Mary Jo Martin asks interior designers and lighting showrooms to speak frankly about the positive aspects of the lighting showroom and interior designer partnership, along with advice on how to create better synergy between them.

David Bellwoar

Colonial Electric/Bright Light Design Centers,
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware

Spending time with David Bellwoar leaves you refreshed, motivated, and ready to conquer the world — so it’s no wonder that his Bright Light showrooms are a popular destination for both the design community and consumers.

Bright Light is part of Colonial Electric Supply Co., which has 100+ years of roots in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. Bellwoar – along with his three brothers – acquired Colonial Electric from their father, Joe, in the mid-1990s. When they formed a Showroom division in 1999, David decided to take on the challenge of running the new business. Under his leadership, the division has become widely respected for its strength as a business partner and for the staff’s passion for excellent customer service. There was quite a learning curve, however. Operating a retail-type of environment for consumers and designers was nothing like traditional distribution for electrical contractors.

“Looking back, we really weren’t prepared for what we were trying to start,” Bellwoar recalls. “Nearly every aspect of this business model was new to us. We were used to having a large established customer base of electrical contractors and didn’t have to do much marketing. And most of them had approved lines of credit with us, which was managed by our credit department. Doing business with retail customers – and what’s important to them – was completely different. Even the software we used to run Colonial Electric didn’t fit the showroom business, so we ended up writing our own.

“No one gives you an instruction manual when you take your business in a new direction. It’s kind of like being a parent. You just figure it out one step at a time. You don’t just open up a store, hang some chandeliers, and expect customers to walk in. We were fortunate that we had the resources of Colonial behind us in those early years.”

Courting Designers

Five years ago, Bellwoar hired a marketing consultant who advised becoming more involved in the design community by participating in local events to meet designers. Bright Light now dedicates more marketing dollars to hosting special events and CEU courses that would appeal to designers. Bellwoar also volunteers as an officer with Philadelphia’s ASID chapter.

“We’ve changed the way we greet consumers entering the showroom,” he notes. “Instead of the typical, ‘What brings you in?,’ we now ask, ‘Are you working with an interior designer?’ and then advise them that working with trained professionals can help them save money on their projects.
“We’ve built a portfolio of designer profiles based on their personalities, style, and type of projects and clientele that are their specialty,” Bellwoar explains. “Then when consumers visit the showroom, we gather as much information as we can from them, including their budget. This allows us to confidently recommend designers who would be a good fit.”

Bright Light has also adapted its sales philosophy to one that better supports designers and their clients. In the early years of the showroom, there was more of an emphasis on selling the product that the buyer was bringing in. “Legitimately, a showroom wants to sell product they’re stocking,” Bellwoar admits. “But, we also want to be a valuable resource to clients by offering them a true showcase. Our staff’s expertise is honed through weekly training courses by manufacturers and reps. We do a lot of role-playing and communication exercises. They know the probing questions to ask as they tackle a project wish list one by one. They also know the right sources to go to for each product. All of this supports our designers and their clients on every project they bring us.”

“We’ve built a portfolio of designer profiles based on their personalities, style, and type of projects and clientele that are their specialty.”

How It Works

The Bright Light sales team earns about 70 percent of their total compensation from commissions. “It’s great motivation and gives them each the opportunity to manage their own business,” Bellwoar says. “I provide them the education, tools, and facility they need to be successful but let them form their own relationships with customers, cultivate their style, and ultimately determine what their earnings will be. Our IT programmers keep our computer systems finely tuned, so our sales team has easy access to any information they need. We encourage them to regularly communicate with the designers they’re working with to keep them informed of the order status — especially in the case of any backorders or unexpected changes.”

The showroom works closely with individual designers on the right pricing that will allow both parties a fair profit. Because of its size, Bright Light can typically place orders right away because it doesn’t need to meet a freight allotment and can get products shipped much more economically than designers who order direct and pay freight charges.

To complement all of those added value variables and further well-position Bright Light in its market, the recent renovation of its King of Prussia flagship takes showroom design to a new level.
“Our goal is to present an environment that helps customers visualize how the products will look in their homes,” Bellwoar comments. “We’ve removed the typical clutter, added more vignettes and small kitchen dinettes, and left comfortable spacing around each one. We have a small gallery of pendants that allows customers to see the fixtures individually as well as what the pendants can look like in small groupings. We also have a dedicated Baccarat crystal area and place those stunning pieces in our dining vignettes. Touches like showcasing artwork not only makes our space feel more like a home than a store, but it’s also a great way to demonstrate how lighting can enhance the art in customers’ homes. There is a 16-foot wall on the backside of a living room vignette that features a large painting with a lot of colors. We have a variety of lighting options surrounding it so clients can experience the differences of each one.”

To make designers and their clients comfortable, Bright Light provides individual desks and work-
stations with multiple chairs and a big screen monitor so they can easily look up specs and other product information. They also have private rooms available if designers would like to spend time alone with their clients. Beverages and canapes help refresh them during the process.

Bellwoar believes nothing beats visiting a showroom to see and touch product during the selection process. “We all shop online when making various purchases,” he says. “But lighting is way too important of a selection to leave to chance and order based on a digital image. Photos online or in catalogs are done by professionals using specialized lighting and filters, plus computer monitors are not always accurate in representing the true color and finish. Seeing fixtures’ size and scope in a setting like ours helps customers understand the presence they would have in rooms of their homes. They need to actually see and touch these fixtures to get the true visual of what they’re ordering. When designers or customers make the effort to visit our store, they deserve to be treated like royalty. It’s a huge compliment that they’ve selected us, and we want to give them the ultimate in service, product, and support.”

“When I work with designers, I put together full-blown spread sheets on every aspect of the project from budget and aesthetic to colors.”

Judy Ziccardi

Lighting Innovation, San Clemente, California

From a 3×5 index card, a career was born. Judy Ziccardi saw a posting at her high school for a “part-time chandelier cleaning girl” at a local lighting showroom and thought it sounded interesting. She fell in love with lighting and the rest is history. Today she remains passionate about staying educated on all aspects of lighting so that she can be the best resource for designers in her area.

Help the Design Community

“There are so many differences in the types of lighting, energy sources, temperatures…designers aren’t always up to date on all of those factors,” she comments. “We host regular CEU courses to help them, but we’ve found they often prefer to rely on us for the technical knowledge. Continuing education is strongly needed by designers. I even go to design schools and give free classes on life in the ‘real’ design world. It boils down to right- and left-brained people. Designers are very right-brained and creative, but not typically in tune with the technical side of a project. The staff at showrooms like ours are used to working from both sides of our brains because we also understand design and construction.

“I try to teach new designers that lighting is more than what a fixture looks like; it has to be able to work in that application. Sometimes they see a sconce they think is perfect, but haven’t considered what it might look like in that particular space from all directions — or what’s involved in the installation. It’s important that showrooms like ours ask more questions than you might think necessary so we can properly advise designers on the right lighting selections. If we don’t gather this information, they may encounter unexpected problems after the product has been delivered.”

Ziccardi advises designers work with a showroom to make appropriate selections, and then tells them to “flat out, stay off the internet! Second-guessing your selections is a huge time-waster, and designers can sometimes be their own worst enemy. If they say they want a teal pendant, a showroom will use its expertise and resources to give them four ideal teal pendant choices. We isolate what it is they want and strictly show them choices that meet the parameters of their project. But then the designer will go online all night, looking at more teal pendants. When they get too many choices, they’ll never make a decision!”

Almost daily, Ziccardi encounters designers who are unprepared for the lighting needs of their projects. “The first thing I ask when a designer tells me they need an entry chandelier is the ceiling height. All too often, they simply say ‘tall.’ That doesn’t help. It makes a showroom’s job much more difficult when designers haven’t spec’d the details we need to make their vision come true. Instead, many rely on the showrooms to help fulfill their dreams. Showrooms need to be more brave when having this discussion. All too often, we’re afraid of upsetting a potential client.”
Ziccardi does grassroots marketing to keep her firm top of mind with the architectural community. She arranges meetings with architects and builders, and spends time working with all of the partners in a construction project to ensure it runs smoothly. This has led to a change in the way she handles pricing.

“Designers don’t seem to understand that retail pricing doesn’t exist in lighting anymore.”

Don’t be Shy About Charging

“There was a time when professional interior designers respected other people’s time, were fully committed to working on a project with a showroom, and then submitted a purchase order. Now things are all over the board. Some designers are trying to communicate what they want on a job when they’ve got 10 minutes in the car. It was becoming frustrating that designers would pick my brain to use my knowledge, but then buy the product online from a mass e-tailer who offers very little — if any — service. They’re expecting others to do the work for them.

“When I work with designers, I put together full-blown spread sheets on every aspect of the project from budget and aesthetic to colors. It’s a lot of information, so I’ve had to begin charging for my time just like designers charge their clients for their time. And until I have a deposit, I don’t give them full access to the information I’ve gathered. I hold back until I see they are serious by making a financial commitment. If a designer is a referral to me, I’ll often waive that fee, but if it’s a new client with no connections, I always charge for my time. My level of experience has value.”

The Price Conundrum

“Designers don’t seem to understand that retail pricing doesn’t exist in lighting anymore,” Ziccardi observes. “There was a time when we had a retail price sheet with a three-time mark up. We’d give designers a 50-percent discount — which was 33-percent gross margin. Then some designers started going direct with manufacturers. That’s a dangerous place for manufacturers to be. If they keep opening all of these individual accounts, they might have an occasional rep who will do a lot of business with them, but there will be plenty of others who will just do an occasional job. That leaves the manufacturer with thousands of designers on their books instead of a handful of showrooms. It’s a difficult situation to manage, and it isn’t likely manufacturers will be able to provide customized service for each of those designers. This situation has led us to pull some lines off of our shelves and only use them when specifically requested.

“Now with the internet and virtually unlimited access to information, designers can go online and see prices on various sites. They think they’re seeing retail pricing, but it’s not — it’s ‘market value.’ So they think we should be able to offer them a 50-percent discount on market value prices, but that’s impossible because that’s less than our cost. We have to charge not only for our cost, but for our service in order to stay in business. To be quite succinct, retail was murdered and the internet killed it.”

“Lighting is a very personal thing. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the scope of a fixture — or have a sense of what the finish will look like in person.”

Maria Viola-Kuttruff

Viola Interior Design, Merion, Pennsylvania

While taking a break from her job as a business writer/editor when her children were young, Maria Viola-Kuttruff helped her set designer sister with a TV commercial she was working on. She enjoyed the project so much, she began investigating educational programs for that line of work and earned a Master’s degree in Interior Architecture & Design from Drexel University and was hired by several architectural firms for residential, commercial, and institutional projects before starting her own business specializing in luxury residential.

“I take my business very seriously,” Viola-Kuttruff says. “I don’t see it as a trivial pursuit or hobby. I’m working on someone’s home and get involved first-hand in every aspect of the design project. Some days are stressful and heavy, but what I do is dynamic, fast-paced, creative, and never boring. I enjoy interacting and strategizing with people and am a problem-solver by nature, so it comes naturally for me to figure out a way to make things beautiful.”

Partner With Showrooms

At the start of a project, Viola-Kuttruff will surf online and flip through catalogs for inspiration, but she considers lighting showrooms her business partner and often brings floor plans and photos into the store to talk with the staff about the aesthetic and palette.

“The main showroom I use is Bright Light because their staff is very well-trained,” she explains. “I’ve built a strong relationship with them, and they understand my style and the way I like to do business. Their staff knows the products and the right books to pull for each project, which helps me work very effectively. It saves me hours of time looking through products online that aren’t right for the project. I trust the showroom staff will help me find the best options for any project I bring them.

“Once I decide on the selections to present to my client, I make an appointment with the showroom to go over the specs in advance. I want to prep her on the direction I’m going in so we’re on the same page when I bring clients in.”

Viola-Kuttruff wants to ensure her clients have a true vision of what the product will look like when installed in the home. “Lighting is a very personal thing. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the scope of a fixture — or have a sense of what the finish will look like in person,” she notes. “Designers and clients both need to understand the scale, quality, and appearance of each fixture before they place the order. While it’s not possible for a showroom to have everything on display, they’ll likely have something that has the same finish and close to the size and style. I want to be certain that there aren’t going to be any big surprises when the fixtures we order are delivered and hung.”

This dining room Viola-Kuttruff designed features a combination of light levels — from the centerpiece crystal fixture over the table to the sconces flanking the mirror on the wall, plus recessed lighting to fill in ambient light when natural daylight is not available.

Why I Don’t Buy Direct

While Viola-Kuttruff acknowledges that designers can sometimes increase their earnings by having direct accounts with manufacturers, it’s important to her to have the service and support a showroom offers.

“My profit margin would be a little better going direct because the manufacturers would give me a lower price,” Maria shares. “But the downside is that everything then falls on the designer’s shoulders if something goes wrong at any point in the process — or afterwards. If I’m only ordering a lamp or two, I’ll sometimes go direct. But when I’m outfitting several rooms or an entire house, I like being able to rely on the showroom to handle everything for me. They prepare the order and pricing for me to share with my client, which saves me a tremendous amount of time. Once the client approves it, the showroom processes my order and ensures that all the items are in stock with the manufacturers. They also stay on top of my orders and keep me informed from start to finish.
“I also like having the showroom as my partner for their technical expertise. If a fixture involves more than just flipping a switch, I want them involved with the specifications. I know that the showroom is going to be right there for me and my clients throughout the process — and for after-the-sale support. It takes that worry off my shoulders.”

Viola-Kuttruff says the newly renovated Bright Light showroom she partners with is setting a new standard for the future direction of lighting showrooms, and she appreciates the staff’s friendliness when she brings clients in.

“Most of my clients are very high-end and expect a certain level of service,” she describes. “When they’re paying for a service or product, they expect to do business with a company that is a leader in its specialty and get the full attention of people at those businesses. The clients I’ve brought into Bright Light know they are in a special place; it’s not a lighting store where there are countless fixtures all hung one after the other with tags dangling everywhere. It has a very different vibe and is much more ‘shoppable.’ It’s a comfortable, welcoming environment that enhances clients’ ability to make even better decisions.”

Viola-Kuttruff encourages other lighting showrooms to “be an advocate for, and partner with, designers.” Offering continuing education courses that will strengthen their businesses is also a great way to build relationships.

One financial incentive Viola-Kuttruff suggests is for showrooms to consider some sort of rebate program in addition, or as an option, to trade discounts. “It would be a serious incentive to gain designers’ business,” she comments. “A showroom won’t earn designers’ loyalty by giving them the same price as a consumer who walks in their door. Make it attractive for designers to buy from you both financially and because of your service level. Let designers know you will be there for them. Remember, this doesn’t just benefit designers. They will bring in solid, high-quality clients who are willing to invest significantly in design projects — and who are going to buy higher-end products than typical consumers shopping on their own.”

“Having my own accounts [with manufacturers or importers] allows me way more control over how the look I want is achieved.”

Meredith Heron

Meredith Heron Design, Toronto, Canada

Before becoming a highly recognized interior designer, Meredith Heron was an elementary school teacher, who decided by the second year that, “I needed to find a new career,” she laughs. “I was just not meant for that job.” Still, she stayed on for five years, trying various types of work on the side while deciding what she ultimately wanted to do.

At one point, Heron was arguably the most popular Home Depot paint department employee in Toronto when she took a temporary job there mixing paint. She was such a natural that she earned a legion of customers as word of mouth about her talent with colors and blending spread. That experience opened her eyes to her love for working with color. It was serendipity when she found a brochure for an evening class in interior design at a local college in her mailbox.

“I decided to give it a whirl,” she shares. “Within three weeks, the program instructor pulled me aside and said this is what I was meant to do, that I needed to pursue a career as a designer, and that he’d help me get my start in any way he could. So, like I do with most everything in my world, I went all in and straight through all the degree programs — Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s. I got asked to redesign a nightclub while still working at Home Depot, which added up to working more than 18 hours a day!”

Finding Fame

To help raise money for a local children’s charity and generate interest in her fledging design business, Heron contributed a “Redesign Your Home” package for the group’s fundraising auction. It was indeed a launchpad for her — in more ways than one.

“I was onstage as they auctioned off my package and it turned into a two-person bidding war,” she recalls. “A well-known local sports broadcaster was one of the bidders, and there was another bidder very far back in the room, but I couldn’t see who it was. I was thrilled at the prospect of doing a redesign at the home of this big local ‘name’ because of all of his connections — but the other person outlasted him and ended up as the highest bidder. It turned out, it was my Mom! She thought doing that would help me, not realizing how valuable that sportscaster’s connections could have been.”

In a twist of fate, a casting agent who was also at the auction approached Heron afterwards to do a screen test at a local TV production company. Comfortable in front of the camera, having been a debater and public speaking champion in high school, she was cast as a host on several series on HGTV in Canada and a Food Network series in the U.S.

That visibility – and the strengths she had gained from all of her experiences – were a great boost as she transitioned full-time into her design career.

“The variety of jobs I had and people I dealt with put me at ease in any environment,” Heron remarks. “I’m comfortable being a brand ambassador. I found my voice – which is what customers are hiring me for – and discovered that maintaining discipline in a classroom is very similar to keeping clients focused. I have an authenticity that people looking for design professionals seem to latch onto,” she explains, adding, “I only take projects that I feel are the right fit for my interest and skills — and that I can get excited about.”

Known for her love of color and pattern, Heron designed this dining room with such diverse touches as a luxuriously patterned ceiling, uniquely upholstered chairs, Chinoiserie accessories, plus statement lighting pieces.

Price & Service

Margin is another reason Heron chooses to work direct with manufacturers. “Maintaining that margin is what allows me to be profitable,” she explains. “If I only charged design fees, I wouldn’t make any money. In Canada, all the clients know that we’ll get 20-percent off at lighting showrooms — but you’re assigned someone to work with, and we may or may not click. Plus, they work retail hours, and that doesn’t meet what I need. Some of our multi-million-dollar projects have been going on for several years,” she asserts. “I’ve got so many moving parts that I need to constantly know what is going on, and my manufacturers keep me up to date with weekly updates. I’ve also got someone in my office who tracks shipments and arrivals of all of our products and confirms when everything is here for each particular job. That is so much more cost-effective because then we can arrange to have all the lighting delivered to the site in one load. If I’m working with a retailer, it’s not been my experience that I get that call.”

Service is highly important in this business, and Heron has found the showroom experience lacking. “They aren’t offering the same type of service that we offer to our clients,” she remarks. “A showroom salesperson just isn’t available when I need them and doesn’t have the answers…which means they have to contact the manufacturer. It often takes too long to get information, and if I don’t have it at my fingertips for my clients, I sound incompetent.”

For Heron’s design team, “At end of the day, we’d rather have fewer clients that give us great projects so we can truly be excited about what we’re doing and make an impact.” Instead of searching for new clients, most of Heron’s marketing efforts are targeted toward those she’s worked with before. “Some clients have been with us for 3 to 12 years. They’re just wonderful people and have become like family.”

“I can show my customers samples of everything, and they get excited, but there’s always a ‘Wow!’ factor when they see magnificent fixtures in person for the first time.”

Nancy Mikulich

Oasis Home, Asbury Park, New Jersey

Nancy Mikulich grew up appreciating the beauty of creativity. Her grandfather designed Mid-Century furniture in the 1950s, her parents collected antiques, and her mother was a jewelry designer.

Mikulich herself had a love for music and is a classically trained violinist who performed as a child prodigy with orchestras in New York. She fully immersed herself in the music industry in New York City, performing electric violin with several rock bands and writing, composing, and underscoring music. She spent 20 years on the West Coast, raising her family and pursuing her Master’s degree in Design before her husband was transferred to New Jersey.

The move back to the East Coast was the ideal time to make a change and pursue another creative aesthetic. Mikulich established Oasis Home, providing full interior design services for residential and commercial projects as well as a boutique storefront in the hip seaside resort town of Asbury Park, where she carries fabrics, wall coverings, and high-end lamps.

Lighting Choices

When selecting lighting fixtures, Mikulich looks for convenience and time savings. “I try to allot my hours more towards the construction part of the process rather than product sourcing,” she explains. “If it’s not necessary, I don’t like to leave my drafting table. It’s very time-consuming to select the flooring and rugs, which need to be done before accessories such as lighting come together. It wouldn’t be a smart use of my time to go out to local showrooms to search for the right fixture. Plus there is no guarantee that a lighting showroom in my area would have the perfect fixture on the floor that I would pick to fit with a particular project. Real estate is at a premium on their floors, so I understand that it’s impossible for them to carry everything. It’s much more efficient to do all my ‘browsing’ online and determine what I want to specify,” she comments.

“It’s often hard for them to understand the size and scale of fixtures, especially large-scale chandeliers, so it’s helpful for them to see just how expansive they will be.”

With her time at a premium, Mikulich needs any trips to lighting showrooms to be expedient. “When I do take a client to a showroom, it has to be productive,” she states. “That starts by making sure ahead of time that they have the fixture I plan to use — or others that are comparable in finish and size — so the client can clearly see what they are going to be getting. It’s often hard for them to understand the size and scale of fixtures, especially large-scale chandeliers, so it’s helpful for them to see just how expansive they will be.”

Besides inquiring about the fixture itself, Mikulich also asks whether the showroom will provide a trade discount. With clients regularly looking up the price of products online, receiving a trade discount can make a big difference in available margins depending on the line and the showroom. Often Mikulich finds the best solution is to bill clients for both her time and the published online cost of the fixture — which together typically equals the showroom’s published price. “My clients feel like they’re being treated fairly paying that price, and I’m being fairly compensated for my expertise and time,” she remarks.

If a showroom doesn’t have what Mikulich is looking for, she’ll turn to other sources: choosing distribution trade partners through referrals from other designers or manufacturers, respecting the territorial borders that manufacturers and reps have in place, and opening direct accounts with manufacturers.

“I have direct accounts with some small independent lighting companies and am very confident in their product quality so those are easy sells to make to my clients. When those lines don’t fit the look or budget of a project, I use the internet to source a fixture and gather all the technical specifications, but then I buy it through a local distributor or rep who carries that line. I know they will provide everything that needs to be done from order through delivery, as well as be there for any after-sale support that my client might need. I don’t buy anything directly online because I want to be able to control as much of the process as possible. I can’t be sure of the level of service, quality, and authenticity of an online retailer, nor would I know for certain that they would respond and appropriately take care of any issue that might arise. My name is on these projects and everything that goes into them; I have to protect my reputation as well as my clients’ interests.”

Advice for Showrooms

Mikulich offers a few recommendations for lighting stores that want to expand their business with designers.

“Clients’ eyes naturally wander around the store, so I really appreciate when salespeople help keep my clients on task when we are in the showroom,” she notes. “It also gains my loyalty when the showroom staff respects designer-client relationships and defer to my vision and keep my clients’ interest focused on the way I’m steering them.”

Mikulich also suggests showrooms be more selective in the products they display and choose as many finishes and sizes as possible — especially large fixtures. “It would be so much more effective than just a sea of fixtures and tags hanging from the ceiling,” she explains. Also helpful would be drawers of actual sample finishes from the lines they sell, rather than hoping the image on a computer monitor is an accurate representation. She also notes that showrooms need to be savvy in knowing the pricing being offered online for their fixtures and lines. “It would be terrific if they offered a semi-private area with a large enough table to spread out design plans and provide beverages and seating while we’re looking over the plans,” she adds.

Mikulich is an advocate of regularly going to the High Point Market to keep current on new finishes and trends as well as to strengthen her relationships with the manufacturers she does business with, and meet new potential vendor partners.
“It’s very important for anyone in the design business to be there,” she remarks. “It gives designers insight into the true quality behind products. There’s nothing like seeing fixtures in person. I can show my customers samples of everything, and they get excited, but there’s always a ‘Wow!’ factor when they see magnificent fixtures in person for the first time. Similarly, it would be advantageous if local lighting showrooms could provide a similar opportunity on a much smaller scale to newer designers who may not have the budget to travel to shows. Showrooms are very beneficial for them in particular as they are learning the business and developing relationships with manufacturers and trade partners. It’s how they get to see and touch a wide range of finishes, materials, and styles.”

“My clients love to have special and unique pieces, which has always inspired me to design lighting for each project.”

Robin Baron

Robin Baron Design, New York City

Celebrity interior designer Robin Baron has known since age nine that she has a strong passion for design: fashion and interiors. Though she didn’t grow up in a creative family, she knew design was her calling. She pursued a career in fashion and – after several years working as a fashion designer with her own private label – Baron transitioned into the world of interiors because she wanted to be able to provide a long-lasting sense of home for her fashion clients and their families. She believes that her services have an impact on every person who lives in, and visits, those homes.

She’s now taken her successful career in interior design one step further by launching her own line of home furniture, hardware, and rugs. Baron has designed custom lighting for her clients’ projects for many years and is looking forward to adding a line of lighting to her home furnishings collections in the future.

A Love of Lighting

“My clients love to have special and unique pieces, which has always inspired me to design lighting for each project. I also love to mix vintage pieces that I find,” Baron states. “Lighting design has elevated significantly in recent years, which makes it easier to combine new pieces with old and vintage pieces. I find fixtures at vintage shops, lighting showrooms, High Point Market, as well as online. However, I only order online from companies that I’m familiar with. Nothing takes the place of seeing lighting in person — especially when you can view a whole collection at market. It helps me to truly appreciate the level of design and all the details that are involved.

“We have relationships with quite a few lighting showrooms. I have confidence in the products and services they provide. That said, I’m always looking for new resources. Good business people are always open to learning from those they come across, and I think it’s important to continue to educate ourselves. Since there can be a lot of similarities among trade showrooms, I find that the absolute most important thing to offer is great customer service. Service and relationships are what makes the difference. We’ll go above and beyond for each other when we have mutual respect.”
Robin Baron Design is a full-service firm that manages everything from construction through decorating. Baron considers lighting – along with hardware – to be the jewelry of any room, and since she describes herself as “jewelry-obsessed,” it’s obviously a sweet spot for her.
“Great light fixtures add personality to my projects,” she adds, “but to light a room just right, I always take into account more than just the ‘look’ of the fixture itself. In order for a room to feel well-lit, I make sure all areas of the room are addressed with lighting. While I’m not afraid to use recessed high hats in a lighting scheme, I always try to make sure there are decorative fixtures added in one way or another. This serves not only to bring a fab piece of ‘jewelry’ to the room, but also allows for more lighting options and for more surfaces to be lit!”

“I look to showrooms for all the technical specs I’ll need — size, weight, light output, delivery, pricing, special finishes, customization options, etc.”

Her Design Process

Baron has a typical routine she uses when preparing for each new job, and says it’s been the key to producing the design work that her clients love.

“I don’t believe in keeping a library of designs in-house because I think it makes most people lazy. I say that having the advantage of living in New York City, where great design and resources are at my fingertips.” she explains. “Instead, I like to start every job fresh. I go out once or twice with a client before we really get the design underway because I want to see their visceral reactions when they see styles, colors, and designs. In the first few shopping trips, I don’t share my opinions as much as I usually would; I watch their reactions. We’re not making final decisions at that point or deciding what goes where. I wait for their natural responses and let inspiration flow from there.

“This method is advantageous because I get to spend some one-on-one time with my clients, which helps me get to know their personality and style much better. Showing them pictures doesn’t create the same type of interaction or relationship. Being in showrooms and around clients inspires me, and there is always an ‘Aha!’ moment when we both know we’ve hit upon something that will be central to the design. It is a bit more time-consuming to do business this way, but this assures me that every project is truly about, and for, that individual client…and for me, the fun is in the hunt!”

When working with showrooms, and especially when she has clients with her, Baron prefers to be left on her/their own. “I don’t want any help unless I ask for it,” she notes. “I want to go at my own pace and in my own direction. But I do look to showrooms for all the technical specs I’ll need — size, weight, light output, delivery, pricing, special finishes, customization options, etc.”

Showroom Suggestions

“The showrooms I work with on a regular basis are great, but I would encourage all vendors to work towards a fast response time. It could often take several days to hear back from a vendor, even if it’s a fairly simple answer. When we’re in a time crunch, every minute counts, so having quicker response times would make all the difference to designers who are usually on deadlines.

“I’d also encourage showrooms to implement websites that make ordering easier to do online. We’re in a digital age, and I want to give priority to my trade-only vendors — especially since I know that they will stand by their product after the sale and support and service as needed. The temptation to buy from major online retail stores will be much less if a trade-only vendor has a website that is easy to navigate and has e-commerce capabilities.

When it comes to that service and support, Baron says that even when considering buying direct from manufacturers to get better pricing, she’ll still often opt to buy product through local showrooms so she’s got their added layer of service and protection.
With all of the changing trends, new offerings, and especially new sources of competition for lighting sales, Baron emphasizes that it’s crucial for designers to keep their finger on the pulse of the industry.

“There are so many lighting websites and discount websites — and the public has access to so much information now that they used to rely on us for — so it’s more important than ever for designers to be very familiar and build relationships with manufacturers, showrooms, and other sources,” she explains. “We need to know the products and sources we’re dealing with so that we can be the experts for our clients, and so they see our value. It’s disappointing to watch some of the things happening with online vendors who can’t be reached or refuse to assist when support is needed. We don’t want our clients to get taken in by those types of vendors,” she comments. “It’s important for designers to go to the trade shows and build relationships with manufacturers as well as sources in our local markets. We’ve got to keep up with the latest trends in style and design, business and economic outlook, and changes within our industry. Designers must be experts in the markets and industries they serve.”