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How to work with an interior designer

How to work with an interior designer
All your questions answered

Intimidated by the idea of working with an interior designer? Not sure how it all works? We consulted two local experts—Missi Ervin of Melissa Ervin Interior Design and Kristine Johnson of Kristine Johnson Design—to get your questions answered.

What is the difference between a decorator and an interior designer?
While the titles are often used interchangeably, the primary distinction is in the education and legislation that evolved in the field in the mid-20th century. With the advent of everything from trade shows to formal design training, the term interior decorator gave way to interior designer around the 1940s.

For modern purposes, a decorator typically refers to a design professional whose primary focus is on the aesthetic properties of a room—color choices, furniture and accessories selection, lighting, etc. An interior designer’s services include these, but typically extend well beyond furnishing and color choices. A designer is trained to begin their consultation at the front-end of a project (particularly in new construction and renovations), working with the bones of a structure to integrate both aesthetic and practical properties. For instance, an interior designer will work with an architect and builder to create an electrical plan in the kitchen that complements appliance and furniture placement.

How do I find the right interior designer for me without calling every name in the phone book?
Seek word-of-mouth references. Make a list of friends and acquaintances whose interiors you like, and ask for references. Architects, builders, and real estate agents are all valuable sources, too, and most have relationships with design professionals.

2) Look for resources in local media outlets; editorial stories offer a trove of valuable resources (Charleston Home, for example, lists all relevant professional information in the back).

3) Make a list of your favorite furnishings stores, particularly small boutiques. The owner may be able to offer a name or may be a designer herself.

4) Visit showhouses. Make a note of the designers behind the looks you like best.

Once you have a handful of names, go online. An increasing number of designers offer a web-based portfolio, which means you can further narrow your list (don’t count out those without online portfolios—this is a tool, but by no means a litmus test for qualified designers).

What is the best way to prepare for an interview with a potential designer? What kinds of questions should I ask and what should I bring?
Flip through magazines and pull photos of interiors that speak to you. Whether you love them or hate them, these will be valuable to the designer in conveying your style. “I had a client who told me the first time that we met that she hated birds,” recalls Ervin. “’I can’t do birds,’ she told me, and believe it or not, this was really helpful in getting to know her likes and dislikes.”

Besides the particulars, rely on your instincts. Much of the success of a designer/client relationship depends on good chemistry—a good personality match—so pay attention to how comfortable you both are in the meeting.

Also, ensure your expectations are in line with the designer you’re considering. “Ask about his or her education, any trade shows they regularly attend, and continuing coursework,” says Johnson. Even if good instincts rank higher on your list than formal training, you’ll want a professional who stays current enough to be able to bring you the very best options.

Is there a cost attached to an initial house visit?
This varies and is often dependent on the level of experience of the designer. This visit can evolve into billable design time and space planning, so be sure and ask up front.

Is professional licensing required?
Though many very good designers have no formal training, the state of South Carolina requires that licensed design professionals pass a common professional competency exam known as the NCIDQ exam (National Council for Interior Design Qualifications).

What does ASID mean? Allied ASID? IIDA?
These are trade organizations. While an ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) or IIDA (International Interior Design Association) membership requires passage of the NCIDQ, these are not necessary to practice interior design.

How is fee determined?
Typically, there are four factors that influence a designer’s rates: scope of services, the designer’s experience, size and complexity of the project, and whether it’s residential or commercial.

Will I be charged a flat fee or billed hourly?
This varies. Some designers bill by the hour for design time, with a cost plus percentage mark-up method for purchases (furniture, accessories, etc.). Others incorporate their fees into the cost of the goods (increasing the mark-up to absorb general design fees). Still others set a flat design fee in lieu of hourly rates, plus receiving a percentage on purchases. There are also costs associated with installation and laborers, and many designers will request retainers for orders that must be paid up front.

Will I be required to sign a contract?
Yes. “You should always, always have a contract,” says Ervin. This agreement sets forth a clear understanding of the scope of the project and each party’s responsibility. It should be comprehensive, spelling out the client approval process and payment for everything from fabric orders to labor. There should be provisions to protect both the designer and the client (i.e., a “not to exceed” limit that serves as a built-in cost control, requiring the designer to estimate a maximum fee for the work).

What if I just want some professional advice—say, an afternoon consultation?
This is a good option, particularly for those on a tight budget. “A number of interior designers today would be happy to advise on a single piece of furniture, acquire swatches for small updates, or work on a single room,” says Johnson. The up side is that you can easily control costs by agreeing to the rate and number of hours beforehand.

The key is finding a designer experienced enough to offer good, workable advice, but who’s also willing to take on a small-scale consultation. Though it never hurts to ask, some veteran designers will pass on a job of this size. Just be sure and clarify whether you are simply looking for a one-time, general consultation or if you’ll also require acquisition of goods.

When I see an item or material in a magazine labeled “To the Trade,” how do I go about obtaining that item?
Designers are repeat customers with these trade-only companies and in turn, get sizeable reductions. See a designer to order these items for you; with their mark-up, you will often pay the equivalent of standard retail.

 Are there any red flags I should be wary of?
Be careful of designers who push a particular product or products too hard, or overemphasize trends. Also, a designer with an inability or unwillingness to shift directions when you ask for different ideas could cost you in the end. Finally, it’s important to work with someone who respects the items you’ve acquired on your own. In most cases, a good, versatile designer can create design plans that seamlessly marry old and new items.

Are there any breaches of client etiquette I should know about?
The most important thing to remember is that this job is not a hobby. Interior designers will always bill for their time and their ideas are intellectual property, so never use an idea without permission.


Melissa Ervin Interior Design
155 East Bay Street, 2nd Floor
Charleston, SC 29401
843.577.5028 fax

Kristine Johnson Design
22 King St.
Charleston, SC 29401
(843) 793-1821