Momentum builds for online interior design
All I could think was Thank God no one was naked.
As I drove up to my house at dusk one night, I could see my young children running around, their evening escapades on display as though there were a projector playing home movies on the side of our Cape.
I needed to hang curtains, and fast.
It was time to decorate, for my family’s sake and the neighbors’, but I didn’t have the money to spend on interior design services, nor was I inclined to dedicate the time to an intense, months-long process.
Apparently I’m not the only one: A new crop of interior design websites and an app are offering lower-cost interior design conducted almost exclusively online.
“It’s a new frontier for the design world,” says Gretchen Hansen, CEO and founder of Decorist, one of four major players in the online home design game (the others being Homepolish, Havenly, Laurel & Wolf, and Homee, an iPhone app formerly known as the website Zoom Interiors).
While all differ slightly on their pricing and process, they have the same backbone: After the clients determine their style through a series of clicks, they upload photos of their space and fill out a questionnaire. Clients are either assigned a designer or choose one based on their style and budget. Depending on the company, the following step could be an in-person meeting with the designer, a phone call, or simply a first go at the design.
In the end, designers provide clients with either renderings of the room or a “mood board” — essentially a collage of suggested pieces — and a list of products, which can sometimes be purchased through the site. The clients then lug in the furniture and hang the art themselves, though some companies can arrange help for all that.
“A lot of people were skeptical,” Hansen says. “You’re asking people to hire a designer they’ve never met, who never comes to their house, and is picking furniture they’ve never seen. There’s a lot of trust needed.”
“The interior design process should be one of a partnership between an individual who has a vision and knows what they like,” he says, “and a professional who hones that vision.”
So the technology facilitates many of the steps — the matchmaking between client and designer, a lot of the communication, most of the shopping — but at their heart, the sites aim to mimic traditional interior design: The input is just solicited via Web forms and e-mail instead of in a face-to-face conversation in the clients’ homes.
But not everyone sees it that way. It’s like comparing “apples to oranges,” says Dedham-based interior designer Christine Tuttle of Christine Tuttle Design.
“We’re offering a completely different service,” says Tuttle, who has worked in art, home furnishings, and design for 25 years. Virtual design might work for those who need a refresh, she says, but her clients turn to her for much more than that.
When you hire a designer, she says, you’re looking for something more personalized and customized. “Designers become acquainted with the family, how they use the space, how they entertain, how they live, how the house functions.”
A project for her could mean arriving at a client’s home at 7:30 a.m. and overseeing a crew of 15 subcontractors she vetted. Or sometimes it takes years to find the perfect piece for longtime clients. These sites are economical, she says, but they are “typically not designing high-end custom products.”
But, she points out, this could be a win-win for younger designers and people who would ordinarily be priced out of interior design.
“I don’t know who’s staffing this,” she says. “Maybe new designers fresh out of school? That’s great; they’re fresh and have a lot of ideas.” Some of the virtual-design websites charge a premium for more experienced designers.
Homeowner Eunice Park liked the online cost savings but felt it’s more important to have a designer who “gets you.” The in-person relationship you develop with a traditional interior designer is one of the reasons why she wasn’t initially sold on the idea of e-design. But when she moved from Nashville to Denver, she needed help quickly. She didn’t have local connections, so she signed up for the online service Havenly.
The designer, Boston-based Stafford Bensen, understood her style and needs so well that after Bensen did her home office, Parks hired her to style the family room, kitchen, basement, and master bedroom, among other spaces.
“It’s so amazing that she can practically know what it’s like to be in my family room, and she’s in Boston and I’m in Denver,” says Park, who really valued how quickly Bensen was able to complete the rooms.
“For someone time-constrained, e-design is perfect,” she says. “I think I became kind of addicted.”
Elizabeth Scully, a Los Angeles homeowner, also valued the speed of e-design. She had worked with a traditional designer in the past but had a short timeline to turn her college-age son’s room into a guest room — one in which he would still feel comfortable. She had six weeks to get it done before he came home for Thanksgiving break.
“Within two weeks, there were two concept boards [and a floor plan],” says Scully, who worked with Decorist. “Within another week or so, I was making final selections of furnishings and layouts.”
Homeowners, however, should be prepared to do a bit of the legwork themselves, Scully says. Filling out the forms can take awhile, and the client is responsible for providing the designer with measurements of the home and doing some of the installation. Scully hired a painter and a handyman to assemble furniture. Park got a referral from Havenly for someone to wallpaper one room, but she and her husband have done everything else, like hanging the artwork.
Doing some of the work yourself can certainly lower the cost. Havenly, for instance, is one of the lower-priced services. Prices start at $79 for an “accessories package” (not a full redesign, more like a refresh) and top out at $199 for a whole room.
At this price point, virtual interior design companies are opening the market to people who have never hired a designer — or thought they couldn’t afford one. The cost of a traditional interior designer can vary by geography and depends on the firm’s rate structure: hourly, retainer, cost per square foot, percentage of project, etc.
“Traditional interior design has just always been so out of reach for so many people,” says Emily Motayed, cofounder of Havenly.
Even interior designers who have brick-and-mortar offices understand the allure of virtual design and how it can widen the market.
Valerie Betz, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based designer, offers her own version of e-design via her firm, StudioVB. Face-to-face full service is her focus, but she knows people are looking for online help, too.
“E-design works for clients who aren’t local,” she says, “but also for clients with a limited budget or who are looking for limited design services.”
Betz says she still builds a connection with her clients, whether in person or via e-mail because it simply makes the end product better. “Design is a collaborative process. Collaboration results in a well-designed space.”
For Park, that’s what the interior design process felt like.
“It was like having a really good friend who knows a lot about interior design.”
Photos of a room from start to finish: