Let’s hear from the designers

SepOct2012-FeatureDesigners are not  decorators,  says Sally Mills, and if you don’t know that, you don’t know the law. According to Mills, “We are not interior decorators. We are extensively trained and registered to design space within a construction environment. People are sometimes unaware of the complexities involved in building something — anything. Not only do interior designers need extensive knowledge in design and design trends, we need to know the law; we need to know issues surrounding liability, contracts, and so on.”

Mills, principal and sector director for office interiors at Omicron in Vancouver – named one of Canada’s 50 best-managed companies in 2011 – believes it is important for the wood industry to understand just what an interior designer is, and what an interior designer is not.

So how does the wood industry come into contact with interior designers? This can be done in a number of ways. First, there is nothing stopping a wood industry professional from picking up the phone, calling an interior designer, asking a few questions, and taking it from there. This can lead to informal consultations, or a more formal entry into dealing with interior designers.

Indeed, Mills says she has been invited and gone to a number of AWMAC events in B.C., gets to meet people in the wood trade, and has a great time doing it. This is yet another way of meeting with the design community, and more wood-related associations are looking at building these kinds of bridges. Says Mills, “I love to just hang out with the people I’m working with. I think these events are a very good idea.”

Regarding more formal relationships, wood-products manufacturers and interior designers often work together in different ways. For instance, a designer or design firm can make a design, and then put it up for bid. The best bid wins, and then the wood professional and designer work together to complete the project.

Another form of working relationship between the wood industry and designer involves the specifying process. A designer can specify a project, and then hand it over to a contractor, who will then put out the project for bidding. However, designers do work with wood professionals to develop the specs in the first place, after which a separate tender and bidding process ensues.

In fact, Brian Marshall of Marshall’s Custom Cabinetry in Ancaster, Ont. (see Profile on page 20) has been involved in this specifying process and found it a challenge. According to Marshall, “it just became such an extra burden to have to deal with the designer through the contractor, and vice versa. I became a bit discouraged by the whole process. For me, dealing with the designer one-on-one might be easier and more productive.”

However, that’s exactly what would have happened, had Marshall decided to engage in the bidding process with the contractor after the specs were made, according to Ada Bonini, principal of Bob’s Your Uncle Design in Vancouver. She says, “Once a millworker wins a bid, they can then work much closely and directly with the designer.”

If the process can seem a bit complicated, Bonini says there’s a reason for it: the law. As is the case with so many construction projects, liability can be a central concern. So, if the contractor is liable, then the specifying process must go through him or her. Bonini explains, “While it might be just easier to cut out these middle steps, doing so could get people into a lot of legal trouble. It’s just the way it is.”

Which raises another question: Is it all really worth the bother? From Bonini’s perspective, it’s a matter of personal choice. She adds, “It probably depends on the individual millworker. These processes might not be for everybody. Some might like to keep it simple, and that’s fine. Some might want to take it to another level, and that’s when these extra steps and concerns are necessary.”

What does taking it to another level look like? Bonini says that on the types of projects she works on, it’s not uncommon for one millwork firm to be responsible for producing cabinetry for up to 150 condo units. To win a bid for that kind of work, it’s not surprising that they might ask you to jump through a few hoops.

Yet, for cabinet makers like Marshall, some of these hoops may well constitute a bridge too far. He says, “You know, some guys might want to take that next step. For us, I’m not so sure yet. I like to work with people on a one-to-one basis and develop good working relationships with a few people. Actually, I’m not sure I want to get too big too fast. I like to take it one step at a time.”

It should also be noted that there is no exact formula for getting to work on projects with interior designers. Yes, there are specification processes, and tender processes, but sometimes a client will come to a millworker directly and give him the project without tender. That is where reputation and experience can come into play. In other words, good companies sometimes have work fall right onto their laps, with no added complications.

Once a company gets a project, that is where the greatest collaboration between a wood tradesman and designer begins, and it essentially constitutes a whole new ballgame. On the one hand, the designer is responsible for having the wood project meet design requirements — within the context of the entire interior space design.

On the other hand, the millworker is responsible for delivering a product that is one component of that overall space. So the challenge is for these two roles to blend together without conflict. If it’s done right, then the process is virtually seamless. Yet it’s not always a picnic, either.

According to Bonini, “Have I been involved in projects where there were problems? It happens in life. However, I find that things run most smoothly when experienced designers are involved. When I first graduated, I worked under an established designer and learned how to deal with some of these challenges. Others didn’t, went on their own, and problems happened.”

For Mills, a crucial step in the collaboration process occurs when the shop drawings come back from the millworker. As she explains, “It’s at that point where we have to work together to ensure that the shop drawing meshes accurately with the final design. For myself, I very much rely on the expertise of the millworker to tell me what materials work and don’t work, and so on. For the most part, I think the process works great.”

Where that process sometimes hits a snag for Bonini has to do with the expectations of some suppliers. Ironically, she says companies often expect too much of her: “I don’t know a lot of things when it comes to making wood components. I honestly have to rely on the expertise of the people I’m collaborating with. If I’m asking a question, it’s because I genuinely don’t know the answer, and need expert answers from the experts.”

On the other side of that equation, sometimes wood professionals assume they have an abundance of expertise outside of their profession. According to Bonini, “Yes, I sometimes run into tradespeople, including on the wood side, who think they’re design experts.” How does she handle such situations? Bonini responds, “That’s where professionalism comes in. Sometimes you have to be tough with people, other times you politely show them your expertise, and things work out well.”

What Mills and Bonini both emphasize is the need for a team approach when working on any construction approach. Mills says, “For example, a millworker has to realize that the design involves more than just cabinetry. A bigger picture is involved.” Bonini adds, “If everyone sticks to their area of expertise, including designers, millworkers, plumbers and electricians, then that’s when projects get completed swiftly and successfully.”

Importantly, wood-industry professionals and interior designers are not cut from the same cloth. It is not likely you will see your typical millworker at the modern art exhibit in Toronto. Conversely, few interior designers hang out in wood-products factories. Nevertheless, and this has been proven over and over again in our industry, true professionals work together to complete projects of the finest quality in the world.

From reception halls in art galleries to basic units in a housing project, value-added wood professionals and trained interior designers collaborate to produce quality work — at a profit.


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