How to choose an interior designer

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Buying a house is only the first step in creating a home. Suddenly, you realize that your overstuffed couch looks fussy in your sleek new condo. Or the hip, low-lying coffee table is dwarfed by the living room in your new suburban manse. Or perhaps you have lived in your home since the 1970s -- and it looks that way.

To help solve those problems and a host of others, many turn to interior designers and decorators for advice. But with the recession having reacquainted us with the virtues of frugality, shoppers want to spend decorating dollars wisely. We've compiled tips from top Washington area designers on how to choose the right expert for your budget and style.

"It's not about how much you spend. It's how you present it," said Mario De Armas, who opened a design firm, Lamby Productions, near Logan Circle in the District.

-- Certification: Many states regulate the qualifications needed to become an interior designer. They typically include passing an exam administered by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification that covers not only design, but also building codes and project management.

Maryland and Virginia require the NCIDQ test along with six years of education and experience for someone to qualify as a "certified interior designer." Maryland also calls for designers to complete 10 hours of continuing-education courses every two years. The District restricts the title "interior designer" to those who have passed the NCIDQ test, have six years of education and experience, and complete half an hour of training every two years.

Those who haven't met those requirements may call themselves "designers" or "decorators." Although state licensing is important for large-scale and commercial projects, several local firms said it is less important for residential jobs. Personality, taste and the designer's portfolio are key qualifications.

"You're going to be with this person for maybe up to a couple years," said Joe Ireland, who runs a design firm with Julie Weber in Dupont Circle. "We end up knowing which drawer you put your underwear in," he said.

-- Budget: Explain the scope of your project and how much you're willing to spend upfront. Some designers may take on jobs only of a certain size.

Sarita Peresada, a designer at Vastu, a furniture store on 14th Street NW in the District, said she helps clients pick accents for a room or decorate an entire home. She also refers customers to other designers who may specialize in lighting or paint if their needs are more specific.

Peresada said that design consultations run about $100 an hour. But because she works at a store, she said, she rarely charges for her services because the fee is waived if her clients wind up buying furniture.

According to the American Society of Interior Designers, three types of payment structures are commonly used.

Some designers ask for a fixed, or flat, fee for all services. Others charge an hourly rate. Or they may ask for "cost-plus," in which they buy furnishings and services at cost (which is usually discounted from retail prices) and add a mark-up agreed to with the client. Many designers also use a combination of fee structures, such as a fixed fee to develop the initial plan and then cost-plus to execute it.

De Armas said that clear communication about budgets and expectations can help avoid headaches later in the process.

"There needs to be a very, very meticulous outline of what is expected of each side," he said. If the lines are gray, "one party feels like they ended up putting in more than they should have," he said.

-- Style: A good designer should be able to accommodate your tastes even if his or her personal style is completely different. That said, many designers have signature looks and unique approaches that may not mesh with your needs, making communication critical in this area as well.

To get a sense of a designer's style, ask to see a portfolio of work. Ireland also suggests showing the designer things that inspire you, whether it be the stitching on your favorite dress or a sunset in your honeymoon photos.

These things can help a designer clue in to your style, even if you don't know how to express it -- after all, that's the reason you're hiring a professional in the first place.

"There's a lot of psychology that goes into design as well," Ireland said.


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