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Designs on Survival : Despite a Downturn in the Industry, Interior Designers Are Streamlining and Specializing Services to Stay in Business


Interior designer Ivan Beardsley, called upon to lecture at a colleague's home on a cool fall night 18 months ago, looked to his audience and caught a glimpse of the future.

Instead of half a dozen or so beginning designers, Beardsley faced nearly 40 stellar industry professionals who had come to hear his talk on how to survive the 1990s. Like a hungry press corps, they besieged Beardsley with so many questions that his planned 45-minute lecture became a three-hour session on designer woes, ranging from marketing and billing problems to shrinking demand and decorating budgets.

"I was beside myself," recalled Beardsley, a Silver Lake designer with nearly two decades' experience and a past president of the American Society of Interior Designers. "I was prepared to talk to six to eight people."

Since that lecture--his first--two things have happened: Beardsley's advice has become so in-demand that he now addresses interior designers several times a year. And Southern California's recession, thought then to have perhaps bottomed out, has grown steadily worse, making things yet more perilous for interior designers.

Of all the high-ticket industries to nose-dive in the grim '90s, West Los Angeles' residential interior design business has taken a particularly nasty crash. Once awash in the capital of a thriving regional economy, Westside designers now are in the midst of a shakeout that has left them scrambling for customers, discounting prices and developing narrower and narrower specialties to woo their remaining customers.

And those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones have simply closed shop and moved on. "We're having an industry fallout," said Beardsley. "Everyone's gearing down on their products, on their prices and on their real estate."

The upheaval has been as sudden and overwhelming as a brush fire, affecting a few designers at first before spreading quickly throughout the industry. Indeed, it wasn't that long ago that interior designers on the Westside were blithely passing on projects that weren't large enough for their tastes. In the age of affluence of a mere five years ago, a $100,000 budget for a single residential project wasn't considered unusual at all.

"People were buying incredible homes and putting tremendous budgets into redecorating," said Bobbie Everts, owner of Designer Previews in Marina del Rey, a firm that represents interior designers and architects. "They were spending money like they were printing it."

Now Everts' customers are willing to part with only a fraction of that. In her last three jobs, the biggest interior design budget amounted to $20,000. "People have to put bread on the table before they put fabric on their walls," she said.

The physical and spiritual base for the local design industry--the area in and around the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood--reflects that economic shock. Overall occupancy rates hover between 70% and 75% at the 16-acre center, regarded as one of the major design centers nationwide and the premier such facility in the West. The center, built in 1975, recently had to have its mortgage renegotiated after the partnership that runs it, the San Francisco-based Catellus Development Corp., fell behind on payments.

"(This) is a world-class facility that needs to regenerate momentum about its mission," said center president Andrew Wolf, who was hired in January to rejuvenate the center.

The downturn also has triggered wholesale changes in the way designers do business. Perhaps the biggest turnaround is how designers offer, and charge for, their services.

Instead of purchasing furniture and accessories from showrooms, and then billing clients for their time and the merchandise, more designers are charging strictly for consulting and letting their clients pick up their own goods. Though hiring a design consultant can cost between $75 and $200 an hour, those are still much more affordable sums to customers who might have anticipated spending tens of thousands of dollars in one designing fell swoop.

"We're charging for our creativity and design services rather than for providing a sofa," said BJ Peterson, a West Los Angeles designer and national president of the 33,000-member American Society of Interior Designers. "The designer is being paid for being a designer."

Some interior designers are also narrowing their focus in hopes of capturing a particular type of client. One burgeoning specialty in residential interior design is environmental design, in which some designers offer allergy-free environments or interiors that use only recyclable and nontoxic materials.

"We're not into the 'build your castle' aesthetic," said Alison Pollack, a West Hills environmental interior designer who recently launched her own firm called Earth Friendly. Despite the grim outlook in the rest of the interior design industry, Pollack says that so far the response to her business has been very encouraging. "You can't put a price on clean air," she said.

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