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Interior designers help homeowners discover styles

As counterintuitive as it may seem, hiring an interior designer or decorator can be an effective way to make your home uniquely your own. The business of decorating is as much about bringing peace, harmony and organization to a home as it is about appearances.

"A really good designer or decorator will help you restructure, rethink and reorganize or create from scratch rooms that echo how you want to live your life," says Susanna Salk, author and design contributor to NBC's "Today Show."

Judging by the number of television shows dedicated to design and renovation, interest has never been higher. Although there is no lack of inspiration, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming.

"People think they can do it themselves, but often it's hard for them to pull all the details in a room together. It's not uncommon to go to a client's house and find 30 swatches of color on the wall," says Michelle Davidson, an independent designer who has appeared on HGTV's "Designer's Challenge."

Cost and the fear of paying high fees are the main reasons why consumers shy away from designers, but professionals say not hiring them can also be expensive. "We save money because we know what works and what doesn't work. Typically a designer doesn't make mistakes. A good designer can work with a reasonable budget and will be able to tell you approximately how much a project is going to cost and can offer you, if needed, low, medium and high end choices," observes Tamara Tennant, an interior designer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Although the terms are used interchangeably, not all decorators are designers including some of the top names in the field. Interior designers have completed a specific educational program, often earning a degree in fine arts and passing a qualifying exam. Currently, 29 states have licensing requirements for designers. Unlike decorators, designers can move walls and make structural changes.

Interior decorators, by contrast, have a variety of backgrounds, although they usually have received specific training in interior design.

Independent designers and decorators work with clients in several ways. Some charge an hourly rate; others arrive at a set fee for the entire project. Quite a few work on a cost- plus basis, buying furnishings at cost and supplying them to the client at an agreed upon markup. Increasingly, many combine a design fee with a markup ranging from 20 to 40 percent on furnishings. Design fees are based on an hourly rate which can range from $75 for a junior designer to $150 or more for an experienced designer.

Generally the design process involves a preliminary meeting in which the scope of the project, a client's goals, and a timeline will be discussed. An individual room might take six to nine months from start to finish; an entire house a year. Each decorator has their own way to working with clients. Many start off with a comprehensive room design. Others let the plan unfold organically. All take the time to discover a client's style. Services may or may not include visits to a design center and the installation of furnishings.

For an hourly fee, usually with a three hour minimum, some decorators will come to a client's home and suggest furniture arrangements, colors, and window treatments. Usually this redesign process takes a half-day or longer.

Virtual or online design is another low-cost alternative. Consumers e-mail photos of their room, measurements and their goals. In return they receive a floor plan, suggested furnishings, fabrics and colors along with a list of sources. Each virtual designer works a little differently. Most will answer a specific decorating question, usually for a $50 fee.

Through Interior Design Service Online, Davidson does furniture layouts for a $150 and a whole house color palette for a $100. Linda Merrill, owner of Chameleon Interiors in Duxbury, Mass., also creates a separate Web page for virtual clients just as she does regular clients. She charges $375 for floor plans, and for $1,000 she will create a customized design around a specific look or theme including rooms from movies or television shows.

Many furniture retailers offer design services at no charge. However, typically consumers pay the full retail price and are limited to the merchandise carried by the stores. Decorating Den Interiors, a 40-year-old franchise that does not have retail outlets, works in a similar fashion to retailers.

No matter how you plan to work with a designer, spend time researching individual candidates. Look for qualifications and a strong portfolio. Web sites are a good way to view portfolios, but remember that the looks displayed often represent the clients', rather than the designer's, style. Pay attention to how you feel when you are looking at their work. Be careful of a "one trick pony" especially if every room looks the same, cautions Salk, unless of course you love the look.

Here are some tips to working with a designer or decorator:

—Take some time to discover your own style. Assemble a dream file of pictures of rooms, furniture, colors, and window treatments that catch your eye. Equally helpful for designers are images of what you don't like. Some retailers such as Ethan Allen and Decorating Den have online style quizzes.

—The most important part of the design process is the relationship between designer and client. So once you've whittled the list of potentials down, schedule a meeting with your top choices. Notice how well they listen to you and how well they understand what you want to achieve. Most traditional decorators don't charge for the initial meeting with clients. Budgets, fees and the scope of the project are usually discussed at this time.

—For large projects, get a written proposal describing the project in detail including an explanation of what is or isn't included and an estimate of overall cost and the timeline.

—Remember that any changes you make to your plan will add to the time and final cost. Stay flexible but decide beforehand where you will compromise and where you will not.

—Trust your instincts. Don't be pressured into agreeing to a decision that doesn't feel right no matter how urgent.

—Avoid open-ended requests. Consider your requests carefully and take notes of your conservations with the decorator.
   
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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