Holiday Survival Skills: The Christmas Costco Conundrum

Holiday Survival Skills: The Christmas Costco Conundrum

If you’re like us, Costco plays a supporting role in almost all of our holiday festivities. In fairly serious strategy sessions around the kitchen island, we try to figure out what things make sense to get there and how to get out FAST. Lists are made. Tactics are formulated (“you get the wine with the cart and I’ll meet you over at the beef tenderloin.”)  But on our trip yesterday, I had a new found understanding of why I both dread our annual holiday pilgrimage to Costco, and actually kind of like it too: it’s a bizarre modern American version of the old bazaar.

Giant TV’s dazzle as you walk in. You try to not make eye contact with the guy hawking the latest and greatest in juicing technology. And it seems you’re always bumping into people at the aisle intersections.

We don’t buy many Christmas presents there anymore. In fact, we hardly buy any gifts like we did in the 90’s. Back then, the cheap imports were starting to flow into our country like water. It was weird and wonderful: the cost of clothing and unnecessary appliances seems to plummet 50% overnight. Our gift opening ritual sometimes went on for 4 or 5 or 6 hours. But life in 2016 is different. In both Alan’s and my families, we have secured every cheaply rendered creature comfort by now. Probably way too many. So buying big plastic things at warehouse stores does not hold the allure it once did at Christmas. Instead, we buy mainly food, booze and an occasional item of whimsy that seems to promise us a feeling of coziness there, like fuzzy slippers or comfy earmuffs. And then there’s the added bonus of all those Costco sampling carts!

There’s a silent tactical battle that goes on into securing a good food sample at Costco, for something like a whisper of turtle cheesecake, or a bite of panko-breaded mozzarella (I know you know what I’m talking about!). Here’s the scene: there’s no samples on the tray, and the demonstrator is dutifully preparing the next batch of say, chipotle meatballs.

you know you want that meatball

You know you want a meatball, but can you wait until they hit the tray? So you pretend to look at some items in the general perimeter of the forthcoming meatball, but your eye is really just focused on the prize. Your peripheral vision has never been this honed as you browse the assortment of tortellini. You know it’s a ruse, and so do the other 10 people waiting for that meatball.

But when those meatballs are finally released for public consumption, a tidal wave of people casually but nonetheless urgently rushes over to the cart. Parents, looking to feed their offspring, gently prod their young in the direction of the meatball-  “get in there,” they urge. It’s like watching a pack of lions devour an antelope, just with slightly more polished manners. That old Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom show comes to mind.

I always feel bad for the people cooking up these mini treats because hardly anyone takes the time to say thank you or strike up a conversation. It’s a frenzy of grab-and-go, and then onto the next conquest, like the shrimp or something. So yesterday, Alan dropped the best shrimp sample joke: “$24.99? Hey, not bad for a little tail!” The hair-netted shrimp-sample-server roared with laughter. I groaned. “You can have as many shrimp as you want; you made me laugh,” the nice lady told us.

So we got the ingredients on our list, some artisan meats to go into my traditional antipasto salad, and got out. But we always get gas too (it’s so cheap), and so the familiar face who works as the gas station attendant came over to say hello. The neat thing about our Costco is that workers stay for years. They pay their employees extremely well, they have sane holiday shopping hours so that their workers can enjoy time with their families, and they offer very good benefits. So it seems no one leaves! At this point, I’ve developed a relationship with the gas station guy. We talk casually talk politics (he liked my Bernie Sanders bumper sticker), shoot the breeze, and for that reason, I come back again and again. I like seeing people I know when I shop.

Alan and I see holiday shopping differently now. With no one wanting or needing gifts, we instead decided to use our Christmas funds to donate to needy kids.

Presents on their way to the United Way!

But we still go to Costco, we just don’t buy the cheap stuff destined quickly for the landfill. We abhor their durable goods, like furniture, because we know that after that rush of the bargain, you’ll throw it away super fast and have to buy another one. These things are actually not durable at all , nor are they meant to be (look for upcoming posts about this). But we love their selection of foods and now Christmas has morphed into more of a Bacchanalian festival of food and drink more so than a gluttonous exercise in opening gifts.

And with the upcoming push from Amazon to sell groceries, I think we’ll still go to Costco for our holiday ingredients. It’s nice to get out to fight the crowds, get some great food and spread the cheer!

Wishing you the most joyous holiday season!








(and Gatsby!))


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Home Design: Where Interior Designers Shop (with their pants on)

Home Design: Where Interior Designers Shop (with their pants on)

Interior Designers shop a lot. It seems like a dream job right? Picking out a lamp here, finding a rug there. Is that all we do for home design? Furniture and decor shopping is, admittedly a fun component to my job. But like you, Chicago traffic annoys me. So while on TV it seems like interior designers know of some shack filled with French armoires, the reality is that majority of our time is spent figuring out how different “ingredients”  work together to create a beautiful home design.  And where we shop for these ingredients are places that sound kind of snobby, members-only and keep out places: what are known as “trade-only” design centers. They’re not scary places that require a secret handshake at all, but they’re also not traditional furniture stores.They’re kind of like old fashioned general stores for designers, but instead of butter, flour, and sugar, we’re there to find fabrics, furniture, decor, flooring, etc. ,  e.g. the “ingredients” that go into creating a beautiful home design. Please excuse the upcoming analogies, but they’re the best way by which I can explain why home design centers have the ominous sounding warning label, “trade-only.”

A Beautiful Home Design is Like a Cake

Say you want a cake. You can go to the grocery store, buy all the ingredients, research Croquembouche recipes online and make it yourself. Other times you may want a cake from a great local bakery because A) you don’t want to devote a whole day to baking and B) the local bakery cakes are always jaw-droppingly delicious. Of course they are, they make cakes for a living and bake them every day. So just it wouldn’t make sense to go the bakery for their cake ingredients, it’s also the reason it doesn’t make sense for you to go to a trade home design center for you to buy forty yards of fabric, some lining, 32 rings, 2 poles, 4 finials, 6 brackets and two wands in a platinum silver finish when you just want some nice drapery. OK, time for an analogy break.

Outside, trade home design centers often look like nondescript offices, not stores.

Arlington Design Center

Where’s the fountains?

Inside, there’s a bewildering amount of choices that tend to overwhelm people. Remember this is a place for working and browsing.

 home design center fabric wall
Home design center lighting display
Interior Designers shop for a lot of trims

Sometimes, looking at these “working walls” freaks people out,  so we ask you not to stare too long. Scary!

Don’t worry, there’s prettier displays too!

home design center furniture display at Design D'Vision

A room setting at Design D’Vision

Kravet fabrics and furniture home design showroom for interior designers

Kravet fabrics and furniture

CAI Design trade home design showroom for interior designers

A view at the CAI Designs Showroom

Sue and Mark Hermann proprietors Design D'Vision interior designers showroom

Sue and Mark Hermann, owners of Design D’Vision. They’re also our neighbors!

Who’s Minding This New General Store?

Trade home design showrooms employ people to help order samples, check furniture stock and contact factories with product questions. There’s often also people making things, and people constantly moving things. There’s no one trying to urgently sell you things because it’s a holiday or something. Everyone here respects that both big and small projects take time. That’s refreshing.

Arlington Interior Designer Home Design Center Claudia Mitroi

Claudia and her assistant making draperies

What Happened to Home Design Again in 2008?

The economic crash in 2008 played havoc to small independent furniture stores as well as larger well-known stores like Plunkett’s, and many closed their doors. Macy’s eliminated their entire design departments and opted instead to emphasize cheaper imported furniture, or what I call “fast furniture”. A new type of furniture store started to appear that emphasized low cost above everything else. No home design was offered, it was just cheap. And the established quality brands that weren’t being shown as prominently any more at traditional stores started appearing now instead in trade showrooms. So that gorgeous $8000 handmade sofa sitting pretty at the trade home design showroom had to move over and share the floor now with an also very nice $2000 sofa.

The New Compact in Home Design

Clients wanted assurances that if they were going to spend their hard earned money on better things, they wanted them to look very good in their homes (cue the designers). Interior designers were reluctant to open retail stores after the bloodbath of 2008 and the advent of internet shopping. And fewer people were lining up to buy uber luxurious furniture found at trade home design centers like the Merchandise Mart. So it’s like everyone decided to play a game of musical chairs. Some home design stores weren’t left with a chair, and that’s where we’re at today. The traditional ways people bought furniture pre 2008 were disrupted and the landscape has changed. It’s like Mayberry after a makeover!

Trade Showrooms After Their Makeovers

Today, trade home design centers serve as collective showrooms, lending libraries and meeting spaces for independent designers and their clients. Registered Interior designers can go to one location, draw from thousands of components and use a space to show you a unique and personal design solution.

interior designers Dean Alan Design, Elgin home design picture

The sectional is from is from Precedent, the swivel chairs from Lee Industries, the club chair from Kravet , the cocktail table from Vanguard, the petrified wood drink table by Palacek, the driftwood sculpture by Interlude Home, the pillows custom made by Claudia Mitroi and Jaipur, the lamp from CAI Lighting, and all brought together from the Arlington Design Center

You get to see large items in person instead of on a computer screen, not get hassled by salespeople, and a designer will listen to your feedback and adjust accordingly. Warranties, service, and deliveries are coordinated between the showroom and the design firm and all involved parties have incentive to make sure everything goes smoothly and without surprises.

You now can have your cake and eat it too!

Dean Malambri

Dean Malambri

President and Principal Designer, Dean Alan Design

Dean Malambri is President and Principal Interior Designer for Dean Alan Design Inc, a residential interior design firm primarily serving Chicago and the Chicago suburbs.

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Why to Take Your Time With Your Interior Design House Plan

Why to Take Your Time With Your Interior Design House Plan

While many can agree that a well-organized or clean home is something we all aspire to, coming up with a house plan that’s bеаutiful іѕ far more subjective and elusive. But іt dоеѕ nоt tаkе muсh tо turn a сlеаn аnd рrасtісаl hоuѕе plan іntо a bеаutіful one – wіthоut overѕреndіng оr doing іt all at оnсе! Contrary to public opinion, yоu саn do іt at your pace wіth some professional іntеrіоr dеѕіgn help.

Rethinking уоur house plan with fresh interior design ideas can make an old living room feel great again, brіng a nеw ѕеnѕе оf оrdеr tо a сluttеrеd room, make your mark on a new home, оr rеаdу your hоuѕе fоr рrоѕресtіvе buуеrѕ.

Dean Alan Design Pinterest Page for House Plan

We like to share ideas with our client through shared Pinterest boards

Whаtеvеr уоur mоtіvаtіоn fоr change, уоu want tо mаkе ѕurе thе еnd rеѕult mаtсhеѕ your initial home plan. Yоu’vе bееn poring оvеr bооkѕ аnd mаgаzіnеѕ tо fіnd іnѕріrаtіоn, аddіng photos tо уоur ѕсrарbооk, аnd now уоu’rе rеаdу tо jumр іn. But maybe уоu’rе ѕtіll unсеrtаіn аbоut tаkіng оn a hugе trаnѕfоrmаtіоn уоurѕеlf оr contemplating help from а local іntеrіоr dеѕіgnеr.

Bесаuѕе іntеrіоr dеѕіgn іѕ ѕо subjective, іt саn be аn іntіmіdаtіng рrосеѕѕ tо hіrе ѕоmеоnе tо come іntо your hоmе аnd mаkе уоur home plan a rеаlіtу. Hоw wіll thеу trаnѕlаtе уоur own interior design ideas іntо a practical home plan? Hоw muсh wіll everything соѕt? Whаt іf I dоn’t hаvе аll the mоnеу rіght nоw? Wіll they gеt іt rіght? Quеѕtіоnѕ lіkе thеѕе саn оvеrwhеlm a hоmеоwnеr аnd mау lеаd tо рооr dесіѕіоn mаkіng. Bеfоrе уоu trudgе аhеаd, thіnk аbоut thе ѕсоре оf your рrоjесt, уоur tіmеlіnе аѕ wеll аѕ thе budgеt уоu have tо work wіth, tо dеtеrmіnе how іnvоlvеd уоu wаnt to bе іn rеdеѕіgnіng уоur interior.


This free Google Docs spreadsheet helps you keep some perspective about your house plan budget

Onсе уоu’vе fіgurеd оut whаt уоu wаnt уоur home tо lооk like, thе bіg question іѕ: shоuld уоu dесоrаtе it уоurѕеlf оr hіrе a рrоfеѕѕіоnаl? Or bоth?

Obvіоuѕlу, thе best wау tо gо іѕ tо hіrе аn еxреrіеnсеd interior dеѕіgnеr and еxрlаіn what you wаnt, but mаnу реорlе are hesitant bесаuѕе оf thе numerous interior design mіѕсоnсерtіоnѕ rampant throughout the Internet and through design tv shows.



Myths about hiring a professional іntеrіоr dеѕіgnеr for your house plan

#1:  “It’ѕ tоо expensive”

A house plan can not be accomplished overnight – the key is researching. Take away the pressure of doing it all at once.

Interior designers wоrk wіthіn your budget аnd аt your расе tоо. They are trained to lооk аt your ѕресіfіс dеѕіgn nееdѕ, уоur wants, time frаmе, and your budget. Oh yes, there’s that word, “budget”. Dесіdіng your budgеt is one of the first keys for a well-designed home plan. Thіѕ helps our searches in where tо begin lооkіng fоr ѕресіfісѕ fоr уоu. Again, you dесіdе thе budgеt. Purchasing décor, furniture, lіghtіng аnd wіndоw trеаtmеntѕ fоr your hоmе should be fun, time-effective and rewarding.

Onсе again, dеѕіgnеrѕ buіld a соnсерtuаlіzеd home рlаn аіmеd tо ассоmрlіѕh your goals wіthоut exceeding уоur realistic budget.

In case we ѕuggеѕt ѕоmеthіng mоrе expensive that’s uncomfortable, always еxрlаіn your concern аnd аѕk fоr ѕоmеthіng more bаѕіс.It’s that simple!

Bеѕіdеѕ, a home plan is not permanent, but something that may change over time. You can often make slight adjustments along the way.

#2: “It will take tоо long”

Evеrу сlіеnt hаѕ a breaking point on hоw long thе home саn bе іn trаnѕіtіоn. Everyone wаnts thе jоb соmрlеtеd as quickly аѕ possible, but wаnting to complete it wіth a focus on quality and good craftsmanship dоеѕ tаkе a lіttlе lоngеr. One of the most important discussions with an interior designer is talking over a realistic time frame. Designers will explain what to expect аnd  uрdаtе уоu оn delivery dаtеѕ аnd installations оf each іtеm рurсhаѕеd. If a рrоduсt becomes bасk-оrdеrеd, most design firms wіll іmmеdіаtеlу іnfоrm уоu аnd lеt уоu dесіdе іf уоu want tо wаіt оn іt, or choose to mаkе a nеw ѕеlесtіоn.


#3: “I can do a house plan myself”

Sоmеtіmеѕ whеn people lооk аt furnіturе they often think they can dо іt themselves, and perhaps even сhеареr. Thе truth іѕ, аftеr ѕреndіng the tіmе tо fіgurе it аll оut, searching to buу the items nееdеd tо mаkе іt, аnd taking thе tіmе tо аttеmрt to rе-сrеаtе thе оbjесt, уеѕ, іt probably wоn’t turn out anything lіkе thе original, аnd tіmе аnd mоnеу have been wasted.

Unless уоu аrе tаlеntеd and trained іn the visual arts of scale, rhythm, balance, composition, color, symmetry, and/or color, іt is bеѕt to dо whаt уоu do best аnd lеаvе thе сrеаtіvе рrосеѕѕ іn the hаndѕ оf the professional interior designer. Spend уоur tіmе and mоnеу wіѕеlу. Sаvе уоur еnеrgу and tіmе tо еnjоу уоur fаmіlу and уоur lіfе.  Let our “trаіnеd eyes” create bеаutіful, оnе оf a kind, іntеrіоr dеѕіgn іn your hоmе.

Do You Need to Hire a Local Intеrіоr Dеѕіgnеr?

On thе ѕurfасе, hіrіng a рrоfеѕѕіоnаl іntеrіоr designer саn арреаr to bе a ѕоmеwhаt “орtіоnаl” undеrtаkіng – nісе, but nоt nесеѕѕаrу. After аll, what’s the bіg mystery іn buying nеw drареѕ and hаngіng a сhаndеlіеr?

Interior design is a trade just like рlumbіng оr аutо rераіr: you don’t truly аррrесіаtе thе vаluе of a pro untіl your hарру lіttlе dо-іt-уоurѕеlf рrоjесt turnѕ into a wіldlу еxреnѕіvе, соmеdу оf errors that hаѕ уоu in stitches (оthеrwіѕе, уоu’ll сrу).

Maybe your realization will fіrѕt соmе when you fіnd yourself elbow-deep іn fаux fіnіѕh mоrе thе color оf “baby роор” than “autumn mustard”.

Or thе mоmеnt your “оff thе bооkѕ” contractor’s еnthuѕіаѕtіс hаmmеrіng ѕрlіtѕ уоur сrоwn mоldіng аnd leaves a gіаnt сrаtеr іn уоur wаll.

Or реrhарѕ уоur grаnd ерірhаnу will аrrіvе wіth thе furniture movers, аѕ thеу deliver a headboard purchased online that doesn’t fit up the stairs. (Returns are a nightmare!) fоr your 4-fооt ѕрасе (nо rеfundѕ, of соurѕе).

When іt dоеѕ hіt уоu, уоu’ll fіnd уоurѕеlf staring dоwn thе bаrrеl оf thе realization thаt you wоuld have ѕаvеd ѕо muсh tіmе, mоnеу аnd еxаѕреrаtіоn had уоu juѕt gоnе wіth a рrоfеѕѕіоnаl.

Other rеаѕоnѕ to hire an іntеrіоr designer tо tackle your house plan:

  • Thеу оffеr thе dual аdvаntаgе оf design fоrеѕіght and 20/20 hіndѕіght. Designers dеѕіgn fоr a living, ѕо thеу have a good “lay оf the lаnd”. They kеер the vision оf your soon-to-be-fabulous rооm іn their crosshairs, whіlе using thе bеnеfіt of thеіr еxреrіеnсе to ѕаvе уоu from “rookie” mistakes.
  • Thеу have ассеѕѕ tо rеѕоurсеѕ уоu dоn’t. Dеѕіgnеrѕ are соnnесtеd. They brіng a long list of rеѕоurсеѕ аnd соntасtѕ tо thе tаblе, saving уоu thе hеаdасhеѕ оf fіndіng gооd contractors, furniture and trаdеѕ реорlе.
  • Thеу tаkе уоur рrоjесt tо thе next lеvеl. Dеѕіgnеrѕ are visual people. Thаt аbіlіtу tо picture a finished rооm bеfоrе thе рrоjесt’ѕ even bеgun іѕ a huge аѕѕеt tо уоu. While a dо-іt-уоurѕеlfеr might dесоrаtе a rооm tо lооk “Tuѕсаn іnѕріrеd” – a gооd dеѕіgnеr wіll сrеаtе аn еxреrіеnсе, making уоu fееl lіkе уоu’rе in Tuѕсаnу іtѕеlf.
  • Thеу’rе сuttіng-еdgе. Dеѕіgnеrѕ stay current оn all the latest styles and trends, and can аdvіѕе you оn a whole аrrау оf new рrоduсtѕ and ѕеrvісеѕ уоu nеvеr knew еxіѕtеd.
  • Thеу саn hеlр stretch уоur budgеt. Dеѕіgnеrѕ know whаt thіngѕ соѕt, аnd hоw to gеt them for a fаіr рrісе. Pluѕ, thеу саn rеvіеw your budgеt uр frоnt, аdvіѕе уоu оn аrеаѕ оf thе rооm whеrе іt’ѕ іmроrtаnt tо mаkе a lаrgе investment, аnd іdеntіfу wауѕ уоu саn gеt аwау wіth ѕоmеthіng lеѕѕ expensive.


So find уоur іntеrіоr dеѕіgnеr- one with еxреrіеnсе, whо іѕ wіllіng tо work аt your оwn расе, whо has the abilities and аnd professional соnnесtіоnѕ to make dеѕіgnіng уоur ѕрасе the fun rеwаrdіng project іt’ѕ meant to bе -and lеаvе the dо-іt-уоurѕеlfing to thе guys on TV!

Yоu’ll be ѕо glаd уоu did!

Dean Malambri & Alan Sills

Dean Malambri & Alan Sills

Principal Designers, Dean Alan Design Inc.

Dean Malambri & Alan Sills are co-founders of Dean Alan Design Inc., a Chicago-based interior design and decorating firm.

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Solving for X Part 2- A Story of Giving and Thanks

Solving for X Part 2- A Story of Giving and Thanks

A few months back, I told you about our rather eye-opening meetings with client, Pat, our octogenarian, “never-give-up,” non-traditional client and now friend (you can read the background here). Pat found us from a list of designers published by a local design center, wanting not much more from us than to make sense of her new two-bedroom apartment. Cramming a life full of memories from a ten-room house into a tiny apartment was not only difficult for her, it was clearly painful for her to have to choose between so many important memories too.

This was not a project for HGTV that you watch on the treadmill. It was not something you post splashy shots of on social media. Instead, we sifted through box after box of mementos, art, and “stuff,” figuring out what was really important and what was not. How did we figure this out, you ask? By listening to Pat’s stories of remembrance. A suncatcher was made by her now deceased sister. This vase, or that cross was her mother’s favorite. We edited, distributed and hung up the most important memories across the apartment. And watching Pat’s eyes light up made me rethink what and why we were there for in the first place. Was I giving or receiving?

Fast forward to last Friday. Pat’s son called saying that she now wanted a chair recovered so it would tie in with our new color scheme. So we schlepped over our fabrics as usual and squeezed in a meeting. We sat down for some coffee, some laughs, and catching up. But here’s the first shocking sidebar: Pat can hardly walk, so even getting to her dinette is an epic feat. But she manages with a lot of wincing, some mild cursing, and a whole lot of smiling. And as is the custom, we listened to Pat’s stories. Honestly at this point, I usually forget why I’m there in the first place.  And the words from a mentor always come back, “we rest on the shoulders of those who precede us.” It’s important to honor these stories.

But it was time for business and we talked about fabrics for the chair. This one had too much green to it, this one wasn’t the right texture, etc. But we did narrow it down to a beautiful rich blue velvet with a gorgeous hand. I always do this weird thing and ask people to put the fabric up to their face so they can really feel the texture. Yes, it’s weird, but it works.  Pat declined because she said she had too much makeup on. She trusted me that it was soft!

We had some holiday pillows sitting in our car from a recent sample sale and we thought she might like a few of them, so we ran out to retrieve them. She asked if we would prefer for her to come out to the car to make it easier for us. Remember, Pat can hardly walk.

So then this feeling of grace took over as I ran back to the car. Alan and I looked at each other, stopped and I asked, “don’t you feel great every time we come out here?” He looked back and reacted in typical deadpan Alan style: “duh.” I was clearly the master of the obvious.

We came back with the pillows, and while she politely declined most of them, one with a silhouette of a cat on it in leather caught her eye. “I’ll take that one,”
she said, without batting an eye. Not for herself mind you, but as a Christmas gift to a niece out east who adored cats. Another arresting realization: Pat was thinking of others before herself. It was at this point automatic.

We wrapped it up, and on the way out, she out-of-the-blue asked us out for dinner, her treat. Taken aback again at this level of audacious selflessness, we had to decline, but the next time we come back, we’ll probably arrange a meeting under the pretext of some business thing, and surprise her with a homemade gourmet dinner. It’s our turn to serve in this volley of giving and receiving.



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Why Do (you think) Interior Designers Seem Expensive?

Why Do (you think) Interior Designers Seem Expensive?

On some days, I seriously wish I could change my job title from “interior designer” to something less menacing, but everything else sounds awkward. Color, saturation and hue selector? Material specifier? Coordinator of tradespersons? I’d like to switch because as soon as I tell people what I do, one resounding association surfaces: EXPENSIVE. Interior Designers seem expensive, right? Suddenly I’ve become a pretentious, impractical aesthete who rolls his eyes at polyester, sighs a lot, and charges exorbitant prices. It’s an amazing set of assumptions derived from just two words!

The Other Dreaded D Word

But worse yet, I could be called a “decorator.” That sounds like something from “Father Knows Best,” a trivial hobby for the women-folk to pass the time in between soap operas. But like so many other trades, the business of interior design has been disrupted by the Internet, the crash of 2008, and the surging popularity of DIY. Why on earth would you need a professional interior designer when you’ve got TV shows, magazines and catalogs to guide and inspire your decorating ideas, Internet sites virtually giving away cheap home décor, and earworm-like ads cheering you on with slogans like, “You can do it. We can help.”? So I put on my investigative journalist hat (a Glen-Plaid Trilby), and here’s what I came up with.

1. Interior Designers Spreads Featured In Mass Media Show Really Expensive Home Decor

Turn on “Million Dollar Decorators,” “MTV Cribs” or flip through some design magazines. The projects and spreads are featured for inspiration, shock value and awe, both good and bad (depending on the source).  They’re there to entertain you with the most lavish, expensive, and/or most spectacular home plans in the world. If you’re old enough, you may remember “Lifestyle of the Rich & Famous.” Pretty much the same thing. While I would love to design a 15th century castle in the Rhone, or a 50-million-dollar penthouse in New York, these are the attention-getting projects, most budgets are a tad smaller.

David Easton's Abermale Salon is completely spectacular in every way.

Need decorating ideas? David Easton’s Abermale Salon is completely spectacular in every way.

Our clients don’t live in a Kardashian world (phew) and usually have financial obligations in the form of offspring, other expenses that are equally if not more important to design (like travelling), and not a lot of time. It doesn’t make for great TV to watch interior designers crunch home decor numbers on a spreadsheet and prioritize where to spend and where to save. Better to watch people fall to their knees and shriek “OH MY GOD!”

2. Not Many Other Than the Rich Used to Feel the Need for Interior Designers

Historically, if you needed furniture or home decor, most Americans bought some sort of “matching set” in Early American, Modern, Mediterranean, or Traditional.  That was it. Need some appliances? Harvest Gold or Avocado Green. Wallpaper and paint? Here’s the coordinating colors and patterns that exactly match. Ah the romanticized vision of a simple past.

The choices were pretty simple way back in 1957

The home decor choices were pretty stark way back in 1957

Wealthier Americans were the ones employing professional interior designers and they went to totally different showrooms, more expensive places like the Merchandise Mart,, in order their homes to stand out from the pack. Everything could be customized, tweaked, bedazzled, whatever you wanted and it was expensive because it wasn’t mass produced. Hence the term “to the trade only.”

But today the lines are blurred. There’s an avalanche of home decor at both consumer and designer levels, and virtually every home plan we do is contains products from both worlds. Good interior designers are now not just style dictators, they sift through mountains of home decor and materials for you, and have a lot of experience where to get the most “bang for the buck.”

3. The “Do-It-Yourself” Home Decor Industry Hammers the Point Constantly

Look at what’s playing on the treadmill screens at your local gym. I like spying at them; it’s usually sports, reality shows but now also increasingly, home improvement channels (I always internally giggle at the macho guys tuned into HGTV). DIY and dispensing decorating ideas became big business after 2008 and continues to grow, and there’s both good and bad in this. Good because people see how much better their home plans can be with some improvements. Bad because DIY is now a huge industry which has attracted both Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types. These aren’t people that know good design, but they know how to make a lot of money. And that hinges on one simple premise: persuading you that doing everything on your own is really quite easy. Then, for balance, ask someone with no experience how easy it is to install crown molding.

Not the easiest turn to make on your own. While I can specify it, I can't do it myself. I do know many contractors can, all in a day's work.

Not the easiest turn to make on your own. While I can specify it, I can’t do it myself. I do know many contractors that can, all in a day’s work.

How Much of Your Home Plan Should You Do On Your Own?

A few of our clients still say “do everything”, but less and less. Others would prefer to do the majority of the heavy lifting on their own- they just need some advice on best practices and some decorating ideas. But most fall somewhere in the middle: they want to get their feet wet but don’t want to train like Michael Phelps.

There’s also a whiff of rugged American individualism inherent in DIY. Reflexively, I don’t want to be told what to do or what to buy, but that’s the lingering stigma of the dogmatically-perceived interior designers: and true, they used to be rather inflexible and diva-like. But if my doctor says lay off the fried food, in all likelihood he’s not saying this because he enjoys bossing you around. He’s seen some clogged arteries!

So if you’re a renegade and a rebel against authority, cool. Me too. But I do know that an expert gets that title usually because they encounter a situation over and over and has learned how to solve the problem efficiently and effectively. Interior designers are experts in scale, proportion, repetition, balance, etc., what we know as design considerations. Business people have different skill sets, as do marketers and website developers. The world is a better place because we all have different skill sets.

4. Interior Designers seem expensive because you’re heard they charge that exorbitant “retail” price

Again, kind of a spillover from the past. The Google shopping tab is available and accessible to all, and therefore, and that’s there’s not much pricing variance anymore in consumer level home decor products like lamps, rugs, vases, ceiling fans.

With custom home decor products there’s lots of variables depending on what you pick, so it’s not as easy to compare apples to apples on Google. Rest assured, interior designers discount off retail just like you see on price tags at stores and online. So that retail price you see everywhere, often with a slash through it is kind of a joke now.

5. It Still Feels Weird to Pay for Decorating Ideas

I remember one hilarious episode of Will and Grace when Grace figures out a way to workout always within earshot of a personal trainer to get his advice without having to pay for it (It’s ironic too because she herself is an interior designer in the show).

Sifting through thousands of home decor products like wall coverings, fabrics, floor coverings, paint, etc. takes time. More time to figure out how they balance and relate to each other. Even more to calculate quantities of each for each application, to figure out who can install, and to assess if this whole scheme is worth it relative to the whole home plan budget. I can almost guarantee that you won’t want to sit in on this part of the job, but that’s the bulk of what interior designers bill for- you are paying to save you time, get expert advice, personal and practical decorating ideas, and avoid complications. It’s pretty much outsourcing.Remember though, you’re not outsourcing your personal taste. In other words, when you eat out at a restaurant, you still get to choose what you eat. But you pay a bit more for the privilege of not having to cook.


It’s ultimately up to you what percentage of your home improvement plan you’d like to tackle. Most professional  interior designers are equipped to handle every part of the process, that’s what is meant by “full service interior design.” But if there’s parts you’d rather do on your own, great. Just think through it through and be aware what you’re in for. Some parts can be very fun and rewarding, and putting more of your personality into a project is a win-win for everyone.

There’s some happy medium that we’re getting to between “full-service” and DIY design. And I’m excited about the future because collaboration is more meaningful and rewarding all around.  I’ll leave you with a quote from fellow interior designer and all-around great guy, Patrick Landrum:

“Real interior design is all about the experience– the interaction. The surprises and laughter, the push & pull of personal choice, the butting of heads. The merging of taste and technique, and most of all the camaraderie of designer and client that results in a beautiful lifestyle that internet shopping cannot touch. It’s living the design, not just doing it.” – Patrick Landrum

Interior Designer

Hand rendering by Patrick Landrum

Hand rendering by Patrick Landrum

Happy decorating!

Dean Malambri Signature
Dean Malambri

Dean Malambri

President & Principal Designer, Dean Alan Design Inc.

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“They All Look the Same”- What to Know About Sofas

“They All Look the Same”- What to Know About Sofas

We’ve all got plans for our money and everyone places value on different things. I think spending a few hundred on a once-in-a-lifetime meal is totally worth the expense, but many of my friends think it’s crazy to ever spend more than $20 at Applebee’s.

Sofa shopping is also like this prioritization. Confusing the issue even further is the fact that photography and photoshoppers are both amazing these days. So how can you tell the difference? Let’s try to think of upholstery in three broad categories: short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Because what you’re mainly paying for is quality of construction, longevity, and ability for customization. Here’s what to expect at each level…

Short Term Sofas

Maybe you’d rather go on a luxurious vacation than invest in something that, by definition, encourages you sit in one place. Or you’ve heard standing is much better for your health than sitting-  that’s cool too. We’re not here to judge (and we sell these sofas too). Here’s what you get if you plunk down roughly $500-$1400 for a sofa:

Mid-century budget sofa, short-term, beige tufting

Hola, Mid-Century hipsters, think your taste will change in a few years? Than this Modway sofa might just fit the bill. $599.

In this price range, the marketing department crunches a lot of numbers. The whole equation here for the sellers is numbers: how cheaply they can get it made, and what selling price will excite you enough to quickly add one your shopping cart.

What You Get:

  • Frame: some sort of particle board, wood substrate, use your imagination. You’re getting a killer price, who cares?
  • Seating Support: Probably elastic webbing, which is a nice term for plastic straps, perhaps some sinuous wire suspension; whatever’s on sale to the maker.

    That's web suspension, or straps. .

    That’s web suspension, or straps.


  • Cushioning: Straight foam, no wrapping. The quality of foam varies widely in price. Basically the cheaper the foam, the faster it breaks down (and turns to dust, eww), and the sofa starts feeling sitting like a board. If you’re a foam aficionado, here’s a comprehensive look at the stuff and how it wears. Kind of interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing,
  • Fabrics: What you see is what you get. Seriously, if you can live with it for awhile, it’s probably something very durable, since man-made things like polyester microfibers are very sturdy.

Since this whole venture depends on economy of scale, these sofas are usually made overseas, thousands at a time. Remember the I Love Lucy episode with Lucy working at the candy factory?

The whole process is about speed and how expensive it is to pack it on a big ship in a container. You might have to assemble some parts of it.

if you go up a notch from here and spend about double, you get something made in the USA, and you’ll get to choose from a handful more fabrics

USA made semi-custom loose back bench cushion sofa

American made, and nice looking, this Klaussner sofa sells for about $1400. You get more fabric choices, but that’s it. Economy of scale, baby.

Medium-Term Sofas

Compared to the short-term sofas, everything here is more substantial and durable. If you push on the arms or the back, they shouldn’t flex or bow. And you can often upgrade a lot of the little things that will make it last longer (when you special order).

What You Get

  • Frame: some type of kiln dried wood, which removes excess moisture from the wood
  • Seating Support: Some people call it a sinuous suspension frame. It’s easier to show you a picture of this type of construction, which can be made by a machine.

    That's the underside of the sofa, which you won't see because they put fabric on top of it.

    That’s the underside of the sofa, which you won’t see because they put fabric on top of it.


  • Cushioning: Higher density foam wrapped in some sort of ticking wrap to keep its shape and resiliency longer. If you can request adding springs inside the cushioning, it’s the best money you’ll ever spend as part of a sofa. We’ve learned this through the years,
  • Fabrics: A whole lot more choices than the short-term category, but if you choose something patterned, you’ll be paying for the waste incurred as well. Sofas at this level may or may not match patterns, it’s considered on an individual basis that we check ahead of placing your order.

Custom designer sofa Mid-term Bernhardt Josh sofa, cream cover, contrasting charcoal pillows

The Josh sofa by Bernhardt, about $2500, as you see it. Pick your fabric, pick your contrasting pillows and it’s very nice. We always insist on springs inside the cushions (an upcharge), because of course you know by now, all foam breaks down. Stylish and just a tad trendy.

Medium term sofa, Bassett angled sofa

The Marseille Sofa from Bassett. Deeper because of the curve. About $2300 as you see it.

smaller custom designer condo sofa with firm seats and short seat depth, made in USA

Have some older relatives that struggle with getting up from sitting? This 72″ made in the USA sofa from Fairfield lets you put extra firm cushioning in the seat, and the seating depth is only 19″. Perfect for downsized dwellings (starting at $1649 from us)


Long-Term Sofas

These sofas are built to a standard instead of a price point. You’ll see manufacturers proudly using their names on these sofas (don’t worry, they’re not visible like a logo or anything) because they’re the pinnacle of sofa construction

What You Get

  1. Frame: A hardwood frame that is double doweled, glued and screwed at stress points is common at this level, and why sofas here can be recovered years down the road.
  2. Seating Support: The best sofas use a technique known as 8-way hand tying, a laborious effort that yields a seat where you can’t feel what your sofa neighbor is doing next to you. The individual spring coils are hand-tied and bound together in eight separate directions using polyester cording. The cording is then securely anchored to the frame. Fine sofas have always used this construction, so it’s tried and true.

    See all those knots? There's a person who does that whole process by hand, and it takes a lot of training.

    See all those knots? There’s a person who does that whole process by hand, and it takes a lot of training.


  3. Cushioning:  At the long-term sofa level, you can choose exactly the type of firmness you’d like: spring and down, spring and fiber, down and fiber, etc. Here’s where we take you to trade showrooms in person and ask you to sit, politely.
  4. Fabrics: You can do just about anything you want, but if you pick a fabric independently from the sofa, that’s called COM, or Customer’s Own Material. They’ll put anything you want anywhere with this option, but it does get expensive. If you want the quality of long-term sofas without breaking the bank, try to stay with something the sofa factory has on-hand.

Chicago custom designer sofa by Ambella through Dean Alan Design

The Cee Zee sofa from Ambella Home is 8-way hand tied, and joints are double doweled, glued and screwed together. See that fabric on the back? That’s all cut, matched, and pieced by hand.  As shown, $4050.

Chicago custom designer sofa: Kravet Colby long-term sofa by Dean Alan Design

The Kravet Colby sofa is rated “Heavy Duty”in Accordance with GSA Purchase Description FNAE80-214A. Shown in a nuclear war-proof Crypton fabric, it has springs and a down wrap inside the cushions. Or you can choose 100% down filling, but be warned: you’ll be a full-time fluffer. We sell it for $4905 as shown. Easily recovered years down the road, too.



Chicago custom sofa, classic modern design Thayer Coggin sofa

Thayer Coggin has been making classically modern sofas since the 1950’s. You’ll see many used sofas from that time still being reupholstered today, as their frames are built like tanks! About $5500 from us.

So looking at sofas online doesn’t really tell the complete picture of what’s inside. You’re looking at the body only, and there’s lots of variables “under the hood.” We have our favorite brands that we’ve worked with for years, and have seen how they wear over time. If you need more detailed advice, drop us a message!

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