enLIGHTenment – The Lighting Industry Trade Publication

How to Strengthen the Designer-Showroom Bond: Maria Viola-Kuttruff

Mary Jo Martin asks interior designers and lighting showrooms to speak frankly about the positive aspects of the lighting showroom and interior designer partnership, along with advice on how to create better synergy between them.

Maria Viola-Kuttruff

Viola Interior Design, Merion, Pennsylvania

While taking a break from her job as a business writer/editor when her children were young, Maria Viola-Kuttruff helped her set designer sister with a TV commercial she was working on. She enjoyed the project so much, she began investigating educational programs for that line of work and earned a Master’s degree in Interior Architecture & Design from Drexel University and was hired by several architectural firms for residential, commercial, and institutional projects before starting her own business specializing in luxury residential.

“I take my business very seriously,” Viola-Kuttruff says. “I don’t see it as a trivial pursuit or hobby. I’m working on someone’s home and get involved first-hand in every aspect of the design project. Some days are stressful and heavy, but what I do is dynamic, fast-paced, creative, and never boring. I enjoy interacting and strategizing with people and am a problem-solver by nature, so it comes naturally for me to figure out a way to make things beautiful.”

“Lighting is a very personal thing. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the scope of a fixture — or have a sense of what the finish will look like in person.”

Partner With Showrooms

At the start of a project, Viola-Kuttruff will surf online and flip through catalogs for inspiration, but she considers lighting showrooms her business partner and often brings floor plans and photos into the store to talk with the staff about the aesthetic and palette.

“The main showroom I use is Bright Light because their staff is very well-trained,” she explains. “I’ve built a strong relationship with them, and they understand my style and the way I like to do business. Their staff knows the products and the right books to pull for each project, which helps me work very effectively. It saves me hours of time looking through products online that aren’t right for the project. I trust the showroom staff will help me find the best options for any project I bring them.

“Once I decide on the selections to present to my client, I make an appointment with the showroom to go over the specs in advance. I want to prep her on the direction I’m going in so we’re on the same page when I bring clients in.”

Viola-Kuttruff wants to ensure her clients have a true vision of what the product will look like when installed in the home. “Lighting is a very personal thing. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the scope of a fixture — or have a sense of what the finish will look like in person,” she notes. “Designers and clients both need to understand the scale, quality, and appearance of each fixture before they place the order. While it’s not possible for a showroom to have everything on display, they’ll likely have something that has the same finish and close to the size and style. I want to be certain that there aren’t going to be any big surprises when the fixtures we order are delivered and hung.”

Why I Don’t Buy Direct

While Viola-Kuttruff acknowledges that designers can sometimes increase their earnings by having direct accounts with manufacturers, it’s important to her to have the service and support a showroom offers.

“My profit margin would be a little better going direct because the manufacturers would give me a lower price,” Maria shares. “But the downside is that everything then falls on the designer’s shoulders if something goes wrong at any point in the process — or afterwards. If I’m only ordering a lamp or two, I’ll sometimes go direct. But when I’m outfitting several rooms or an entire house, I like being able to rely on the showroom to handle everything for me. They prepare the order and pricing for me to share with my client, which saves me a tremendous amount of time. Once the client approves it, the showroom processes my order and ensures that all the items are in stock with the manufacturers. They also stay on top of my orders and keep me informed from start to finish.

“I also like having the showroom as my partner for their technical expertise. If a fixture involves more than just flipping a switch, I want them involved with the specifications. I know that the showroom is going to be right there for me and my clients throughout the process — and for after-the-sale support. It takes that worry off my shoulders.”

Viola-Kuttruff says the newly renovated Bright Light showroom she partners with is setting a new standard for the future direction of lighting showrooms, and she appreciates the staff’s friendliness when she brings clients in.

“Most of my clients are very high-end and expect a certain level of service,” she describes. “When they’re paying for a service or product, they expect to do business with a company that is a leader in its specialty and get the full attention of people at those businesses. The clients I’ve brought into Bright Light know they are in a special place; it’s not a lighting store where there are countless fixtures all hung one after the other with tags dangling everywhere. It has a very different vibe and is much more ‘shoppable.’ It’s a comfortable, welcoming environment that enhances clients’ ability to make even better decisions.”

Viola-Kuttruff encourages other lighting showrooms to “be an advocate for, and partner with, designers.” Offering continuing education courses that will strengthen their businesses is also a great way to build relationships.

One financial incentive Viola-Kuttruff suggests is for showrooms to consider some sort of rebate program in addition, or as an option, to trade discounts. “It would be a serious incentive to gain designers’ business,” she comments. “A showroom won’t earn designers’ loyalty by giving them the same price as a consumer who walks in their door. Make it attractive for designers to buy from you both financially and because of your service level. Let designers know you will be there for them. Remember, this doesn’t just benefit designers. They will bring in solid, high-quality clients who are willing to invest significantly in design projects — and who are going to buy higher-end products than typical consumers shopping on their own.”

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