Individuality. Custom craftsmanship. Sustainability. Indoor-outdoor connection. These were some of the key client priorities highlighted by Interior Design’s Giants of Design in a recent roundtable discussion moderated by ThinkLab, the intelligence division of Sandow Design Group, and sponsored by Brown Jordan. The panelists, top designers from around the country, were asked to consider the residential design industry’s current initiatives and obstacles. As they discussed the conflicting realities of luxury design today—residential was the only sector to experience growth in 2021, despite unparalleled supply chain and labor challenges—each designer made one bold prediction for the industry’s next few years and noted one product need. As they spoke, several common themes emerged.
Brown Jordan has been leading the way on this trend for years, but it took pandemic lockdowns to truly bring home the benefits of well-outfitted outdoor living spaces—even for cold-winter areas. According to the 2021 ASID Interior Design Resiliency Report, 78 percent of interior designers saw an increased demand for outdoor space. And 89 percent of those surveyed anticipate this will be a permanent change. “Our clients want larger gathering spaces. They want to have larger rooms that can accommodate more people. And that is often achieved by extending into the outdoor spaces and blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor,” says roundtable panelist Matt Dickamore, Vice President of Design, Denton House Design Studio.
The panelists agreed that bifold operable glass systems that open living areas up to outdoor space are a part of most projects they work on. Not surprisingly, the designers noted a need for products that straddle the indoor-outdoor design with versatility and style. Jessica Lee, Senior Project Manager, Marc-Michaels Interior Design, would like to see “more modular and flexible pieces that support multiple uses, specifically for outdoor spaces.” Denise McGaha Principal & Owner, Denise McGaha Interiors identified a need for “more crossover in products in indoor/outdoor application, specifically with lighting and barstools and counter stools.’
The internet has increased everyone’s exposure to design inspiration and to a nearly endless array of products—with both positive and negative ramifications. On one hand, the panelists noted their clients were better educated. On the other, the easy availability of design images online leaves both clients and designers wary of “sameness.”
Dickamore reports seeing “the desire for unique, specialty details.” He says: “Our clients want something different than their neighbors. They want something that they’ve never seen before.” Heather Blue Harkovich, Owner, Heather Scott Home & Design agrees: “Our clients want unique pieces and are looking to us to provide a custom solution. There is less of an appetite for ‘off-the-shelf’ pieces.” Jessica Lee, Senior Project Manager, Marc-Michaels Interior Design, also notes an increased appetite for upscale looks. “The demand for high-end luxury design is becoming stronger than ever. Clients want us to be able to narrow down this world of goods and curate a space that is custom to them,” she says.
Of course, coming up with fresh, unique ideas for high-end spaces can be challenging, says McGaha: “I keep seeing the same images on Pinterest. I have to work harder at creativity and really search to find inspiration outside for the same stale images. It’s frustrating that my client is going to the same well for photos.”
Considering the pressures of the last year-plus, it’s no surprise that residential design clients want their homes to feel like soothing sanctuaries. But they’re concerned about more than how the design impacts themselves and their families: They want their homes and products to be environmentally friendly, too. “There’s an emphasis on sustainability and a layer of resiliency. Our homes need to support us and will continue to be more multifunctional going forward,” says Kerrie Kelly, CEO + Creative Director, Kerrie Kelly Design Lab. Kelly also notes that clients’ self-care needs are driving some design requests. “This ‘need to unwind’ trend is causing a boom in not only new outdoor spaces, but also home exercise nooks, meditation rooms, bathing spots, and dressing areas. It is also offering creativity with design related to highly organized kitchen stations (pantries, smoothie centers), home bars, and coffee corners.”
Despite the exciting growth of luxury residential design in 2021, the period has not been without some major hurdles for designers—supply chain issues and labor shortages chief among them. And these hurdles are expected to impact sales numbers for 2022. The Interior Design Giants of Design group predicts that growth will be stable or even slightly down in 2022 due to lead time issues. Even though the demand is there, the ability to deliver projects has been extremely affected by the supply chain crisis, with one panelist projecting a 20 to 25 percent decline in 2022 because of it. “The lead times are like nothing we’ve ever seen. It’s painful. Our clients are understanding, but when people are paying top dollar, it’s hard to explain that we have such little control over it,” says Lee.
Labor shortages have not spared this industry, and finding skilled craftspeople is particularly difficult. “While our clients are asking for special detailing, it requires a certain skill set, and we struggle to find craftsmen who can build it. We don’t have enough skilled tradespeople. We are going to fly our wallpaper installer across the country for a job,” says Dickamore. Some clients are understanding. “The pandemic has changed expectations—the threshold of acceptance for long lead times for more special one-of-a-kind items will be higher going forward,” says McGaha. But not all are so patient, and not every designer will be able to weather the delivery, labor, and payment delays. “We’re going to see a shake-up in our industry. It’s harder to be a designer now than it ever was with all of the procurement challenges. Only the strongest will survive,” predicts Traci Zeller, President, Traci Zeller Interiors.
Despite the serious difficulties, some lessons from the pandemic have impacted the industry for the better, the panelists said. Designers have strengthened their communication skills, both with clients and within their own teams; many have diversified their offerings; and some have found some cost savings. “I was surprised how well our team adjusted to a virtual environment. We were more connected than we’ve ever been before. In some ways, it’s been easier and faster for client interactions. Our clients appreciate that they aren’t having to pay for us to fly in and stay. We don’t have to take two days; we only take an hour or two. Major efficiencies have been realized,” says McGaha. Some designers, including Harkovitch, have been able to pick and choose their projects. “Our business has been so robust during the pandemic that it has forced us to be increasingly selective with the types of projects we engage with,” she says.
Overall, the panelists expressed hope and optimism for the future, beautifully summed up by Kelly: “As we rely on our resiliency to get through the pandemic, let's spring forward to not just recover from the damage done, but also revive to bring about more positive ways to renew life. We may see this through color offerings, technology, lighting solutions, materials, celebrated family heirlooms, and thoughtful recycled elements that support our true lifestyle.”