Design Firm's 'Selection Centers' Engage Clients

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The idea is as simple as it is forward thinking: Why not allow clients to engage in a hands-on process to actively participate in the design of their new kitchens and baths?

Bruce Johnson, co-owner of the award-winning design/build firm Lee Kimball, thinks this simple concept could revolutionize how clients see their role in the design process.

“We wanted to do something unique for our clients,” says Johnson, who with his brother, Gregg, owns the design/build company. “We love the creative process and want our clients to feel that passion, too.”

He continues, “It’s no longer enough to build a collection of kitchen vignettes and think that will inspire clients. They have so much input from shelter magazines, design television networks and the Internet [and they want to share that input to conceive a more personalized space that appeals to them]. Traditional showrooms quickly look stale as styles come and go.”

Just recently, the principals moved from their Boston showroom, founded in 1940 by their grandfather, to a new design center in Winchester, MA, and rethought their entire approach to the business. They had come to see the industry standard of kitchen vignettes as stagnant and not easy to change as design trends evolve.

“The new location has allowed us to expand both our space and our ideas,” says Gregg Johnson. “Here, we can properly showcase our design skills and fully exemplify our building expertise.”

Selection Centers

To create greater client involvement, the brothers established “selection centers” – two large islands where clients and designers can collaborate on the new kitchen space. There, a “grand library of materials” is available in a soothing setting for the clients to explore new design ideas for their kitchens, says Bruce Johnson.

Various doors around the selection center can be opened to reveal different components of kitchen design, everything from the mundane to the exotic.

“We have created a designer work room for clients,” says Johnson, “a place for them to lay out stone samples, try them with cabinet finishes, embellish them with hardware. We help them envision innovative storage, wine bars, Japanese-inspired spas. It’s all right here, so that they don’t need to travel anywhere else.”

Available in the maple storage areas on the perimeter of the work stations are virtually every category of design element that could be used as an idea-starter for a project. As a project progresses, a staff designer opens the doors and drawers to reveal options for the client to consider.

“We must give that level of service. Time is the key element for our clients. They need ultimate convenience,” Johnson states.

Added to this hands-on approach is state-of-the-art computer technology, located nearby, which provides a library of photos and images, notes Johnson. Here, designers can call up past projects to help clients envision a style or feature as they work through the design process.

“Through the screen, they can see a lot more than [they could through the vignette format of] our old showroom, and we can still show them tangible items, such as doors, moldings and tile,” Johnson notes.

Johnson believes that clients are having fun taking part in the creative process. “We realized that, for a lot of people, designing a new space is a very exciting thing for them,” he states. “We think of it as making dreams happen, creating a space that can be fun and exciting. And we are getting better results [by encouraging them to get involved].”

Often, clients meet first with one of the brothers to discuss the big picture, to go over the clients’ goals and to learn about the process. Then, they sit down with members of the firm’s design team to begin the creative process, discussing budget considerations as they go, Johnson says.

Because of the firm’s long history and strong repeat business, the firm’s principal form of marketing is staying in touch with its existing client base through mailings, etc. A recent open house to celebrate the firm’s new location drew 150 people, including many past clients.

The firm also advertises in the Sunday Boston Globe Magazine, and gains additional exposure through the industry awards it has won, including the 2005 NARI Award – Best Kitchen Over 150K, and 2004 Chrysalis Awards for Best Design/Build Project Over 75K and Best Bath Project Over 50K. The firm also won the Best of the Best Design Award in 2004, Gold Award for Kitchen Design.

The brothers’ philosophy toward the business is simple: “We want to focus on quality-of-life issues,” Johnson says. “We want to get the client in the frame of mind that this can be fun.”