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For speaker, strategist, author, and editor Sophie Donelson, great interior design is more than choosing wall colors, textiles, and finishes — it’s about helping homeowners build a life that not only looks good, but is good.
Since the end of her three-year tenure at House Beautiful in 2018, Donelson has been sharing her design philosophy with leaders and tastemakers real estate and design industries, with the hope they’ll understand this one guiding principle: “You don’t need that much to live a good life, but what you do have, should be good.”
Here’s what the design guru has to say about understanding luxury design and affluent buyers, and why every real estate agent needs to add an interior designer to their sphere.
How can real estate agents deepen their understanding of design and the influence it has on a buyer’s purchasing decisions?
Knowing what can be changed [in a home], what can’t be changed, and the investment it would take to make that change is important. And not only that, real estate agents have to understand [those changes] on an architectural and design level.
When you walk into a home, you need to know if is this an easy fix or if we’re talking about a beginning six-figure budget to make [the house] into what you want.
Understanding what the possibilities are and talking to interior designers and architects and having them in your circle will increase the understanding of what is possible for these clients who are buying terrific homes or less-than-terrific homes that can be fabulous.
I think it’s about having an eye [for design] and having the open mind to know what’s possible.
What happens when a buyer doesn’t know what they want in terms of design? What questions can real estate agents ask those buyers to help them identify some must-haves?
Don’t worry about that because plenty of people have style and they’re all for hire — you can get a stylist for your wardrobe, you can get a stylist for primping up your living room, you can get a stylist to overhaul your life. There’s plenty of style out there, so not everybody has to have it.
For agents, it’s more important to ask buyers how they live. In the interior design circle, there’s always this funny anecdote about people buying a dining table and dining chairs, and every client says, “Oh, we entertain a lot.” The client pictures that when they get this house, they’re going to have a lot of dinner parties and have over all these guests, and they’ll have all of their friends over and have a real dinner.
But if they’re not doing it already, no house is going to change what they do. It’s about digging down into how do they live. What does their family look like? Do they have pets or passions? Get a sense of what’s important to these people and then how the location, design, and architecture of the home can contribute to them living well.
Adding that style layer can come. I have faith in the design professionals that can just bring it to any space.
Beyond creating a stellar space, what else can design professionals bring to the homebuying process?
Interior design professionals are so much more than the people who buy and arrange furniture. These are the de-facto tastemakers for the nation’s most affluent people. They have a home, they have a family, they have a designer — this designer is not just doing their home.
They are helping them plan their daughter’s wedding, they are helping them pick out the interior color of their car, they are making college decisions with them, they are checking out their outfit before they head to a black-tie event. They are the tastemaker-in-chiefs of these families. They have their fingers on the pulse of everything.
I think pairing [agents and designers] together is so important. No single family that employs an interior designer is purchasing a home without running it by their designer or architect. That’s who’s walking beside them on these tours, that’s who’s across the country looking at different photos online and seeing the video walkthrough, and looking through the marketing material and saying, “This is a house I can work with” or “No, you can do better.”
The more we can breed those relationships [between designers and agents] the better people are going to live overall.
That’s a great insight. So, how can agents bring designers and architects into their sphere?
As silly as it is, follow them on Instagram. Watching the design trade explode and embrace Instagram has been so exciting. There are still great and thriving design magazines out there, but there’s so much work to be published and so many fabulous rooms to share, so designers are obsessed with their accounts and obsessed with their Instagram stories.
They’re putting their all into it, so connect with them by following, commenting, liking, and sharing information. If you have an open house that sounds interesting, trust me, interior designers know people on the market for new homes are great for leads.