Categories: Interior Design

Designer and Client Responsibility: It Takes Two to Tango

TASA ID: 3570

A version of this article was originally posted on the website of the American Society of Interior Designers (http://icon.asid.org)

Do your best work and do what your client asks of you, and you will have a happy outcome!  While this is true in most instances, there are situations that exist when clients are simply not satisfied with the service provided, and you may ask yourself, "Is this worth it?"  Such a situation occurred recently, and the story serves as a cautionary tale for designers and the attorneys who may represent them.  

A celebrity decided to remodel her home in time for an expected birth.  She asked friends for a referral and was introduced to a well-known design duo.  They met, there was chemistry, and they signed an agreement and moved forward.  The initial design schemes and presentations were met with appreciation and smiles. Alas, this joy was to be short-lived.  Although the project was on a fast-track for the impending birth, the client experienced a "mood-swing" and decided that none of the designs worked-none of them!  In the eleventh hour, the designers went shopping and found everything that was available for memo purposes and arranged delivery for the clients' inspection and approval.  This, too, was met with complete disappointment, and the client ordered almost everything removed.  What would you do at this point?

The designers decided that the working relationship was not only frustrating, it was untenable, and fired the client. Naturally, this enraged the client further, and she went about completing the project on her own based on the designs that she had paid for. Several months later, the designers requested money owed for design time and some product that was kept, amounting to almost $100,000. The client refused to pay, and the designers called their attorney.  A suit was filed. The client then filed a counter-suit amounting to $1,100,000 for specified damages, fraud, breach of contract, and fourteen other points!  Obviously, this was no longer a matter of interpreting a contract, but a matter of determining acceptable levels of behavior and standard of care, what would in fact be reasonable under the circumstances. So, enter the expert witnesses!

The attorney for the designers called me, an expert in the business of design, and had me review an entire box of depositions and other documents related to the case. The client hired her own team of expert witnesses to pour over billing records, design schemes, and every shred of paper related to the project. They deposed vendors who worked on the project, stores that sold merchandise, former employees of the designers, just about anybody they could.  Rest assured that this great expense and undertaking was not being done just because the design wasn't acceptable to the client, but because she insinuated that fraud was present and that the designers had breached their contract.

The discovery process was fascinating, and the cast of characters involved in the case was entertaining, to say the least. At surface level, it looked as if the designers had tried to work very hard to please a demanding client.  But as we dug deeper, we also realized that this was a marriage, so to speak, that should have never occurred. The designers were not the right aesthetic for the client and ultimately, would never be able to deliver a satisfactory project.  In fact, throughout the depositions and fact finding,  common phrases uttered by the plaintiff's team (which included me), "In a perfect world, this would not have happened" or "We wouldn't be here right now if that was the case," were the only things that we could say to try to make sense of something that just wasn't meant to be. Neither the client nor the designers are bad people.  But, when it came right down to it, we realized that there were reasons why the project should have been cancelled or a timeout and regroup should have been called, by either party, and it didn't happen.  This is a key point: just because something should be done or would be good business¸ doesn't make failing to do it illegal. This is ultimately the moral to this story.

The case was settled just before the findings were sent to the arbitrator.  Both sides were awarded damages, and the designers ultimately prevailed.  In my opinion, both sides truly lost when the emotional toll and lost productivity were considered. Attorneys working with designers should urge them to follow these basic best practices: 1) always work with a contract and enforce it as you proceed with your project-don't skip steps; 2) take scrupulous notes in meetings with clients, vendors, staff and anyone related to a project-you never know when you will be called to "remember" a conversation; 3) if things begin to sour on a project, don't just keep it to yourself for the "good of the project," "to make the client happy," or in hopes that it will just go away and you can complete the project and move on.  Stop and say something, call a meeting, and talk about it. In the case of interior design, it is as much about communication as it is about aesthetic and knowing when to say "yes" and when to say "no." I think the same can be said for all business (and personal) relationships.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.                                         

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

Bookmark and Share
Previous Article Shedding Some Light on Insurance
Next Article Lessons from a Landscape Architect: To Substitute or not to Substitute
Tasa ID3570

Theme picker


  • Let Us Find Your Expert

  • Note: This form is to be completed by legal and insurance professionals ONLY. If you are a party in a case that requires an expert witness, please have your attorney contact TASA at 800-523-2319.

Search Experts

TASA provides a variety of quality, independent experts who meet your case criteria. Search our extensive list of experts now.

Search Experts