The RedBook Guide: What you need to know when hiring an interior designer

—8th August 2019

You would think that finding and choosing an interior designer is easier than it has ever been, thanks to the internet, the array of glossy magazines on offer and the glut of interiors images available online. Yet, oddly, the process is far from straightforward.

All that accessible information disguises the plain truth that some of the most significant facts you need to make an informed choice, such as about cost or a designer’s capabilities, are impossible to discover on the internet or in magazines. Plus, there are simply so many designers out there that it can be baffling when you have to pick just the one.

Yes, you can get a strong sense of a designer’s style from searching the web or published articles. But, even so, designer’s websites and their published work frequently give only a partial view of what they can do.

There are countless reasons for this. Many of the best designers are prevented by confidentiality agreements with their clients from showing the full range of their work either on the net or in print: in numerous cases as much as 90% of their work is restricted by non-disclosure agreements. Moreover, many designers do not have finished projects photographed because it is expensive to commission top-class photographers, or they are just too busy, or their client has sold the house so the designer no longer has access to take photos.

And what about cost? For most clients knowing what a designer will charge for their work, and how this compares to other designers, is near the top of their list of questions to ask when deciding who to work with. But, again, designers rarely give any information about fees on their websites, nor do magazines or the internet generally offer much insight into what or how a particular designer charges.

While we can’t hope to give all the answers in this Guide, we have set out to highlight some of the most important issues to consider—and most common concerns—when selecting a designer. And, of course, RedBook gives its own clients the missing information and insider insights that enable them to make fully clued-up choices.


IS YOUR DESIGNER UP TO THE JOB?

When choosing an interior designer, it is vital to establish before engaging them that they have the skills that your project demands, and can deliver designs at sufficient speed to suit your project timeline. This sounds so obvious it is hardly worth stating, but a designer’s technical abilities, and their capacity at a given time, vary more than most people realise. 

Anyone can call themselves an interior designer: unlike architects, whose profession is regulated by law and training qualifications, an interior designer need have no training at all. And, in Britain, the very term ‘interior designer’ is extremely elastic. It can be used to describe anyone from a part-timer who only dresses rooms with curtains, carpets and cushions just as it can be used to describe a completely different level of skilled professional who works with a full team of fellow designers in a large design studio and is capable of detailing everything from electrical circuits to lighting design or producing the technical drawings required by cabinetmakers to construct bespoke items of furniture.

TOP TIPS

– As a rule of thumb, keep in mind that larger and more complex projects–such as a complete house refurbishment or a new build–require a great deal more design input than smaller ones and make much greater demands on designers, often against the clock. So a designer with a team of supporting colleagues is likely to be a wiser choice for such a project than a solo designer.

– Watch out for ‘interior architecture’. This term refers to features such as plaster cornices, architraves around doors, and fitted cupboards. Surprisingly often, you will find that interior designers’ services or skills do not extend to interior architecture, or that they only offer limited input in this area, leaving it to architects to produce the necessary detailing and minutely accurate drawings. 

– If your project calls for an architect as well as an interior designer, major potential problems can be avoided, and the speed of progress greatly increased, if the interior designer uses the same computer-aided design technology (CAD) as used by architects. Very small interior-design studios, or one-person businesses, are less likely to use CAD or equivalent systems, or provide the level of detailed drawings that bigger studios can supply. 


THE DARK MYSTERY OF FEES

Interior designers charge their clients in many different ways. Actually, that is such an understatement it is like saying there are ‘quite a lot of stars in the sky’.  It is not just the amounts designers charge that vary greatly but the whole basis on which they calculate their fees that differs from designer to designer.

There can be time charges, project fees, a range of commissions on items purchased for the client, handling fees, room-design fees, attendance rates, concept-design fees or any combination of the above. There are obvious risks for clients here if these are not agreed and understood at the outset.

The absolute golden rule is for you to know at the very start exactly what and how your chosen designer proposes to charge you. Clients are often shy about asking for clarification–it can feel embarrassing or gauche to probe. So the best way to get this key information is to ask the designer to write it down for you before they start work and send it you as a detailed ‘fee proposal’. When the fee proposal arrives, you should not be afraid to ask them to explain as these documents are frequently opaque.  

At RedBook, we help our clients by deciphering fee proposals and we share information with them on the level of designer’s fees and commissions to be expected for different kinds of decorating project.   

TOP TIP

– In the early stages of a project, it is common to agree hourly rates with a designer but as the work goes on and the scale of the designer’s input increases, these hourly rates stack up and leave clients wondering how to control the spiralling costs. Rest assured that it is perfectly in order—indeed often an excellent idea—to ask the designer to swap from charging hourly rates to a fixed monthly retainer.


WHOSE BUDGET IS IT ANYWAY? 

Even after you have established the fee structure, you will not be alone if you also worry when appointing a designer that they will run away with the budget. This is especially the case if you have agreed terms of engagement on the basis that the designer benefits from commission on items purchased for your home. There is genuine cause for angst here. 

Yet, in RedBook’s experience, you are most at risk of busting your budget not because the designer has deliberately set out to profit from overspending but because the designer has created a vision so lovely for your home that it seems impossible to say no to—and just happens to cost more to create than the initial budget would allow. Your own rigorous self-discipline is the only answer here, along with firm reminders to your designer that your budget is fixed.

See also Sandy Mitchell’s lead article in the Weekend FT on how to navigate the fees and charging structures of architects and interior designers (you can download the pdf here).

TOP TIP

– The very best way to manage and control a budget for an interior-design project, however big or small, is to set an overall budget then divide the total figure into a budget for each room. This enables you to prioritise spending on rooms where the results matter most to you, and rein back on rooms where the effect will be least visible or where the design is most likely to change (in young children’s bedrooms for example). Many designers adopt this approach, and we recommend it wholeheartedly.  We can also reassure you that even the very grandest interior designers happily understand the sense in using IKEA or similar where it is not going to be seen immediately by guests.


COMMON WORRIES – REAL ONES AND FANTASIES

One of the most common, and stress-inducing, concerns that clients suffer when choosing an interior designer is whether their home will end up looking like it belongs to someone else completely once a designer has had their way with it.

Another common and understandable worry is that the designer will effectively exclude the client from designing and furnishing their home, when most clients’ fond hope is that creating their home will be collaborative to a greater or lesser degree.

TOP TIPS

– As with most of life’s worries much the best answer is to voice them aloud. So, ask the designer before you decide to engage them how they work with clients, and where they see the line between their work and your input falling. Tell them, too, how you would like to work together—perhaps shopping for items together, or even spending a day or two in their studio. You will most likely find that the designer is thrilled by your passionate interest. Often, the hardest job for a designer is to work with a client who has no strong preferences or ideas, and gives the designer no sense of direction at all.

– Some well-known designers have made their name by creating recognisable ‘brand’ looks for interiors that they repeat more or less for each project. These designers are a small minority. Most designers aspire to create something unique for their clients, having drawn out their client’s taste and personality. 

– Although many clients wish to collaborate closely with their chosen designer, it is equally common for clients to underestimate quite how many hours and how much hard work it takes to design every aspect of a room or home down to the type of every light switch. So it’s advisable not to attempt to micro-manage every aspect. The tedious and infinitely painstaking business of finding, ordering, delivering and installing bought items is a large part of a designer’s work—and best left to them in many a busy client’s opinion. Enjoy the creative aspects and let the designer get on with the legwork. That is what you are paying them for.

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: enquiries@redbookagency.com