'SQUINCHING' Interior designers learn to squeeze more into less space.

April 08, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

When officials at the Baltimore interior design firm of Edmunds & Hyde realized a recession was on the way, they turned the company's design expertise inward.

Starting early last year, the 102-year-old company began consolidating its four floors of Mount Vernon office space and 28 employees onto three floors, freeing the fourth floor so it could be leased to another firm.

The result not only proved a more efficient use of space, but also created a revenue generator that has been a cushion against hard times.

"Way back in March [of last year] we saw it coming," says John R. Turner, executive vice president of Edmunds & Hyde. "So, we started squinching down. We foresaw a downturn in the workload we were going to have. We knew the development market had fallen apart."

Similarly, local design firms -- both large and small -- have been forced to adjust to the recession by tightening their own belts, branching out to attract new business and tailoring designs to reflect leaner times.

Designers say they have found clients more cautious, scaling back projects, choosing cheaper furnishings or forgoing renovations altogether.

While bigger and better were the code words of the 1980s office boom, designers now talk about doing more with less. They are (( finding clients who want to renovate their old offices instead of moving into a new building. If they expand, they are opting for smaller additions or better use of existing space.

"I feel like everyone is being more conservative right now, waiting to see what will happen," says Suzanne Forte, owner of Forte Design.

"I think what they're doing is phasing. They want to do what they can now to make the working environment more comfortable, and then do the major things later."

Forte said she has become more conservative too, cautioning her clients who order furnishings to stay away from small manufacturers who may be on shaky financial ground.

"The little guys may be selling cheaper, but they may also be having financial trouble," she says. "You don't want someone who's going to go under."

Officials at American Space Planners Inc. have taken the opposite approach, giving clients a choice of more than 2,500 furniture manufacturers. Sales manager Jim Jones says that by representing so many manufacturers, his company is able to get the best buys.

If offering discounts isn't enough of a hedge against the recession, Jones says, his company produces many designs that incorporate cluster work stations, which conserve space by allowing more employees to work in smaller areas.

Offering economy of space has paid off during the slump, Jones says.

"In a lot of cases we have been called in because of the recession, where businesses feel they have to make do with what they have," he says.

The recession has forced other design companies to carve new niches.

Before the recession, designer Rita St. Clair got more than 60 percent of her business from the hospitality industry. But with no new hotels being built and many facilities canceling renovation plans, St. Clair's firm had to look elsewhere.

"The market has compensated with large residential projects," St. Clair says. "These are people who would normally buy new homes but have waited and now want to re-do everything."

The firm is supplying interior design for a number of clients who are "feathering their nests," which means upgrading, remodeling adding to their homes, St. Clair says. All of the projects are at the "high end" of the cost spectrum, she adds.

But getting firms to pay high prices for office design is another matter.

Greg Stoehr, vice president of Stoehr Companies Inc., a local contracting firm, says that during the recession he has been forced to hire interior designers who can keep costs low. Clients, he says, are no longer willing to pay top dollar for design work.

"What we're not doing is hiring the top-of the-line, superior designer," Stoehr says. "We're working with the one-man

operation, the one that has really cut his overhead, perhaps even works out of his house, who can do good designs inexpensively."

Barbara Miller, owner of Interior Artscapes in Columbia, is one of those one-woman operations. But Miller says the recession certainly hasn't helped her business.

"Everybody gets through it," she says. "If they're smart, those with home-based businesses survive if they're aggressive."

By aggressive, Miller means marketing. Since the recession began, she has started going to community events, handing out brochures in neighborhoods and asking for referrals.

Business was very slow for the first two months of this year, but has begun to improve. "Since the war ended, people are starting to get back into the swing of things," she says.

Large firms are becoming more aggressive, too.

At Edmunds & Hyde, Jack Turner says marketing is another reason the company has been weathering the recession. Five years ago, the firm began expanding its business to include work in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Ohio, New Jersey and Delaware.

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