Each arrangement starts off promisingly enough: “We bond over online vintage finds, or even have kids the same age for play dates.” The line between friendship and professional relationship is quickly blurred.
In each instance, budgets were ignored, expensive errors made, and awkward moments created. She’s now working with her fourth. “If you don’t see eye to eye on something, or they’re pushing for something you don’t like…it gets uncomfortable very quickly,” she explains. “And I don’t like confrontation.”
BFF or W2: Setting Boundaries
My friend would do well to heed the words of the late decorating legend David Easton, who once said, “No matter what, even if we sit at the table with our clients, we still have our people come through the service entrance.” To many modern practitioners the greatest skill a designer can have is knowing where the line is between friend and professional.
“Have rules, stick to them, and both parties have to know the way forward,” says Brigette Romanek, who along with designing Gwyneth Paltrow’s Montecito home (the one Paltrow was photographed in for the cover of the February issue of Architectural Digest), counts Beyoncé and Demi Moore as clients. “Hash out everything before you start, and communicate right away if something is going wrong or off-track,” Romanek says. “Don’t hold bad feelings, and talk it through until it’s comfortable for you both. Enjoy yourselves. It could be incredible.”
You Don’t Have to Agree on Everything
Joy Moyler is one of those designers who finds friendship key to any design job, but knows there are limits. “There must be lines in the sand,” she says. Even with her bona fides—she’s done three projects for singer John Mayer and considers him a friend she’d donate a kidney to—she appreciates when the relationship is spelled out. This arrangement can help both parties navigate choppy professional and personal waters.
That played out recently with a Washington power couple from whom she received an email before they started working together that made it clear they held views about politics vastly different from her own. At a dinner party with the pair, she braced herself when current affairs were raised. She carefully offered her opposing view and then changed the subject back to the project at hand. “It didn’t become a verbal ping-pong match. Everyone respected one another’s perspective,” she recalls. “It was important to have all the cards on the table.” Their relationship, and the project at hand, has been better for it. “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 must also contend with the decorative equivalent of what doctors go through with WebMD: Anyone can hunt for vintage pieces on websites like 1stdibs and anyone can double-check price tags on Google.
This has led to a new level of input from an already eager clientele that manifests in two ways. First, a constant barrage of DMs with screenshots captioned, “How about this?” And second, forwarded links with “Found it here for half price” notes.
“I love getting ideas from my clients,” says New York–based designer Nicole Fuller, a former model who counts Steven Klein, Usher, and Questlove as clients. “But I’ve had to remind certain people that I have a team of researchers working on their project.”
Fuller has also had to teach herself to not respond right away. “When I first started out, I made myself available 24-7. Today, I’ll get back to someone in 24 hours. It’s been very hard.” And second-guessing pricing? Fuller supplies her clients with an explanation for every purchase decision, from why she chose a certain vendor to her markup. And this is after sketching out costs in advance, and in detail. “There’s no gray area,” she says.
So, should you be friends with your always-on, follower-hungry decorator? “You really should,” says veteran designer and French transplant Robert Couturier, known for his lavish interiors. “There’s no escaping it. I think that working for friends is the nicest possible thing to do.” To Couturier, a familial bond with his clients ensures that a job is done right. “Being friends forces you to be that much more prudent, because you don’t want anything wrong to happen. It’s always better if you’re very, very close. It’s more particular, more precise.”
As an example, he cites a gut renovation of a burned-out manse in Biarritz for some long-standing clients. When drawing up floor plans, he knew that his client had three grown children she was very close with, and he gently reminded her that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes babies in a baby carriage … with au pairs. Separate wings and extra bedrooms were planned in advance, and today, a decade later, the client has seven grandkids that can visit with room for everyone. “If I hadn’t known her,” he says, “I would’ve done the house in a very incomplete fashion. I could imagine her better than she could imagine herself.” To him a level of intimacy—and honesty—is the only prudent thing to do.
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