When the client comes to the advisor, the shoe is on the other foot. Olivieri keeps personal items in his office to give a sense of who he is: tickets from the boat that brought his grandmother and grandfather from Italy to live in America, a picture of his late father, even the cork from every bottle of wine he and his wife have shared.

There are different schools of thought on what kind of statement an office should make. Some old-line New York banks, for example, keep special offices to meet with wealthy clients that are plush aeries decorated with expensive artwork and monogrammed hand towels in mirrored bathrooms. Other offices are modest, as if to say that client money is not going to fund decor.

"It is my personal belief that comfortable, tasteful (but not lavish) space strikes the right balance," says Duncan E. Osborne, a partner at Osborne, Helman, Knebel & Deleery in Austin, Texas.

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