Business & Design: The Commodity Trap

Picasso's lesson for design professionals

PPPablo Picasso photographed Gjon Mili for Life Magazine, 1949


A few years back I read an anecdote about a woman in Paris, and her chance encounter with Pablo Picasso.  I’d like to recount it for you for two reasons: first because I’m a fan of Picasso’s work, and second because it points out the very real distinction between a commonplace commodity, and the work of a talented creative individual.

Now with all due respect to Picasso, I’m not attempting to compare interior design to his body of work, but the story illustrates a complicated issue for the design community in our post recession, increasingly e-commerce driven economy – design being perceived as a commodity.

Here’s the story.

A woman was strolling along a street in Paris when she spotted the world-famous painter Pablo Picasso sketching at a sidewalk cafe.  She gathered the courage to approach him, and asked him if he could do a sketch of her and charge her accordingly.

Picasso obliged, and minutes later she found herself the owner of an original Picasso.  She then asked what she owed him.

“Five thousand francs” he replied.

“But it only took you three minutes” she politely reminded him.

“No,” said Picasso, “It took me my entire life.”

Picasso’s simple argument is that a creative individual with years of experience honing his craft deserves to be compensated accordingly.  His sketch is not a simple commodity in the context of sketches, it’s a Picasso.

xlargeThat brings me to the idea of contemporary interior design being perceived as a commodity.

For the sake of argument Merriam Webster defines a commodity, in part, as a product or service whose widespread availability typically leads to smaller profit margins, and which diminishes the importance of a range of related products or services.  That definition seems quite current as it applies to many furnishings now available to interior designers and consumers alike.  It’s becoming a cookie cutter world.

Even in the best of economic times people want real value for their dollar, but in a strained economic environment few want to pay more than they have to for a product or service.  So when clients believe that they can get products or services that are similar to yours from other sources, your product or service becomes a commodity, and your customers are often inclined to shop around for the best price.  And as you know in today’s Google world anyone can easily compare your prices with others in a matter of seconds, wherever they are.

It’s in a commoditized marketplace that the person who charges the best price for a given product or service tends to win.  So the challenge for design professionals in a world of One Kings Lane Tastemaker Tag Sales, Restoration Hardware catalogs, and endless Etsy Ikats is to learn how to distinguish themselves as a valuable style arbiters.

There are, unfortunately, no concrete answers.

Over the coming weeks our Design Editor Carl Lana and I are going to turn our focus toward examining ways we feel interior designers can achieve the goal of setting themselves apart; both in terms of marketing strategy, and the design process.  Check back for Carl’s first post on the subject Wednesday, and as always, thank you for reading.


Written by CJ Dellatore