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The New Face of Affluence

The Rich are Different

Are the rich different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, or are the rich different from what they used to be? Both, according to new research by Dwell magazine.

Dwell, the purveyor of modern design, is about as different from Period Homes and Traditional Building as any magazine gets. But when Michela O'Connor Abrams, President of Dwell Media, presented her research, "The New Face of Affluence," at a recent NAHB Building Systems Council meeting, I listened carefully because I've been thinking about how our clients will behave as they emerge from the worst housing recession since, well… since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby.

Dwell's research set out to "provide design professionals with insight which helps them build, or rebuild business with today's affluent consumer." By asking how high income home owners want to engage with designers and what shapes these client's design sensibilities, the research confirms what we probably already know. Nevertheless, it serves as an important reminder of what buyers want.

Survey respondents, called "New Affluents," are 47 years old; employed and college educated. They live in suburbs or cities, and have an average household income of above $206,000 per year (this is high in research terms and probably even higher in reality).

Design matters! 

Ninety eight percent of the well-off "believe that good design enhances their life." This compares with 62 percent of the general (less affluent) population. Ninety three percent say "I am willing to pay more for a product that reflects my style and sense of design" and 86 percent say, "My style and design sensibility is an important aspect of who I am as a person."

Art and architecture, travel and glossy magazines are the top three influencers of rich people's sense of design. Further down the list are design professionals, specific companies and brands, and TV shows. From respondent's comments, the research summarizes good design as "functional, aesthetic and emotional" with spaces and products which "are easy to use, durable, visually appealing with attention paid to auditory and tactile values."

One of the most interesting questions in the research was: "When you decide to undertake a project to renovate or improve your space, do you rely on any of the following resources for getting started with ideas, creating a plan or selecting products?" The answers are in the chart below. Note the importance of architects and designers in the "getting started" phase and contractors in the "create a plan" phase. Look at how much product selection research is done on the web, as opposed to in stores or showrooms.

Q. When you decide to undertake a project to renovate or improve your space, do you rely on any of the following resources for getting started with ideas, creating a plan, or selecting products?

Forty three percent of these affluents say "referrals from architects" are how they find contractors but 82 percent ask their friends. When asked why they DON'T use design professionals for home projects, 44 percent said, "good design professionals are too hard to find."

When respondent's psychographics were analyzed, the research reveals a discerning consumer, large and in-charge, busy, independent, tech savvy and value conscious. This client is an "opinion leader" for whom social status is unimportant. Ninety one percent say, "I think of myself as a creative person."

This busy, confident client sets the bar high for good design professionals. Good needs to be great. Perhaps this is what's really changed about rich people: they demand more. But what they want isn't that different. They want a "collaborative relationship" with their design professional. They want someone who listens. They want their designer to bring creative solutions that add value, via open communication whereby their expectations are managed well.

"There is a new competitive landscape for design professionals" according to Dwell's research. Affluent consumers are spending now but not carelessly. Their anxiety about risk makes them more controlling. But underlying this control bravado is a client who wants to be guided by a patient, knowledgeable, communicative design professional who has used the recession to improve his craft.

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