Joe: You guys have an event, I think in a couple of weeks, right?
Cloud9 Smart: Yeah, we are trying to create the least boring event for architects to go to and earn their AIA credits… You must interface with architects a lot. Is that how you normally get connected to jobs?
So most of the projects that I have are, let’s say 70% referrals and then maybe 30% through online sources. A lot of jobs come from brokers.
Oh okay. Do you do a lot of staging work?
Only one time. But a lot of their clients are buying apartments, so they’re a good connection to have…. So I have maybe 3-4 really good brokers that I established relationships with. Contractors too.
I guess early on, as a kid. My dad had a construction company and I loved visiting job sites. I would always stand inside and look at everything they were doing. I had no idea, I was seven years old. But my background initially was more in architecture. I worked for a large corporate firm for over seven years.
What were you doing at the firm?
Some project management, mostly drafting and technical details. That’s where I really realized I love architecture but I missed the design side. I missed that personal relationship you have with clients.
I imagine that’s a unique skill set. I would think there is a lot of left brain creativity happening, but if you have this practical knowledge of the construction process, it would probably give you an edge.
We can do more than just pick your sofa and fluff your pillows… Programming space is a thoughtful service.
What design decisions have to be made earlier in the process?
A lot of it stems from- here in New York especially – what the buildings will allow you to do. Then take design cues off of that. The buildings here are so old and there are so many requirements. So you have a box that you’re working within.
I think you’re the sixth person I’ve interviewed in this series, and so much work seems to come through referrals.
Right. When someone refers you, I have an obligation to uphold their reputation. They went out of their way to vouch for me, and the last thing I want to do is make them look bad, so it’s very important to me that the project is successful.
What qualifies a successful project to you?
That the client’s happy. I get a lot of clients that end up ecstatic over how things turned out, even if the process was a pain in the butt because of things out of our control.
You must be somewhat on their emotional ride, too, because it’s so personal.
Yeah definitely. We’re guiding them… and a lot of times it’s emotional on our side when they cut things out that we really are attached to. Sometimes it turns out better in the end… but it is a journey because you’re with them sometimes two years or three years, depending on the project.
Right. So I’m sure your design decisions need to be catered to each client, but do you have any themes that run through your work?
This sounds stupid and cliché, but one of my clients recently said, “No pun intended, but all your designs have this human touch,” and I never picked up on that. Looking through my portfolio it just wasn’t something I was looking for. But I’ve heard it more and more in the last year or so, when clients look at the photos and they come home: “It feels like we can live here.” It’s clean, but it still feels like a real home, not a show house.
So your marketing is all set—The Human Touch.
I should use that as my slogan.
Looking back on your career so far are there any particular projects you feel extra proud of?
One in particular that I just finished up in Brooklyn. They hired another designer, like an online service, and they weren’t happy. It discouraged them on the whole design process but I had done their neighbor’s across the hall and they loved what they say. It started out that she just needed help fixing a few things. But we kept talking and it kept growing and growing, and a year and a half later we had done all this custom furniture, custom millwork… and during the process they found out they’re having another baby, so we changed the kids room around again. It was a really neat process to get to know them and see their family grow. Two weeks after we finished the project they were on vacation in the Hamptons and the client said, “I love being out here but I really miss being in our new home that you created for us.” That really made me feel good, that they’re in some huge rental place in the Hamptons and they want to come back to their apartment that I created for them.
That’s got to feel fantastic. You mentioned custom millwork. Are you outsourcing a lot of work to different vendors?
Yeah, we’re getting more and more into custom design; furniture and millwork specifically. So I do have a lot of good working relationships with tons of vendors and I couldn’t do it without a lot of their help, because that’s what makes the project successful.
What’s your interaction with technology on projects? Is it hideous or complimentary to what you’re trying to do?
It’s a little of both. There are more and more design oriented technology pieces. You guys showed me some newer ones that I wasn’t aware of. But there are certain things that clients are just dying to have, like certain speakers or media equipment that we have to design around to make it work.
You never try to lead them over to the hidden in-wall or hidden in-ceiling solutions?
I do and I would recommend that to almost everybody. It always comes down to their timeline and budget. Usually the three things in a client’s home that are very personal in the selection process are refrigerators, sofas and televisions.
Wow, I had no idea that televisions were so personal to people.
Yeah. Usually you start at the refrigerator, then go to the couch and turn on the TV. And then go make that circle.
The charging aspect of phones and devices. I’ve done a few different custom pieces with USB ports and iPhone chargers and they look really good… In a few years we probably won’t be using USB ports, so it’s one of those things you have to accept to adopt to constantly. That’s why it’s good to be in touch with you guys, because that’s your business and you’re at the forefront of what’s changing all the time.
You’re right about the power issue. I mean Amazon just launched six new products in the last 24 hours and they’re dirt cheap, but they all plug into the wall. All of them. We’re going to have to insert more outlets in these homes.
That’s a challenge too in these old apartments in New York, because when they were built in the 20s and even when they were retrofitted again in the 50s and the 60s, they had one or two outlets in a room. Now you need an outlet every five feet. We’re going through an issue on a project right now where there is not enough power in the actual apartment to run the things the client wants. So it’s about getting creative in how to adapt an old system to a new system.
So how big is Designs by Human?
It’s two people. And then I have a consulting architect. So two and a half people, I guess. I honestly thought in five years I might need help. Three months into it I needed a full time employee because it was too much.
That’s a good sign. What’s one thing in your line of work that you can really only learn through years of experience?
I’d say dealing with people’s personalities. Clients and vendors. How do you keep your personality consistent and true to yourself and still be able to connect with all these different types of People.
It’s a balance right? If you dig your heals in too much you alienate, but if you fold on everything a client says then what’s the real value you’re bringing?
Yeah then you’re just an expensive babysitter.