Every man thinks he is an excellent driver, and every woman thinks she decorates with a marvelous touch. The truth is, only a minuscule percentage of people possess enough professional-level skill and business ability to actually make a living at either one. Those striving to be full-time decorators face the extra challenge of distinguishing themselves amidst an ocean of part-time competition.

To help supply would-be professional directors with both the fabric selection and business sense, Mercer County Community College presents a certificate program in interior design, with four core courses and a half dozen electives. Veteran professional designer Joyce Kelleher teaches Interior Design Business Practice on Mondays from November 19 to December 6 on the West Windsor Campus. Cost: $83. Visit www.mccc.edu or phone 609-570-3311.

An interior design certificate is also available at Middlesex County College. Remaining on the Middlesex schedule are one-day seminars on November 10 and 17 (732-902-2556).

Kelleher has more than three decades of design experience in both commercial and residential fields. Kelleher grew up in Lansing, Michigan, daughter of an architect father, and with a brother who later became an architect. But it was her mother who imbued her with a real love of things artistic. Coming east, Kelleher studied commercial design at New York City’s Pratt Institute. After graduating in the late l960s she followed the work and found herself in Tulsa, Oklahoma decorating the 225,000 square-foot Williams Construction Company headquarters. She then opened her own design firm in Tulsa, doing 90 percent commercial work.

In Washington D.C. she designed for CRSS Architects, and then in l988 joined CUH2A. After three years, Kelleher felt the urge to step out on her own again, and formed Kelleher Designs, which has been decorating the tri-state area in primarily Federal and Georgian ever since. “Most of the people in the interior design field who charge for their services perform one or two jobs a year,” says Kelleher. “And as I tell most of these hobbyists, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’” Unlike many start-up mentors, Kelleher says the ingredients for design success are more matters of gift than training.

Swatchability. “Talent is number one,” insists Kelleher. “Simply, put, the ones who have the most, build the largest practices.” Knowing which colors, fabrics, textures, hard surfaces, materials, and paints blend with which, and with each other is a daunting task. Add to that an innate knowledge of spatial quality — what size item needs to be placed where for maximum attractiveness, feel, and efficiency.

Of course, the good designer constantly trains himself on the latest materials available, and samples abound in scores of shops. Kelleher favors Philadelphia’s 300,000 square-foot Marketplace Design Center at 24 Market Street. Open only to professionals, it requires only a county-registered business document and a business card to get into its inner sanctum.

Any of the millions of hobbyist designers can find a fine stripe of red in a sofa and then pick out a chair to match. But it takes that individual with the special talent to see beyond, and realize that a chair of imperial blue (not navy or Yale blue, mind you) would really make the room sing. That’s the gift, and Kelleher insists that you either you have it or don’t.

Client chemistry. Courting a design client calls for an atypical sales pitch. The professional is selling himself to someone who probably justifiably feels that they can do an average, adequate job themselves. References are a bit dicey and often backfire. Unlike those shopping for new driveway pavement, no one wants a home or office that in any way looks like anybody else’s.

One can, of course point to years of experience, education, and the typical style in which one decorates. But in the end, the real sales clincher depends on that special clicking of designer/client personalities; something beyond trust, moving into similarity of emotion. “Sometimes I can tell right over the phone that it just is not going to work, and I refer the client to another designer,” says Kelleher.

Business process. The decorating flow from first concept to final ribbon cutting is a ledgy stream of checking and adjustments, with the entire job in the balance the whole way. Once the chemistry has been established, Kelleher sits with the client, determines the general desires, and discovers any dealbreaker pieces. If Aunt Laura’s absolutely hideous armchair must stay, Kelleher wants to know beforehand, so she can darken its background and make it disappear. She also ascertains the usage of the rooms. Many old folks? Then no area rugs. Small children? No sharp corners. Many people? Create open flow space.

At this point, the decorator comes up with a basic floor plan. “This is always a first draft,” says Kelleher. “Clients always make some corrections.” Once the floor plan basics are hammered out, Kelleher usually presents the contract. Up to this point, she has been charging billable hours, then during the design phase, she quotes a flat fee. Purchases and overruns or readjustments are noted as billable extras.

From the accepted floor plan, Kelleher moves into the design phase. While she may have showed the customer certain 20-inch x 20-inch swatches before, now she gets serious. She may even take her client to the Philadelphia Marketplace with her, although typically she makes these decisions alone.

Kelleher keeps reworking, remeasuring, checking small questions with the client, until at last she presents the total concept. “You need a lot of verbal skills here. I stride around a room flailing my arms, saying ‘Look, I’m a drapery.’” The decorator has to keep selling it, because the client could pull out at any time. While contracts may offer a bit of protection, if made too tight, the customer won’t sign them. One must maintain the atmosphere of an easy-going, just-us-ladies-chatting, while keeping the fiscal coverage and pay schedules good and tight.

Purchasing represents a substantial portion of the decorator’s fee. Kelleher puts her overhead on every piece of furniture she selects, buys, has custom upholstered, and has shipped or carts in herself.

Today’s trends. Decorator colors, like clothing, cycle in and out of fashion, but never return in quite the same way. Currently, blacks and whites are the popular choice for residential interiors as are chocolate browns. The latter is often set off with Florida Keys ocean turquoise. These are not the l970s earth tones, but richer browns with soft accents.

Orange is back. Of course, not the way it adorned kitchens in the l960s, and one never calls it orange. Today’s oranges are more cantaloupe and nacreous sea shell tones. “The real trend right now is that anything goes. While soft colors are in the majority, the jewel tones — saturated with color — are also prevalent,” says Kelleher.

Styles like Federal and Georgian, Kelleher’s specialties, are still strong, but a dressed up, multicolored Victorian is gaining favor. Though no designer wants to be known for cookie-cutter designs, gaining a reputation for expertise in one or two specific styles can help broaden the customer base.

As a final hint to those wanting to transform their decorating hobby into a profession, Kelleher advises her students to maintain a strong, unshakable confidence. “This is not a collaborative effort between you and the client,” she says. “You are the expert. Keep pushing your directives, and never appear wishy-washy.” Insist that the chair must be blue. Then firmly, but politely, explain why.”

Kelleher Design Group, 122 Copperfield Drive, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-530-1855; Joyce M. Kelleher, owner.

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