Thinking of mining the interior design trade for new clients? Before you bid, find out what designers want in a custom framer

Framing spaces: thinking of mining the interior design trade for new clients? Before you bid, find out what designers want in a custom framer

Tricia Bisoux

In recent years, the picture framing and interior design professions have become more closely intertwined than ever. Indeed, more frame shops are offering in-house interior design services or taking up residence in design centers. Some framers are even becoming interior designers themselves (and vice versa) to satisfy consumers’ growing interest in beautifying their homes.

“People are seeing the photographs in the magazines. They’re seeing how things flow,” said Marilizabeth Polizzi, who designs frames for Arts Alive in Scottsdale, Ariz. The flame shop is located in the Scottsdale Design Center, which includes furniture stores, paint and textiles shops and a home builder’s office. “Our clientele wants to recreate that flowing feeling in their homes, where it all works together as one package” she added. “They’re not just slapping things up on the wall. They’re taking their time.”

As consumers get more artful ideas from decorating magazines and popular television programs like “Trading Spaces,” the interior design market has become especially busy. This trend poses a challenge to framers who work with interior designers: to create a framing package that not only enhances the artwork but also pulls together the look of the entire room.

Although some framers view the designers’ market with some apprehension, it’s a segment that promises to become only more important and lucrative to the picture framing industry as time goes on. So, once you’ve attracted designers to your frame shop, it’s important to know what to expect and what they’ll expect from you.

A Part of the Whole

Contrary to many framers’ darkest fears, most interior designers don’t expect framers to match the mat to the color of the sofa–not the good ones anyway. But they do expect framers to work with a sense of how the frame will launch a piece of artwork into a room’s overall design. A good framer for designers, said Scott Sammons of Scott Sammons Interior Design in Canal Winchester, Ohio, “is someone who can work with the same vision as you, who understands that yes, the frame is an integral part of the whole design, but it isn’t the whole thing.”

Beatriz Ruiz, a designer with Zyscovich Inc. of Miami, said she relies on the framing to accentuate the look she’s trying to portray. “But because framers aren’t in the space, they may just focus on the artwork itself, not the overall room design,” she said. As a result, a framer might choose a mat and frame that look beautiful with the art but horrible in the room for which it’s intended.

Steve Winters of Winterhouse Interiors in Oklahoma City tries to bring a photograph of the room and details of its design to his framer. “Although I usually design my own frames, a photograph makes it easier for the framer to help me if necessary,” he said.

Knowing how to choose framing that will interact splendidly with the entire room is a talent that designers truly appreciate, agreed Pam Rosenberg, a designer with Chicago-based architecture and design firm Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl (LSH). Rosenberg gives framers the furniture colors, fabrics and flooring that will go into the commercial spaces she designs. If a framer fails to work within the parameters of the design, she said, she moves on to someone else.

Designer’s Eye View

How designers choose the framing for a room is similar to how framers choose the mat and moulding for a piece of art. Common sense suggests that classical rooms often require traditional framing treatments, contemporary rooms may call for sleek and modern treatments, while an eclectic look demands a mix of both.

But the selection process only starts with color and style. While the artwork establishes or continues a room’s mood, theme or color scheme, designers often rely on the frame around it to satisfy other principles of design.

Composition. Designers see a room design much as a painter sees a canvas: They’re looking for the right combination of elements that will result in a perfect composition. “I talk to the client about what we need to compose a particular wall,” said designer Julie Rooney, of CIGI Gallery Associates in St. Louis. “We talk about the reasons why something doesn’t look right. Then we look at what art we want, what furniture needs to go against it and what scale we need.” Each artwork is an individual piece, she added, but it only works “as long as it’s in continuity with the rest of the room.”

Balance. Designers often use frames not only to highlight artwork, but also as furniture pieces in their own right, explained Ruiz of Zyscovich Inc. “I use framed art to create a balance in a room. For example, say you have a chair on one end of the room, but you don’t have enough space to put a chair on the other end. Framed artwork may not fill the space three dimensionally, but it fills it visually. The framing can be so important,” she said with a laugh, “because it helps me cheat?

Proportion. Framers already know that large framing treatments can make artwork more prominent in a space. Designers rely on this principle to help fill up a large wall or to keep the artwork in proportion with a large feature in a room. Attention to proportion also can cause a design client to fall in love with a piece of art they already own all over again, said Barbara Schroeder, a designer in Bigfork, Mont.

“I had a neighbor who had a simple, inexpensive print of a cowboy in a simple frame. She had it sitting above a heavy stone Montana fireplace. She and her husband just loved it, but it looked so weak. We had it reframed for $350 using a much wider frame and a pale grey mat that complemented the stones in the fireplace. Now it’s just perfect,” said Schroeder. “The wrong frame in the wrong place can be a disaster. Proportion to the room is incredibly important.”

Emphasis. Designers often look to framed artwork to add that final, indispensable touch to a room’s overall appearance. The art might not be strong enough to carry it off on its own, said Schroeder, “but it can become a strong focal point with the frame. Just like a rug can provide weight and structure, a strong piece of framed art can make the whole room.”

Designers’ Favorite Framers

Most designers have favorite framers whom they go back to again and again–and not because they offer the biggest discount. When these designers were asked what they thought were the hallmarks of a great framer, they pointed out five factors: knowledge, dedication, selection, flexibility and understanding.

Knowledge of design principles and framing products is No. 1 on the lists of almost all the designers interviewed here, including Rosenberg of LSH. “I look for framers who really know their product, who have an art background and who know where to go for the appropriate materials and subject matter” she said.

Designers also appreciate framers who understand the current vernacular of design, said Polizzi of Arts Alive, a frame designer and an interior designer herself. “For example, someone can tell me that he’s using oil-rubbed bronze in the bathroom, and I know that oil-rubbed bronze is a new finish for fixtures,” she said. “The more you know what these things are, the more confident the [designer] is that you can help.”

Dedication and a willingness to go the extra mile to make a project work are also especially important, added Winters of Winterhouse Interiors. He marks this quality as one of the most important aspect of his relationship with framer Tim Peterson of Framed in the Village, also in Oklahoma City.

“We once had a very large European canvas we purchased for a client,” explained Winters. “Framed in the Village had never flamed a piece of that size, but Tim actually did the research and flew a woman in from California to show them how to approach the project. After it was matted and framed, it was about 8 by 5 feet.” That kind of commitment to tackling difficult projects encourages a designer to come back for the next one, said Winters.

As a designer for large commercial projects, Ruiz of Zyscovich Inc. puts selection at the top of her list. Her relationship with Miami’s Frameworks, owned by framer Cris Sweeney, is based on a good selection and responsive, knowledgeable service. “There are plenty of shops around town, but the one I would choose must have a large selection of frames” she said. “I know that Frameworks has a lot of material in stock, and they buy so much from so many vendors, they have no problem getting something rush-delivered when necessary.”

Framers who target designers, however, don’t always need 10,000 samples on the wall. Although selection is important, residential and commercial designers also appreciate framers who have access to an array of external resources.

Flexibility, with both time and budgetary constraints, is another quality designers look for in a framer. “As designers, we are often pressed for time, so a framer who can access materials quickly, especially if we’re in a rush, is big,” said Ruiz.

In addition to time, these designers didn’t deny that price is an issue for them. But it’s a misconception that most designers are only interested getting rock-bottom prices. Instead, they appreciate framers who can achieve the best look for the framing budget they have, whether they’re spending $1,000 or $100,000.

“Many times I’ll see a beautiful Italian wood frame, but it’s too expensive for my client’s budget,” Ruiz added. “I like framers who offer different styles in a variety of price ranges and are willing to create a similar look for half the price using a moulding in a less expensive line.”

Finally, an understanding of what the designer is trying to accomplish is just icing on the cake–or the gilt on the frame–as far as Schroeder is concerned. “As much as I know what I want, I love a framer with good taste who can help me target exactly what I need,” she said. “I like it when I tell them I need a classical look, and when I start picking things out, they’ll tell me, `No, no, that won’t work.’ Then, they instantly narrow it down to 10 great samples, and I can just make it happen.”

Working Relationships

Each designer comes with his or her individual sense of style, so it can take time for a framer to learn which products and approaches really hit the mark. But these designers noted that it’s essentially about framing spaces, as well as artwork.

Framers who take the extra steps–from requesting pictures of the room to studying fabric swatches and furniture finishes to finding out about placement–put themselves in a better position to serve this segment of the market. So, the next time you’re met with a “designer’s challenge” to add that piece de la resistance to his or her vision, you’ll know just how to deliver.

Have Designs on the Interior Design Market?

Here’s what it takes to make interior designers a pleasant and profitable part of your framing business

What framer wouldn’t want a steady stream of new clients coming through the door–especially if they were clients who often designed their own frames, required little time and attention, generated thousands of dollars in additional revenue and always came back for more.

That kind of business is what the interior design trade offers picture framers–but it’s not won without some effort, said Mary Inden of The Gilded Edge Frames & Gallery of Elm Grove, Wis. Picture framers have to do their due diligence to make these relationships work.

Framers often only hear about the negative sides of working with designers, said Inden, rather than how to make the most of what this part of the market has to offer. In response, Inden, who has worked successfully with interior designers since 1995, recently gave a presentation titled “Working with Interior Designers–What’s the Secret?” to her local PPFA chapter. The secret, she advised, is to take a few preventative measures to avoid some of the common difficulties of working with the designer market altogether:

Check for ID. Although it would be wonderful if the people who walk through your doors all were who they say they are, that’s not always the case. Occasionally, some people might present themselves as designers just to obtain the discount for themselves and their own circle of family and friends. In this case, the best defense is a good offense, said Inden.

“Check to see if they have a checkbook for their business as interior designers–not personal checks. Then ask for a business card and find out their tax resale number,” said Inden. Some framers even require designers to do a certain amount of business with them before any discounts kick in, just to be sure that they are serious about establishing a working relationship.

Also, check with the American Society of Interior Designers ( to see if a designer is an active member. Although there are several levels of membership, designers who are enrolled at the “professional” level have been educated as designers, work as designers full time and have passed the two-day National Council for Interior Design Qualification exam.

Join ASID. You also can join ASID as an Industry Partner that serves the design community. This can be a good marketing tool and allows you to network with designers who have the credentials and training you’re looking for.

Set Clear Parameters. It’s true that designers are looking for the best value for their clients’ money, and so they will expect the so-called “designer discount.” However, you can set the amount of this discount–and the parameters of your relationship–at the outset, to avoid any misunderstandings.

Framers generally offer a discount of 10 to 25 percent, depending on their own operations, said Inden. “We offer designers a 15-percent discount on the framing they purchase themselves. If they refer retail clients to us, they receive a five percent referral fee for anything that client buys,” explained Inden. She added that she’s heard from other retailers who offer a discount of 20 to 25 percent.

In the end, when it comes to setting the amount of your discount, she warned, set it wisely. It should be big enough to be an incentive for designers to bring their business to your store, but it shouldn’t be so big as to make your profit margins disappear.

Put It in Writing. Nothing clarifies the boundaries of a working relationship better than a written agreement. Framers who are worried they might be compelled to lower their prices beyond what is profitable need only point to their written policy.

“We give each designer a copy of our policy, which outlines the parameters we’ve set for doing business with them,” said Inden. “We set out what the discount will be and the amount of our referral fee. We make it clear that we require them to make appointments before they come in, preferably before or after retail hours, so we can work with them when the phone’s not ringing, the UPS driver isn’t at the door and the store isn’t filled with retail clients.”

The terms of the agreement will change from business to business, but Inden encourages framers to cover in the written policy any detail that could cause trouble down the road. Let designers know how you handle order changes and restocking fees; how you handle rush orders; how long you will loan out samples and artwork; what other services you provide, such as making on-site visits; and what you charge for those services. This is also a time to establish terms of payment for services rendered.

Require an Orientation. Inden recommended framers require all new designers to come to the shop for a brief orientation session–from 30 minutes to an hour. During this time, framers can educate designers about conservation framing, pricing structures, product lines and shop layout. This is also an opportunity to set boundaries in the shop up front–where designers are free to roam when they come in and what areas might be off limits.

“You need to spend the time to orient the designers to your business,” said Inden. “Then, the next time they come in, they may need help refining a design or finding more options, but you won’t have to wait on them and educate as if they were retail customers.” The less time a designer demands of you, she added, the more a framer benefits from the relationship.

Once you are comfortable with a certain designer, you can choose to bend or even break the rules you’ve set. But by letting designers know your boundaries up front, you will have more control in choosing which rules you’re willing to break, and which ones you’re not.


American Society of Interior Designers, (202) 546-3480

Arts Alive, (480) 998-9790

Barbara Schroeder, (406) 755-5445

CIGI Gallery Associates, (314) 843-0022

The Gilded Edge Frames & Gallery, (262) 782-2803

Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl, (312) 565-1800

Scott Sammons Interior Design, (614) 837-6146

Winterhouse Interiors, (405) 751-2800

Zyscovich Inc., (305) 372-5222

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COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group