We talked to local experts to find out all you need to know about hiring a professional to help you transform your home. From the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator, to what they can do for you and what it all costs, we break it down. Plus, we spotlight a group of local, in-the-know designers and their distinct perspectives.
Illustrations by Bob Scott
1. What’s the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator?
The two terms are often used interchangeably, and there are some similarities in the services each provides, but there are some major differences between an interior designer and an interior decorator.
Melissa Moseley, president of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and an interior designer for HKS architects, says, “A designer has a [college] degree and has formally studied interior design through a curriculum that has been accredited by a governing body.”
In an interior design program like that at Virginia Commonwealth University, students learn about building and accessibility codes, space planning, drafting, color theory, sustainability and structural issues. They also learn about furniture, fabrics and finishes — the things one associates with decorating.
After graduating, interior design students can take the NCIDQ exam, a two-day test covering everything from ethics and design history to building and accessibility codes.
In Virginia, once you pass the NCIDQ, you can become a “certified interior designer.” If you see the letters “CID” behind a designer’s name, you know they have formally studied interior design and have passed the test.
However — and this is where it gets confusing — in Virginia, anyone can call themselves an “interior designer.” Some states have laws against using that title without NCIDQ certification; here the law applies only to the designation “CID.”
Not to say everyone needs a degree in interior design. There’s nothing wrong with working with a decorator. It just depends upon your needs.
“If you need somebody to select finishes, furniture and colors, I know a group of decorators who can help,” says Christiana Lafazani, associate professor and interim department chair for VCU’s Interior Design program. “If you need somebody to redesign your space and potentially provide you with finishing touches, I would go with an interior designer.”
Who: Jessica Williamson
Where: JTW Design
Education: B.S. in interior design, Virginia Tech
Experience: After 10 years at Gensler, a design firm in Washington, D.C., she started her own residential interior design business in Northern Virginia, relocating to Richmond two years ago.
Focus: “Helping clients create space through renovation or custom home design.”
Quote: “I try to balance aesthetics and function equally. A project is most successful when it works for you and looks gorgeous at the end of the day.”
(Jessica Williamson photo)
2. Why hire a professional?
Just as you would hire an accountant to prepare your taxes or an architect to design a house, it makes sense to get the help of a pro when tackling a large project in your home. “These people are trained to really pull everything together and create the best environment for you and your family,” says VCU’s Christiana Lafazani. “They can think about the bones of the house all the way down to the finishing touch, which could be a pillow for your sofa or the hook you hang your coat on.”
A professional will help you get it right the first time instead of making expensive mistakes on your own. “I have had several people who have gone and tried to solve their own problems,” says Jessica Williamson of JTW Design, “but what happens is the furniture is out of scale or the contractor is not appropriate for the project, or they have to manage the contractor and don’t have the skills to communicate what needs to be done.”
A professional can also save you time — and frustration — by narrowing down options. “Some people have a great eye, but if you are busy and need someone to come and cut your time in half … hire a designer,” says Meredith Hayes of Reflections Interior Design.
Designers and decorators also have access to “to-the-trade” resources — furniture, lighting, rugs, fabric and wallpaper — that are only available to professionals. They are able to shop at places like Richmond’s 12,000-square-foot Designers Market which is off limits to the general public.
And, believe it or not, a professional can help save you money in the long run.
“When you work with a designer it doesn’t mean you’re going to have to pay for expensive tchotchkes…,” says Melissa Moseley of Virginia ASID. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about bringing you a home that works for you.”
Who: Melissa Mathe, CID
Education: B.S. in interior design, Meredith College
Experience: After a decade working for a handful of design and architecture firms, Mathe struck out on her own in 2010 offering hospitality and residential design services.
Focus: Specializes in home renovations, large and small, from additions to refurnishing a room.
Quote: “When you open your eyes in the morning you want to wake up in a space that makes you happy so you can project a positive attitude. An interior designer can help you find that happy place.”
Photo by Bryan Deal
3. Who do you hire?
A handful of local designers or decorators advertise their services. Many rely on referrals from past clients to get the word out about their work. “Get recommendations from your neighbor or friends or your realtor — they always know designers,” says Melissa Moseley, ASID Virginia chapter president. “It’s good practice to interview more than one person so that you can talk to them about your project and see what they have to say. …It’s a very intimate relationship [between client and designer]. It might take a couple of dates in order to find the right person you want to spend the time with.”
Christiana Lafazani of VCU’s interior design program recommends you ask a prospective designer about their education and résumé. And, seeing their portfolio is a must. “That is really who they are and what they can do for you,” she says.
Always check references and try to talk to people who have done projects similar to yours. “Ask [the designer] if there is a certain set of contractors they use, and maybe call a few of those contractors to see what they are like to work with,” Lafazani advises. Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the designer before you sign a contract. “You have to make sure you trust this person,” she says.
Social media also provides a great way to find a designer whose work you like. All of the designers we spoke to say that Instagram, Houzz, Pinterest and Facebook have been invaluable marketing tools for them.
Jessica Williamson of JTW Design, who moved to Richmond two years ago, says, “Houzz has been tremendous for my business. I updated my page when I moved to Richmond and got some reviews of my work. Then my kitchen was selected as a ‘kitchen of the week.’ It drummed up some business for me here.”
Another source for designers is the ASID Virginia website at asidva.org, which contains a public directory of its members.
Who: Meredith Hayes, CID
Where: Reflections Interior Design
Education: B.F.A. in interior design, VCU
Experience: Hayes founded Reflections in 2001 and got her real-estate license in 2013. Today, she combines both professions.
Focus: Renovations, reconstruction and guidance for new construction. When assisting real-estate clients, Hayes provides estimates on redesign, shares design ideas, stages homes for sale and helps clients renovate after they purchase a home.
Quote: “I’m like a plastic surgeon for a home. I have done more residential reconstruction than anything else.”
Photo by John Magor
4. What is the process?
After you have selected a designer or decorator to work with, it’s time to meet in person, in your home.
Meredith Hayes of Reflections Interior Design, likes to see a client’s entire house. “Hearing them talk about their house gives me a good window on why I was called,” she says.
Natalie Reddell likes to meet with all family members who will be making decorating decisions. “There is a whole lot of marriage counseling they don’t tell you about [in school],” she says. “Often, the husband cares a lot about the design — sometimes more than the wife.”
During this initial visit, the designer will take measurements and determine the scope of the project. You can expect to discuss your budget, too. If your budget is small, the designer may be able to explain how to do the project over time so it is more affordable. Or, they can suggest ways to spend wisely.
At this point, most designers will require you to sign a contract that outlines the project, the payment structure and other details. Then, the designer will return to their studio to work on a plan.
Some designers will create a presentation board with swatches of fabrics, paint samples and photos of furniture and accessories to help you envision the room. Some use Pinterest pages to develop a board. Some may present more than one scheme. This should be spelled out in the contract.
Once the client gives the green light, the designer may order and procure the items for the client, or the client my purchase them on their own. The designer may arrange for painters, drapery fabricators and other contractors to visit your house.
Some designers will wait until all of the items for the room have arrived and will “install” them all at the same time, for a big reveal. Be patient: custom furniture can take months to arrive. Nearly all of the designers we spoke to offered the same advice as Anne Hunter Hunter of H2 Design: “Don’t watch HGTV — the timelines are not realistic.”
Who: Anne Hunter Hunter
Where: H2 Design
Education: B.F.A. in interior design, VCU
Experience: After being laid off from a Richmond design firm in 2009, Hunter obtained her Class A contractor’s license and started her own design/build firm.
Focus: Everything from designing a new kitchen, to serving as general contractor on the project, to decorating the room adjacent to it.
Quote: “Because I’m a designer and a contractor people might think I am more expensive. But I am just as competitive and I can actually save you money.”
(Photo by Gordon Gregory)
5. What does it cost?
No industry standard exists because every project is unique, says ASID Virginia chapter president Melissa Moseley.
Most designers charge an hourly fee, but even that can vary widely. “The more work you have, and the more background in that kind of work, the more you can charge per hour,” says Virginia Commonwealth University’s Christiana Lafazani. “I’ve heard of everything from $50 to $150 per hour.”
Natalie Reddell charges $75 per hour and also makes money when she sells items to her clients. Designers are able to purchase furniture, rugs, accessories and other items at wholesale. Her markup, though, is still less than the retail price.
Melissa Mathe charges a $100 hourly fee, but for large projects, she will charge a flat fee. She also charges a $150 flat fee for helping a client choose paint colors.
Jessica Williamson starts every project with a two-hour consultation for $175. She meets with clients in their home, looks at their space, listens to their needs and provides suggestions on the spot. “Some people are DIYers and need someone to come in and point them in the right direction,” she says. “I make sure they get something valuable out of our time together.” She estimates that the average living room redecoration will take between 10 and 20 hours of her time.
Anne Hunter Hunter, who is also a Class A contractor, will tack on a percentage of the total project cost as her fee for a renovation project. For a pure decorating project, her markup is 35 percent on the items she procures for her clients.
“There’s a myth that [hiring a designer] is not cost effective,” Reddell says. “I think it saves you money in the long run because you buy the right thing the first time and live better in your space.”
Who: Natalie Reddell
Education: B.A. in interior design, Florida State University
Experience: Reddell did everything from kitchen and bath design, to home staging to owning her own design firm in Florida before moving to Richmond in 2011. She worked here as a designer at Ethan Allen until starting her own business last summer.
Focus: Full-service residential interior design; kitchen and bath design.
Quote: “I see the role of an interior designer like being a biographer. … I feel like it’s my job to tell a client’s story and improve the quality of their life. And, have some fun in the process.”
Natalie Reddell (photo by Jami Carlton)