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Hiring a competent and compatible interior designer

Whether you are planning to build a home or either renovate or decorate an existing one, often a panic attack sets in when it's time to decide when, where, and how to begin.

Designing pleasing interiors - color schemes and furniture ensembles that will satisfy your visual and practical needs beyond the first month of newness - takes a sense of style and extraordinary patience. such an undertaking is bound to generate some stress and headaches.

This overwhelming anxiety, however, can easily be remedied by seeking professional help from an interior designer to guide and assist you through any interior project... large or small.

Of course, the key to success is finding a qualified person to hire. This can only be done through research accompanied by personal interview. The following guidelines should help relieve the tension associated with this process.

The Quest Begins
As in any search for a reputable professional, the best way to find the name of an interior designer is through word of mouth. A recommendation from a friend or acquaintance who has had personal experience with a designer is most beneficial. This person can give you insight as to the designer's style and business techniques, helping you to decide whether to pursue your research. But before contacting the designer, always take a look at your friend's finished room or home to see if the work appeals to you. Remember to be objective, though: this room has been designed to suit someone else's taste.

If you don't know anyone who has retained a designer, a Google search can offer an easy means of finding a name. Try entering the key words "interior designer" followed by your state or section of your state. If you enter your town, your search will be very limited. Of course, review the designer's web site before contacting them.

Another route is to contact the American Society of Interior Designers for a referral. This organization is the leading professional group where you can find the most qualified designers. To become a member, one is required to complete a course of accredited education in design and/or has extensive work experience in the field. "Professional Membership" recognizes designers who have passed the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) examination. To find ASID designers in your area, visit

Other professional and trade organizations can also be reliable sources. For example, the members of the National Kitchen and Bath Association specialize in this area. The organization has their own testing to become a "Certified Kitchen Designer" or a "Certified Bath Designer". Many designers are members of both ASID and NKBA!

A word of caution. Many states have legislation which regulates the practice and/or the use of the title "interior designer". Check with individual state laws to be sure the designer you retain is allowed to do business in that state.

Query by Phone
The phone interview is the next step. Before calling anyone, however, be sure you have outlined your needs and the scope of your project. Defining these requirements will help you formulate the correct questions you need to ask designers. Some suggestions may be:

  • Will they work with your existing furniture?
  • Will they do floor plans?
  • Will they work with your architect and contractors?

Always ask if the designers specialize in a particular style (contemporary or traditional), whether they specialize in residential or commercial interiors, where they studied, and with which professional associations they are affiliated. Inquire about their number of years in business as well as the number of years they have spent in the field. If you have an extremely large job or an unusually small one, ask if the designers if they have worked on a project of equal square footage. If your needs require just consultation or simple guidance, then request just that. Many designers will work on an hourly basis for a variety of design needs, such as assisting clients pulling together their existing artwork and accessories.

If flexibility is an issue for you because of time constraints with work or family, ask if evening or weekend appointments are available. Also, ask if the designers have their own libraries and resource centers or if you'll be making trips to city showrooms. Determine if your meetings will be held mostly at your home or in their offices. All of these factors will help you to decide if you should schedule a personal interview.

Means of compensation - "How do you charge?" - is always the last and most important question in a phone interview. The answer will never be the same from one designer to the next. Most designers charge an initial design fee, which can vary from $75 a visit to $2,000 per room, depending on the designer's credentials. Just be sure you understand what the design fee includes. Are floor plans completed, sketches provided, sample selections presented? And is this fee deducted from a purchase?

You also need to know how purchases are handled once the design phase is completed. Surprise! This varies even more among designers. Some sell retail, some work a discount off retail, and some charge a percentage above their cost. No matter what their means of billing, remember that designers are in business to make money. They must charge for their time and expertise!

Discuss as much as possible during this phone interview so you can weed out the designers who won't fit your needs. Likewise, it helps designers to identify a job they may or may not wish to take due to style, size, locale, or budget. If you're both interested in working together after this drilling, it's time to take the next step: the personal interview.

With two major tasks completed, you should be feeling a little more relaxed. Look forward to meeting your potential candidate or candidates since the fun part will soon begin! In a personal interview, you meet the designer face to face and, more importantly, view the designer's work. The designer should have a portfolio or at least photographs to display. Accomplished designers will also show you any of their published design work or published periodicals. You might even be lucky enough to find a published book on the list of a designer's credentials!

From this point and from a designer's perspective, I go by my gut feeling as to whether or not I choose to work with an individual. I suggest that you go by your feelings after you have spoken to client references. Don't be afraid to ask for them!

Just remember that once you have made your final choice, you will be establishing ties with someone who will be dealing with you on a very personal level. The key to any good working relationship is the trust and respect you must mutually develop.

Good luck in your hunt for that compatible professional who will create the look you so eagerly await.

Published in Montage Magazine - Summer 1999, updated 12/09.

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