Furnished by Retainer by
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The photo doesn’t do the Stickley chest justice.

This story is in gratitude to team leader Michael and my mother for their creativity, which led to my nicely furnished condo.

For independents like me, retainers are unheard of.

In the year 2000, after I sold my Menlo Park house, which has been the subject of many of my stories on Retrospect, I bought a small (960 square feet) but pretty condo. In the recent story The Condo, the Boyfriend, and the Desk, I recounted how I got my amazing desk for the tiny bedroom I used as my office.

Several months before that, when I was ready to move into the condo, I realized I had almost no furniture that I wanted to bring, with the exception of a Mission style entertainment cabinet and a sofa bed. Almost everything else in the house had been donated to me, and it either needed to be returned to the lender or it was in such rough shape that I was ready to trash it rather than donate it again. I didn’t even have a bed–I’d been sleeping on the sofa bed but wanted to use as a “real” sofa in the condo’s small living room. I would need a lot of furniture.

I had a lucky break: some money in the bank I’d earned as a retainer on a project. Lawyers in our group are no doubt familiar with retainers, usually an amount of money per month paid to “retain” their services, whether the client uses them or not. But in marketing and communications, retainers are rare, even among large ad agencies. For independents like me, they are unheard of.

The Retainer

In 1998, I had begun work with a startup company in the pharmaceutical field as part of a 10-person team. We were developing the content and format for a new drug application to be submitted to the FDA. The work was challenging and interesting, and occasionally grueling, with the submission ultimately ending up at about 250,000 pages. After about seven months, in the beginning of November, we were planning to assemble the final summaries and arguments, reference all the data and do quality assurance on it, and put together the submission in sets of binders (submissions still had to be on paper back then).

Michael, the team leader, approached me one afternoon and said it was essential that I be available to the project, to do whatever the team needed, for the rest of the year. “We are betting the company on the submission,” he said, “and I will make it worth it to you with a retainer.” The terms were strict. I had to be available 24/7 and even on holidays until the submission was complete, and I couldn’t travel more than 90 minutes away from the company’s office in Sunnyvale.

“Yes,” I immediately replied. While I did work hard for the next two months, the team finished the submission and there were no emergencies and few late evenings, so I came out way ahead with the retainer.

A few months later, my client’s team was thrilled to learn that the FDA approved the submission, so the company could operate. The following year it was acquired by a larger pharma company, and I worked with Michael and the team there, but the spirit wasn’t the same. We kept in touch for a few years after that.

Fun with Furniture

Once the condo closed, I asked my mother, who had been a professional interior designer, to help me with furnishing the condo. One challenge was that the style that year was oversized furniture, and my space was way too small for for all the fussy, puffy chairs and couches. If I spent carefully I could use the retainer money to cover furnishing the entire place, and it would allow me to go to a high-end store for one or two quality pieces.

There, the furniture was beautiful and the prices mind melting. I picked two identical Stickley chests that I loved to use as nightstands (we still use them in our current home). When the salesman asked what else I would like, I explained that I loved all this nice furniture but the chests were really a bonus, and for the rest I was on a working-girl budget.

I expected him to sneer, but instead he was very understanding and suggested we visit Ethan Allen, which had good quality furniture that would fit my budget. There, with help from my mom, I got a dining table and chairs and a hall table that converts into a game table, all of which are in our current house. A glass coffee table for the living room was a find at the Oakland Museum white elephant sale.

A new bed arrived from a mattress store, and then, when I looked around the condo, not only did it feel like home, it felt like me, no small thanks to the retainer, Michael, and my mom.




Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Ah Mare, a great happy ending story!
    I love furniture and decorating (and redecorating!) and LOVE Ethan Allen, my go-to furniture store!

    I remember when we renovated and redecorated our apartment years ago I walked around with a punch list and a to-buy list that I lived and breathed and probably dreamt about every night! And every day after work I’l try to accomplish one or two things on my lists.

    And then one day when I realized that everything had been crossed off I had a sinking feeling that the fun was over!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    It sounds like you were well-served by buying a few very good pieces of furniture (the one pictured is lovely), then filling in with other nice, though less pricey pieces. We furnished with all Ethan Allen in our early days, so I am well-acquainted with their furniture and was always pleased with those purchases. The Queen Anne wing chair in my story is from Ethan Allen. We thought we were doing well to be able to afford that!

    That retainer did serve you well. I was on commission during our early, building years, so I understand using money wisely when it comes in.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Your description of the work required to submit for FDA approval was breathtaking–what an ordeal! So glad it was ultimately successful. And the retainer was a real bonus for you and your home. Great story.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Khati. The work and the resulting furniture made the retainer all the more rewarding. FDA approval is a fascinating process, and the barriers are high for good reason. My experience has helped me be a better judge of medications that are out there and whether the companies have really done due diligence.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Marian. And though Ethan Allen may be considered “middlebrow” by some, it has quality furniture at a reasonable price. With some style, one can do well by it, as you happily did.

    And, of course, as a lawyer, I am quite familiar with retainers — though as an in-house lawyer for a very large firm, I would never receive one and I can’t recall ever havcing to pay one. But they have been in the news lately, as Trump had to pay a semi-competent lawyer in Florida a $3 million one to get him on his dubius legal team. Frankly, I don’t think you could pay me enough to ever work for Trump. Plus, this guy had to give up his partnership at a major law firm. I think he will regret this Faustian bargain.

  5. Suzy says:

    How great that Michael (rightly) valued you enough to put you on retainer, and that this enabled you to buy some lovely furniture. Having always worked for the State of California, I never had the retainer experience, but I can imagine that sometimes it works out wonderfully, as it did for you. The Stickley chests are beautiful, and I join with others in saying that Ethan Allen furniture can be very nice too. Glad you still have all of these items in your current home.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    The most important of feathering a real nest is to end up with it feeling like you. The stars aligned at just the right time for you to make this possible. We bought a sofa we still have from Ethan Allen. The chest in your featured image is beautiful.

  7. Yikes! A 250,000-page document, on call 24/7, 90 minutes from the office, a company at stake. Now that’s a gig. And that Stickley chest is gorgeous!

    • Marian says:

      Yes, that gig broke a lot of records for me. Would you believe that submission is small by FDA standards? It was a biologic drug that was specialized. Part of the reason meds are so expensive.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    It’s lovely, isn’t it, when you come home and feel in harmony with your surroundings. Like a big hug, aesthetically.

    Let me tip my hat to your marathon FDA application. Some think that writing RFPs, grants and federal applications like yours is somehow a “soft skill,” but how often these talents move mountains and chart a new direction, as your work did. Evan after all these years, something to be proud of.

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