Company Rides Fast Track Toward Design Success

Company Rides Fast Track Toward Design Success

By Daina Manning

She recalls hearing a speaker at a seminar once: He opined that, if a designer is to be refreshed, on the ball and on top of every detail, he or she needs to relax and have an outside life. "That made a big difference," she remembers. "I stopped working so many hours, and when I went out on my own, I stopped taking evening or weekend appointments. If [people] can't deal with that, then I'll walk away from the project. That's made a huge difference in how clients treat me if you treat yourself with respect, they'll treat you with respect, too."
Cohen has combined this philosophy with a passion for design that started very early in life.

"I've always designed things, ever since I was a little kid," she recalls. "I used to call them busses all the rooms you had in a house, with swimming pools on the roof! These days, they would be RVs," she laughs. "When I got older, I'd take floor plans of new houses out of the newspaper and fix them. I space planned. I'd rearrange my bedroom."

After college, which included both art and business courses, she detoured from design to work in the computer field, but quickly returned when she hooked up with a design teacher who was a CKD, and discovered the wonderful world of kitchen design. "It just clicked it combined the artistic and the technical." Her teacher recommended her to a showroom, which lead to her first job in 1990.
"It was totally on commission, so I just started cold calling architects and contractors," she remembers. "I was just really persistent, and started selling projects." She soon got brought into the showroom full time and discovered she didn't really care for the long, structured hours. After six years gaining experience, she went out on her own, and hasn't looked back since. "I had built up enough of a name for myself that I was busy from that day [forward]," she says.

Cohen never advertises, but does send out a big mailing of holiday cards, frequently enters design contests, and participates in show houses as well as ASID kitchen tours. "I make an effort to get published and talk to the media," she elaborates, for instance, guesting on a local radio show.

Cohen employs a bookkeeper and a design assistant, and is happy working from her home, though she does have relationships with several showrooms. Although she's actively involved in monitoring installation for her projects, the work itself is the responsibility of a general contractor who handles the subs. The contractor is either someone she recommends, or someone the client picks. "Sometimes, contractors I know bring me on to projects," she adds.
She believes strongly that pre-qualifying is key to maximizing her time. "I get lots of phone calls, and I do my qualifying over the phone," she notes. "I've learned to use the phone as a tool, because if I went out and saw every person who called, all I would do is drive around. But [most] of the people who call aren't really my clients. So I ask a lot of questions how they found me, when they need to get started, etc., because most times I'm not available to start something right away.

"I try to find out what the scope of work is, and the quality level," she continues. Cohen will only do complete remodels, or new construction. "If they're saying, we want new counters and to reface the cabinets, I don't do that."

Another must when pre-qualifying someone: "I always discuss budget on the phone, because I do higher-end projects and my design fees are not inexpensive," says Cohen.

She notes that, a lot of the time, people have no idea how much, for instance, high-end appliances cost. "I'm looking to see if their budget is realistic. A lot of them can't afford to do the projects they want," Cohen elaborates. She adds,

"You have to develop some kind of trust and rapport, because people don't want to tell you their budget over the phone they're afraid you're going to take advantage of them."

Cohen will also sometimes turn down a project because she senses there will be a personality conflict with the client. "You have to go a lot off your intuition," she says. "I want to enjoy what I'm doing. I'm looking for people who respect my work and my time."

Client taste, however, is not a factor in whether or not Cohen will take a project. "I am trying to make my clients happy I don't have a distinct style. I enjoy being challenged and working with different styles. I like is when my clients call me up after Thanksgiving, and it'll be the first time the client has made a big dinner, and she'll say, 'Oh my God, this is working so well, and it's so much fun!' I soak all that up.

"Some people think I only do [modern] because my contemporary work has been published so much. But, I also love very traditional interiors. The only thing I won't do is cutesy country," she concludes. "The bunny rabbit duck thing? That is just not me!"

Leslie Cohen Design 

LOCATION: Encinitas, CA
PRINCIPALS: Leslie Cohen,
By appointment only
Neil Kelly Cabinets, Wm Ohs, Neff Kitchens and Crystal Cabinet Works
SPECIALTY: High-end kitchen design projects
"I want to enjoy what I'm doing. I'm looking for [clients] who respect my work and my time."