Working With Designers

This article is directed toward those upholsterers who are independent contractors, who have their own shop.

What is it like, the pros and the cons, to do work for Interior Decorators and Designers?
After doing upholstery, and a little bit of drapery work, for retail clients for over 25 years, I did work almost exclusively for Interior Designers for about 5 or 6 years. During this time I made all types of swags, valances, shades, cornices and custom created window coverings, as well as doing some upholstery. For the last 6 or 8 years, I have primarily done upholstery and slipcover work for mainly direct retail clients, although I still done a limited amount of decorator work. So I have written this from my experiences with decorators and from what I have learned from other upholsterers.



Some of the benefits of doing work for Designers are:

  • Very little advertising expense.
  • Potentially lower shop costs. No need to have a store front, or to have a fancy shop to impress clients.
  • Build relationships with repeat clients (the designer)
  • Life can be pretty simple. You only have to do the work. The Designer takes the orders and does all the work of figuring out what the client wants.
  • Potential for a lot of continued work.
  • It can be quick and easy to get started doing work for decorators (assuming you do good quality work, and you find a Designer who needs another upholsterer).
  • Almost instant work, you don't have to do a lot of advertising to slowly build your work. You are getting work from the decorator's reputation.
  • Once you've established a relationship with a designer, you don't have to "re-think" every job. You will know what the designer likes (e.g. should chair be pattern match or should the dominant bouquet be balanced throughout the chair?). You will also know if this designer gets high end clients, or cheapstakes, or in between, and you can plan your work accordingly as well as order bulk supplies accordingly. by Agnes(Ann-Yes))
  • You don't have to spend time choosing fabrics, trims, etc. Although some charge designers a trade rate, aka wholesale, you only have to concentrate on the part of the business that actually makes money. By design, my trade discount to designers is the same as my upcharge for COM... clever, huh ? by Agnes(Ann-Yes))
  • You don't have to worry about trying to continually find new clients. Your clients (the designers) keep bringing you work over and over again. (As long as you keep them happy.


Drawbacks (negatives) of doing work for Designers.

  • Constant conflicts in schedules. You are working by numerous schedules, yours and theirs.
  • They usually want quick turn around, irregardless of how swamped you may be.
  • They often want nearly exact completion dates.
  • You often have to adjust your schedule (work like crazy) to fit your work into their schedules. Designers are often coordinating a lot of decorating projects to be completed at specific times. They want the work you do for them to be finished to coincide with projects from other workrooms, so that it can all be delivered and installed at the same time.
  • Your direct retail clients may get unhappy, because it takes longer to get their work done. (To keep the Designer's work, you may often have to push your own clients back to get the Designer's work done by their completion dates.)
  • They often want to pay less than retail clients (they want your "wholesale" rate.)
  • You are not building your reputation or your business, but you are building the designers' reputation.
  • The Designer is the one who builds her reputation from your work. I even had one designer who wanted me to put her labels on my work.
  • No matter how much work you do for the designer, or how good of a job you do, it is the Designer who gets all the credit (and future clients) from your work.
  • If your designer gets unhappy with your work, or finds a better deal with another upholsterer, you can loose your income and can loose your future work. 
  • It is the designer who is building up a backlog of customers built upon your work. If the designer decides to stop sending your work all the backlog of work is gone, because it belongs to the designer.
  • The Designer has a big leverage over you, since they are your primary source of income.
  • The designer usually provides the fabric, trims, etc. and makes that profit. by Agnes(Ann-Yes))
  • If you only work for designers, you are working from a smaller "pool" or market. This is a risk and anyone considering catering to designers should be sure to cater to several. I know of a few workrooms who only had one designer, and when that went sour, after many happy years, the workroom was in big trouble. Do not put all your eggs in one basket! by Agnes(Ann-Yes))
  • If most of your work comes from only one or two designers
    • You may find it hard to tell them that they can't have it by their chosen dates.
    • You may be so afraid to loose them as clients that you'll accept unreasonable demands or time deadlines.
  • You may be afraid to say or do anything that will upset them. You won't want to loose your only or a primary source of income.  



If you want to do work for Designer, here are a few suggestions to make your life easier.

Create Your Policy
Create a policy & guideline for working with designer/decorators
This is an ongoing work and you may need to revise is a number of times.
Look at what others have done to get ideas
Don't copy anyone's document unless you have written permission.
Here is an example of what I have written: Policy for Working With Designers . 
Put it on your website and/or give a copy to any Designers who want you to do their work. 

Interacting with the designers.

Remember, the designers are your clients, not your boss.
Use at least several Designers to supply your work.
Don't let any one Designer supply you with most of your work. I would suggest that you keep any one source of your income less than 20% to 25%.
The designer may come to you with a set of specifications and instructions. it is up to you to carefully consider her requests and then determine whether or not you will do that. If she is asking something unreasonable, tell her what you can or will do instead. Make sure that her specs and instructions are updated to specify what you can or will do.

Your Attitutude

You can't control the designer's attitude, but you can control your attitude. If you can't, then you shouldn't be in business.

Keep a good attitude at all times.

Proceedure and Paperwork

Many of the potential problems of dealing with decorators and designers can be minimized by using your prewritten forms that include all of your special instructions, notifications, and disclaimers.
Insist that all order from decorators and designers are written on your forms.
On these forms you could have your policies, methods, and disclaimers written out. Those forms should be carefully written to try to cover all the tricky situations.
Treat the designer just like a customer. meaning, don't shortcut any of the process. Make sure that all the instructions are clearly and fully written out.
Be Specific: Don't assume anything. Make sure that all the details are clearly written out to your understanding.


Do High Quality work. The clients of the decorators are paying a lot, and they expect quality.
Remember, you are the one doing the work. You are the one who is responsible for how it turns out.
Any instructions given to you by the decorator or the client must be approved by you. You can say "no", 

Determining The Price

Make sure you charge enough; Charge your full rate for COM material. Don't work cheap.
Don't ask her how much she will pay. Instead tell her how much you will charge.
If she want's a cheaper price, then, if posssible to still do a good job, simplify the style and find a less expensive way to do the furniture. For example, tell her that you can do it without the skirt, or without the channels, or without the tufting, etc.
Get the price of each job settled up front. To do this you can:
  • When you first start doing work for decorators, Depending on your situation and how you price work for the clients, you might think about making out a detailed price list that you give to the decorators. (If you do give such a price list, I'd recommend that you put all prices as a price range, ending with "& up. For example, Labor for tailor skirt for sofa, $135 to $200 & up). The designers can use this in giving the client a rough estimate as to cost.
  • Have the decorator take pictures of the furniture and email it to you.
  • Go out to the client's home to see the furniture before writing up the final work order.
If, while doing a job, you find an unexpected extra cost item, call the decorator and get the extra cost approved before proceeding.

The Fabric

State that all prices are based upon using fabric
That cost no more than $XX per yard. (You decide on that price.)
Fabric that costs over that price will be charged an additional $XX per yard
Very light or very plain fabric should also have a surcharge of $XX per yard.
Charge more if you are working with more expensive fabric. Your risk is my higher. What if you make a mistake or it gets damaged and you have to buy more.

Your Schedule

Keep some kind of reasonably accurate work schedule, and keep it regularly updated.
Don't let any designer push you into committing to more that you can reasonably do.
Intentionally put holes in your schedule. Here are some suggestions:
One type of scheduling hole is for those unexpected rush jobs that come from important clients
The second type of hole is for those quick tiny jobs that need it right away or that you don't want to push to the end of the schedule.
The third type of hole is one that you don't fill with anything. It is for catching up, especially when you are behind. This type of scheduling hole is meant to give you a little breathing room.
Never give a Designer a completion date the moment she asks. Always tell her that you will call her back with the estimated completion date. This will give you time to look at what other work also has to be done.

Types of Schedules

The type of schedule you use  with a client may greatly depend upon  your ration of designer work versus direct customer work. It also depends upon how consistence the designers are in bringing you work.
Here are suggestions about types of schedules.
  1. The designers get put in the same line as regular clients, no exceptions.
  2. Have two schedules. for example, you can do decorator work on the first 2 weeks of each month (or every other week), and the direct clients are done the opposite weeks. But we know that all jobs don't end exactly at the end of the week.
  3. Save one week a month for one designer, or all designers.
  4. If you do mostly designer work, save one week a month for direct clients.
  5. Have two schedule lines. For example, the first job you take is from a designer, the second job is from a direct client, the third job is again from the designer, the four job is from a direct client, and on and on.

Anyway, you probably get the idea. You can experiment and find a type of schedule that works for you and the clients.

In Conclusion

Working with designers can be a tricky affair. It may or may not be right for you. If you wish to work for designers, plan out, or experiment, to find out what works for you.