How Architects and Designers Win Repeat Commissions

When you really love what an architect or designer has done for you, it makes sense for them to look after all your future projects

A coterie of blessed creatives moves in the world of repeat business—designers and architects who take on a commission that so delights the client they become the go-to person for all future residential projects. These are the ones who busy clients come to rely on.

Mutuus Studio
Mutuus Studio designed this penthouse in New York City for celebrity couple Brian Henson and Mia Sara, before being asked back to design their residence in Los Angeles. Photo: Gabe Border. Banner Image: The Library in the Mumbai residence created by Oro Bianco.

For one family, it started with the interiors of an 18th-century house in London. That was followed by a Scottish lodge, a Barbados beach house, and an English country estate—all designed by London-based Suzy Hoodless. Seattle-based architects Mutuus Studio first designed a penthouse in New York City’s Tribeca, then a Hollywood Hills home for Brian Henson (son of Muppets creator Jim Henson) and his wife, actor Mia Sara.

For London- and Qatar-based Katharine Pooley, it was her creative input on a 40,000-square-foot (3,716-sq-m) main residence in Kuwait that led the client to ask her to oversee the design of a penthouse in London’s Hyde Park, and a further handful of properties for the extended family. And Oro Bianco—which has offices in London and Hollywood—has created homes in the British capital and Mumbai for one client (the latter has 130-plus rooms and nine floors), and in Dubai, London, and the English countryside for another.

“The key is to know what makes our clients comfortable in any environment,” says US-based interior designer David Mitchell Brown, who has worked on homes in California, New York, and the Caribbean. “This knowledge comes from a long relationship of repeat business.”

Katharine Pooley interior design London apartment
Katharine Pooley helped to create an elegant family home in Kuwait, before revamping the same client’s London apartment (above), employing a refined palette of silvers, blues, and steel grays.

Clients come to rely on such designers for a host of qualities—some of which stay under the radar. But the relationship is likely to have its roots in an aesthetic empathy. “Oro Bianco’s aesthetic style appeals to us,” explains client Dr Swati A Piramal, adding that the firm’s “classic and classy interiors will never go out of style.”

Likewise, Pooley’s Kuwaiti client cites “being comfortable in the knowledge that [her team] understands our taste and needs.” Kristen Becker, co-founder of Mutuus Studio, echoes this. “I think at the core, Brian and Mia felt that I understood their aesthetic and shared a passion for design and details.”

As you go from one home to another it’s the knowledge of mundane elements that become so valuable to your client

Partners and Friends
As well as this question of taste, designers speak of a bond that develops over time. Residential design is very personal, and many designers refer to clients as firm friends, even being invited to family weddings. “We get on, she likes me, we work well together,” says Hoodless of her client, who prefers to remain anonymous. Luigi Esposito of Oro Bianco talks of “clear communication and the connection between myself and the client.”

It is this knowledge, honed over time, that oils the wheels of multifaceted schemes. “The more you know a client, the easier it is to complete projects smoothly,” Pooley believes. Her client backs this up, saying that one of the benefits of going back to the same designer is that it’s more reliable than bringing someone new in.

Oro Bianco Park Lane London
After working on a London residence on Park Lane (above), which merged the client’s love of Indian culture with the apartment’s classic lines, design firm Oro Bianco also took on the same client's home in Mumbai.

Of her working relationship with Mutuus, Sara observes, “I’m not sure we would have thought about building a house if we hadn’t met Kristen Becker and Mutuus. We were inspired by the relationship we already had (Mutuus worked on a penthouse for her and Henson first) and wanted to continue that conversation.

“When there is an established visual vocabulary, and a shorthand for the look and feel you want to achieve, it means you can cut to the chase. We knew we could trust Kristen to translate all of our ideas into a wonderful place to live.”

These ambitious repeat commissions require obsessive attention to detail from the designers and architects fortunate enough to enjoy them. Busy clients lean heavily on their creatives for their project management skills. “You bend over backwards for them, because they are extremely important to you, and the project management has to be as immaculate as the design,” says Hoodless. “We are delivering a service.”

Clients also benefit from a long relationship because the designers are so invested in the projects. “When you work with clients for so long, you want to make it all perfect,” says Becker. Indeed, Pooley’s Kuwaiti client cites the fact that her team is “so well-organized and efficient in their work, and offers exceptional service.”

Oro Bianco Mumbai house
An ambitious 150,000-sq-ft Mumbai residential project, featuring numerous dramatic elements, was designed by Oro Bianco for an existing client.

These firms are often the single point of contact for all external consultants and contractors, working behind the scenes to make sure their clients’ experience is as smooth and hassle-free as possible. For Hoodless, that means that no work is carried out while her client is in residence.

What’s more, a client with numerous projects is likely to enjoy excellent access to the firm’s chief. “I dedicate a lot of personal time to my clients,” says Esposito. “I’m always available for calls and meetings in London. That the head of the project is giving them attention is valuable and narrows the channel of communication.” And that, he believes, is what brings him the next project.

With an established visual vocabulary and a shorthand for the look and feel that you want to achieve, you can cut to the chase

Repeat business allows the designer to get to know his or her client inside out, to everyone’s advantage. “Multiple projects mean that when you start the next one you’re that much further ahead already,” explains Hoodless. Becker agrees: “Designing the second project for the client allowed for both us and them to build on what we had learned from the first project, and to craft a more refined design vision for the Hollywood Hills home.”

Brown explains that the designer’s depth of knowledge—particularly when delivering turnkey projects covering everything from the bed linen and cutlery to the wallpaper and artwork—increases over each new property: “As you go from one home to another it’s the knowledge of mundane elements that become so valuable to your client.” He points to seemingly minor preferences, such as sofa filling or type of under-carpet padding.

Mutuus Studio NYC penthouse
The stylish interior of Brian Henson and Mia Sara's New York City penthouse, designed by Mutuus Studio architects.

Pooley echoes this: “It’s all about what toilets and faucets and ovens they like.” By getting consistency on functional elements across properties, these schemes quickly feel like home. But woe betide designers who find themselves forgetting what’s gone before with other details. “You’ve got to remember what you’ve done in each household so you’re not copying,” she cautions. Like knowing which dinner services were ordered last time—potentially even which dishwasher washes them best.

The designers’ challenge, then, is to create familiarity while at the same time keeping it fresh. For Hoodless, that involves “presenting new fabrics that we haven’t looked at before and moving [the design scheme] on. Making sure that I’m not showing her the same thing that we looked at 10 years ago.”

Despite the demands of adding to a portfolio of places to call home, a tried-and-trusted designer or architect can help smooth the path. As Brown says: “The longer you work together, the more attuned you become to what makes your client comfortable and happy.”

On the Market

La Muette Penthouse, 16th District, Paris
Paris penthouse 16th district
Superb reception rooms with magnificent paneling are key features of this five-bedroom penthouse in the prestigious La Muette quarter, on the market with Belles Demeures de France (Daniel Féau Conseil Immobilier), the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region. Spread over the fourth and fifth floors of a luxurious building designed by noted French architect Jean Walter and built in 1929, it boasts 5,866 sq ft (545 sq m) of interior space and a generous balcony.
Apartment Yorkville Toronto
Originally designed by Philip Johnson and reconstructed by celebrated Paris-based Bouygues Group, this two-story residence sits high above Bloor Street—Canada’s Fifth Avenue. A soaring travertine foyer leads to expansive principal rooms with access to more than 5,000 sq ft (465 sq m) of terraces, and there is a magnificent master retreat. On the market with Chestnut Park Real Estate Limited, Brokerage, the exclusive affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate in Toronto.