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Instant/space clients receive a linen-covered box containing a scale drawing of the room, an inspiration board, a shopping list and swatch books with suggestions for paint, fabric and furniture.
Instant/space clients receive a linen-covered box containing a scale drawing of the room, an inspiration board, a shopping list and swatch books with suggestions for paint, fabric and furniture. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Web-based interior design services are growing in popularity, even though the designer never steps foot in the room.

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These services are faster and less expensive than the usual terms of a designer-client relationship, and they are largely conducted online. Clients typically e-mail photos of their rooms, fill out a questionnaire and pay a flat fee. Weeks later, sometimes sooner, they receive a customized design plan that can be implemented with pieces from retail stores and Web sites.

Cost-effective and convenient, Web consulting is just another example of the democratization of interior design, a luxury once afforded only by the wealthy. Fueled by an increasing number of cable TV shows, shelter magazines and design blogs, homeowners and renters of every income level have been inspired to put a personal stamp on their interiors. Web-based services not only encourage design, they make it easier to accomplish and allow clients more-affordable access to designers outside their geographical area.

"People now are design savvy. They want a designer, they want a designed house, but they can't always afford one," says Los Angeles designer Betsy Burnham. "Sometimes all they need is that master plan."

While focusing on larger projects to build her business, Burnham had to turn away clients with smaller projects and budgets. So she created Instant/space, a flat-fee service for clients who want design but not a full-time interior designer. According to her Web site, Instant/space is for those who have a limited budget, only want to address one or two rooms, or want to work in their own time frame based on a master plan.

Four to six weeks after an initial phone call, questionnaire and e-mail exchange (and, of course, payment), Instant/space clients receive a handsome linen-covered box in the mail containing a scale drawing of the room, an inspiration board, a shopping list and swatch books with all furniture, fabric and paint suggestions. The one-time fee ranges from $895 to $1,495 per room.

"It's an arsenal they can take with them when they go out to the stores," Burnham says. "It's a cheat sheet."

Anne-Marie, 33, and Brandon Kavulla, 36, of New York used Burnham's service for five rooms of their Upper East Side apartment. They tried contacting a few Manhattan designers but couldn't get any to return the calls.

"I had never done anything like this before, but I thought, this is our beautiful apartment; I don't want to screw it up," Anne-Marie Kavulla says. "At this stage in our life and family, we didn't want to spend a good portion of our budget on someone's salary. We would rather [spend it on] the necessary items we needed for our apartment. . . . They came up with a design statement for our entire apartment, and we're sticking with it. It's helping us pick out everything. We were thrilled. It does give you a little work to do, but it's fun."

Designers who offer Internet consulting acknowledge that seeing a space in person is optimal and that these alternative services are merely meant to provide inspiration and to point people in the right direction. Others dismiss the concept entirely, arguing that the impersonal nature sabotages good design from the get-go.

"Good, strong design is based on a strong client-designer relationship," says D.C. designer Patrick J. Baglino Jr. "Some of the most important things are the details, and they come from being in the space, . . . adding accessories, bringing in the personality of the client. It's important that a designer actually see the space." Without seeing a room in person, he adds, it's impossible to accurately account for such factors as scale, color and lighting.

Baglino understands the appeal of such services: "In this economy, it's certainly very attractive." But he's also clear about the drawbacks.


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