When the late Helen Merrill took clients David Gropman, William Ivey Long and Paul Gallo right out of Yale Drama in the mid-70s, she created a new role for agents whose rosters had excluded designers. Today, it's hard to find a designer without an agent.

Most designers like to delegate the dirty work. Agents negotiate for housing away from home, money for assistants, travel allowances, and assorted perks, as well as for the fees that determine their percentage. If a check doesn't arrive, they're on hand to follow up.

Some designers send agents to the front lines because they fear they'd falter on their own. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski, for instance, counts himself among those "who can get nervous and get pushed around. I want someone who's professional to negotiate for me."

Mark Nayden feels he's a good negotiator, but when he moved from associate scenic designing on Broadway to designing on his own in smaller venues, he wanted to separate himself from hassles that might damage artistic relationships. "I'm here for the creative work, not to nickel-and-dime," he says.

Many hope to benefit from a professional's knowledge. "Contracts are all different and they're all complicated," says scenic designer James Noone. Agents can navigate the subtleties.

When negotiation is the only aim, some use lawyers, who take smaller percentages. Costume designer Gabriel Berry parts with 7 1/2% instead of 10. She knows agents also promote their clients, but that's not a service she wants. "I never knew an agent who didn't represent some designers whose work I hated," says Berry, refusing to be lumped with people she can't respect.

Some designers go it all alone. Scenic designer David Jenkins once used a lawyer. Today, he works mainly in regional theater, where fees aren't flexible. "Now I just do the kind of work I like to do, a lot of that with special people," says Jenkins, who is just back from working at Trinity Rep with Amanda Dehnert, a "major" emerging director. But he advises young designers who want to work in New York to do what he didn't: "If I were constantly employed in New York, I'd get an agent," he reflects. "But I would never negotiate to work with Amanda."

The best agents offer clients help beyond the bottom line. They guide. They listen. They network. Some have learned their trade on the other side of the negotiating table. In 1996, Merrill took Patrick Herold from Lincoln Center, where he was associate general manager from 1989; his MFA from Columbia is in arts administration. Charles Kopelman, who once produced plays on and Off Broadway and on the West End, also offers clients an insider's understanding. Mickey Rolfe served as managing director of the American Place Theatre and became a producer's assistant on Broadway megamusicals before assisting his role model, Biff Liff, at William Morris.

Sound designer John Gromada credits Merrill with giving his career a jump-start when he was unknown and untested. Being her client afforded him "a measure of respect, an imprimatur I wouldn't have had." Nor would he have had the beautiful flower arrangement she helped create for his wedding. "Helen Merrill, beyond being a good agent, was also a good friend," he says

Merrill vigorously advocated for Gromada when conflicts arose. When he worked at Lincoln Center, she went up against Herold, who she dubbed "the tiger." Now that Herold runs the agency that has her name and fiercely fights for Merrill's former clients, Gromada relies on him. When he has a choice of shows, or when he gets an offer from someone he doesn't know, he trusts Herold to assess the financial potential and the cachet attached to a project. "Patrick has taught me to stand up for myself," says Gromada. Herold also negotiates payment for the music Gromada writes and handles copyright issues.

Most designers don't expect agents to find jobs for them. "Your agent doesn't get you work. Your work gets you work, and your relationships with directors and theatres gets you work," explains scenic designer Christine Jones, who plans her career with Kopelman. "When I'm trying to make decisions about which jobs I can and cannot do, I'm really glad I can call him and talk it through. Sometimes we'll meet in person and sit down with a calendar. Sometimes we'll just talk on the phone. As a freelance designer, you're kind of your own business, and it's nice to have someone else in the company to help make the decisions. For me, designing is a collaborative process, and with my agent, the business part of it becomes one as well," she says.

Brian MacDevitt uses Rolfe as a sympathetic ear and a supportive sounding board. When he designs lights for Tere O'Conner's dance company just after doing an industrial for Sony (a regular occurrence), Rolfe encourages him. "He understands when I've done enough commercial work and need to do something strictly artistic that nets him nothing. He didn't go into to this to make money," says MacDevitt, who also praises Rolfe for negotiating deals in a way that leaves both producers and clients feeling good about the transaction. "This man loves what he does. He loves supporting artists, and he loves supporting theater. I feel lucky," MacDevitt adds, "Don't tell anyone about him."

MacDevitt needn't worry. Artists in every design arena appear on Rolfe's list, but the agent holds the numbers down. "The easiest thing is to say yes [to prospective clients] and spread yourself too thin," Rolfe says, "but that would be a terrible thing to do to your existing clients." Rolfe turns down potentials when he already represents someone with a similar sensibility, or who is at an identical career point. When he has an opening, he takes referrals from other clients and producers, and he goes after designers when he sees work that excites him. Because the relationship can be intense and intimate, Rolfe never agrees to represent someone based only on an impressive résumé.

Herold considers himself "remarkably fortunate to have inherited" some of the best designers through his association with Merrill. Some stay out of loyalty to the agency; many remain because the relationship with Herold blossomed. Others have since joined his list of luminaries that includes David Gallo, Wendall Harrington, Donald Holder, George Tyspin, and Michael Yeargan.

Kopelman's partner, Sarah Douglas, worked with Flora Roberts for 18 years. Today, Douglas & Kopelman Artists, Inc. represents an "A" list than runs from Kevin Adams to Catherine Zuber, and includes Zack Brown, Michael Chybowski, Constance Hoffman, Derek McLane, Doug Stein, Jennifer Tipton, Mark Wendland, and Anita Yavich.

For Kopelman, the process of assisting designers is "open and round." He knows some people. His client knows others. If a client has a relationship with a director or producer, he says the client is best served by making the initial contact without him. He finds it easier to promote clients when he understands their goals. "When we begin to work with a designer, we like to think we're in it for the long haul," Kopelman says. "We're into helping somebody with the design and development of their career, not with one contract, and we're really turned on by people who want to have experiences in theater, film, opera, all areas." He has even encouraged clients to take low-paying projects with long-term potential--$2,500 at Playwrights Horizons over $5,000 at a regional theater, for instance, "because the visibility is far greater, it's in New York, and you may have the opportunity of building a relationship with an up-and-coming director."

Rolfe says his "role is to get the best buck for the jobs clients most want to do," and those aren't always the jobs with the strongest income potential. "I lay out on the table all of the facts about all of the choices," he adds. "It isn't whether someone takes the next humungous musical or a small project. It's about where the individual client's comfort level is.

"Sometimes, though, if I really feel a client is making an emotional decision that's unwise in career terms, I'll say, 'Let's think this all the way through. If we say no to this, we are potentially saying no to other important stuff,'" Rolfe continues. "It's important that the clients' decisions end up always being right for them organically."

Herold discourages clients from taking jobs that aren't essential to their career development. But in a business governed by relationships, he knows it's important to be loyal to directors who were loyal to them and he understood when, for instance, one client gave up an opera at the Met to do a revival for Peter Sellars. When that happens, he plays a game of bait and switch, suggesting one client to fill a job turned down by another.

Rolfe suggests substitutes, too, and goes on to ask if other positions are filled. He may wind up placing a sound designer after taking a call about costume design. Even when nothing is available, he talks up people a producer may remember next time he's searching for talent.

Herold sometimes plays matchmaker, offering producers a director and design team along with a new play. In the Merrill tradition, he has been known to include designers he doesn't represent when that's best for the play. "That always confuses people," Herold says. Packaging is just one of many networking opportunities his agency affords. Gromada says he meets other clients who think of him for projects, and when a director-client asks Herold to suggest a sound designer, he may benefit.

Kopelman winces at the word "packaging," saying, "That's a television term. But there's no denying that when we have the knowledge of a project being generated from step one, we have an inside track to promote our clients."

Kopelman handles a gamut of artists and venues. Others specialize. The forte of Helen Merrill Ltd. is live entertainment, and such designers as Richard Hoover and Eiko Ishioka use ICM for their film and TV contracts, and Herold for everything else. The Rolfe Company, Inc. handles designers only. Rolfe carved the niche on the advice of the late lighting designer Tom Skelton, who urged him to leave William Morris and represent under-appreciated talent. Rolfe remembers when nobody knew what a lighting designer did. Today, he says, we don't recognize projection design. Along with guiding and promoting clients, beneath negotiating their contracts, the best agents struggle to ensure that their design clients are recognized as the essential artists they are.