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Advice for DesignersSelling Design

Signature Look or your Clients Look; Which one works the Best?

By 09/30/2009January 27th, 201738 Comments

I have just discovered something. It’s new. In the last month, I have finally discovered for myself what ‘my signature look’ is, and the best part about it is that people are suddenly calling me because of it.

Given which designers inspire me, it seems silly that it’s taken me this long to define it for myself. Especially because I have been describing my style on this blog and my website for almost a year now:

‘With a fresh take on contemporary and a passion for colour, Maria is known for creating warm, comfortable and inspired spaces for her clients’. 

Every time I start a new project (and I have several right now, it’s really great) I look through my dozens of design magazines or design books to get inspiration and ideas, for example I saw an ottoman in one last week and decided it was perfect for one of my clients. And as I was looking though them, it suddenly hit me exactly what it [my signature look] is!

So the question is; is it better to have people come to you for your look, or is it better to work with each client to bring out their style?
New designers that have yet to discover what their ‘look’ is will definitely say the latter. And perhaps even established designers will say the same thing. But you know what the issue with that is [I’ll just speak for myself]?
When sourcing fabrics for a clients living room [for example] without ‘a look’ I would just show up with the fabrics I’d selected, hoping I’d got it right and bring along a dozen fabrics books to back me up and hope that something stuck.

Since I appeared on the cover issue of BC Home this month [below] clients are calling me because of that ‘look’. It’s fresh, colourful and contemporary (Like I’ve been saying all along – duh).
In Kimberley Seldon’s ‘What you don’t learn in design school’ course a few years ago, I remember her saying that the first time she was published, the style of the home was French Country. She said because of that first issue, she still gets the occasional client that says “I know you only do french country, but do you think you could. . . ?

The lesson here is when you do get published [as a designer] hopefully it represents a look that is ‘you’ and one that you really love to re-create, because it’s a big piece of what you will be known for.
Having a ‘signature look’ doesn’t mean you don’t work with a clients existing furnishings, or their colours, etc. Obviously you’ll still create a custom look for each individual client, however the fact that that client has come to you for your look [because it is defined by your website, blog, etc] means that is the look they are searching for in their home. (have I said ‘look’ enough yet?)

I would have to say blogging [October 31 will be one year for me] has been the biggest access for me to really define what ‘my look’ is. All you have to do is scroll through my blog, and it becomes obvious by the photos that I choose, what it is.

The best education has also been the literally hundreds of homes I have consulted in over the past 10 years. It’s also why I like a clean look in kitchens and bathrooms and why I’m not a big fan of ‘accent tiles’. I have seen too many ugly, dated tiles in my travels and it’s always a conversation when selecting colour “Can we ignore them, paint them, work with them?”
Accent tiles seem to be soooo important when gathering tiles for your bathroom or kitchen, but once they are all installed, mostly look busy and out of place if not tastefully done [below]. See how the mosaic is repeated in the floor? If you’re going to do it, it should be repeated in some way in the bathroom. A four inch row of mosaic tile 3/4 of the way up your shower wall does not cut it!

I was helping a real estate agent choose colours for a home he was ‘flipping’ a couple years ago and he was all about ‘accent tiles’. He said when taking clients through homes, those were the little things they noticed and commented on. So I think it depends on the business you are in. Flipping homes to be sold ‘right now’ during a hot trend, or choosing finishes for your own home, that should be much more timeless than the current trend.

Two years ago when I first moved into the house I’m in now, I held a housewarming party. Two of my designer friends came. One lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Vancouver and the other lived in the suburbs. A couple that attended my party were in the preliminary stages of discussing their kitchen renovation and each asked my friends [individually] what they would recommend for a new countertop.

My designer friend from the suburbs immediately said ‘Granite is the big thing, that’s what we’re doing now” while the other said “Caesarstone, it’s less blotchy than granite and that’s the latest.
What works for your home–based on this story—is to install what people are looking for in your neighborhood. Unless you are going to live in your house for the next 10 years or more, then do whatever you want as it’ll be time for a renovation by the time you sell anyway.

Bottom line, there is an argument to be made for both sides, but you can hardly be approached to design a fabric, furniture or wallpaper line [like Barbara Barry or Candice Olsen] if you do not have a ‘signature look’.
PS. Having a signature ‘decorating’ look does not mean that I cannot choose colours for your house no matter what the ‘style’ of it is. That is what I do the best, take any look and any style and pull it all together using the right colours.

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me for on-line or in-person consultations.
Related posts:
My Interior Design Style
Colour vibe by Eileen Kathryn Boyd
10 Ways to Save Money Now by Creating a Focal Point

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  • Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    I don't know, Maria. I think if anything my website design {I guess could be french in feel} hasn't set what people are expecting. I've had bachelors who call for color consults, husbands who are looking to get a decorator in when a renovation is at the decorating phase, etc. These are people who've had tastes ranging from country, Pottery Barn, Ballard Design, I'm also hearing "transitional" a lot lately. I think {and I hope} that they get a feel for what I can do from the pictures on my portfolio page and not my website's design.

    And, you're right; I don't know what my "signature" look would be considered. I don't know that I have one yet!

  • Dobbygirl says:

    I love, love, love all these rooms! Great post!!

  • Design Esquire says:

    I can see the common elements in all the images you chose for this post (but, I think I could tell what your "style" is even without the images). Great post!

  • Cristin says:

    There is an arguement to be made on both sides. Although, it is not a bad thing to be known for a signature style – esp if you are good, like you are. Great post!

    cristin @ simplified bee

    PS- the saying "Smurf it up." stays with me after watching that video clip on your blog w the inspirational speaker.

  • Ivy Lane says:

    Love your style Maria! You truly inspire!

  • Tammy@InStitches says:

    I've sewn for many designers over the past 20 years and all of them had a signature style and that is why their clients hired them. However, when I have a homeowner call me to make window treatments, I'm going to suggest something that fits with the style of the room.

  • Diane Hoeptner (hep-ner) says:

    You HAVE to have a signature "look." Life is short and that is what defines your work and sets it apart. It also allows you to specialize in a way that you couldn't if you were designing to taste every time! I LOVE your signature look, Maria. Although, I agree: Even if you never had a literal grasp on exactly what it was, you've been showing it to us here again and again!

  • Chic Coles (Cole Design) says:

    How wonderful that you were in BC Home. That is just great. I think blogging is a great way to see your own style and clients can also develop their own style by looking at blogs also. It is really a great tool.

  • Things That Inspire says:

    This is a very interesting post, as I am interviewing designers for a big project, and have also had my ear to the ground about the pros and cons about the different designers I am considering.

    I had lunch today with someone in the design business, and we were talking about a well known designer and the fact that they had a signature style – you can immediately spot that this person did the decor. In fact, this designer is known to use the same sofa with the same trim in many of her jobs – if it works, it works, but then your clients don't get a really unique product. It can also get a bit formulaic. For people who really want something unique (which probably isn't that many people, if you really think about it), the signature look is a turn off.

    We also talked about how there are other designers who are at a whole different level of design – the true legends of design – and many of them don't necessarily have a signature style, they are known for a layered, nuanced room (that often takes a lot of money to achieve) that is totally unique from project to project.

    So, I think it can go both ways. I think for most designers, they really find their breakthrough time from the perspective of business development and personal development to find that special look.

  • Renae says:

    Clean lines, bright colours, lots of angles…that is YOU! It is so hard to define one's style. Designers can become myopic and not LISTEN to their clients. Of course some clients have no clue what they like and they do come to a particular designer because they like what they have seen.
    You are great Miss Maria!

  • Jennifer, Inside Out Colour and Design says:

    Great post, Maria. Not sure if I have a "Signature Style" either but when I'm sourcing fabric and furniture I do gravitate towards what I like but it will work with the client's space and the client. Interesting. So when are you bringing out a wallpaper range?

  • Carol Ann says:

    Interesting topic, I like to think I do not have a signature style, each one of my clients and their homes are completely different…each home has its own feeling and most clients have interesting ideas of what they want and what colours they like…I just make sure there ideas are not going to be weird if used…
    I know that the ladies in my office and the sales people I work with all would say I am wild, taupe sofa, black and white, animal print fabric…but that is my style for my home…so far in 9 years I have not had a client that has wanted my homes look, if I look through my clients homes I must say that each one is completely different in every way (ok sometimes the T72806-00 accent table is used to often, but it is a wonderful small table)
    To answer your question I think that as a designer if you can get into a clients head and do what they would have done if they could do it for themselves…that is what a designer should be able to do. When a client smiles and loves the room, that all I want…

  • Carol Ann says:

    Oh my that is why I do not comment often, I start and I can not shut up…sorry Maria for the so long comment… lol

  • Tracy @ Comfort and Luxury says:

    Great post Maria. And that photo taken from upstairs of the magazine-featured home is fantastic!
    As a designer with a new business, I can say that I may not have a signature style yet as far as you could tell by looking at the work I've done so far, but I'd like to think I have signature "ideas" that I like to try out with each client. Those ideas may not pan out into an overall signature "look", but it sure would be fun to get to do a lot of what I like best for as many clients as possible.

  • Marlo says:

    Yay! It's great to be recognized for your signature look!

    I love the rooms you posted and I noticed that Tobi uses milk-glass lamps in quite a few of her rooms. Is that a little trademark she leaves behind? How cute.

    When speaking of signature looks I think about Van Gogh, Monet, and Matisse – all Impressionists and each with their own style that we recognize immediately. Did they purposely set out to be different from each other or did they paint what was in their hearts, with their unique brush strokes and colour palettes? Could Picaso paint like Van Gogh? If someone likes Picaso would they go to Picaso to commission a painting or would they go to Van Gogh hoping he can do a Picaso just as well?

    Just like artists I believe our unique style will shine through in our designs. Vive la Différence.

  • Greet says:

    Indeed, you have a signature look!
    I noticed that immediately the very first time I discovered your blog! It is wonderful!
    In Belgium, to my opinion there are a lot of designers who have not that look! They just watch each other and try to do what the other designer does!
    Believe me, you are a real personality! You can see and feel that by looking all of your design pictures! And I am sure that a lot of people will think : "Yes that is her! We need her to design our interior!" That because of your distinct, pronounced signature!
    Your work is gorgeous Maria! And I mean that!



  • Annie@A View On Design says:

    to be honest if I noticed a professional's interior style was a kind that I liked, and they came out and wanted to do something different, I wouldn't be happy. Having said that, I guess you would lose the occasional client because of it too, but isn't that how the world goes round… win some lose some = lol

  • Francine Gardner says:

    I agree with you on a "designer's look". If you are true to yourself, you have developed a look that is uniquely yours. Your wonderful post proves that point. I am very "instinctive" in my designs and have developed a look that I guess can be called "modern eclectic". It took me (and my branding" consultant) a while to come up with a two words definition of "my" design look. A look can also limit your marketing potential (as in my case) where some would be clients feel uncertain about a style they do not understand.

  • Julianne says:

    My thoughts on this are that a good designer should be able to create any look, but are probably most talented at their own look. When I found your blog I was so excited. Your look is my heart's desire. I am constantly plotting a way to fly you here to consult with me. Your blog really does make me happy. Your designs are fabulous, and you're a wonderful gal also.

  • A Gift Wrapped Life says:

    I think if a person is truly creative, they are goiong to develop a signature style and if they are a really good designer, they are going to have the ability to twist it enough to reflect the homeowner. So perhaps the most successful jobs are a 50/50 split. A signature style is less confusing to the client, they respond to your look and want to capture that style. Branding your look (ie.signature style) is so important in the design industry today. I don't think it's a bad thing….think of fashion designers, we like their style and then take their pieces to make our own mix. Sort of the same thing.

  • Cheri says:

    Love your signature look, Maria. It's why I follow your blog religiously. If only you lived in my area, you'd be my top choice for a consultant, hands down!

  • Karena says:

    Absolutely, a combination of putting it all together with your look and a reflection of the homeowners desire . Having the gift of showing the client why and how it all works beautifully is a gift!

  • Anonymous says:

    Your spot on with your title because I think it will be a question with every client and not a definite answer. My own style changes with the seasons (I repaint walls and bring out different furniture (since I was old enough to move furniture)) So I know I can't design for a client like that. BTW do you ever use antique pieces or vintage used pieces for your clients? It looks pretty clean and fresh.

  • Lisa says:

    I compare your signature look to a beautiful, strong, healthy body that will last for years, then throw on a gorgeous colorful party dress and you have the Maria Killam Signature Style!
    Great post!
    xo Lisa

  • Eliana Tomás says:

    As an interior designer, I have my own style. And I believe every client I have/had knows/knew what my design is all about, therefore they're all happy and recommend my work. So, it works best when our client knows what he/she is looking for. If not, we, interior designers, have to have the attitude to not accept the project if we know from the beginning there is no marriage possible between both..

  • Ideezine says:

    Now you're getting to the "heart" of design. I believe it's both. As a designer you grow through experience within yourself, and throughout each project.

    Your vision changes as do the clients you service. Through the ebb, flow, new, old, recycle and green cycle one thing does not change. It is "You", like a bubble wand filled with soap, until you add your breath to give it life it doesn't move.

    Your infusion into a project gives it life and that's what the client wants lots of beautiful floating bubbles. This is confirmed by the emotional response you receive from your client at the end of the project. That's when you know you were born to do this and you are a great designer Maria.


  • Kate Smith says:

    I think you attract people that aspire to your style or can see themselves living in the rooms you create. I share your love of color, contemporary design, comfort and the way you put it all together so you can help me decorate my place anytime. Besides what a great time we would have doing it.

  • Leonie says:

    That was a really interesting post Maria, THANKS very much! I'm only new in the design world and I've had that thought about working to the clients style, but you have made a fabulous point about being pursued for what you're good at! Great photos too!

  • Lauren says:

    oh i just couldn't agree with you more!!! (this is the second time i came back for your post– first time little guy got me before i could comment!!!) but blogging has been such a great thing for me too in finding my style aesthetic or "look." I definitely agree with you that we should tailor each design into something the client will love but there needs to be some of "us" in there because that's why the client came to us.. for our spin on them. Interior designers should be very perceptive & intuitive & be able to create something really personal for clients but it's also coming from inside them… from their basic design beliefs & values.

    I am SO excited for you about getting published & that house just looks amazing!!! I'm so glad that it represents you & that you're getting contacted about it. (You're seriously living my dream right now hahaha.)


  • Bethany says:

    Your signature style is FAB and so are you. I learn soooooo much from you every time I read your blog.

  • Between you, me and the Fencepost says:

    I called you and commented and I forgot to actually type up the comment . . . I hear your voice talking in this post. I love that you write like you speak.

  • Pam Kersting says:

    After seeing all of the photos you posted, I liked your work the BEST! So glad you've discovered, or should I say "defined" your style. Whatever, it is, it works for me!

  • Vitania says:

    Such an interesting discussion Maria. I think Designers need to have some sort of defining style so that people can make an instant connection. Having a signature look builds consumer confidence. It's that confidence that makes them call you up and say, "Can you do all white Parisian apt?"

    Always great discussion here! I can't belive your 1st year is already here !! So exciting!

  • Kiki Titterud says:

    I believe that having a signature style is important, one that draws a lot of clients your way and gets you noticed in the design community. And, Maria, I'm excited to see that we have very similar style tendencies. However, I also like to be known as the designer who can do it all. I want clients to come to me because they know I will design a room suited just for them without imposing my style or look into their space, unless of course that's what they want.

  • Karen Davis Design Raves says:

    I am late in posting on this, but do feel that style does make you stand out. It is just how much of a statement do you make with your style. I do love yours Maria!

  • Karen H. says:

    Great post – you always have the ability to say just what I need to hear or learn or be inspired by. I have been struggling with my own decorating biz – and doing it on a very part-time basis has contributed to this struggle. The part about sourcing fabrics SO spoke to an ongoing dilemma!!! Thank you, thank you!

  • chanteusevca says:

    Your style and your blog rock, Maria! I'm sure it can be difficult being a designer and having a signature look but having clients who want another look. But I suppose that's what makes a great designer — being able to work outside their own aesthetic box to a degree to make clients happy. I've noticed on some design shows I've watched that it seems to be trial and error at times too. As much as I think at times that I would love to do what you designers do — working with color, fabrics, furniture, etc., I also am curious how often you must repress your ideas and creativity for the sake of making clients happy. After browsing the photos of your work and the work of your design icons, I would be thrilled to give you free reign of my living area — probably my whole house!

    Have a Happy and Colorful Day, Maria

  • great relevant info for all beginners including myself. the more i spec colors, the more I realize if I had design skills I could bring so much more to the table. I’m on a project right now that I can see if I had more skills I could have been in on the choices from the start. can you suggest anything online?

    I saw Kimberly Sheldon’s book, thanks for any referral.

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