Make or break: how a RedBook client succeeded in recruiting the right designer

—6th April 2020

At a time when we are all marooned at home, we know that many of us will be looking at our living space and seeing some shortcomings—as well as positives—and thinking about enhancements. But how do you go about planning them? Elizabeth Brooks, a RedBook client, who embarked on her property project before the crisis and will not finish it until afterwards, shares her experience. Finding the right designer was not plain sailing, she discovered, but is make or break for the outcome

Elizabeth Brooks: a challenging space and how best to fill it

What was the conundrum you came up against which caused you to seek out RedBook?

We found this house in Holland Park, built in 2004, with an original Victorian part to it. The developer managed to acquire the land next to it, made available by the gardens of the neighbouring houses falling short, to build a substantial modern wing. So it’s a sort of infill behind two Victorian terraces where there had previously been a print works. The developer managed to get planning permission to take down the print works and build this modern house. That was the first stage.

The second part was the fact that this new modern extension was on two storeys, one at basement level and one at ground level. To bring light into the basement was therefore quite a challenge. The extension is about 100 feet and an open plan area, which was accomplished cleverly through the use of a glass atrium and a courtyard garden at the end. You never feel enclosed and you don’t ever feel as if you are in a basement at all.

“…a contact said you should phone RedBook, they can source a whole team including an interior designer. So I did.”

It is a very inspiring space and we were very excited about it. We had lived in a five-storey Victorian house for 20 years in Notting Hill as a family house. We wanted to stay in the neighbourhood, but with our children moving on we wanted to live in a very different kind of space. We also have an art collection, so we wanted to have somewhere in which we could display our art to good effect, and this property ticked all the boxes.

The first step we took was to re-engage the architects used by the developers to make some modifications to make the space right for us. It had been a speculative project by the developers, it wasn’t designed for a client. So there were aspects we felt needed warming up.

The first phase included knocking down a couple of walls, redisposing the space and we also wanted to extend the basement so that we could introduce a wine cellar, a laundry room and an art storage room.

After about four months, we started to realise that there was a decorative layer that we needed help with. It is a challenging space because it is a very large, interconnected space. Unlike Victorian houses, you aren’t considering separate rooms. One area links to another, which is fabulous, but from a furnishings and decorative point of view it takes a bit of planning. So we decided that we wanted to have interior design input at this stage.

How did you approach the search for an interior designer at the start?

Actually, it’s quite difficult to recruit an interior designer, because when you go online and look at their websites they don’t necessarily tell you the whole story. I thought it would be a good idea to start by looking at the House & Garden 100 List, which they publish every year. I went through it in quite some detail. What I found was that, quite logically, most interior designers in this country tend to veer towards the more traditional styles. It was proving difficult to find modern, contemporary examples of their work. I identified a few, but it wasn’t quite coming together. I had searched through 25-30 interior designers’ websites on Google by this stage. But it’s impossible to tell what they are really like to work with and the websites they don’t necessarily tell you everything you want to know or show their relevant work. Then a contact said you should phone RedBook, they can source a whole team including an interior designer. So I did.

In the basement of Elizabeth Brooks’ Victorian house before works commenced

Once you had engaged Redbook, what was the process like?

The RedBook team came over to the house, Sandy [Mitchell] and Emily [Rance], looked at it and talked to me extensively. I had made a list of things that I wanted to do to the house and they then went off to do their research. They came back with three names of interior designers. I interviewed the first two, and when the third in fact couldn’t take on my project due to scheduling, RedBook went back to the drawing board to find me another option. After interviewing the first two, about two or three weeks passed before I interviewed the third one and that was the one that I felt was absolutely right. It was a question of chemistry more than anything else.

They presented me with a write-up for each with the rationale as to why they were putting forward these particular candidates. We had a lot of back and forth, which was very helpful. I was able to pick up the phone to the RedBook team after interviewing them and give them my impressions. At the point where I was quite torn between the two, we were going back and forth all the time. Then I saw the third one and that was the clincher.

If you hadn’t found RedBook, how would you have gone about choosing a designer?

I was mentioning my project to people here, there and everywhere, as one does. A friend of mine had had some work done in her flat and it did look really lovely, so I met with the person that she worked with. The property search firm I had used came up with a few names. They didn’t recommend them, but they said these are firms that clients have worked with before and had a good experience. So I looked at their websites. But I think if I hadn’t found RedBook, I would have had to pick up the phone to lots of firms and got them in.

Before works began: some of the bare walls and empty spaces

What were the most valuable parts of your experience with RedBook?

The main benefits for me were that they went through all of their lists and came up with a shortlist. They had a rationale for why they thought each candidate might be a good fit for me. Then they made the connections. It really helps to have an introduction. So from a logistics point of view, the process was very easy.

“It was a question of chemistry more than anything else.”

Then it was good to have them as a sounding board to be able to go back to them and say, ok I’ve met one of them and this is how I feel, these are the plusses and the minuses. I could really debate with them about it. The important thing is they were objective. It didn’t matter to them whether I decided to go with A, B or C, because one pays them a fee. One of the tricky things about interior design is that there is an awful lot of subjectivity and personal taste involved. I might go to my friend next door, whose got a lovely house and say how did you get on with so and so? And they might have had a great experience, but I wouldn’t necessarily. I think that RedBook cut through that.

Did they provide advice about managing the project?

They give you guidelines and parameters for your project, which you might have not considered before. For example they asked us if we had thought about hiring a project manager, in addition to an interior designer – something we hadn’t given thought to. In this instance, we decided not to hire someone because the architect re-engaged the structural engineer and consultants who had worked on the house previously. We were not starting from scratch, but I would say for anyone who is, the way RedBook can put together a whole team is a massive plus.

Nowadays there is so much more complexity in building projects. We did a major renovation 20 ago, gutting a five-storey house and virtually rebuilt it. There is a huge difference now in the number of consultants you have to use, the number of regulations and amount of health and safety there is. In order to dig our basement we had to engage 11 consultants. It’s not an optional extra – they have to each provide a report which becomes part of the planning applications. The complexities of these things now are huge, so I think that the way RedBook can support you in finding people in all these roles is hugely valuable.

“…the way RedBook can put together a whole team is a massive plus.”

How important was it for you to get the interior design right?

Oh very important. I am very interested in design and it’s something we care about. It’s not a priority for lots of people and that’s fine, but for us it is. I suppose, we are not spring chickens any more, so we know what we want, and we certainly know what works for us and what doesn’t work for us. That also was a big factor in looking for the right people to work on it.

How is the project going?

It’s not finished yet, but so far, so good…

I see this interview has turned into a rather effective client testimonial!

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

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