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.
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.
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.
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:
President & Principal Designer, Dean Alan Design Inc.