Spring is a busy time for home buying and renovating. These days, new internet-based businesses are helping homeowners get professional design expertise and merchandise more affordably and faster than ever.
It was only a matter of time before the internet would disrupt how the design trade has worked for decades.
In the past, interior designers ordered almost every piece of furniture or decor from trade vendors on behalf of their clients, and billed them an hourly rate plus charges for purchases—typically, wholesale plus a markup or retail minus a discount. Then, it would take the merchandise months to be fabricated and delivered.
Obviously, homeowners were exhilarated when other resources emerged, such as HGTV shows, hip housing magazines, and online idea sites such as Houzz and Pinterest, allowing them to take a more active role in home design. The latest iteration to shake up the process is online companies that employ staff designers or freelancers with the goal of simplifying the designer-homeowner partnership and allowing the act of home furnishing to became transparent, faster, and more affordable.
The process typically works like this: Homeowners begin by filling out an online questionnaire to match them with the right professional. The survey covers personal preferences based on clients choosing their favorite product and design photos. Homeowners also enter their room sizes and a budget, which covers the company’s hourly rate or project fee, plus the cost of furnishings from online sources such as Wayfair, CB2, and Crate and Barrel. The design professional they’re matched with suggests purchases and room layouts, often without setting foot on the property. “Think of it as a variation on online dating,” says Chicago designer Tom Segal of Kaufman Segal Design.
Interactions with the designer can happen via email, phone, instant message, Skype, and sometimes in-person meetings. Before the homeowner signs off on a project, they are provided a floor plan or 3D rendering, which shows how to arrange the furnishings once they arrive. Since the first companies emerged in 2012, many have grown and added locations. “Most customers who come to us are too busy to do this on their own and are looking for an efficient, convenient way to gain a beautiful home,” says Alessandra Wood, vice president of style at Modsy, based in San Francisco.
Those were the reasons homeowner Carolina Poli decided to use New York–based Homepolish. While living in Brooklyn, she was building a house in suburban New York, working fulltime, and raising two young children. “I thought I could select it all myself but realized it was too big a job,” she says. Her designer Crystal Sinclair worked with her by phone, online, and in person. “The price was also much better than if I had worked a designer in the traditional way.” Some design firms also work with real estate professionals to stage rooms.
Here are a few online interior design firms gaining prominence.
Affordable Interior Design: This New York–based firm, with branches in Washington, D.C., and London, provides online help through eight freelance designers who visit clients’ homes (unless they live far away). Founder Betsy Helmuth’s impetus was to provide affordable design that would expand her reach beyond her suburban New York design storefront. She offers two packages that each require filling out a questionnaire, sending in photos of rooms or items customers like, and supplying room measurements. Option one is $999 for a two-hour consultation for two rooms, a shopping list of up to 16 retail items with prices often discounted, two floor plans, a “mood” or Pinterest-style board, and a final presentation. The second option is a one-hour consultation for one room at $799, shopping list for up to eight items, one floor plan, mood board, and final presentation. Additional rooms each cost $599 and come with a shopping list for eight items, floor plan, mood board, and presentation.
Decorilla: Founded by Agnieszka Wilk in New York in 2012, the company now uses 10,000 designers across every state and reaches internationally as well. Decorilla also has an in-house staff who handle other parts of the job, such as coordinating delivery, dealing with returned goods, and managing construction. This company starts clients out with a questionnaire, but they can also search its website to pick a designer whose portfolio they like. The company offers three packages, from basic bronze for $499 for one room to gold for several rooms for $1,699, while offering clients access to highly experienced designers. Rather than providing one plan or rendering, four options are offered to clients with realistic renderings from two different designers. Each client also gets company discounts on more than 250 well-known brands such as Wayfair, Crate and Barrel, and Jonathan Adler. Many projects incorporate one-of-a-kind goods. Seattle designer Sonia Carlson worked on a gold-level package for eight rooms and exterior finishes for a new home in Pennsylvania. She and her client worked mostly via email and Skype, and they uploaded idea images over several months. Many pieces were sourced from Europe. For those who need less help, the company offers service starting at $75 an hour.
Decorist: Based in San Francisco, this online interior design company was launched in 2014 by Gretchen Hansen, a consumer marketing executive who found herself challenged when decorating her own home. A designer friend helped her via email, and the proverbial lightbulb went on. “If someone could help me that way, I could help others,” Hansen says. With a roster of approximately 400 interior designers, the firm handles design projects online only. After filling out a questionnaire, clients pick from three packages: the Classic Design Service for $299 per room with the industry’s most ambitious up-and-coming designers; the Elite Design Service for $599 per room with a locally established designer with regional press; or the Celebrity Design Service for $1,299 per room with a nationally recognized “A-list” interior designer. What a home owner gets: two “mood boards,” the chance to chat via instant message with the designer, a final room design board and floor plan, and a detailed shopping list. Decorist’s free concierge purchasing team members handle shopping and delivery.
Homepolish: Based in New York, this firm works with freelance designers, architects, and general contractors who use the partnership to increase their exposure to new clientele and gain access to its proprietary technology and tools to run their businesses more efficiently. Since Noa Santos started the company in 2012, it has grown to a network of 1,000 professionals nationally who take on not just residential but also commercial and hospitality projects. The company also has an in-house staff of 70. Designers visit clients’ spaces but can also work by video if they live far away. Prices begin at $140 an hour with a minimum of 10 hours required; hourly rates go up to more than $300 an hour. The company touts its extensive list of trade and retail vendors, and other services such as construction management. Homepolish team members make money by time spent rather than from commissions on client purchases. “There’s no incentive to buy more expensive furnishings,” Santos says.
Modsy: Shanna Tellerman founded her San Francisco–based company four years ago, which now works with 200 to 300 designers. They offer service online nationwide through video and telephone calls with four design packages available: basic for $69 per room with purchases delivered in eight to 10 days; classic for $89 per room and delivery in six to eight days; premium for $199 per room and delivery of goods in four to seven days; and multiroom at $399 for up to three rooms and delivery in four to seven days. For an extra $15, home owners can have any item they already own digitally inserted into their plan to see how it will look; a substitute but similar item can be inserted for free, says Wood. Plans or renderings highlight purchases with a white dot, which, when clicked, details the product information. Designers try to give clients choices in each layout, such as a sectional or sofa or different paint palettes.
TCI Design Delivered: Traci Connell started her online TCI Design Delivered business after recognizing that not everybody could afford the services of her original firm, Traci Connell Interiors. That firm requires home owners to spend a minimum on each of three rooms plus a designer fee rather than hourly rate. To help them get her decorating expertise at a lower cost, Connell and her staff have priced consultations based on room type and size—$1,080 for an entryway or $1,700 for a home office, for example. The first step for clients is filling out a questionnaire, followed within six to eight weeks by receiving a “presentation box” with a furniture and material book, paint samples, a detailed floor plan, remodeling finishes, and fabric swatches. Clients make their choices and handle returns themselves. Results for the two approaches aren’t the same, however. “There’s a huge difference between doing one room online versus the traditional way where there’s constant personal interaction, access to special touches, someone to help with ordering, installation, and making returns,” Connell says.
Design the Old-Fashioned Way
While online decorating can work well, it’s not the same as having a designer visit your home and work in person, says Tom Segal, co-founder of Kaufman Segal Design in Chicago. “When we’re not in the space, we don’t see how light enters the room, plays off the ceiling, or affects other colors and furnishings, or how people use their house. We also don’t see how traffic flows into the kitchen or throughout an entire floor,” he says. Another negative that Segal cautions is many of the products offered are mass-produced, so they don’t offer the same personalized look and feel that custom selections usually do. “They may not fit the user as well. For example, a sofa or chair may not be the desired width, height, and length, or have the right firmness or give,” he says.
Yet, Segal still considers online decorating a positive trend. “It’s a good way for those who’ve never worked with a designer to start understanding the process and [those] with smaller budgets to get a room furnished and often fairly quickly,” he says. Online decorating helps to demystify the process, so if owners decide later that they are ready to take the next step, whether it’s working on more rooms or allotting a bigger budget, they can switch to a traditional design firm, Segal says. “We’re all trying to be more transparent. In my firm’s case, we charge an hourly rate and generally a 35 percent markup on the net or wholesale cost. We also get 20 percent off certain retail purchases,” he says. The bottom line is that every design company works differently, so it’s important for clients to ask about costs up front, he says.