Education plays a big part in workrooms and designers getting the respect they deserve. It plays a huge roll in customer satisfaction, and the trends in education and our industry present both good and bad news.
THE GOOD NEWS
In the past it has been said that workrooms are a dying breed. This is not so much the case anymore; there is something of a workroom revival currently going on in our midst. Many people are exiting the corporate rat race and discovering that making custom soft treatments can be an extremely satisfying way to make a living.
Talking to the attendees at some recent trade shows in Denver, CO, and Phoenix, AZ, the question must inevitably be posed, “So how long have you been in the business?” Surprisingly of late, the answers have been things like, “Three years, I worked in telecommunications for 12 years, but decided to give that up and do something I could enjoy.” Or, “Five years, I used to be a scrub nurse for a plastic surgeon, but that work was just not rewarding, I find design much more satisfying.” Or, “My kids are such a handful, I home school them, this work gives me the flexibility to do that.”
This industry is still largely a cottage industry, and there is nothing wrong with that. Having been in this business myself for more than 30 years and working in nearly every aspect of it, from a small one-person workroom to owning a large commercial production plant to design consultant and sales person, I see all of the new interest in designing and making custom soft furnishings as an exciting trend.
I closed my large workroom just 10 years ago because I could not find anyone who knew how to sew, or even wanted to learn! It is so thrilling now to see the resurgence in interest in sewing and learning to make window treatments—and not just new interest, but new passion! We want this trend to continue. We need this trend to continue. There currently is still a huge demand for soft window covering products and we need these new and eager people onboard to help to meet the demand.
THE BAD NEWS
A surprisingly large number of design schools have decided for one reason or another that soft window treatments are not something that needs to be taught in the interior design education process. Recent discussions with some college educators has produced alarming responses like, “We only spend a few hours per semester talking about that, it is such a small bit of what we need to teach and, besides, it’s not required.” Or, “We expect our students to go on to study architecture, and they won’t need this.” Or, “Our budget just does not allow us to be including anything else at this time.”
As a result of colleges taking this attitude, design graduates are coming away with the idea that the window treatment process is easy and not important because they don’t even need the information in order to graduate. This is a huge problem!
The new design graduates emerge from college without an education in window treatments and soon come to realize that their clients are demanding that window treatments be included as a part of the design scheme. Clueless about what to do, they will seek out a workroom professional for answers. Immediately an experienced person will detect the lack of knowledge and become annoyed with the situation. Seeing the obvious need to provide much more service than just manufacturing, the workroom will lose respect for this designer quickly or seek significantly more money to do the job because the bulk of the responsibility for the customer’s satisfaction has now shifted from the designer to the workroom.
The new lesser trained workroom entrepreneur sees the new untrained designer as a problem because they come seeking answers that must be researched, and take up huge amounts of valuable production time. The loss of this time also results in higher workroom costs. If it does not, these new workrooms lose revenue, lose interest and go away.
To complicate the situation, the soft treatment workroom industry as a whole is in a bit of disarray as it lacks any kind of a clear common method of style and quality standardization, which makes communicating with designers difficult. If design schools wanted to teach window treatment specifications, what do they teach? The absence of a clear common communication standard is only serving to confuse everyone—educators, designers, workrooms and consumers alike.
The very worst part of all of this is that our consumer, the most important person in the whole process, still wants soft coverings such as draperies, valances, soft shades and bed canopies to be included in their design schemes. They don’t understand why they are not included. They know what they want; they are willing to pay a fair price to get it, yet we as an industry continue to make the process difficult for them.
Designers don’t understand because they have not been taught, workrooms are frustrated by the shift of the burden of responsibility and inability to communicate. With all of this going on, our consumer has nowhere to turn for good, clear information with which to make an intelligent buying decision. They often will purchase products based on price alone because they have no other basis for comparison.
Why, then, are we so often surprised when they are disappointed? Will our consumer continue to want a product that is confusing and difficult to buy and then often leaves them dissatisfied? I think not. In fact, evidence of this is already beginning to emerge. Ready-mades and non-custom products are gaining popularity because they are fast, simple to obtain, and, while not exactly what they want, affordable. Is this something we as an industry want to allow to continue?
Obviously there is a need for more education here, for both new workroom entrepreneurs and new designers. With many of the new workroom people coming from entirely different industries, like telecommunications, medicine, or finance, they have little or only very basic knowledge of how to make some things or are not familiar with all of the idiosyncrasies of operating a small business.
It is the job and responsibility of the designer to know and understand as much about specifying window treatments as they know about space planning, lighting, flooring, or anything else, so they can competently sell custom products.
Workroom professionals need to understand that designers who don’t know these things are not stupid; they need to be gently directed back to their educators to get the rest of their design education. Our industry needs to established written and published standards that are clear and a common method of communicating manufacturing methodologies and levels of quality. Our consumers need to have access to this information in order to make informed buying decisions.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The workroom industry and some educators have picked up the ball and are doing a good job of offering many types of educational classes and seminars in an effort to solve this problem, but the industry as a whole needs to be a little bit more organized.
We have the The Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA, www.wcaa.org) and we need to make it work for us as our industry representative to consumers, universities and other trades. We need it to hear our voices and work with all the local chapters and begin establishing a good, solid communication code for style and levels of quality so the educators, workrooms, and the consumer know what to teach, make and buy and so that we can all be working from the same page. Call your local WCAA representative and ask what you can do to help.
We need to be pushing the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (www.accredit-id.org/who.html) to make soft window coverings a required course in order to get an interior design degree.
This is the design education we all need. When this happens, workrooms will be respected for their skill, quality in workmanship and fees; designers will graduate with some understanding of the processes that go into taking a concept and turning it into a reality; and consumers will be properly served. They will be satisfied and will continue to demand custom window treatment products.
Barbara Talmadge is the staff writer for Precision Draperies Education, Westminster, CO, which develops educational materials and software specific to soft window treatments.