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How to commission an interior designer

The process of hiring and working with an interior designer can be a mysterious one to the uninitiated

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By House & Garden | September 26, 2021 | Trends

Picture: Unsplash

Decide how much help you need

Many projects for which an interior designer is commissioned are full-house renovations, and many studios, especially the larger ones, tend to focus exclusively on this type of work. Some will take on a single room or two; Joanna Plant, for example, finds it “an effective way to focus a client’s budget and time on one carefully executed scheme.”

Some interior designers, however, generally smaller studios, offer brief and relatively affordable consultations that can be helpful if you want to manage your own project but need some inspiration to get started. Lonika Chande offers such a service: “I visit people at their property and share my knowledge on how to create a comfortable and beautiful home, giving practical on-the-spot advice wherever needed. This is followed by a comprehensive document, which sets out the discussions had during the session, my design advice, and any suggested suppliers. Clients have been particularly excited by these secret sources!”

Do your homework

Plenty of research needs to be done before settling on the right designer or studio. Well-established designers may have had their projects published in magazines or books, and Instagram is an indispensable tool for getting a sense of their aesthetic and for finding new talent. And while aesthetics might be the most important part of your choice, they're certainly not the only factor to consider. Renovations tend to take a long time, cost a lot of money, and throw up obstacles where you least expect them, so it's crucial to find someone you get along with and can see yourself working with over a period of several months.

Know what to expect

An interior designer can take an awful lot off your hands. Georgina Cave of Cave Interiors lists the services her studio offers as part of their usual approach: ‘space planning, working drawings, bespoke furniture & joinery design, integrated colour, lighting & furnishing schemes, overseeing the build, procurement of products and specialist suppliers, and very often inviting other suitable consultants to join the team.’

For a client, the beginning of the process will be the most intensive, as drawings, layouts and plans are presented and details need signing off. ‘Time really does equal money and so as few changes as possible after this point helps to keep the budget on track,’ says Joanna Plant. Once construction gets started, a designer is likely to visit the site at least once a week to check in with the contractors, and will usually be there more frequently when furnishings and decorative elements are being installed.

Get the designer involved early

For a full renovation, an interior designer needs to get involved at the planning stage. “It is never too early to involve the interior designer in discussing and shaping the design brief,” says Joanna Wood, who has been in the business for thirty years.

There are crucial things that the designer needs to know, even if it’s not immediately obvious. Georgina stresses the need to know as much as possible: “The initial critical things to know is whether the house is listed, whether it is in a conservation area and whether we need planning for the works. Although the exterior, structural and any planning works are generally undertaken by an architect, a listed house for example will very often involve various restrictions on the interior, not just on the internal space planning, but also with regards the fabric of the building itself.

Joanna Plant agrees: “If the client has retained an architect, we like to work alongside them to provide furniture layouts so that electrics and so on are in the right place. There is nothing worse than finding you can’t plug in your lamp because there isn’t a socket in the right place!”

Be open-minded

It’s a good idea to draw up, at the very least, a wish list for your room or house. But all designers agree that the process is a collaborative one: “We formulate our clients’ ideas into cohesive concepts,” says Nicole Salvesen of Salvesen Graham. Everyone agrees that the most important thing a client can bring to this process is open-mindedness. “A dream client would be someone who wants to be brave and can be sympathetically taken out of their comfort zone,” says Nicole. “Without a doubt,” says Lonika, “a client should have an open mind and not be afraid to try new things. I encourage clients to be brave and make choices they wouldn’t necessarily make themselves, and I find that in the end that they are pleased they did.”

It’s also crucial, however, to be able to make a decision. Unless you deliver your house entirely into the designer’s hands, you will have to make some important calls during the process. “There are three things that a client needs to do,” says Joanna Plant, “make decisions, pay on time and keep a sense of humour.”

Be clear about your budget

The most common problem that arises during an interior design project is the budget. Both designer and client need to be absolutely up-front and honest about this. “Being clear from the outset about budget is fundamental. Projects running over time is when things can get tricky and expensive, but good, clear communication keeps the wheels oiled,” says Joanna Plant.

There is no standard way of charging for interior design services. Whatever you agree, make sure that you understand exactly how your designer will charge you and that the process is open and transparent. If you are quoted an hourly rate, be sure to agree an estimate or "ceiling" up front.

Joanna Wood recommends allowing a 10% contingency in the budget, as it’s so frequent for something unexpected to arise over the course of a project. Lonika also stresses the importance of providing for the unknown: 'With renovation projects, invariably unforeseen situations do crop up on site, and it is all part of the process that I am employed to deal with. Don't underestimate the importance of a proper contingency budget!'

Written by Virginia Clark.

This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK.