Company Rides Fast Track Toward Design Success

by WOHe

Company Rides Fast Track Toward Design

By Daina Manning

ENCINITAS, CAOn the weekend, when many other designers are
frantically catching up with their projects, Leslie Cohen races
cars. And Cohen’s dedication to racing has a residual effect on her
design firm she’s not available to work outside of normal business
hours. While some might see this as a detriment, Cohen believes it
has just the opposite effect on her and her business.

She recalls hearing a speaker at a seminar once: He opined that,
if a designer is to be refreshed, on the ball and on top of every
detail, he or she needs to relax and have an outside life. “That
made a big difference,” she remembers. “I stopped working so many
hours, and when I went out on my own, I stopped taking evening or
weekend appointments. If [people] can’t deal with that, then I’ll
walk away from the project. That’s made a huge difference in how
clients treat me if you treat yourself with respect, they’ll treat
you with respect, too.”
Cohen has combined this philosophy with a passion for design that
started very early in life.

“I’ve always designed things, ever since I was a little kid,”
she recalls. “I used to call them busses all the rooms you had in a
house, with swimming pools on the roof! These days, they would be
RVs,” she laughs. “When I got older, I’d take floor plans of new
houses out of the newspaper and fix them. I space planned. I’d
rearrange my bedroom.”

After college, which included both art and business courses, she
detoured from design to work in the computer field, but quickly
returned when she hooked up with a design teacher who was a CKD,
and discovered the wonderful world of kitchen design. “It just
clicked it combined the artistic and the technical.” Her teacher
recommended her to a showroom, which lead to her first job in
“It was totally on commission, so I just started cold calling
architects and contractors,” she remembers. “I was just really
persistent, and started selling projects.” She soon got brought
into the showroom full time and discovered she didn’t really care
for the long, structured hours. After six years gaining experience,
she went out on her own, and hasn’t looked back since. “I had built
up enough of a name for myself that I was busy from that day
[forward],” she says.

Cohen never advertises, but does send out a big mailing of
holiday cards, frequently enters design contests, and participates
in show houses as well as ASID kitchen tours. “I make an effort to
get published and talk to the media,” she elaborates, for instance,
guesting on a local radio show.

Cohen employs a bookkeeper and a design assistant, and is happy
working from her home, though she does have relationships with
several showrooms. Although she’s actively involved in monitoring
installation for her projects, the work itself is the
responsibility of a general contractor who handles the subs. The
contractor is either someone she recommends, or someone the client
picks. “Sometimes, contractors I know bring me on to projects,” she
She believes strongly that pre-qualifying is key to maximizing her
time. “I get lots of phone calls, and I do my qualifying over the
phone,” she notes. “I’ve learned to use the phone as a tool,
because if I went out and saw every person who called, all I would
do is drive around. But [most] of the people who call aren’t really
my clients. So I ask a lot of questions how they found me, when
they need to get started, etc., because most times I’m not
available to start something right away.

“I try to find out what the scope of work is, and the quality
level,” she continues. Cohen will only do complete remodels, or new
construction. “If they’re saying, we want new counters and to
reface the cabinets, I don’t do that.”

Another must when pre-qualifying someone: “I always discuss
budget on the phone, because I do higher-end projects and my design
fees are not inexpensive,” says Cohen.

She notes that, a lot of the time, people have no idea how much,
for instance, high-end appliances cost. “I’m looking to see if
their budget is realistic. A lot of them can’t afford to do the
projects they want,” Cohen elaborates. She adds,

“You have to develop some kind of trust and rapport, because
people don’t want to tell you their budget over the phone they’re
afraid you’re going to take advantage of them.”

Cohen will also sometimes turn down a project because she senses
there will be a personality conflict with the client. “You have to
go a lot off your intuition,” she says. “I want to enjoy what I’m
doing. I’m looking for people who respect my work and my time.”

Client taste, however, is not a factor in whether or not Cohen
will take a project. “I am trying to make my clients happy I don’t
have a distinct style. I enjoy being challenged and working with
different styles. I like is when my clients call me up after
Thanksgiving, and it’ll be the first time the client has made a big
dinner, and she’ll say, ‘Oh my God, this is working so well, and
it’s so much fun!’ I soak all that up.

“Some people think I only do [modern] because my contemporary
work has been published so much. But, I also love very traditional
interiors. The only thing I won’t do is cutesy country,” she
concludes. “The bunny rabbit duck thing? That is just not me!”

Leslie Cohen Design 

LOCATION: Encinitas, CA
PRINCIPALS: Leslie Cohen,
By appointment only
Neil Kelly Cabinets, Wm Ohs, Neff Kitchens and Crystal Cabinet
SPECIALTY: High-end kitchen design projects
“I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m looking for [clients] who
respect my work and my time.”

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