It starts with a career in the U.S. Army and leads to the establishment of Becker Interiors, Vienna, VA, in 1993, and last year to Designer Elements, a to-the-trade accessories and decorative arts showroom. Along the way there is a brush with royalty, and as a finishing touch, in January, Becker became president of the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA), a 2,000-member association comprising leaders from all segments and all categories of the furnishings and design industry.
As for his dream-come-true experiences, Becker says, "It's wonderful. Up until last year I was using a lot of individual designers who were sole practitioners working out of my home. I now have a studio with six employees."
Becker was in college during the Vietnam era. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in math from Arkansas State University he entered the U.S. military. Soon afterwards he was married, and he and his wife both enjoyed the military life. "It was a great career so I stayed in there," Becker says.
But while in the military, Becker went back to school, first earning a graduate degree in operations research from the University of Southern California, then in interior design at the International Institute of Interior Design and Northern Virginia Community College.
The plot takes a turn with an added fairy tale touch when Becker left the military after a lengthy career. "I had to decide what I was going to do," he says. "I've always wanted to be a designer." Although he did part-time design work while still on active duty, the economy was in recession so Becker didn't think it was the business to go into. He applied for several administrative positions because that is what he did in the Army.
But he soon was bored with that, so Becker returned to his life-long ambition for interior design work. He applied for a job in the design department at Bloomingdale's in northern Virginia, but was hired to work in the china and crystal department instead. He takes up the story from there:
"A couple of months later, a lady with a large entourage came in and I sold her a large quantity of china and crystal. She came back the next week and I sold her more. We got to know each other and I wrote her a letter thanking her for her business and telling her I was a designer and if she needed any help with her new home, I'd be happy to help her.
"A month later I got a call from the woman's secretary saying, 'Her Royal Highness would like to have an audience with you.'"
Becker was hired to remodel two parlors, a dining room, a kitchen, a powder room and a foyer—and it all had to be done quickly. "Two and a half weeks and a quarter of a million dollars later, she had a new space and threw a big party. And so that's when I decided this is really what I should be doing," Becker says.
"I'm a full-service design firm. I basically do a turn-key operation. I've always marketed myself as providing quality, service and style. Obviously, if clients see photographs of your work, they are going to pick up on that. But one of my most effective ads has no photographs. It just talks about the service I provide and what I can do for them as a consultant. Everyone's used to hiring consultants, we hire lawyers, we hire accountants, we hire bookkeepers and people who are specialists in their fields to help us. That's what we are, we're consultants, we're really professionals and we're there to help."
D&WC: In what directions to you see the interior design industry heading?
BECKER: What I'm seeing is comfort over tradition, classic style instead of shabby chic, and value and quality are going to prevail. At least in the area I work that's what we're seeing. The Washington, DC, area is known for government services, but now we're also known for high technology with America Online and other Internet services and companies in this area. It used to be all 18th-century furnishings, now it's more contemporary and transitional. We're seeing people who want comfort, they don't want stuffiness in their lives. They want things that look really great and have good style, but they want to be comfortable.
D&WC: How much influence does the ability of more people to work out of their homes or in non-traditional office settings play on these trends?
BECKER: It plays a big role. Not only are people working out of their homes—and that is increasing tremendously—but everyone seems to want to have an office. In a lot of cases we find two offices in the home. If they are a husband-and-wife team, they want one for the husband and one for the wife. They each want their own individual office.
D&WC: Are window treatments becoming more elaborate?
BECKER: It all depends on the client, but I love fabric and that's where I always start. I see more simpler designs, not with swags and jabots but something simpler: simple panels on a metal or wood rod, maybe embellished with trim or contrasting borders—still very elegant treatments, but simplified.
A lot of newer homes being built have such huge window expanses and a lot of them have two-story rooms that are all windows. People buy those homes because of the windows and being able to see out. They don't want to cover their views. What we do is some kind of treatment that will frame the window rather than cover the window completely. Something to embellish it rather than take it over completely.
I also see a lot of European influences where there's layering, maybe two or three levels of treatments. You might have some that are draw draperies, but there will be a top treatment and side panels with the draw draperies underneath. That's still is happening.
D&WC: Do you see motorized treatments increasing in use?
BECKER: They are, especially in homes in addition to offices. In homes we're seeing a lot of people with media rooms and they like having that technology in their media rooms so they can push a button and their draperies open or close.
I just got back from a trip to the Far East (Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia), and when I go I am invited into homes and commercial sites and get to see a lot of very high-end hotels. I've seen a lot of motorized treatments in a lot of those spaces. But some of my residential clients are using motorized treatments, especially in their bedrooms or media rooms.
D&WC: What markets do you think will be important for interior furnishings in the years immediately ahead?
BECKER: Again, home offices are very hot right now. Also, technology. I'm finding more and more people want to improve the technology in their homes—everything from higher-tech lighting to media and video equipment. They want better sound and they also want great television sources. Flat-screen TVs are really picking up. Now, with the Internet and all the ways technology keeps increasing while products keep getting smaller, that's want clients are looking for and they want furnishings to accommodate that.
The hardest thing to find, and I think it would be great if we could get more interest in this area, is better quality furnishings for younger people, like for teenagers who are growing up. When I try to do children's rooms for my clients, they want good quality in there and a lot of the things we're finding out there is typical particleboard built to last only for the short term. Clients really want better quality. They want something that's going to last, that the kids can grow up with, that they can take away with them if they want to at some point.
I think we're lacking in furniture that will accommodate computers. Every child now has his own computer. Each parent has an office and each child has a computer. It's hard to find products to accommodate that right now. We're just starting to see it coming on the market in the numbers that we really would like to see. There's some out there, but there's just not enough variety. So I think technology is the name of the game for the future.
D&WC: How can designers best prepare themselves for success in the future?
BECKER: Professional designers have to constantly re-educate themselves. We have to always re-evaluate how we do our business and what products and services the consumer wants. We can't continuously do things the way things were done in the past.
All my clients are asking for service. They can pretty much go out and buy a sofa, or they can go out and buy casegoods, but what they really are looking for is someone to take care of the project for them. They want someone who is going to pull it together, make sure everything goes correctly and give them a final product without them having to oversee it and do all the work. They want someone to manage a project, take care of all of the problems and leave them with a beautiful, finished space.
For interior designers to be successful in the future, they have to really think service and work in that direction.
D&WC: Do more clients today understand the value of design?
BECKER: No. What is happening is that we're getting more and more people with money—a lot of people are making money in stocks, have good jobs and the economy is great—and they're busy, they don't have time to do this. We're finding a lot of people who have never hired an interior designer. They don't know the process, they don't really understand it. So we have to educate them from the very beginning that we are professionals and what value and services a designer can provide and the best way to work with us.
Once they learn that, they appreciate it and as it goes on they're glad they hired a designer.
D&WC: What will be your focus as the new IFDA national president?
BECKER: I have two goals for this year. One is to increase our services and programs to our members and the industry as a whole. The second is to increase our membership.
We're kind of unique in that we're really on the verge of a period in which we can really grow. We currently are a chapter-based organization, and our organization is dependent on our members' willingness to volunteer their services. I'd like to see the chapters diversify more. We have some chapters that have more interior designers than they have other industry members, or have a lot of people in the public relations field and not very many designers, or not very many people in the furnishings business. I'd like to see us diversify more in each chapter instead of having chapters that seem to gear toward one particular field in the industry. I'd like us to expand into a more member-based organization that's not totally dependent on chapter structures.
With the advance of technology, members can receive benefits and grow their businesses through being associated with IFDA whether they belong to a chapter or not. We have Web sites and e-mail so everyone can benefit by being a member of IFDA whether they belong to a particular chapter or if they are out in the middle of Wyoming where there aren't any chapters.
In the area of increasing services and programs, we're instituting programs at the national level this year that are going to provide programs to both chapters and individual members and members of the industry. We're doing this through a national speakers bureau, which we're starting later this year. We're getting nationally recognized speakers that will be sponsored by our headquarters and we'll send them out to various sites around the nation, usually where we have a chapter to sponsor a program, and open it to the industry. That not only provides a great program for the chapter, but also for other members in the industry in the area.
We're really looking forward to this. We've got a couple of good speakers lined up to start this off and we're probably going to do six programs this year.
IFDA is a wonderful organization for anyone who's in the furnishing and design industry. It has helped me grow my business. I can relate many successful jobs that I've had through networking with other IFDA members, but also through hiring people and using resources from members that have helped make a lot of my jobs successful. It's a great organization for businesses to expand and grow and learn from each other.
IFDA headquarters is located at 1200 19th St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036-2422; (202) 857-1897; fax: (202) 828-6042; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ifda.com.