About Hiring an Interior Designer or Decorator

The decoration of homes has captivated people throughout recorded history. In 67 B.C., Cicero commented, "What is more agreeable than one’s home?" Interior designers put their style, creativity and experience to work to help a home reach its full potential—be it a studio or a multi-million dollar spread.

Despite recent press clippings questioning the integrity of the profession, The Franklin Report has uncovered over 150 design firms that clients adore and revere for their abilities and professionalism. Clients believe that these firms saved them considerable time and money by finding unique objects and avoiding costly errors. Each firm has its own style and personality. We have tended to highlight the most prominent designers, which often translates into higher costs and minimums. Additional firms may be found on our website (www.franklinreport.com) which is updated regularly.

Finding a Match

After you fully assess your needs and your budget, we recommend that you gather photographs from magazines and books to share with potential design candidates to communicate your preferences. Through our research, we have found that the best interior decorator-client bonds are founded on common ideas of style and taste. Even the best designers can falter and lose interest in a project if they are not excited by the end goal. So as you gather potential names from The Franklin Report and from friends, focus on the preferred style of the designer—even if they say they can do anything.

As you narrow down your list and begin the interview process, think about your working relationship with the interior designer, who, for better or for worse, will become a big part of your life. Will you be seeing the principal on a regular basis or the project managers? Are you interested in a collaborative process or looking for strong direction? Will you be offered a wide range of budgetary choices? Finally, the prospect of working with this person should feel positive and enjoyable. Given the amount of time and money you are about to spend, it ought to be fun.

On Cost

As in any other trade, you'll be charged for labor, materials and a 10 to 20 percent mark-up for overhead and profit, plus tax. Make sure the estimate includes any other associated work—electrical, plumbing, plaster—that may be necessary for the installation if you expect someone to do it. All makes and models of equipment should be spelled out on the bid proposal. If your HVAC professional is fishing for a service agreement to cover the gaps in the warranty, see if you can get him to discount his price if you accept. ItÍs okay to sign off on the bid proposal to execute the work, but it should refer to drawings (best generated by an engineer as opposed to a sketch on the back of a napkin) and they should be attached. Clean-up, transportation (possibly parking, too, in New York City), commencement and completion dates, payment schedule, change order procedure, licensing and insurance information should all be included in the contract, if not on the bid proposal. He should be responsible for the cost and time of obtaining permits.

On Service

Only a client can determine the worth of an interior designer’s services. The "great masters" of interior design are considered exceptional artists who may charge whatever the market will bear. No one ever valued a Picasso based on a markup over the cost of materials. That said, the vast majority of designers are not masters, but competent professionals looking for a reasonable profit.

Interestingly, very few designers earn huge sums, due to the inherent unscalability of the process. Since clients generally want to talk to the Name-on-the-Door and not a senior associate, a name designer can only handle so many clients a year, usually about eight. Therefore, even with an average job size of $200,000 and a markup of 33 percent, net annual profits to a designer working with eight clients equal only $60,000—a good living but not a fortune (especially compared to their clients).*

Just a handful of designers have the clout to make serious money. This can be done by charging unusually high markups or hourly fees, employing multiple senior project managers, selling custom products (which carry very high, undisclosed markups) and/or accepting only clients with very expensive purchasing habits. While you should know standard industry pricing practices, many clients are willing to pay more for additional service or amazing talent.

*Assumes net cost of products of $150,000 with a designer markup of 33 percent, totalling $200,000 of cost to the client and $50,000 of gross revenue to the designer. With a 15 percent profit margin (after all operating costs) net profit to the designer is only $7,500 for a client, or $60,000 for eight clients (before tax).

Standard Industry Pricing

There are three fundamental services for which interior designers receive fees: 1) up-front design plans, 2) the purchasing of products (new and antique) and 3) the oversight of construction and installation. The pricing indications described below are what you can expected from a very competent, experienced professional—neither a part-time designer nor a grand master.

Up-Front Design Fees: Most interior designers will charge an up-front, non-reimbursable design fee or retainer of about $500 (for a cosmetic rehab) up to $1,200 (for an architectural transformation) per major room, or about $5,000 to $10,000 for a typical three-bedroom, pre-war apartment renovation. The extent of these plans can range considerably, from loose sketches to extensive architectural drawings with coordinating furniture memos, swatches and a detailed electrical plan. Qualify these expectations before you sign on.

Most designers will calculate the design fee as a flat rate and others on an hourly basis (both should fall into the cost range above). Sometimes half, and rarely all, of this fee is reimbursable against future product fees. Certain designers will not charge repeat customers a design fee. Some, but not many designers (especially in a robust economic climate), will operate on an hourly consultation basis, with the client doing all the subsequent shopping, purchasing and implementation.

New Product Fees by Percentage: Designers earn most of their fees by delivering products such as upholstery, case goods, window treatments, rugs and accessories. The vast majority charge clients a markup over the net (or wholesale) price. Designers who search high and low for the lowest-cost materials might charge a substantial markup, but still offer a very good value to clients.

  • Product Markup Over Net: Over half of designers charge a flat 30 to 35 percent markup over net on all new products, including workroom costs. This pricing is considered "reasonable" in The Franklin Report’s designer reviews (as it is about 11 percent below the suggested retail price on fabrics).
  • New York Retail: Many established designers charge "New York Retail," or 50 percent above net cost on fabrics, 66 percent on new furniture and 33 percent on new rugs. These percentages are based on the discount the decorators receive off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. For example, if the decorator were charged a net price of $100 per fabric yard, the client’s New York Retail price would be $150. Workroom costs are usually marked up 25 to 50 percent at New York Retail (this is a very squishy number that should be clarified). This overall New York Retail pricing is considered "standard" in The Franklin Report’s interior designer reviews.
  • Retail Outside New York City: Fabric and other showrooms ticket the suggested retail price as 100 percent over the net price, 50 miles outside New York City (vs. 50 percent within the area). So be extra sure to discuss what "retail" means if you are decorating a vacation home.
  • Pricing Structure: Remarkably, virtually no one charges under any other price structure—it is either Retail or about one-third up for new products. This is an interesting unifying principle in an industry that contains so many variables.
Antique Product Fees: Antiques are much trickier. First, the retail and net prices are usually negotiable with the dealers. Further, once retail price is established, most dealers offer designers a further discount of 10 to 20 percent. This presents a conundrum. For the designers to make their normal 33 to 50 percent markup, they may have to charge the client substantially above new retail price (which could be above or below the original retail price). This is further complicated by the fact that most antique dealers are happy to sell directly to the public.

The most satisfactory solution used in many successful client-designer relationships seems to be full disclosure with a sliding scale. These designers charge a markup over the new net price, with their usual 33 to 50 percent markup for lower priced items and a much smaller markup for larger items (often a lower percentage for items over $50,000, etc.). Many designers further guarantee that clients will never pay over the original retail price. The most prominent designers appear to be able to hold to a set markup and/or not disclose the net prices. For expensive antiques, an independent appraisal may be warranted (see our listings of Appraisers).

There is an additional point that needs clarification between a client and the designer on antique purchasing. If a client happens to walk into an antique dealer on Madison Avenue or an auction at Sotheby’s and finds the perfect sideboard that has been eluding the decorator for months, should the decorator get a fee? Arguments may be made both ways, especially if that piece has been specified in the design plans, the decorator has spent time shopping for that piece (educating the client along the way) or the client seeks approval from the decorator before making the purchase.

Most decorators have a strong enough client bond to withstand these issues, and the client will not balk if, in fact, the designer deserves the fee. But specific contracts help in these times. An elegant solution that some of the more sophisticated designers use is to charge an hourly consultation fee under these circumstances or to take a much larger up-front design fee to cover all antique and auction purchases.

Hourly Product Fees: A small but growing minority of designers charge clients on an hourly basis for all product procurement, including antiques, and pass the net prices through to the client. This methodology eliminates confusion and uncertainty on pricing, but introduces debates on how long it can take to order all the trims and fabrics for a sofa (it takes longer than you think). Hourly fees are particularly popular with architecture-trained designers (as that is how architects usually charge). These fees generally range from $75 per hour for a design assistant to $250+ per hour for a grand master, with $150 to $200 as the typical, well established Name-on-the-Door designer rate.

Oversight Fees: Most designers charge a 15 to 20 percent oversight fee for the management of the subcontractors from whom they are not already making a profit. Usually these are the subcontractors who work with design elements such as bathroom and kitchen design, architectural woodworking, etc. Other designers will ask for 15 to 20 percent of the general contractor’s net product costs to coordinate the artistic direction of the project. Or the designer can bill hourly for these consultations. This service may be unnecessary if you are using an architect who takes on the project manager’s role. Some designers will also charge for every meeting and "look-see" outside of their immediate responsibilities, so this should be clarified in advance.

Flat Fees and Other Negotiated Terms: A limited but increasing number of designers will consider a flat fee for all of the services listed above. This fee would remain stable within a specified expenditure range, and go up or down if the product costs far exceeded or came in significantly lower than the estimates. But the key lesson here is that most interior designers are fairly negotiable on pricing and other terms, within reason.

Contractual Agreements

Given the wide variance of markups and methodologies, it is highly recommended that you and your designer agree upon an explicit price scheme for each type of product and service before embarking upon a renovation. While not normally necessary, it is not unreasonable to ask to see all bills and receipts.

Also, before you sign, it is customary to speak with of one or two past clients (and occasionally, see the projects first hand). Once the contract is signed, a retainer will be paid, the design plans will be drawn and purchases will be made. Timing expectations should also be addressed in the contract, but in many cases the timing of materials is out of the control of the designer. Therefore, if you have specific deadlines, the designer should be directed to order only in-stock items.

Licensing of Interior Designers

The debate over the potential licensing of interior designers has been spirited. Currently it is not necessary to hold any type of degree or license to legally practice interior design in New York State. While the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) administer qualifying examinations, only a minuscule percentage of the top residential interior designers have complied. Most designers describe these tests as having more to do with health and safety issues (generally handled by architects) than with design competency. In fact, the tests do include sections on space planning, historical styles, fabric selection and all the necessary algebra, but do not really test creativity.

All this may change with a bill that is expected to be introduced in Albany shortly. The bill would limit the use of the interior designer title to those with certain educational, experience and testing credentials (including the passing of the two-day NCIDQ exam). Those who are not certified would be classified as interior decorators rather than designers.

From a residential consumer viewpoint, there seems to be little correlation in The Franklin Report data between the passing of the NCIDQ exam and the satisfaction of the customer. However, so few designers in our list of top 150 have taken the exam that the sample size is just too small to judge. As discussed in What You Should Know About Hiring a Service Provider, it is incumbent upon the homeowner to do a thorough investigation of the competency of any potential service professional through extensive interviews, referral information and a competitive analysis.

Final Considerations

As further described on the following pages, an overwhelming majority of the countless clients we talked with had very positive feelings toward their interior designers. While it may be possible to purchase "trade-only" fabrics and furnishings in other ways, truly successful decorating is about creating an intangible upgrade in mood and lifestyle that only an expert can accomplish. Professional designers also have the creative energy and resources to manage projects in a cohesive manner from start to finish, realizing clients’ dreams more effectively and efficiently.

What You Should Not Expect from Your Interior Designer or the Design Process

  • That the designer will maintain interest in the project if you cannot make any decisions.
  • That you attend each shopping trip or be shown every possible fabric in the D&D building.
  • That the designer can read your mind.
  • That there will be no misunderstandings or mistakes along the way.
  • That the designer will bid out every subcontractor. There is a reason that the designer has been working with the same upholsterer and decorative painters for years. On the other hand, if you have a favorite supplier, the designer should be accommodating.
  • That the designer will supervise other’s work without an oversight fee. (The designer should be there, however, to oversee the installation of their products at no additional fee.)
  • That the designer becomes your new best friend.

What You Should Expect from Your Interior Designer

  • The sense that your interests and opinions matter.
  • An accessible and proactive effort, taking the initiative to complete the job.
  • That some of your existing furnishings will be integrated into the new design, if you wish.
  • Assurance that the designer will stick to a budget (and not tempt you with "the best" unless you insist).
  • A full understanding of your lifestyle and use of your living space.
  • Being shown a full range of options and products—creative ideas well beyond the D&D building. However, you should not feel forced to take whatever they purchased on their last worldwide jaunt (and pricing is really fuzzy here).
  • The ability to see the net cost of every item, if you desire.
  • As hassle-free a process for you as possible.
  • Open communication with you to avoid surprises.
  • That you love your new home after the job is complete.
Sort your Search in this Category by:

Share on Facebook
E-mail Email
Where to Find Us: