Working with an Interior Designer
Last updated November 2019
Does the job of decorating your home—furniture, floors, wallpaper, artwork, etc.—overwhelm you? Or do you want someone else’s design ideas or access to wholesale showrooms and more furniture choices? You might want to hire an interior designer.
You can find a decor pro at a furniture store or hire an independent one. They could do your whole house or one room, from developing a design concept to purchasing and supervising installation of the furnishings. Or you can hire some designers for two- or three-hour consultations to provide new ideas and perspectives.
Even if you pay a designer for the full job, you can remain involved, meeting with him or her regularly to review plans, fabric samples, proposed furniture pieces, and more.
The cost of hiring a fully trained independent designer to redo a living room (including furniture plus design fee) is typically more than $20,000. But it can cost considerably more or less depending on room size, quantity and quality of items purchased, and the designer’s fee structure. Although some independent designers won’t accept clients who aren’t prepared to spend in this range, others are willing to work with more limited budgets. Most understand you might want to plan now and spread out actual purchases over many months.
Some store-based designers offer limited service, but others do more, from drawing floor plans to advising on color. Different stores’ design departments use different payment formulas. At some, you pay a small design fee, refundable if furniture purchases exceed a certain amount. You purchase items through the designer at the store’s current prices, including sale ones. Other stores may charge an hourly rate or a flat fee for a consultation plus additional hourly fees for other tasks like writing up purchase specs. Stores may waive the fee if your purchase is large enough.
Independent designers also use a range of payment structures. A few charge no explicit fee but retain the difference between their discounted price for your furnishings and the “retail” price—typically double what they’ve paid. More commonly, designers charge a flat or hourly fee, and may also add a markup to the items purchased.
Because the client pays one way or another, we favor hiring designers for a flat fee or hourly rate. This makes the cost clear, doesn’t incentivize overspending, and avoids trouble if you shell out less than they anticipated.
Despite the discounts they get, buying through a designer means you’ll probably spend more than if you bought the same products on your own at one of the area’s best-priced stores.
To get the most for your money from a designer, choose carefully. Start with recommendations from friends whose taste you like, or from homeowners whose furnishings you admire on house tours. And, of course, check ratings we've collected here.
You can also receive referrals from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). ASID membership is a meaningful credential. Full “Professional Members” must complete a 10-plus hour written and practical exam, and meet specific standards before sitting for it. For example, one basis for eligibility is completing a four- or five-year college degree program with a major in interior design plus two years of experience.
Meet with any designer you’re considering. Talk about your lifestyle, needs, and tastes. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with them about budget and occasionally rejecting their suggestions, they’re not for you. Ask to see samples of their work—either photographs or, better still, actual homes.
Be specific about your total budget and discuss the designer’s fees. It’s reasonable to negotiate.
Finally, compose a letter of agreement spelling out your understanding of the specific services the designer will perform (which rooms will be furnished, whether shopping is included, and whether tradespeople will be supervised), how fees will be calculated, and whether the designer will retain any portion of the actual price paid for purchased items.
Some pros also now work via e-design, sending out mockups of room designs and suggestions for purchasing items via email. Some local designers do this in addition to traditional in-person work, or they might work with one of several online-only design portals. These include Decorist, Havenly, and Modsy. Most work on a by-room basis, with costs ranging from $79 a room (a simple plan with a 3D rendering from Modsy) to $1,299 for what Decorist says is a plan from a “celebrity designer.” (That includes some big names like Celerie Kemble and India Hicks, though we’re skeptical of their actual involvement with your project.)
E-design services work like this: Take a design quiz pinpointing rooms and styles you like, get matched with a few designers, choose one, and pay up front. In return, within a few days or a week or two, you’ll receive design renderings, suggestions for products, and advice on painting, wallpaper, and lighting. Still, in many cases you’re getting a less-experienced designer (some with no credentials other than a purported sense of style) and no help in executing their plans. (Part of what you pay a designer for is their access to quality wallpaper hangers, furniture restorers, etc.) Still, if you’ve got design savvy and DIY skills, these sites might be a less-expensive choice for help.