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Navigating the politics of a lobby redesign

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With the possible exception of an assessment, almost nothing triggers civil war in a co-op or condo more reliably than a lobby redesign.

Interior designer John Chadwick has been revamping Manhattan’s residential lobbies, corridors and elevators without a flak jacket for 15 years.  We asked him about the challenges of decorating by committee.

Take me through the process of trying to please dozens of people with conflicting tastes.

First we meet with the board or design committee to find out what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to keep.  We interview the staff.   For example, is the current design convenient for the doorman to open the door?

We come back to them with two or three design proposals.  Invariably what happens is they will say they like design B, then we lend some elements from design A or C.  

At a third meeting, we have a finely tuned design, furnishings, lighting, wallpaper, window treatment, the doorman’s place, all with drawings and renderings.  It goes to the board for approval.  

Then we send it out to at least three bids.  We meet with the board and analyze the bids.  Then we always meet every week with someone from the design committee, with the super, with the contractor and with whatever trade is appropriate.  

How do you decorate by committee without war breaking out?


Sometimes you don’t manage.  We just did a presentation to the general shareholders. There were some people who really had an ax to grind.  They’re the same five people in every building. We call them the Gang of Five.  They’re not going to like it if you do it, or if you don’t do it.  Other people in the building know who the kvetchers are.  

I’m assuming, given the personality clashes that can erupt, failures do occur.

We’ve always moved it forward on some level.  It may be a very watered down anemic version, but the project always gets done.  It may not be the design I like. 

We did one a couple of years ago. Everybody had an opinion.  It was designed by committee. Anybody could have gone to Janovic’s and gotten and wall covering.  It had no imagination. But it still looks better than before we started.

What are the special challenges of renovating an apartment’s public spaces?

[Lobby and corridor design] is an entirely different breed of cat than individual residences.  A whole litany of things can happen.  You have to take care of pets. You have to make sure the corridor is cleaned up every night so people don’t have to walk thru sawdust.  You have to know where to locate emergency lights. Then there’s pregnant women.  We make sure anything our contractors use is green and non-toxic.  You have to give plenty of notice.  You can’t just show up that morning and say there’s going to be noxious fumes.

What are some pitfalls to avoid when a building is considering remodeling its lobby and corridors?

Using delicate fabrics for upholstery is one.  One committee wanted a snow-white rug. It would have been perfectly stunning for about six  hours. Materials have to be of residential sensibility but commercial durability.  We finally talked them out of the snow-white carpet.

I assume that many of the pre-wars in particular have spaces that just don’t work in today’s world.

Package rooms and delivery are important.  When most of these buildings were built, people were not shopping on the Internet and Fresh Direct.  To have good cameras and good monitors is always an issue.

You also do design work in Oklahoma City.   Are those clients easier to work than New Yorkers? Would a strong dose Southern charm be in order here?


There’s certainly a directness about people from New York that’s very refreshing.  Life is faster here.  Decisions are made more quickly.

Any final words of advice for a building thinking about renovating its lobby?


Coming to your designer is like going to your accountant at tax time.  If you have everything lined up, it’s easy.  If you go with a Gristedes bag with your receipts, it can be a problem.

Laura B. Weiss is a NYC a journalist who blogs at www.foodandthings.com and is the author of a book on ice cream coming out June 2011.

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