Web-Based Designers Click With Budget-Conscious Clients Who Want to Tackle Rooms Fast

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.

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.

"There's value in hiring an interior designer. You're paying for education, expertise and knowledge of things like spatial relationships, balance, scale and rhythm. Those are aspects integral to interior design that you can't cover by looking at a picture and filling in the blanks. It's not just about making pretty."

But for some, pretty is enough.

Bloggers John and Sherry Petersik of Richmond offer a Web-based decorating service, even though neither of them works in interior design or has any formal design training. Since they started offering their service last year, they've created virtual makeovers for more than 50 clients.

"You'd be surprised how many people don't care about our experience," says Sherry Petersik. "They just like our aesthetic. The proof is in the pudding. They've seen it, and that's what they want."

What the Petersiks' clients also want are affordable furnishings. The usual suspects on the bloggers' resource list include budget-friendly retailers JC Penney, Wal-Mart and Target.

But these services are not for everyone, cautions Linda Merrill, a designer and blogger in Boston who offers a wide range of Web-based consulting. She says those who use these services would rather spend money on furnishings than on a designer's time. "If you have a modest budget, you don't necessarily want to take 25 percent of that and pay a decorator."

According to several designers, virtual clients are typically 30-something women or young couples who are in their first home or have just remodeled or had a child. They are design-savvy people who want to make sure they do it right and avoid costly mistakes. They want help that takes them beyond what they can find flipping through the Pottery Barn catalogue.

"Most are $1,500 to $2,000 sofa people," says Southern California designer and blogger Megan Arquette, who started her Room-to-Go service 2 1/2 years ago. "They're done with the baby thing, so now they want their house to be cute and pulled-together. They would love to do it on their own, but they need help. They want a grown-up house, but they don't necessarily have the resources to hire an interior designer."

By eliminating the full services of an interior designer, clients avoid the costs of hefty retainers, hourly fees and furniture markups, which can accumulate quickly.

Web-based design also feeds the ever-growing need to have it now. "Everything is electronic," L.A.-based designer and blogger Vanessa De Vargas says about her service, E-Decorating. Her Web-based clients receive a design plan via e-mail with prices and links. "You get it, you click on it, you buy it."

With a design plan in hand, homeowners can work within their own timeline and budget, doing part of the plan now and another part in two years. They can commit to as much or as little as they wish. If they don't like something in the plan, there's no obligation to go forward or any awkwardness about having to say no. "It's more private in the sense that no one is in your house, and you don't feel you're being judged," De Vargas says.

But the comfort of privacy may ultimately undermine the design. "You take the personal interaction out of the equation, and there's a big part of the design that's missing," Baglino says.

He suggests that those on a budget find a local design school grad who will have the skills, just not the experience.

"There's no substitute for one-on-one human contact," he says. "You need that to create an outstanding design."

Even Kavulla, who had success with Web-based design in her New York apartment, agrees.

"Certainly there are things you can't account for unless you're in the space, but in terms of cost, we got what we paid for," she said. "It's not a perfect service, so you're not going to get a perfect product, but it's 10,000 times better than doing it on my own and making expensive mistakes."

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