It’d be hard to imagine a year that changed the design industry more than this one. With offices and events alike closed through the spring and summer, we’re only now beginning to regain some semblance of normalcy — or are at least learning to work through our ongoing constraints. Everything has been affected, from sourcing to shipping and even how we interact with colleagues (hello, Zoom calls in pajama bottoms). We covered the story of how designers were working through the pandemic in April, and we wanted to follow up to see how the industry is making it work now. Read on to hear from seven designers about how their digital offerings, online sourcing, and remote work have evolved into the fall.

Contemporary kitchen with white laminate cabinets and purple wallpaper
Design by Laurie Blumenfeld. Photo: Tim Williams

Turning to Tech

Though many design centers and vendors have reopened, designers have evolved the technology they use to source and meet with clients. New York-based Laurie Blumenfeld knows this well, having expanded her business to clients in Upstate New York, Connecticut, and even to the West Coast. As Blumenfeld notes, this starts with FaceTime to begin work. “FaceTime house tours have been a key component for our decor projects, she says. “We also have FaceTime meetings with vendors, where I can have a virtual tour to look at possible selections. As a matter of process, I now order two sets of samples for myself and for my clients, so that we can each have a set to review. Of course, renovation projects still require socially distant, in-person meetings for measuring and fabrication. We have also become quite accustomed to Zoom screen share when working on plans. I miss the in-person creative jam sessions, but we have found that on occasion, we can hold socially distant meetings with our team and with clients.”

Traditional kitchen with black cabinets and mismatched bistro bar stools
Design by Black Lacquer Design. Photo: Jessica Alexander

Going Virtual, Even for the Locals

Some designers were able to expand existing virtual design offerings to accommodate our new reality, even when those programs were originally devised for long-distance clients. No one expected to be designing remotely for clients down the street, but like most things in 2020, that hasn’t gone according to plan. Caitlin Murray, founder and principal designer of Black Lacquer Design, knows this firsthand, expanding her local offerings to clients across the country. “We started to offer remote design services late last year so when the pandemic hit, we had to apply what we had already learned on that front to all of our projects near and far,” Murray says. “Catering to clients not located in Southern California was the primary goal when we first started to develop virtual design, and we played around with a few different models to really standardize that process. Once we opened up those service offerings to local clients last spring, we quickly realized that the design process can be virtual and efficient without sacrificing the flexibility in our approach.”

Luxurious dining room with Louis dining chairs and floral chandelier
Design by Eclectic Home. Photo: Sara Essex Bradley

Slower Supply Chains, but More Office Days

For designers with significant experience in remote design, the past year has actually meant more work, and even more time in the office, due to the cancellation of design events and buying trips. The team at Eclectic Home has shifted the way they work in large part because of having their own showroom as well. “Since the spring, we’ve had an increase in new projects,” says principal Penny Francis. “We have always worked remotely on projects outside of New Orleans pre-COVID; requiring two to three field visits prior to installation, however, field visits were now limited to one or none. For those projects that we were unable to visit, we were given floor plans or we guided them in providing the measurements we needed.” 

“Our staff is actually at the office more than ever, since sourcing outside and attending markets and buying trips has all but ceased. Having a showroom as well as a design firm has helped with sourcing since we had so many products in production or on the way. In January, our plan for the first quarter of the year for the showroom was to have a Chairish storefront which we implemented right before the shutdown, which has been very valuable. The supply chain did slow down significantly due to COVID; we had to manage expectations and communicate much more frequently delays and extended lead times. Our sales reps also moved to Zoom to present new product which, surprisingly to us, was very productive.”

Contemporary living room with wood credenza and cream armchairs
Design by Tina Ramchandani. Photo: Jacob Snavely

Expanding E-Design

For designers who already offered e-design services, 2020 has been an expansion of what they know. Designer Tina Ramchandani already provided a suite of digital design services which she’s tweaked over the course of the year. “We’re continuing to take on projects that are solely remote, utilizing our e-design program that we call The Essentials,” says Ramchandani. “These projects are fantastic because they are a quicker turnaround to final design presentation and clients are able to purchase and implement pieces on their own. We’re only taking on one of these projects per month due to time constraints. Our full service projects take up the majority of our time. While we are meeting clients and vendors in person, we are utilizing Zoom and FaceTime for smaller meetings. We’re back to visiting showrooms and design buildings to sit test and see furniture, but we are being more selective about how many things we truly need to see in person. In terms of fabrics, we’re relying much more on our reps to understand our vision and source for us accordingly.”

Modern sitting area with textured, curved sofa and sculptural black side table
Design by Tali Roth. Photo: Nick Glimenakis

It’s a Relationship Business

We all know that design is a relationship-based business, but it’s never been more important than before. Especially in the months when design centers and stores were closed, designers had to rely on businesses and dealers they knew. Designer Tali Roth has had this experience this year. “Relationships with vendors and reps are more important than ever before,” says the Australia-born and New York-based Roth. “Shipping continues to be a challenge with larger companies unable to control their volumes and customer service being at a low… We are finding dealing with smaller companies and dealers more successful at the moment.”

“Overall, we have gone mostly remote and with much more confidence than we would have imagined. Of course all instals and construction management are done in person, but everything else is 100% remote. That means that I hardly get to see my staff! We spend a lot of time on FaceTime and Whatsapp. It’s been challenging at times (particularly with time differences) but we are making it work. I guess the traditional model of working 9 – 6 side by side with your boss is out the window, so there is certainly more flexibility and autonomy at play.”

Entryway with Louis-style armchair and farmhouse-style side table with ceramic lamp
Design by Byron Risdon. Photo: Keyanna Bowen

Adapt Your Own Personal Workspaces

In addition to all the technological changes we’re all facing — and FaceTiming — our physical workspaces have of course changed as well. Clients want updated home offices and new desk options, but designers like Byron Risdon have changed their physical environment as well. “My workspace has undergone the most change during this entire process,” says Risdon. “I work from home and mostly used my guest room to store things and I often worked from my dining table. As things progressed and I got busier, I had to convert the space into a functional office with workstations and storage to keep myself organized and efficient.”

Bright, contemporary bedroom with blush drapes and gray velvet bench
Design by Terri Ricci. Photo: Joshua Mchughes

Sourcing, Shipping, and De-Stressing

Logistically, the process for working with clients has gotten more complicated, but most in the design industry were already used to the hurdles caused by distance. Terri Ricci was already a pro at managing these kinds of issues, though working with vendors has become more complex.. “A little more than half of our design projects are destination projects so we are already accustomed to working remotely,” says Ricci. “Our process has always relied on presentations and materials that we Fedex to our clients, and they have more time than ever to focus on our projects. Where we struggle more is the transactional side of sourcing. Vendors are not responding as fast since offices have reduced hours or closed permanently, and payment methods need to be done differently. Shipping has also been a huge drain on my team as it isn’t as reliable even though prices have doubled. We spend a lot of energy making sure our clients’ orders arrive on time.”

One area where Ricci has experienced a positive change is at her actual office, and it’s not desk space — it’s team morale and being able to put things in perspective. “In terms of the day to day, our office is a storefront with a lot of open space, and now that we’ve returned, we practice strict social distancing. We keep both the front and back door open for air flow, and so far, so good,” says Ricci. “Before COVID I worked crazy hours and put lots of pressure on the staff. Since April, my motto has been no rush, no stress, and somehow it’s working great. We all have a quality of life back. I hope it sticks!”

November 5, 2020

Dennis Sarlo is the executive editor of Chairish and a lover of all things design-related. Prior to joining the team, he served as the executive editor of Dering Hall and was the first site director of Architectural Digest. He was also part of the founding team of travel startup Jetsetter. He lives in New York.