Home-decorating television shows and shelter magazines have many Americans dreaming about inviting an expert interior designer into their homes.
It looks so effortless when a popular designer arrives in a whirlwind of creative ideas and quick-working craftsmen. By the end of an hour of cable TV, he has transformed a hopelessly drab home into a stylish oasis.
But what's it really like to hire a designer? How can you make sure it's a successful collaboration?
As with a good marriage, says interior designer Phoebe Howard, the relationship between designer and homeowner is about communication, trust and respect.
Many homeowners find a designer by asking friends whether they've used one. Designer Cathy Davin, founder and president of Davin Interiors in Pittsburgh, says new clients are often referred to her by previous clients.
Others discover her online, she says. Interior designers generally keep a portfolio of photos of rooms they've designed on their websites. Browse through as many as you can in your area, noting photos that fit with your vision.
Training varies: An interior designer "typically has a bachelor's degree in interior design, and in several states must be certified," Davin says.
They can collaborate easily with engineers, contractors and architects, and should have a full understanding of color, proportion and other elements of design.
A decorator "might be just someone who has a flair for decorating and wants to hang up a shingle," Davin says, and it's possible their style will fit perfectly with yours. But they probably won't have as much training as a designer.
The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) offers a database of certified members.
See who makes you feel comfortable, Howard says. You're going to "open up your personal space" to the person you hire, so along with vetting their work, make sure your personalities mesh.
Howard says a good designer should be able to tell you whether you can have what you're envisioning for the money you're able to spend. Be realistic and clear when discussing your budget.
Design fees vary around the country, but Davin says they tend to range between about $4 per square foot (for limited services like choosing a room's color palette and furniture layout) to $10 or more per square foot for full project management.
Get cost estimates in writing and be sure you know exactly what is included. If you make any changes to a project after hiring a designer, get those adjustments in writing as well.
The folks at ASID suggest keeping a folder with printouts of all agreements and correspondence about your project. Extra calls or extra meetings cost money and slow the project down.
When choosing a designer, be sure to ask previous clients how the person handled changes or challenges.
"It's impossible to install a job of any size without something going wrong," Howard says. "Something's going to break. Something's going to be measured wrong. Things happen and things get fixed."
Try not to make too many changes, since that can increase the possibility of confusion and mistakes.
If a problem arises, it's best to cool down before approaching the designer.
And at the end of the project, Howard advises clients to leave home during the final installation work.
"The installation is the moment that the decorator worked for months and months and months on," she says. "They need to have their space to kind of make a mess and get things done."
Wait for the "red carpet moment" when the finished product is revealed.