So, you’re ready to take the plunge and hire an interior designer or decorator? Congratulations! Working with a design professional is a great way to find and define your personal style, solve functional problems in your home, and gives you access to a whole host of “To The Trade” resources that are not available to the general public. Yet, for many people, the process of finding the right design professional for their project can be just as daunting as their design dilemmas. In this post, I'm going to discuss the process of hiring a design professional -- the questions you should be asking, and the answers you should be listening for at that first meeting, and how to know when you've found the designer who is the best fit for you.
1. Where to Find Potential Designers. If your budget is truly unlimited (if your name is Sharon Osborne or Donald Trump), then you can just pick up the most recent issue of Architectural Digest or Veranda and call the designers whose work is being featured this month. If you aren't planning to spend a million dollars or more, you'll have to do a bit more digging. Professional organizations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the Interior Design Society (IDS), the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), and the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA) all have online member registries that you can try, depending on the needs of your project. These professional organizations provide designers with access to trade resources, continuing education, and the ability to network. If a designer isn't affiliated with any of these organizations, they are probably more of a hobbyist than a full-time design professional. You can also see local designers' work at local charity showhouses, Parade of Homes or Home-A-Rama events sponsored by custom homebuilders, or in local lifestyle magazines. Of course, if your friends or neighbors can recommend a designer whom they've worked with, that's a great place to start, too. By the way, be wary of furniture stores claiming to offer "free interior design services." Even if the salesperson has a background or education in interior design, they are still a salesperson working for the furniture store, not for you. Their job is to maximize sales for the furniture store, and they are limited to the products and brands sold by that store. An independent design firm is working for YOU, to come up with the best possible solution within your budget, and is going to be able to source furnishings, fabrics, and other products from anywhere, not just one store. I once had a client who had gone to a major higher-end furniture store prior to calling me, and the "Designer/Saleswoman" who they were working with had sold them so much furniture for their bedroom that it physically would not all fit in the room when it was delivered! A professional interior designer would have measured the room and done space planning with precise furniture layouts before ordering furnishings, but retail salespeople are usually under pressure from management to increase Units Per Transaction and Average Dollar Sale figures.
2. Interview Several Designers Before Hiring Anyone. Even if you're sure you're going to hire the designer who did your sister's house, do yourself a favor and talk to a few other professionals as well. When you're working with a professional on a decorating or remodeling project, you will be spending a lot of time and money together and you will be relying heavily on their expertise and stylistic judgement for your home. Interior design is a creative field, and no two designers are alike. Some are more conservative, traditional, and professional. Others may be cutting-edge and contemporary, but disorganized or difficult to work with. Take the time to educate yourself about the designers in your area and choose the one who is the best fit for you.
3. How to Figure Out Which Designer You Can Afford. A lot of homeowners assume that, when interviewing design professionals, they should be asking about the designer’s hourly rate and product markup, but comparisons based on rates and markups alone are almost always misleading. Most design firms today use a combination of hourly rates, set fees based on square footage and project complexity, along with a markup on wholesale products, and that mix may even vary within the same firm depending on the unique requirements of each project. Keep in mind that a very experienced designer with an established network of resources for the best product lines and subcontractors will likely have a higher hourly rate than a new designer fresh out of school, but the experienced designer will likely come up with a better design solution in less time than the newbie who is learning on the job. A designer who quotes you a lower hourly rate may also end up costing you more in the long run if they are making up for a low hourly rate with a higher product markup. Even if each designer disclosed their exact markup (some won't be comfortable with that), you still couldn't figure out ahead of time which designer would cost less for YOUR project, because no one can know ahead of time the exact number of hours it will take to put your unique project together. Remember that the cost of your design project is actually determined by you, when you set the budget. So, when you're interviewing designers, what you really want to determine is which designer best understands your needs and style preferences, and is most likely to be able to achieve your vision for your home within the total budget that you have set for your project. It’s okay if you aren’t sure exactly how much you want to spend initially. An experienced design professional will be able to help you come up with a realistic budget for accomplishing your goals by giving you a “good, better, best” scenario for what you want to achieve, and will be able to break a large project down into stages if necessary to make it more affordable.
4. For the best outcome, hire someone who is comfortable and experienced working on projects similar to yours both in scope and in budget. A great time to discuss your preliminary budget with prospective designers is when you are looking through their portfolios. Ask to see pictures of completed projects with similar budgets to what you’re planning to invest in your own project. If you hire a designer because you love her portfolio full of million dollar interiors, but you have only budgeted $10,000 for your own project, chances are you will be disappointed when your finished project doesn't look as amazing as the ultra-custom, high-end interiors in her book. Prices for home furnishings, window treatments, and all the finishing touches range dramatically, and a good design professional should be able to create and execute a design plan within any reasonable budget. However, someone who has a lot of experience working on projects in your price range is going to already have the right resources and partnerships in place to make the best use of every penny you invest in your design project. Just like when you're shopping for homes or cars, knowing approximately how much you are comfortable investing up front prevents you from wasting time and energy looking at (and falling in love with) things that are way out of your price range. If you aren't comfortable discussing your financial considerations with a particular design professional, then you need to keep looking until you find another designer that you do feel comfortable with.
5. Forget Everything You Saw on HGTV! If you've got the decorating buzz on your brain, chances are good that you're watching a lot of television shows like Design On a Dime, Designer's Challenge, Trading Spaces, or Divine Design. These popular interior design shows can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are great because they get everyone thinking about the possibilities for transforming their homes through interior design, and they are full of creative ideas for those who have the time and energy to devote to DIY. However, the necessity of editing for television ends up vastly oversimplifying the process and can be very misleading about how the designer-client relationship works in real life. Your designer is going to spend hours and hours creating the perfect design just for you to achieve your unique objectives for your home, within your budget. He's not just going to waltz into the first store he sees and find all of the right accessories for your living room in between commercial breaks. Design professionals bring tremendous value to homeowners through their knowledge, experience, and project management skills, and designers often save their clients money by "getting it right the first time" and avoiding costly mistakes (such as custom made furniture that doesn't fit up the stairs but can't be returned, or paying to have your entire house repainted three times because you can't get the color right). Yet TV shows make it seem like you can decorate your home for next to nothing by hiring a designer who will magically find you the perfect lamp for $12 at a rummage shop and build you a custom headboard for $20 in lumber and stain, and that's just not realistic. You’ll notice that when they add up the costs for these TV projects, they seldom include a fee for the designer or the labor costs for the carpenters, custom upholsterers, and other craftsmen involved. In real life, sending a designer on a wild goose chase with an unrealistic budget is a terrible idea because the designer would need to spend (and charge you for) hours and hours of searching to find that amazing deal. Furthermore, realize that the design projects on TV only need to look good for as long as it takes to film the episode. You want to give your designer an adequate budget for furnishings that will still look beautiful 10 years from now and that will be durable enough to withstand daily use in your home. That’s why it’s best to discuss a realistic budget for your project in the first place and let your designer allocate funds to give you the best value for your investment.
6. Ask for References, and Call Them! No matter how much you love that decorator you just met with, don't hire him until you've contacted his references. When you call, don't just ask if they were happy with the results of the design project. Ask whether the project was completed on time and within the budget. If the project went substantially over budget, was it due to upgrades the clients requested or unforseeable remodeling issues, or because the designer constantly pushed them to spend more money? How promptly did the designer return phone calls or emails? Did the designer do most of the work on their project, or were they dealing primarily with his or her assistants? Every design project has its share of problems, especially those involving custom-made and special order items. Ask the designers' previous clients to tell you about the problems that came up on their job, and how the designer handled them. By now you should be getting a pretty clear idea of what it would be like to work with this designer.
7. Once You've Chosen Your Designer, Don't Be Afraid to Discuss Money! I know clients worry about this, thinking that if they are vague about their budget they will somehow get a better deal. Some people worry that, if they state their budget up front, the designer will be sure to spend every penny of that amount even if they could have come up with a great design for a lot less. Once you've done your research and found the right professional, you need to be open about what you are comfortable investing in the project, in the same way that you have to tell a realtor how much you can spend before he or she can show you homes. Just like with home shopping, home furnishings range tremendously in price and in quality. Everyone thinks they'd rather spend less money than more money, but if your designer thinks your budget is lower than it really is, you're going to feel like he's showing you boring and/or cheap quality items, and you'll wonder why you hired a designer in the first place. If the designer thinks your budget is higher than it really is, they are going to put together a breathtakingly gorgeous design for you that you will absolutely fall in love with, and you'll end up having to sell your kidneys to pay for it. This is important, so I'm going to say it one more time: Having realistic budget conversations with your design professional from the very beginning is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your decorating or remodeling project goes smoothly and delivers the results you're hoping to achieve.
Putting in the extra time up-front to find the right design professional will pay off in the long run, saving you lots of frustration and making sure that the whole experience is smooth, pleasant, and delivers a beautiful completed project that you will enjoy for years to come.