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Hiring an Interior Designer

You’re ready to decorate, but there’s just one problem: You have no idea where to begin.

Is it time to hire an interior designer?

Unless you’ve had a knack for choosing and putting together colors, fabrics, furniture, accessories and other materials since you were knee-high, the answer may be ‘yes.’ Mistakes can be costly, and who wants to live with them?

Interior designers can guide you in the right direction as you navigate the complex assortment of materials and finishes available today. Often, it’s particularly difficult to make decisions that balance your desire for what is "beautiful" against what is more practical for your daily needs, notes Mari Fountain, owner of Fountaine Design Group Ltd., Denver. Because designers are in constant contact with vendors and suppliers, they know the best solutions for different situations. They can help you make decisions that will prove wise in the long term. And, a well-connected designer will get the best pricing for the client.

Interview the Designer

Once you’ve made the decision to hire an interior designer, you should do your homework. Asking your neighbor or a best friend for recommendations is okay, but you also should review designers’ portfolios, check out their references, and ask about other services they may offer. What professional organizations do they belong to? Membership in the American Society of Interior Designers, the International Interior Design Association, the American Institute of Architects, the National Kitchen and Bath Association or other organizations signals professional accreditation, training and experience. Some certifications permit designers to manage a job or seal their plans—others don’t. Also determine whether the size of your budget and job is compatible with the designers’ schedule and typical workload. Other points to consider: Does the designer return phone calls in a timely fashion? What recourse do you have if you aren’t happy with a job? Is the designer affiliated with an office or just working out of a basement?

Consider the Contract

Your contract with your designer also bears careful review. "If a designer asks for the entire amount of the project up front, run," advises Fountain. "We aren’t asked to pay up front in full by our vendors. Typically, you should just be asked for a deposit." Her contract states what her responsibilities are and what happens when a custom order is placed, for example. Make sure you have the ability to end the arrangement if you aren’t happy with the designers’ work. "If you feel confident you can help someone, you shouldn’t be afraid to say they can fire you if they are not happy," says Fountain. Typically, she asks for a deposit and then bills on an hourly basis plus 20% over the cost of goods. She estimates in advance for the client how long she thinks it will take to complete a room. "The designer should help keep you focused on your budget," she says.

The next step is to figure out what to keep in your home and what to replace. The designer should show the client different styles, from contemporary to traditional to eclectic, to discern the client’s taste. Space planning is also considered, with the designer specing rooms to make certain clients don’t fall in love with pieces that would be oversized for the room. Then the designer goes to work, shopping and as a timesaver, bringing digital photos for clients to review. The client should always accompany the designer to the showroom before making a final decision, however.

"I often prefer to take one room at a time," notes Fountain. "It gives you a feel of how the client will react, gives the client a sense of completion, and lets her know how you work as well."

Putting Your Ideas Into Perspective

Throughout the process, the designer should help put your ideas into perspective, taking into consideration everything from wall color and floor-coverings to details of fabrics, art collection and lighting. In the case of a remodel or bathroom redo, the designer can put together plans for construction to help you visualize the end result.

It’s best to be cautious with pieces that are too trendy, notes Fountain. Her general advice is to stay with classic styles, favor lighter tones, and use pillows and accent pieces to add color. "Color has weight. Too much color can look heavy," she cautions. She describes her own approach as transitional. She loves to mix materials—"it’s the interest of different pieces and materials that makes the room," she says.

In the end, the relationship between designer and client is one of the most important—if not the most important—elements. "A lot of clients wind up unhappy because rooms look like something the designer created without having any qualms about what the client wanted," observes Fountain. "If you don’t like something, you have to feel comfortable letting the designer know. Put a sample of the fabric you are considering on the chair for several days, or longer. Make sure you love it, and that all elements have a relation to one another."

You may work with a designer on and off for years, as your needs—and budget—evolve. Doing your homework when you select your designer will help ensure that you’re surrounded by interiors you love.

Mari Fountain is an allied member of ASID and a member of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She holds an associate degree in interior design from Arapahoe Community College. She may be reached at Fountaine Design Group Ltd., 7550 W. Yale Ave, Denver, CO 80227; (303) 989-4001; or http://www.fountainedesign.com. Mari also appears on Channel 7 News in Denver every other Sunday on the 8:00 am news show. Her firm also offers a service called Visual CoordinationÔ , which involves aligning existing furniture and accessories with architectural cues. She will consider questions and comments from readers for future columns. Contact her at mari@fountainedesign.com.