Interior Designers as Their Own Clients

sharon sherman asid-interior-design
Interior Design by Sharon L. Sherman | ASID Peter Rymwid Architectural Photography

Professional interior designers are skilled at eliciting the needs and preferences of their clients. The happy outcome is an environment that’s both beautiful to look at and satisfying to live in. What happens, though, when the tables are turned and the designer becomes his or her own client?


We chatted with six interior designers, all members of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and the overwhelming consensus is that this personal experience benefits designers and clients alike.

“I find it nerve-wracking to make a decision for myself,” admits Vatche Simonian, Allied ASID. “Because I understand the anxiety a client goes through when making decisions, I try to simplify it for them.” What with unlimited sources and products, making choices can be difficult for designers and clients, and this world of unending possibilities has the potential to be paralyzing.

Interior Design by Marilee Schempp, ASID | Peter Rymwid Architectural Photography

Having personally gone through the process almost a dozen times, Simonian gives this advice, “It’s important to start with a strong design statement. This helps whittle down the choices. This is exactly what I did when I renovated a New York City apartment for myself. When I got diverted, I always came back to the original design.”

While Margaret Maltese-Miller, Allied ASID, was still in design school, she decided she needed some real-life interior design experience before graduating and launching her own business. She used her 4-year-old son’s bedroom as her design laboratory, creating a space (with lots of storage) that he could grow into. What she acquired – besides a wonderful new room – was some invaluable experience. Maltese-Miller states, “I used this design opportunity to gain more experience with vendors and contractors, and it paid off!”

Inside the home of Mark Polo, Allied ASID:

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Maltese-Miller’s first client hired her for a multi-room project based on the work she did on her son’s room. “Being both the designer and the client, I learned how to deal with the unexpected from both points of view,” she recalls. “I also learned firsthand to appreciate the emotional impact of the process. It’s important to empathize with the client.”

During his career, Mark Polo, Allied ASID, has owned and renovated six homes. Polo’s most recent renovation is his 1904 Victorian home in the Boonton area. He firmly believes that a legitimate, fair and important question to ask of designers is whether or not they have personally gone through a renovation; if so, clients should ask them to share those experiences.

Interior Design by Vatche Simonian, RA, AIA | Constantin Boca Photography
Interior Design by Vatche Simonian, RA, AIA | Constantin Boca Photography

With so many personal renovations under his belt, Polo knows firsthand that life is about change. “As a designer,” he explains, “I now pay more attention to the smaller phrases and words that come out of a client. That’s where you pick up the tone of what’s happening in their life,” he continues. “By the time we get to the installation phase, clients are usually feeling a little raw. If you (have the personal experience to) prepare them ahead of time, it helps diffuse those feelings.”

Sometimes being your own designer is not so much about acquiring new knowledge as it is about reinforcing the value of what you do and how you do it. When her sons were nearing college age, Sharon L. Sherman, ASID, embarked on a whole-house renovation; rather than downsizing, she opted to put her talents to use with a redesign that would carry her family forward. Of this experience, she says, “It made me realize how good my contractors are and why we strive so hard to keep a house as clean and dust-free as possible during the construction process.”

Miller interior design
Interior Design by Margaret Maltese-Miller

During the renovation, she put into practice what she preaches to clients. Wearing her client hat, Sherman packed all the non-essentials away, relocating the microwave and other small appliances to an area in her home that could serve as a temporary kitchen during the renovation. Wearing her designer hat, she carefully pre-planned for all materials to arrive on time, ensuring that there would be no construction delays. The ultimate compliment came courtesy of an HGTV camera crew who filmed the project for an episode of “My Big Amazing Renovation.” As they followed its progress, they complained that there wasn’t enough drama!

A few (correctible) missteps during the home renovation of Marilee Schempp, ASID, reminded her that a designer’s role is to give specific instructions to the contractors and trade so that they don’t make assumptions. “You can never give them too much information,” says Schempp. “That’s why good designers put so much detail on their plans.” Schempp also extols the virtues of pre-ordering as much as possible: “I want everything ready and waiting before the demolition begins. That way, we are ready with plumbing fixtures, tile, lighting fixtures, etc. When the contractor is ready, we are ready!”

Bossert interior design
Interior Design by Kara Bossert

Schempp also shares some words of advice about the packing-up phase, “Even though you will probably have more space at the end of the renovation, this is a wonderful time to edit your possessions, and be sure to label all the boxes and containers.” Also, be prepared for the surprises that unpacking brings. “Even though everything is new, there is a tendency to look for the ‘old’ spaces that don’t exist anymore,” she explains. “Having less stuff to deal with when you put things back will help you rethink how you are going to organize your possessions.”

When Kara Bossert, Allied ASID, began work on her custom-built home, she followed the same protocol that she would for a client. She served as the head of her design team, one that included kitchen and bathroom specialists, whom she hired for their expertise on products in those specific markets. When she and one of the specialists disagreed on a design feature, she learned that you have to make clients feel comfortable about asserting their preferences and overriding the designer. She encourages clients to speak up and not to worry if they are offending someone. “After all,” concludes Bossert, “it is the client who has to live with the final result.”

Anne Marie Soto works with the New Jersey chapter of The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), which sponsors a directory for consumers interested in obtaining the services of a qualified professional interior designer.

Interior Design: Kara BossertMargaret Maltese-MillerMark Allan PoloMarilee SchemppSharon L. ShermanVatche Simonian
Photography: Peter Rymwid Architectural PhotographyFront Door Photography, Constantin Boca Photography

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