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How to work with international clients as an interior designer

Listen to two international interior designers give you the best advice for cross-cultural projects.

Thomas Hamel colorado US ski lodge project beautiful
Telluride, Colorado, USA project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Tim Street-Porter)
How to work with international clients as an interior designer
Clara Carlino de Paz
June 9, 2023

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As an interior designer, your job is to transform empty spaces into beautifully designed living and working areas that meet the unique needs and preferences of your clients. In today's globalised world, chances are you may find yourself working with clients from all around the world, each with their own cultural and personal expectations.

Working with international clients can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can also present some challenges. To succeed in this field, you need to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the complexities of cross-cultural communication, understand the unique tastes and preferences of your clients, and adapt your design approach and workflows accordingly.

To guide you through this complex journey, we’ve enlisted the help of two experienced interior designers who have worked across borders, languages and cultures. Introducing Thomas Hamel, founder of the eponymous Thomas Hamel and Associates located in Surry Hills, Australia, and Lena Cottray from London-based Lawson Robb

Thomas Hamel

Hi Thomas! Could you introduce yourself and your work?

I am the Director of Sydney based international interior design firm Thomas Hamel & Associates. We specialise in residential work, with clients here in Australia as well as around the world. I was born in Virginia, studied design in New York, gained invaluable experience working at Parish Hadley in New York before moving to Australia in 1991 and setting up my practice. The rest is history as I have not stopped!

Your practice is well known for working internationally with clients. In what countries have you worked so far, and how did they influence your design process?

I have been fortunate to work on some fantastic projects in the US, UK, Europe, and Asia. I place great importance on designing with a strong sense of place, so I delve deep into where a project is located and let that play a big part in the design process. That said, I never want to design to a stereotype. 

For instance, for a grand ski house in Telluride Colorado, we steered away from the antelope chandeliers or western motifs often found there and embodied this mountain vacation home with a very sophisticated and international vibe, while keeping firmly in mind the use of the house across all four seasons..

Telluride, Colorado, USA project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Tim Street-Porter)
Telluride, Colorado, USA project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Tim Street-Porter)

Could you tell us a bit more about your latest intercontinental project?

Currently, my team and I are fully immersed in a wonderful project in the English countryside. The clients have a strong interest in design and we have had fun shopping together around the world to make sure this grand house has layers and tells the story of its worldly owners. It is going to be spectacular.

What strategies do you use to research and understand the full cultural context of your international clients?

More often than not, my international projects are the second or third (or fourth!) home of an Australian client I have worked with before. It is easy to work abroad for someone that you already know so well, from their taste and style to how they like to live.

Once you understand a clients’ background, how do you adapt your design approach to accommodate different cultural preferences and expectations?

No one wants an Australian style house in the English countryside or an English manor house on a Florida waterfront canal, so we work together to ensure a house will reflect not only the client but where it is located and how to best live there. Climate plays a big factor in interior design as does geographic location (i.e. whether it is a city townhouse or a country manor house on a large estate). 

Windsor, Florida project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Trevor Tondo)
Windsor, Florida project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Trevor Tondo)

How do you balance maintaining a personal aesthetic with adapting to local needs?

I like to think all my projects are totally unique, taking into account the client’s own taste and style and the location of the residence. A house must tell the story of the person who lives there, not of their interior designer.

Belgravia, London project by Thomas Hamel  (Photographer – Mark Roper)
Belgravia, London project by Thomas Hamel  (Photographer – Mark Roper)

What challenges come up during international projects, and how can interior designers try to face them?

Shipping is of course always a challenge so we try to shop locally for pieces where we can. That said, with projects all over the world, Thomas Hamel & Associates have become experts at container shipping, customs and how to best manage all aspects of sourcing things globally. 

Some designers may be sceptical of international clients because of fears around payments and legalities. How do you personally handle contracts and financial transactions with clients in different countries?

Most of my international clients are clients I have worked with before or friends or children of past clients, so contracts are handled just the same as if the project were here in Australia, In fact, most of my repeat clients I now call close friends, so we have complete trust in each other and know how to work together to achieve great results. 

To summarise your experience; what advice would you give to someone working on their first international project?

Knowing your client is really important in designing a residence that is a true reflection of them. While Zoom is a great tool, meeting with clients face to face and on their home turf is hugely important. I take many of my clients shopping, to cities like LA, New York and London, where together we source key pieces, rugs, art, lighting and more. It is so much fun for both of us, and they love being able to tell the story of where these pieces came from. Fruitful shopping days in great design cities creates not only a special and personal home, but a lifelong memory!

Windsor, Florida project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Trevor Tondo)
Windsor, Florida project by Thomas Hamel (Photographer – Trevor Tondo)

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us and the interior designers in our audience. Where can people find out more about you and your work?

 They can visit my website  where many great projects feature. I am very active on Instagram @thomashamel where a rotation of past and present work regularly posts. If they are in Sydney, the Thomas Hamel & Associates Studio in Surry Hills is a great place to visit to meet the talented team. We  love welcoming interested people from around the world and sharing with them what we are up to!

Lena Cottray

Hi Lena! Thank you for coming to Portaire again to share your design experience. Could you introduce yourself and your work?

Sure, my name is Lena Cottray and I am one half of the creative leads at Lawson Robb alongside my design partner George Wolstenholme. LR is a multi-disciplinary interior design studio that works in the residential, hospitality and yachting industry, but that is not to say we would only stick to those fields; we are quite happy to try different avenues as well. We consider our approach to design rather relaxed but with a curated approach. We put a lot of care into the curation of space through the use of bespoke architectural detailing, furniture and art. 

Lawson Robb is known for working internationally with clients. To start, could you tell us a little about your latest international experience?

We have had our fair share of projects abroad, most recently we are working on a stunning villa in Dubai. International projects are always fun to do as they make you think a little out of the box and also let your mind and creativity wander as you need to think of the space in that country. Working internationally also means a far greater collaborative approach with local contractors, suppliers, logistic teams which is both interesting and educational as you learn about different practices or approaches you might not be accustomed to.

Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb
Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb

When starting an international project, how do you ensure that your design meets the functional and practical needs of your clients’ daily life and culture?

I don’t think that there is a difference in the question of functional or practical needs of a client whether they are in the UK or abroad. We still ask the same questions to get to know the client; what they like/don’t like, how they like to live and do things, any special requests etc. We then gather all of that information and bring them into the concept stage where we assess the project and start coming up with spatial planning and room layouts/functions that can accommodate these preferences. From a cultural perspective we also actively strive to educate ourselves if there are any certain requirements or equally get advice from the client. 

When looking for references during the ideation and mood boarding space, how do you approach looking for references that resonate with international clients?

Part of our initial getting to know stage with the client is super helpful when it comes to the initial concept. We find out a bit more about their style, lifestyle and requirements that help us create an initial picture of the project. Some clients can be super descriptive and provide lots of information as well as mood images they’ve chosen which are always a great start. Again, the international element of the client again doesn’t actually make them that different to perhaps a client closer to home, apart from perhaps having requests that make sense to their local environment, say for example if they live somewhere near mountains where they can ski and they require specific ski/mountain related spaces then we would then obviously create a suitable concept that caters to that. 

It’s also a great idea to go visit the location of the project, spend a little time exploring the area and then be able to pull inspiration as well. Whilst out exploring, it's worthwhile meeting with local craftsmen and suppliers and seeing how you can draw from them/get them into the project, as it will help make the project feel more ‘local’ and grounded. Immersing yourself into the local environment will allow for a much more genuine and thought-through concept.

Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb
Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb

What are some common misconceptions about design preferences in different parts of the world?

Good question! I think that you would be surprised that some stereotypes about certain countries are not true. Generally, when we get approached by clients abroad, it is because they like our aesthetic and respect our expertise which they are after. Our clients tend to be very open minded and are open to our suggestions. It's all about being comfortable in having an open conversation with them and providing options that they will find most suitable. 

Living room design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb
Living room design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb

Have you ever faced any language or cultural barriers with international clients? How did you overcome them?

We definitely have had some interesting situations explaining things when there’s a language barrier, especially when the language is so very different to the ones we speak! The quickest and honestly real-life saver at the moment is Google Translate (or any translating app) where we communicate standing next to each other, typing on our phones to translate into the other respective language – it’s often met with some laughter, but we tend to get there in the end! I think we would be in a very different situation if we weren’t able to quickly communicate on the spot, especially when we are on site trying to make things happen. 

There have also been cultural barriers where we are faced with perhaps different ways of doing things which might be very different to our own. It isn’t so much a straight hindrance or a hard no, but rather you learn how to work and achieve the same goals whilst respecting their culture and way of life. Dealing with situations here in the UK versus abroad can be different, where sometimes ideas need to be massaged a little further for them to happen or we need to convince certain ideas are possible out of our experience especially when they feel foreign to the local client/contractor. I’m sure they learn from us just as much as we learn from them!

Bedroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb

How do you handle time zone differences when working with clients in different parts of the world?

It’s a brain twister for sure sometimes, but I tend to set up a clock for that time zone on my phone so that I can always check what time it is over there and here. We then are mindful with communication through calls where we will try to accommodate a convenient time that works for both of us. So far the biggest time difference has been 8+ hours which was early morning calls for us and evening calls for them!

Some designers may be scared to work across borders because of bureaucratic and legal ramifications. How do you navigate differences in building codes, regulations, and materials when working internationally?

Yes, that certainly can be tricky and this is the part where we will rely on a local contractor to advise us on all things local building codes, regulations etc. We are able to do a design proposal and FF&E procurement from the UK but will definitely always work closely with the local team to ensure everything is feasible and legal. Luckily, when it comes to many base build materials or items such as sanitaryware or white goods, we work with brands that have a global presence, so they are likely available in the client’s country. Regarding the base build samples, we will create a scheme in the UK and share our samples with the team which again can either be directly procured locally or matched with other local materials to achieve the same effect.

Bahrain Villa Beach House by Lawson Robb
Bahrain Villa Beach House by Lawson Robb

How do you approach working with architects, contractors, and other professionals in different parts of the world?

No different than how we approach contractors in the UK. We are all striving for the same end-goal, so clear communication is key to ensure a happy client. Frequent check-ins and site visits are strongly advised so that you can keep an eye on what’s happening and ensure we’re getting the results we are after.

What advice would you give to an experienced interior designer who wants to work with international clients?

Give it a go! Apart from being fun to have to think a little differently, you learn so much about different cultures and learn about new issues/techniques/materials/practices that you might be able to use on projects back at home. Also travelling to foreign places opens your eyes to inspiration and creativity. It's so easy to get stuck in your usual daily sources of inspiration, go out and explore somewhere new and you’d be surprised with what new ideas you come up with.

Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb
Bathroom design in upcoming Palma de Mallorca home by Lawson Robb

Thank you so much for this interview, Lena. Where can people find out more about you, Lawson Robb and your projects?

Pleasure to speak to you too! Come check us out on our website and our Instagram @lawson_robb to see what we are all about and follow us on our journey!