Small projects get big help from interior designers

Homeowners making minor changes can still benefit from expert advice

August 27, 2010|By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Home

What businesses and independent professionals do to stay successful in a tough economy says a lot about them. Most of the interior designers I talk to tell me they remain busy but are typically doing more smaller projects as opposed to just a few large ones — the 80/20 rule reversed.

In the days of cheap money and a soaring Dow, consumer confidence kept architects, builders and interior designers quite busy. They had the luxury of carefully selecting each client, choosing who would be easy to work with or who offered the opportunity to do large-scale, creative projects.

To keep up with demand, many designers had to turn away smaller jobs, which meant that homeowners who perhaps just wanted built-ins designed them with their carpenter. Painters often provided color consultations, hoping they could offer the right direction. Not that carpenters and painters don't have valuable advice to impart, but when set against trained designers with years of education, credentialing and certification, it's hard to compare.

Now that large-scale projects are in shorter supply, designers are taking jobs that just a few years ago they didn't have time to consider. To get some perspective on how different the residential interior design industry is now than it was just a few years ago, I tapped into the experiences of a few local designers who have been practicing long enough to have seen economic ups and downs.

"With any economic downturn, people will pinch their pennies by trading luxury for necessity," says Laura Kimball, interior designer and president of the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. "And professional interior design is a luxury. Still, despite the economy, many consumers need the advice of professional interior designers and want quality products for their homes; they just [might] want it without the full-service commitment."

By stacking up smaller projects, such as developing a color scheme, selecting individual pieces of furniture or doing built-ins or window treatments, what ultimately results is a phased interior design. But to save time and money, it is important that the phases be appropriately planned and properly timed.

To help make sure the design cart is not trotted out before the horse, interior designer Teresa Buchanan of Designline in Annapolis generally recommends starting with a master plan, "even if it won't be implemented right away, or only part of it will be implemented."

"Purchasing furnishings over time is feasible," she says, "but developing a master plan in phases is not."

"Built-in cabinetry is good place to start [a phased project] because it offers the architectural interest many spaces are lacking," says Buchanan. "A starting point I discourage is paint color — paint should come at the end of the design process because there are infinite options. The fabrics should be decided on before paint, because they inform the paint selection."

As an example, Buchanan offers a living room project currently in the works. Even though she knew the project would be completed in phases and her clients wanted to paint first, she started with the furniture plan, then selected the print fabrics, and then selected the wall colors. "So even though we did paint first," she says, "and now are filling in with furnishings and window treatments, paint was the last element selected."

Of course larger-scale projects, even carried out in phases, are not for everyone, and there are plenty of situations where something like adding built-ins can deliver that requisite decorative, functional, one-two punch. Or maybe your house already has plenty of character, but the wall colors are all wrong for the furnishings you've collected over the years. A short consultation might be all that's needed to help you decide what furniture stays, what goes and which colors will work best in your home.

In addition to color consultations and built-in projects, Annapolis interior designer Gina Fitzsimmons says, clients are coming to her for assistance with wide variety of small jobs. "I have seen a shift in what clients are wanting. I've noticed people doing a lot of remodeling projects. People aren't buying as much furniture, but they are looking at ways to improve their space."

Fitzsimmons notes that she is doing a lot of built-ins these days — stairway railing replacements and fireplace rehabs.

"People with those all-brick fireplace walls are looking for unique ways to bring functionality and visual interest to the space — sometimes they want to make the space more contemporary; others are adding cabinetry and shelving around the fireplace for extra storage."

Still, while built-in shelves or recessed lighting can certainly make for a dramatic transformation, wall color probably remains the most common interior update. But picking the right paint color and finish isn't easy.

Getting the color right the first time can save time and money, and interior designers are color experts. Kimball offers a recent color consultation as proof. Her clients acknowledged choosing the wrong color and told her they would have saved a gallons of paint and a few days painting if they had called her first. What they initially spent in paint alone covered the consultation fee.

The point is, just because you think your project is too small doesn't mean a designer will; it's worth a call. If you do, maximize your time by being prepared. Keep a clipping file of images you've found online or have torn out of magazines. As Buchanan says, "pictures often convey a message better than words."

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com. Subscribe to ChesapeakeHome by visiting the Marketplace Section of the BaltimoreSunStore.com.

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