Maybe you're embarking on a new build or major renovation; maybe you just can't figure out what it will take to bring a space together. Or maybe you just need someone to pull you out of that Pinterest rabbit hole you fell down and create a plan just for you and your space. Any of these scenarios are potential entry points for an interior designer in your project. And we have a few pointers for when, who and how to hire.
The New or Nearly New Build
If your project requires architectural drawings or permitting (aka a new build, or renovation of any scale), you'll want to hire a designer as soon as possible. Typically our entry point is after the architectural plans get off the ground and sometimes before the builder or general contractor is hired.
Our job is to see the big picture from the start. It may take a little time to come to true form and the detail can be a little hazy at first, but we're here to establish the baseline and steer everything in the right direction- avoiding costly mistakes (things that you'll look at when they're done and immediately wish you'd done them differently), keeping the vibe consistent, and making sure even the weird things (every house has them!) work together.
We consult on architecture, brining our team's collective experience helping to make a project the very best it can be. Not sure how a window placement will work with the furniture flow? Concerned about the electrical plan? Want to see if we can move a bedroom or add a mudroom? We can navigate all of this. It's team work for sure, and we love to collaborate with the architect, the builder and the tradesmen and women to make our projects amazing.
One more note: This can be touchy, but I'm going to go there. Another facet to this dynamic is that some builders and even some architects may offer some kind of in-house design service. And while this isn't always dangerous, it can get you in some hot water if that "designer" is just someone's wife or girlfriend/boyfriend who likes picking out tile. Y'all, this happens. And sometimes it's fine (I'm not talking about everyone here!), sometimes it's really, really not. This has always been a tough one for me to understand because in order for everything to really feel purposeful and cohesive, you have to pick out the light fixture with the furniture and decor in mind. You have to pick out the counter tops with the color scheme in mind. You have to pick out the en suite bathroom tile knowing what's going on in the bedroom. Do you see where I'm going here? We believe this generally all needs to come from the same place: the designer. And the sooner she/he is on board, the less likely it is that you'll have to make changes to things that will cost. Believe me we've seen it. We've had to change light fixtures that aren't to scale or totally off stylistically. We've had to rip out installed tile that was just flat out bad. We've had clients redo all of their nearly new counter tops because they were lead so astray. Don't make these mistakes. Hire that designer ASAP!
Typically I'm going to recommend going with an experienced designer here. Someone who is versed in the build process, who can guide you through what can feel chaotic, understand timelines, how to prioritize selections and who needs what information when. This should be someone who is organized and on time (sidenote: the whole deliverable world is late right now. By "on time", I mean someone who's on top of their job). The designer is responsible for getting all material selections ("schedules") documented and to the contractors who need them in order for them to do their jobs. They're going to be directing electrical, plumbing and cabinetry walk-throughs on site, creating or outsourcing certain elevations, and really getting into the process, so this may not be the time to chance on a newbie BUT I'm not saying a newbie couldn't handle it.
A few questions I'd ask a new designer:
Can you walk us through the home building/applicable renovation process? It's not their job to know everything a contractor knows, but they should have a general understanding of this works and especially the order of things
Who are some of your favorite builders to work with? And maybe ask for references from them.
Where do you like to source plumbing, electrical, etc. from? *Don't expect super specific answers here. The idea isn't to get them to put all their cards out on the table and definitely don't expect them to give their cookies away for free. This is just to get a sense of their general connectedness to the process and sources. I speak from my own experience in saying that this knowledge is often the difference between decorating experience and full design experience.
A few questions I'd ask any designer:
What percentage of your work is new build/renovation?
Have you worked with anyone we've already hired (architect, contractor, etc.)? No is a totally fine answer, especially here in Charleston, where this industry is a crowded party, it's just nice to know.
Do you typically provide materials for the contractor to install? This is also, of course, up to the contractor. We work both ways and don't really mind either way, but it's just nice to know and establish up front. Not all designers want to be responsible for this and not all contractors want to let it out of their control, and it'ds also sometimes part of their commission. Sidenote: always expect your designer to provide decorative lighting. This is typically a part of their bottom line commission and they have to be depended on to get it to the project site when it's needed.
How often do you usually check in on a project site?
Will you be there for electrical and plumbing walk throughs (this should always be a YES and they should look at you like it's a no-brainer. If they don't, probably not a good fit for your project).
How do you store furniture and decor when it's in (before install)? Typically should be in a secure receiving warehouse.
How long are your installs? Typically several days and no, they do not want you there. Not just because it's nerve wracking, but also so you can have the best experience. No one wants to see the sausage being made. Wait for the big reveal, and in this climate expect that it probably (definitely) won't be 100% done because we all know things are still taking forever.
Ok, one more note on the "who." You may be thinking of hiring outside your local area. If it's a great fit and dynamic, and they check out on all other points, go. for. it. We just wrapped a bathroom reno totally at a distance from start to finish and it's gone more smoothly than anything I've ever done which was pretty jaw dropping given how nuts everything is. But this is a major factor to consider. Make sure the designer is really confident in this type of job, that they have a process for it, the capacity for it, and the ability to scope local resources if they don't already have them in your area. And make sure you understand their fees regarding travel. This can be a risk, but could be total magic if it's right, especially if you're not really feeling it with anyone local.
The Decorating Project (aka The Please Help Make this Feel Right Project)
For starters, do this BEFORE you want to melt into a puddle at Crate & Barrel because you've tried to style your dining table twelve times and it looks like a seven-year-old did it and you're sick of returning stuff and feeling insane. If you have no direction, conflicting preferences, and a nagging sensation that it will never be right- do not panic. Do not buy anything else. Do not call your friend to fix it. Call a designer and have a glass of wine. It will be ok.
This stress cycle of trying to make it ok can result in bigger purchases that may still be wrong and leave you more frustrated. If you're not sure, don't buy that $4,000 sofa from Restoration Hardware that, I hate to break to you, is crappy quality and probably won't be delivered when they say it will, just like the rest of the industry. Spend that money on expert help, not more crap you hate. Again, I feel like it's time for this recurring sidenote: YES, it can still take a long time to receive the items ordered through your designer. BUT you will be getting right thing, which is so much better than not-right instant gratification. And a good designer will always lead you to the right thing, not the right now thing.
Ok, this can be tough. Not all designers take what they might see as a "small" decorating job. Understand that rates may be higher for something like this to make it worth their time, but believe me, it will be worth the money. When looking for a designer for this type of job, look for someone who includes styling in their services. Don't be afraid to reach out as this might just be a matter of semantics. Look at their portfolio and social media for spaces that aren't just architecturally amazing, but that are also styled really well. This isn't a bad time to reach out to an up-and-coming designer either as they are often looking for projects like this to build their portfolios. Just make sure you're liking what you're seeing from them so far. This can also be a good fit for e-design if you can be depended on with a tape measure and some leg work.
A few things to keep in mind:
Get an idea of budget and talk about it up front. This is true for any design project. Be aware that some designers have a project minimum. For a furnishing/styling project, ours is typically $20,000. Understand that that number alone could be just a sofa for some projects. For others, we might be able to squeeze in a whole living room.
Get some thoughts together. I find that sometimes as designers, we're not quite sure what we're looking at from clients in these situations. So if we have some images of what you're going for and what inspires you, it's hugely helpful in getting things on track.
While we all are trying to turn out work as efficiently as possible, understand that you're probably going to feel like you're in a holding pattern waiting for things to arrive and maybe even seeing a little slower pace as design firms are working to manage it all. But here goes the broken record player: good things are worth waiting for, and even if it seems like "just" a decorating project, things can take time. Let it happen and wait for the sparks to fly. They will.
A few other thoughts:
If you've had the hardscape finishes in your new build designed by one designer and then you want to go with someone else to furnish or style, be aware that this is tough for designers. We're rarely taking on projects we can't publish or at least put in our portfolio. And designers can't (or shouldn't) do that if the space displays prominent features that are another designer's work. So my point is this- be sure it's a good fit up front. Sometimes you find out a little way into the process it's not going to work out. That's happens. This is just something to be aware if you have a multi-phase project (ie. build + furnish).
Especially with larger scale projects, things can get chaotic. There are a lot of moving parts and things can and will come up. A designer's job is to help navigate and be advocate for their clients throughout the process- making a complicated process as simple as possible. My point is this: make sure you like this person. Make sure you feel comfortable, heard and like you could be friends outside of this process. A designers work is so personal. We really see our job as sacred; creating spaces for the biggest and littlest, more special moments of our clients lives. It's truly an honor, and in order for our spaces to truly reflect our clients, we have to connect.