Hiring an interior designer is often considered a posh extravagance afforded to people with more money than taste. But, a few years back, the interior design industry was shaken by an Internet upstart called Homepolish, which connected style-challenged homeowners with interior designers for a three-hour consultation at a comparative bargain price of $350, and $130 an hour thereafter.
Now, the shaker is getting shaken.
Several interior design start-ups offer services similar to Homepolish at even lower prices, providing design advice, shopping services and some project management, with fees starting at less than $100 for the whole shebang. One even offers simple consultations — such as, “Should I buy this couch?” — for free.
The catch is that these companies work strictly over the Internet. You won’t personally meet the designer who will decorate your home. The design is based entirely on photos, measurements and guidance that you provide online, or in some cases, by phone.
We took a look at the highest-profile services, giving each the same bedroom to redesign, to see what, exactly, clients might expect.
The services all have a few things in common. For one, a quiz. To determine your personal style and to pair you with a simpatico designer, the sites ask you to select from pictures of things such as rooms, furniture and decorative items, pointing out what you like. They then label your style. The quizzes variously determined me to be “traditional,” “eclectic with a touch of glam” and “contemporary.”
The sites ask additional questions about considerations such as budget, which items you want to keep, which you will toss, and whether you need lighting or storage. Are you open to new paint or wall paper? And what are your design goals?
Each site then pairs you with a designer. Modsy, Laurel & Wolf and Decorist chose my designer based on my quiz and questionnaire. Havenly narrows the field to a group of designers categorized by icons indicating their specialties, such as “Color Connoisseur,” “Pattern Mixologist” or “Couples Therapy.” All of the sites say they vet their designers, but how isn’t clear. Some designers will have academic or industry credentials, such as an American Society of Interior Designers membership, and others just a portfolio.
All of the sites required me to make a rough drawing of the room’s floor plan with measurements, and to take photos of the room and furniture.
Not all of the sites were willing to say how they make money with such low design fees, but the ones who did said it was through a commission on the furniture you buy — just like traditional interior designers. Which explains another thing the sites have in common: After you sign up, they email you mercilessly with offers and encouragement to buy stuff.
When filling out the questionnaires, I set the design goal to refresh a bedroom, keeping the existing armoire, poster, rug and window treatments. The bed and end tables could go, and I had been experimenting (and failing) with layering tribal rug patterns. I was thinking loosely, not literally, of French Morocco. I set the budget up to $10,000.
The designers were faced with a room about 18 by 13 feet, with an eight-foot ceiling at the windows that rises to 14 feet by the bedroom doors. Walls are a medium-dark red, with brown trim so dark it appears black. Large bi-fold closet doors eat up one wall, an art deco armoire fills another, and there is just room for a queen bed and bed stands on the long wall opposite the closet. It would be a challenge.
Here is what the various services came up with:
● Laurel & Wolf
This site is optimum for people in a hurry. The designers take a room from concept to completed drawings in 10 days, including initial consultation and revisions of what are commonly called “inspiration boards.” Those are a sort of montage drawing with the elements — furniture, fabrics, paint — that go in your new room. It is not a photo-realistic, literal image, like some others offer.
I was assigned to Lexie. As with others, the initial designs include many au courant elements, including an accent wall. I think accenting the oddly sloped wall draws attention to an unfortunate feature — like dressing a portly person in horizontal stripes. Lexie responded by suggesting wall color between kelly and hunter green. With the red in my tribal rug, which I intended to keep, it appeared a bit … Christmasy? The next option was plum walls that will, she suggested, pair well with teal. Having lived through the Miami Vice style craze, I veto the use of pink or teal. I feel uncomfortably fussy, but we end up closer to something I might like.
Decorist seemed to do the most to encourage a useful dialogue. After being paired with designer Mikayla, who specializes in “classic design,” I was sent two concepts. One has the ever-popular accent wall in gray, with the rest of the room an off-white. The other has an accent wall of subtly patterned wallpaper. With white furniture, and woven basket accessories, I could see she has taken my thought about French Morocco and run with it, but the result is too much an Aladdin theme room.
The first designs come with specific questions to direct my response, such as, “What do you like about this concept? What do you not like about this concept? Is the overall direction and style good? If not, what specifically would you like changed?”
The third concept is closer, but still not there. To her credit, Mikayla requests a phone call. Although the other services also offer the option of calling your designer, Mikayla was the only one to proactively contact me. With an in-depth explanation of preferences such as why I want a three-tiered end table (top shelf for a reading lamp, middle shelf for magazines, bottom shelf for books), she returns a design much, much closer to what I want.
Havenly offers the most variety in selecting a designer as a standard part of the setup, giving you several to choose from after you take the quiz. (Others allow you to choose from many designers by skipping the quiz or by paying extra.) Designers have up to 17 badges designating special expertise (the aforementioned “Color Connoisseur,” for instance). It gives profiles and portfolios for the designers, and when they will be available.
Havenly’s questionnaire asked questions the other didn’t, asking me to rate patterns, materials such as acrylic, wood and steel, and to name my favorite clothing. Presumably, this give designers more insight into my lifestyle.
The result again featured an accent wall, this one in gray, which must be having a moment. That aside, the Havenly designer, Andrea, did the best job of zeroing in on my taste on the first try, although I don’t think all of the items work — such as the bed with a headboard too tall to accommodate the poster over it.
Modsy is best for people who find it difficult to picture a finished room from a two-dimensional drawing. Modsy creates fairly realistic-looking 360-degree virtual rooms. With your computer and mouse, you can spin the room to any angle. It lets you digitally swap furniture around yourself, using the style editor tool. If you have the higher-end package, a designer will do it for you.
The Modsy designer made only the changes I had said I was open to, which is good and bad. I was comfortable with the result, but by not pushing my boundaries, the room isn’t much different from what I have. Modsy did offer one radically different design in gray and white. It looks great, but reveals a problem with these services. Most of my house is already gray and white. I want the bedroom to be a radical departure from the rest of the house. Having not been here, no online designer could know that.
So how good were the final designs? We asked Jonsara Ruth, a professor of interior design at Parsons School of Design in New York, to evaluate them. “None of these feel very sophisticated,” she said. “They feel cut-and-paste. More like beginners’ school projects.” To be fair to the designers, she said, creativity may have been stifled by the “clunky” software that renders the rooms, and by the limited selection of products in the catalogues.
To my eye, design differences among the services were pretty subtle. Satisfaction with the final designs probably has less to do with the particular site than with the designer it pairs you with. As good as an algorithm might be, there is some luck involved. None of the designs made me want to spend $10,000.
But if it is, as Ruth said, beginner level, that’s a level higher then I possess. If I had an empty room, and didn’t have the time or inclination to find and buy everything to pleasingly fill it, any of these services would be a vast improvement over what I might do myself.
There are reasons, besides design quality, to consider an online designer. They offer the same sales and discounts as the catalogues they represent, but consolidate the purchasing and shipping for you. You can buy from multiple stores using the one site.
Of course, many of the catalogues these services represent, such as West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Crate and Barrel, for instance, also have design services that are sometimes free. But you get only a limited selection through them, not choices for many of them, as the third-party services do.
Cheryl Durst, chief executive of the International Interior Design Association, an interior design trade group, said she is confident that online services won’t replace interior designers, and in fact might be the gateway to bringing in more clients. In the meantime, Durst said, “From a convenience standpoint, these sites are incredible.”
● Laurel & Wolf
Laurel & Wolf provides one concept and five days of design time, working only with accessories and decor.
All of the above with 10 days of design time, working with furniture, as well as accessories and decor with unlimited revisions. A floor plan is included.
Includes all of the above for two room concepts. A premium designer, who has completed at least 20 projects and has a client rating of 4.5 or higher out of 5, can be added to the classic or signature packages for $100.
Classic Design Package: $300 per room
Provides two initial concept boards, a final room design with a floor plan and a personalized shopping list. You can direct message with your designer, and there is a complimentary purchasing service.
Elite Design Package: $600 per room
Adds a designer with at least five years’ experience and a project manager who is the liaison between client and designer.
Celebrity Design Package: $1,300 per room
Offers the above and a designer who has been featured in a major interior design publication. You also get a 30-minute phone call with a design assistant.
For an additional $200, you can have a photo-realistic computer rendering of the room.
Havenly offers a free “Design Quickie,” a 30-minute online chat with a designer for questions such as what color to paint wall, “I can’t find a candelabra lamp I like” or “does this couch go in this room?”
Havenly Mini: $80
Your chosen designer gives you three initial designs. Over a one- to two-week period, you have a consultation, get a refined design and another consultation, and then a final version. You get a shopping list of items from the design, and Havenly will oversee the purchase and delivery. After delivery, there is up to two weeks of advice on arranging what you bought.
Havenly Full: $200 ($150 with $500 purchase)
You get all of the above, with two revisions of the final design, two to three weeks of design time, four weeks of advice on arranging what your bought, a floor plan and photo-realistic images of the finished room.
Modsy: $70 Per room
Modsy designers create two initial designs, after which, using Modsy’s catalogue, you change furnishings and art yourself. Your final design will be made into a 360-degree visualization. All purchases can be made through Modsy.
Modsy plus style adviser: $200 per room
You are assigned a designer to design two rooms, and the designer will make more suggestions and unlimited revisions to the room for you. Your designer can work with you live over the Internet on a shared computer screen. Your final design will be made into a 360-degree visualization. All purchases can be made through Modsy.