Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The King of Morocco and a Designer's Priorities.

It was just a few weeks ago that my phone rang, and the following conversation took place:

Me: "Jack Gold"

Caller: "I need to build a gift for a king."

Me: "Who is this really?"

Well, it turns out that it really was a client, and he really was looking to build a gift for a king.  The caller was the Rabbi of a congregation on Manhattans Upper West Side, and was scheduled to be Knighted by the King of Morocco during a ceremony to take place the following week.  As is customary, the Rabbi was to present the king with a gift as well, in this instance, a silver crown - and he needed a display case designed and built.

The client explained to me that they were already over budget on the project, and he was wondering if I had any creative solutions.

In my previous articles, I have spoken at length about the importance of qualifying our clients and projects - and why this is so crucial to the outcome and success of our work.  Well, if I had heeded my own advice, I probably would have simply walked away from the project.  There were some pretty straight forward warning signs:

1. The client wanted the project designed and built in under a week.  A timeframe that is unrealistic.

2. The client needed something perfect, the gift after all is going to a king, but there is little budget to work with.

On any normal day I would have clearly seen that the expectations of time, budget and detail were simply unrealistic.  It was a project that was doomed to fail.

But all I heard was "Can you build something for a king?"

And I allowed the idea of building something for a monarch, designing and creating something that would have a place of pride in an Embassy or Palace - to just sweep me away.  I mean, is there not something magical about the idea?  How often do we have a chance to interact with royalty, even if through numerous proxies?  It is the stuff of fairytales and Hollywood, and now it was sitting on my desk.

Well, My normal workflow went out the window.  This was a project with a clock ticking, and a king waiting.  I skipped the CAD and sketches, and went straight to the floor armed with a pencil and a straight edge.  While working with a carpenter, I roughed out a concept right there on a piece of scrap wood, and as we cut and formed the pieces, the design evolved.

Here we created profiles and a brick-like pattern and laid out the box construction perfectly...while another project sat on the sidelines, waiting for my attention.

The next day, after all the glue had dried and all the parts were sanded, I stood at the staining booth, mixing powders and bases and creating the color I was seeing in my mind. Emails were going unanswered, but the king was waiting, and the color needed to be perfect.

And so the process continued.  We completed the finish process and had the glass vendor start working on a glass box while the engraver made up a silver plaque and we began to line the interior of the box with a luxurious bed of navy blue velvet.

The client came to pick up the box the day before it was to be presented, and I felt like a hero.  I had done the impossible, designing, building, finishing, and completing a project that should take 2 weeks - in just under 3 days.

But at what cost, I later wondered?

I broke every rule that I have ever set for myself about timeframes and workflows and profit margins.  I neglected work that was waiting for me, emails and bookkeeping, all the tasks of running a business.  I allowed myself to be completely wowed by the wonder of working on project for a king, and in the process, I allowed the tail to wag the dog.

Now the kings emmisaries have been presented with the box and gift, and the press covered the news story and I am very proud to have been given the opportunity to design this gift box and build it.  It was rewarding and humbling and the real definition of a "feel good" experience.

But ultimately, it was bad business.

As artisans and as people who are emotionally invested in our work, we have a tendency to gravitate towards the projects that make us feel good, the projects that allow us to feel honest in our concepts and faithful to our aesthetic sensibilities.  These are all fabulous core beliefs, but they should never affect us to the point that we forget, that at the end of the day, we are business people too.

Taking on the right projects, and dedicating our time to projects that allow us to be profitable, well that's how the rent gets paid, and that's how the sign stays up.  It is difficult to separate the emotional part of what we do from the logistical part of what we do, but such seperation is critical, if we are to give ourselves the tools and opportunity to build and maintain successful design practices.

Given the opportunity again, I would no doubt build the box again.  But today at least, I know what I SHOULD be doing - even if taking my own advice is sometimes to difficult to manage.

Jack Gold is the owner and Senior Designer at Presidential Interiors, a NYC-based millwork, cabinetry and upholstery fabrication firm.

He can be reached for private comment via email: jack@presidentialinteriors.com

The story of the Rabbi and the King can be read here:


  1. Great story and lesson here, Jack. Advice is much easier to give than receive!

    Amy Ahearn, CKD, CAPS

  2. Thank you for sharing this! Your end result is amazing. At least your efforts were appreciated. I hope your compensation was enough to make it a little bit "OK" business-wise. And I hope that Rabbi speaks so well of you that it pays off BIG someday. We have jumped through hoops for clients in the past and were pleased with what we accomplished for them and their very unrealistic demands, only to be met with "is that all? What else can you do for me?" Those are the ones we really need to avoid, as they will likely not speak well enough of us to have made it worthwhile. The ones that really appreciate our efforts to solve their problems within some pretty unrealistic parameters are sometimes worth an exception to the rule. For me, it is tough to discern which the client will be in the beginning.

  3. Great story...totally relate to the emotional part...Thank you for sharing !!

  4. But, Jack, what a story you now have!! How many of your competitors can say they build something for a king? While your cash profit may have been negligible, if any exisited at all, the value of having this story to add to your marketing and PR efforts is near priceless. Run with it. Don't limit the sharing of it with just us in the design community. This event and story can be the element that takes you to your firm's 'next step.' Congratulations.

    Terri L Maurer
    Maurer Consulting Group