We spend so much time in our homes, our relationship with these brick and steel constructions run deep. A comforting home can lead to happiness, a more organized one can calm the mind. It's no wonder that taking the leap into the world of interiors can be a scary thing, especially the first time around. Just like a budding relationship, the start of a decorating project can bring a symphony of emotions: the heart-swelling when imagining the end result, the butterflies when spotting your dream sofa, the nerves when swiping the credit card, the doubts when awaiting delivery… Is it a good fit? Will it last? Will I love it?
In many ways, interior designers serve as the marriage counselors for your home: They have the expertise to navigate the tumultuous seas of the decorating process, with impressive success rates. But entering into a partnership with your interior designer is almost like a second marriage; beyond the initial compatibility and attraction, there are contracts to sign, finances to negotiate, and the impending knowledge that, despite best intentions, unforeseen events will always occur. Which is why choosing a decorator is an important decision. To help you take the plunge, we tapped our favorite designers to share everything you should know before hiring them. Take notes, and get ready to enter the partnership that will make your house a home.
Most experts agree, having a clear vision is best when hiring a designer. "The client with a blank slate is a myth 99% of the time," says designer Max Humphrey. "I actually enjoy working under existing parameters because I like a challenge."
"When working with clients, it’s extremely helpful to get an idea of their aesthetic and what they naturally gravitate toward," says Katie Hodges. "That being said, I think the best types of clients are those who have their own style but hire an interior designer to bring something new and refreshing to the table." Homepolish co-founder Noa Santos agrees: "The more inspiration the better. It's part of the fun."
Interior designer David John Dick of DISC Interiors has a slightly different approach: "We certainly love when clients come inspired and ready to collaborate, but we understand that some clients have not had this time in their life to do this, and we are excited to work with them too. Our goal is to take their initial inspirations or thoughts on how a room should function, and then run with their ideas, and eventually execute [them] into their dream interior."
The bond between designer and client is a sacred one. In order to have a successful working relationship with your designer, you need to be able to trust them implicitly. "I would advise clients stay true to who they are, yet keep an open mind and allow their designer to… well, design," shares Hodges. "An interior designer will usually be able to find the right balance between your comfort zone and their vision." Dick agrees: "We love when clients trust us, and we understand trust does not happen instantly," he says. "But when trust happens, beautiful things can happen."
Beyond trust, Santos believes that camaraderie is a fundamental pillar to a great partnership: "Find someone you really love," says Santos. "You're going to be spending a fair amount of time together, and the process should be fun for both of you. My favorite clients are the ones I can have a cocktail with."
Finding the right designer upon which to build this productive relationship isn't always easy, but doing your due diligence is of utmost importance. "All the online research in the world doesn’t make up for a one-on-one meeting or at least a few phone calls," says Humphrey. "It’s an intimate connection between a client and a designer since we’re in their homes and lives, so just plucking someone off of the internet because they have cool taste can lead to disaster if you don’t click personally."
What should you actually look for in a designer? "It's just as important to understand what you, as the client, want from your designer," says Santos. "Do you want someone who is going to be more assertive, or do you want a designer who is there simply for guidance? Do you want someone that likes to email or do you prefer texting? Personality and working style are too often overlooked, yet it's where we focus the majority of our attention at Homepolish. Great designers can typically work within a range of styles, but you need to love and trust the person you decide to work with."
Where should you look for a designer? "Most of our clients are by referral, but we love when clients find our work via the web, Houzz, Instagram, or a press article," says Dick. "It really is so much about a personal connection when looking for a residential interior designer, so we recommend asking friends or co-workers who your trust and whose style you admire." Hodges also believes in the power of Instagram: "Instagram accounts usually have more content than designers’ websites, and you can see what designers are drawn to and inspired by."
"Communicate your likes and dislikes in any way you know how, whether visual or verbal," says Dick, who often tells clients to give as much information as possible in the beginning. "Discuss your plans with your significant other, and what your combined vision looks like. Don't expect the designer to always be able to decipher if you disagree with your partner and have different visions for the space," he adds.
Courtesy of DISC Interiors
Few designers will nail a design on the first try, but how many revisions it's acceptable to ask for can be a touchy subject. "Every designer will have their own policy on how many changes they accept, so it’s important for a client to understand how their potential designer’s policies prior to working together," says Hodges.
Most of the designers we spoke to agreed that multiple revisions were entirely fine during the design phase, but not so much during execution: "If the design presented is not what you had in mind, it is perfectly okay to communicate the changes that need to occur," says Dick. "But once the client enters into the purchasing phase, changes and exchanges may not be allowed by vendors, so it's important to understand your designer's vision before proceeding, and to read all invoices and contracts."
"There’s definitely such a thing as too much inspiration," adds Humphrey. "I like a client who can pick out a few tear sheets or Pinterest pins but, once we decide on a direction, can stick with it and stay off the internet for the rest of the process."
"I use a “touch and go” model while designing," adds Hodges, "which involves giving the client benchmarks in the design process to gauge their feelings toward a particular design direction. This allows the client to weigh in during the design development phase, which minimizes, or completely diminishes, revisions and makes clients feel more comfortable along the way."
Be prepared to start with a clean slate and part with items that you may have initially wanted to keep. "I like being challenged by clients," says Humphrey. "With that said, I don’t like when clients are too sentimental about furniture or objects that they’ve owned for years and can't part with. One client of mine was really attached to some bedside tables that she found on the street when she was in college, and I had to physically throw them back out onto the street."
While a simple styling gig can be finished in a week, other large-scale projects can take years to complete, but no matter what your timeline is, designers agree that patience is key. "Timelines depend on two variables," says Hodges: "the scale of the project, and how quickly a client makes decisions (with the latter being most important). Some clients take longer to pull triggers than others, which definitely impacts the pace of the project."
"Furnishing a whole house can take six to nine months typically," says Humphrey. "I can come up with the design pretty quickly, so a lot of it has to do with how long clients take to make decisions and then we’re at the disposal of the dreaded lead-time." Larger furniture and custom-made pieces can have long lead times, which clients need to be aware of.
"Managing expectations is one of the most important aspects of my job, so I make sure my clients are well informed about lead times and process before I start any project," says Hodges. "However, there are still times that clients think that things can be done overnight. Concepts take time to develop and furniture is not made by robots with superpowers—patience will always pay off in the end."
Each designer has his or her own pet-peeve. For Hodges, it's texting late at night. "As an interior designer, I form close relationships with clients because the nature of the job is very intimate," she says. "But I wish clients understood that there are times (such as at 10 p.m. on a Sunday) when I am off-duty."
Every interior designers’ business model differs, so it's important to be aware of your own. "Every designer seems to have a different pricing structure, which can be confusing when choosing a designer," says Santos. "Homepolish clients pay a flat rate for design time as their project progresses so they can move as slowly or quickly as they like."
Some designers like Katie Hodges work on a 50-50 model, which means a 50% retainer is due upfront, and a 50% balance due at the end. Others clients are charged either monthly or bi-weekly, with furniture purchases due upfront, like at DISC Interiors.
As for discounts, it depends entirely on the designer. "There’s a common misconception that clients will always receive discounts when working with an interior designer," says Hodges. "Retail stores offer very small discounts (if any) to interior designers, because their primary client target is the home owner. However, when custom furnishings are involved, interior designers are usually able to re-create an out-of-budget piece by using local vendors and artisans, so clients do get the best value out of those pieces."
"Some designers who don’t mark up the retail pieces will charge a higher design fee," says Humphrey. "In general, the client isn’t getting the retail discount passed on to them at all because most designers make their money on commission."
"We try to extend enough of a discount on product to pay for our service fee," says Santos. "Hiring Homepolish is the same price as if you did the work yourself. We want working with us to be a no-brainer."
All interior design firms work differently," says Dick, "so it's important to ask these questions upfront, and to be specific about your project. Whether it's a kitchen remodel or decorating a living room, the discounts and rates can vary."
"For clients, figuring out an interior design budget is often a challenge because they don’t know what furniture costs at their particular price level," says Hodges. That being said, it's important to have a realistic overview of your finances, and what you're prepared to spend. "An interior designer can usually help a client figure out a baseline budget," she adds.
"Clients often ask ballpark numbers, and every time we politely decline, until we understand fully what they are looking for," says Dick. "Most of our clients have spent a considerable amount on purchasing their home, and our goal is to make sure the interior we design for them will last for many years, and work for their lifestyle."
Interior design budgets vary wildly. Ask 20 designers for a ballpark budget, and you'll get 20 answers. "I could point to a one-bedroom apartment that costs $10,000 and another where the client spent $1M," says Santos. "Design should be an ongoing conversation. It should change as you do, so the design of your space should start with who you are and what you care about, not how much money you have. There are good solutions at almost every price point."
The most important quality designers look for in clients: an appreciation for their craft. "My favorite types of clients are those that truly appreciate and understand design yet don’t know how to implement it," says Hodges.
"I love clients who believe design and art matter," adds Dick. "Clients who appreciate quality and craftsmanship and seek beauty are more willing to take a risk and collaborate."
Santos also loves clients that have a unique set of challenges. "The best solutions come from solving interesting problems."