I get a lot of questions from people asking for design tips, especially about interior design.
What to buy, how/where to buy, or what items to look for when upgrading their homes. These questions come up regardless of the size of the projects ranging from building their forever home to renovating their existing houses.
I guess people assume I have some inside tips that could automatically help with their home designs that look out of Architectural Digest magazines.
I suspect those stylish photographs are due to skillful photographers or even the costly lighting conditions. Have you also noticed all the featured homes are owned by Hollywood celebrities?
Being an architect and an educator teaching interior design courses automatically elevated me to an “expert” level when it comes to design.
I have always enjoyed seeing my design ideas on sketchbooks turning into a physical item, whether a room or a new building.
In addition to the enjoyment, I also felt the confidence I had about those design decisions/judgements made for my clients and students.
However, I had a completely different experience.
It was a “small” project working for my family: buying some living room furniture.
There are numerous blog posts about interior design tips for improving homes. The topics vary widely: paint colour, kitchen layout, office space set up, lighting design…
However, this post is not that kind of blog post.
It is not about how to design ideas; rather, it is about the emotional up and downs I (aka designer) went through learning about myself.
Here are the inner workings of my brain while struggling with the outer beauty of working on the smallest interior design project.
1. Be Flexible
Our family has been living in just one section of our house for the last few years: the dining room. We rarely venture into the living room section of our house since there are no places to sit other than the floor.
With my father’s need for a hospital bed and some of his bulky medical equipments, our family decided to use the living room as his bedroom for several years.
After his passing in 2020 and living out of a dining room-only arrangement for two years, it was time to make the living room space livable.
The first step towards the redesign was to purchase some living room furniture, starting with the sofa.
At the beginning of this year, I was assigned as the project manager for our living room improvement project.
I figured it would be an effortless task item I could execute quickly.
Creating a “livable” living room did not sound like a project…it was a to-do list I could accomplish in a day or at least a week.
Suppose I can design and manage the construction of buildings in my professional life, surely I can handle buying some furniture.
The biggest takeaway was that neither the project nor myself worked the same way as my “other projects.”
The typical project works in sequence -initial designs, development of those designs, selection of various materials and finally, the execution (construction, renovation)
However, with many unforeseen obstacles, the situation looked bleak. They consisted of:
- conflicting opinions (mom, sister and myself)
- increasing budgets (couldn’t find the sofas we ALL liked)
- delayed purchase dates (don’t want to pay the regular price).
I realized the typical project management skills I gained over the years would not help with this project.
I also learned that I was not the same designer who had worked effectively on my past projects.
The biggest hurdle throughout the process was that I had fixed ideas about managing the project. I was set on what sofas (material, quality, brand names, comfort level etc.) to buy and the price (more accurately, how much discount to have).
With these seemingly contradictory (more like impossible) requirements, every sofa shopping experience ended with a failure mark.
Endless discussions on materials (leather vs sofa), comfort level(too hard, soft) or the perfect colours (to our existing living room wall unit) for the couch continued in the context of budget (aka money).
Throughout these failed shopping experiences, I also held onto to “paying half of the regular price” strategy while juggling these different criteria.
Needlessly to say, the project did not progress much.
However, after six months of dining room-only experience, we were all ready to make a compromise.
With “no more sitting at the dining table” urgency, it was time to adjust our preference.
It was no longer checking off ALL of the boxes. Instead, we decided on the absolute must two items to focus on: leather sofa, min 50% discount from the regular price.
The design, aesthetics, looks, appearance… all the items I typically care about most went out the “living room” door.
With these criteria, I started imagining a neon green leather sofa (fantastic quality, but less than ideal colour) that sits alone in some store corner…
It was not a pretty picture.
2. Be patient
However, the neon green sofa did not happen.
Instead, high quality comfortable brown leather sofa from Natuzzi showed up.
With this purchase, I made another unthinkable decision; buying an armchair in a different model and colour, navy blue.
Selecting the sofa and armchair with different colours/ models would have been unthinkable for my past projects. In the name of design and efficiency, I would have selected the same set of sofa and the armchair with matching colours.
Mixing and matching big purchased items had been unthinkable in my past designer life!
However, hitting one of our absolute must requirements with the 75% discount tag, we all screamed YES.
Since the beginning of the year, I have been checking out the Hudson Bay website for sofa selections. Although I can see the quality brand selections, I did not see many price reductions, especially on the ones I wanted to purchase.
However, that all changed in July this year.
I finally saw the considerable sale sign on their website. It was finally time to move from online to offline shopping.
3. Do not trust images
We all know this advice, especially in the age of fantastic photo editing options.
Seeing the actual item at the store did not always have the same look on the website. The cushy-looking sofa I saw on the website did not feel cushy on my butt.
Absolutely trying items (especially the bulky items like furniture) before the purchase is a must step in our e-commerce/buy/ return craziness we are all accustomed to.
4. Not every salesperson is equal
This was the biggest surprise in my quest to “buy low/get high quality” operation.
Running into a salesperson who was knowledgeable about their products and helping me to understand the convoluted discount calculations (only the mathematicians can understand) made the purchase decision easy.
He was patient with explaining each product’s features which helped me to make the decision process easy.
Although having knowledgeable/friendly salespeople seems obvious for the stores, experiencing such people are rare.
I know how lucky I was to run into him that day.
5. Expect the unexpected (Delivery/Assembly service can surprise you in a bad way)
I had not thought about this possibility when I was paying for the purchase at the store.
It did not occur to me that the delivery/installation services could completely wipe out my great in-store experience.
Looking back, I rarely had to deal with the actual delivery of furniture for past projects.
For this delivery, it was definitely not a smooth process. I had several different delivery teams come on additional days. First to deliver the items and then the following week for installing the legs for the sofa.
The first team literally “dropped off” items in our living room with packages intact and asked me to sign the document I received.
When I asked for the installation, they curtly responded with, “it is not their job,” and they had to leave quickly to meet the following delivery schedules.
After checking with the customer service person at the Hudson Bay 1-800 store number, I was told that the installation was part of the service. The customer service rep apologized on behalf of the delivery team.
A few days later, the 2nd delivery team arrived.
Although they were much friendlier than the previous people, they were not knowledgeable about the product. One leg did not fit properly and was missing some screws, and their answer was that the sofa was defective.
After they left the sofa with uneven legs, I noticed an instruction sheet with diagrams. I realized that a few legs were not installed correctly; therefore, the so-called “defective” portion was in the wrong location.
The sofa buying experience has been more than about the sofa for me.
It was a chance to learn about myself.
Seemingly a simple task of buying a piece of furniture allowed me to reflect on my priorities, necessities, and also the (my) attitude adjustments.
My past professional experience working with other clients on different design work did not help with this personal project. It was entirely a NEW kind of project with different
skill sets mindset required.
As the saying goes, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” (Helen Keller)…
I just didn’t know those lessons could come from a piece of furniture:).