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What We’ve Learnt From Interior Design Masters

Have you been watching Interior Design Masters, the BBC2 series hosted by Fearne Cotton with Michelle Ogundehin as the main judge? It pitted 10 aspiring interior designers against each other, all competing to win a major commercial design project.

We’re a sucker for this type of programme and now that it’s our chosen career we were intrigued to see what type of challenges they were set and whether there was anything we could learn from it.

Most of the initial challenges set were commercial projects, spanning from updating a chocolate themed hotel to re-booting some tired hair salons. We’ve only worked on residential projects so far but really enjoyed watching these episodes. And it’s definitely made us think about how we’d like to pick up a commercial project or two in 2020. Now we’ve put it out there, we’re going to have to do it now!

The final challenge was a residential project, re-designing a complete 2-bed apartment in a converted industrial building in Manchester. This type of project is much more aligned to what we work on most of the time. And given that we’d met a new client at a very similar 1-bed apartment in an industrial building in Leeds that week, just made us even more excited to see what the designers on the programme came up with.

We thought it was a close call on the final challenge, but ultimately we were pleased that Cassie came up trumps. Her love of vintage and preloved is right up our street and her overall style is more rustic, homemade and down to earth than some of the other contestants.

But whatever we thought of each designers’ individual style, what were the overall things we learnt from watching the series.

Never forget that you’re working for your client

Michelle Ogundehin kept coming back to this mantra and it’s definitely stuck with us. The client is the one paying the bill. It’s their home or business. What you’re designing, ultimately, needs to reflect them.

That doesn’t mean that you have to take all their ideas on board or follow their instructions down the last detail. It’s all about getting under the skin of the brief, reading between the lines and really getting to know the client and what they really want, not necessarily what they say or write down. That’s why it’s crucial to spend time with people, asking the right questions and actively listening to what they’re telling you.

My background working for a market research agency (where I’ve worked with the likes of Unilever, Danone, Lloyds Banking Group and BT) means that this is something that I’ve been trained in and has become a core part of my skill set. It has always been a part of my working life. I’m used to asking questions, challenging objectives and briefs and trying to interpret what the client wants, even though they’re often time poor and have a number of things that demand their attention.

A client wouldn’t be looking to work with an interior designer if they didn’t need help. Sometimes it’s because the client doesn’t have any ideas and is looking for somebody to guide them through the whole design process. For others, it’s about challenging them to be bolder, to think differently or a sounding board for ideas. But, whatever type of client they are, as a designer you need to be getting to the heart of what it is that they want and how you can help them to achieve that goal.

Industrial style open plan kitchen living space

Signature Style

Although I’ve just said it’s all about the client, in order to stand out in the interior design world you also need to have a distinct style. One that is easy for clients to identify and something that they can decide whether it’s in line with their own style or not.

Naturally, any designer will have their own sense of style and will want to stamp that on a project. I think the key to success is being flexible with your own style and deciding the best way to go about stamping that on the project. We saw this a lot on the programme, with contestants being eliminated for sticking too closely to their own style and not the clients’ or not pushing themselves to be different and sticking to what they know.

Every designer will want to feel proud of what they’ve designed. And seeing clients water things down or making changes can seem quite demoralising. But I think the key to feeling proud of the outcome is in seeing what you have brought to the table, rather than what’s been taken away. It may be in one particular part of the space, a specific piece of furniture or fixture, a change of doorway, a wall that’s been knocked down or it could even be something that isn’t there, something you persuaded the client not to do. Sometimes that can be just as important as the things that are there.

Dark blue living room with period features and orange sofa

Make sure you understand the space before making key decisions

One thing we saw over and over again on the programme was the designers buying things before they’d measured up or fully understood the space they were working with. Lights would be too large and hang too low from the ceiling, lino flooring would arrive too small for the floor space and in the excitement of getting a bargain, tables and chairs would be bought that were too large for the floorspace available.

There’s nothing worse than having to re-think key items of furniture or fixtures and fittings at the last minute. The more you can plan ahead, prepare and take measurements before buying the better. It also means cost and time savings in the long run. No-one wants to be spending hours online or in-store trying to return products you no longer need or end up out of pocket because of awkward returns policies.

Bright kitchen extension with handle-less cupboards

Invest time and money in doing things right

The timelines that the designers were working towards on the programme were not always realistic. Doing things as quickly as they were on the programme generally means that things are being rushed, mistakes are made and the quality of finish suffers.

Of course, places like shops and restaurants don’t want to be closed for too long. But if closing for a few additional days means that you’ll get a better quality of finish and not have to re-do any work or find that things are falling apart a few months down the line, we think this is worth it.

We also believe that getting the right people to do the right jobs is really important. And although they got trades in to do things like electrics, plumbing and joinery, there was a number of tasks being completed by the designers themselves. We are huge advocates of doing things yourselves to save money but not to the detriment of the finish.

The painting techniques that we saw on the programme were interesting to say the least (brushes should only be used for cutting in and awkward spaces, not whole walls or pieces of furniture, unless you love the look of brush strokes)!

We also saw a lot of upholstery and curtain/blind making happening by the designers themselves. Again, I’m not saying designers shouldn’t do this. I am a sewer myself and have made lots of cushion covers, curtains and even clothes myself. However, if you’ve spent a large amount on beautiful fabric for roman blinds or an upholstered headboard you might be best paying an experienced blind maker or upholsterer to create those things for you, rather than somebody cobbling it together in a hurry.

Upholstered Curtains - Fresh Start Living

Commercial spaces need some extra consideration

I mentioned the importance of the client earlier, but with commercial projects you’ve got to juggle the client’s needs with those of the end customer as well. Some of the designers did really well with these challenges: Cassie’s green barbers, Cassie and Ju’s mosaic tile restaurant design and Cassie and Nicki’s wool shop (I think you can start to see why we were happy that Cassie won now!).

Our background in marketing and having to understand the core customers of the brands that we’ve worked on in the past means that this is something that comes naturally to us. Jon’s worked on brands ranging from olive oil to handbags to credit cards, so getting under the skin of who to target and who’s buying your brand is something he’s very adept at doing.

But, it’s not just who’s coming through the door that needs thinking about. It’s about the frequency of traffic, footfall and how hardwearing the materials that you use need to be. Commercial spaces generally have to work harder so what you put in needs to stand up to that. There were a few episodes that had us questioning whether we would have done the same thing: cork flooring and tiled desks in student accommodation, exposed plywood flooring in a skateboard shop, trinkets and small styling pieces in a hotel? These things could be great in a residential or low traffic space, but not the spaces they were designed for.

So, not only have we enjoyed the entertainment value of the programme. It’s also taught us what to focus on as a business and to realise that we have far more transferable skills from our previous careers than we had thought. Now it’s over we’ll be watching Your Home, Made Perfect again!

If you are thinking about making changes in your home or commercial space and need some help or interior design inspiration, do get in touch with us here. And don't forget to follow us via Instagram, Facebook and our upcoming blogs.

Fresh Start Living is based in Leeds, West Yorkshire and covers the surrounding areas as well as offering a remote interior design service.


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