The 3 Most Important Questions to Ask
When Hiring an Interior Designer

Whether you are building a new home or considering a renovation to your existing home, you know your design team – architect, interior designer, contractor/builder and possibly landscape architect- are critical to an efficient process and your amazingly successful result.

It is my hope that you find this article of value as you build your team. Many of the thoughts expressed here can be applicable to your entire team.

For those of you who are architects, contractors or realtors, feel free to forward this article to your clients as appropriate.

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

In over 30 years of award-winning practice, I’m still taken aback at the number of times I’m called in to “fix” a project for a client. The biggest complaint? The house doesn’t feel like me. It’s not what I really wanted. The designer didn’t listen. It looks like everyone else’s home, not mine.

The second largest complaint was the time-billing. Not that the price was too high, rather they never knew what the price was going to be. Was the designer working on a custom piece when I already approved something else? Why am I paying both the designer and architect for the (fireplace design, flooring specifications, cabinetry and kitchen design etc)? What can I expect this month’s time billing to be?

You may have learned about someone’s background in terms of years of experience, education and professional affiliations, but what really matters in terms of the job they’ll do for you?

1. Why are you a designer?

If the response doesn’t include making you, the client, extraordinarily happy, you may be in for a surprise. Some may be looking for an opportunity to have someone else pay for a design they can use to (hopefully) get themselves published, and are looking to what publishers want, not you, their client.

Be sure you feel confident the designer is looking out for your best interests, is your advocate, and will present to you options along with the pros and cons of each. With this information you’ll be able to make informed, and long-lasting decisions.  

Others may be interested only in the price of furnishings, wanting to sell you the most expensive, rather than what would be of most value to you, and most appropriate to the overall design.

Do they find real joy in creating unique expressions of each of their clients? Yes, it’s a serious, and expensive, business. But it should still be fun and exciting. You’re creating your home, your sacred, beautiful, functional space where you can leave your stress at the door. Where you can experience the kind of peace you feel at the sight of a heart-stopping sunset.

2. What is your experience and accreditation?

Ask about the designer’s education, training, experience and professional affiliations.

Some years ago I sat on the advisory board of the Art Institute of San Francisco’s interior design program. I was a proponent for introducing more art classes, particularly photography and color so students could learn how to “see”. That they could learn to think creatively, and understand how their clients might think.  Instead, the program was loaded up with CAD classes and the like. Students could learn how to draw on a computer, and make beautiful presentations. Unfortunately, the meat of the design would fall apart under scrutiny.

I’m suggesting you work with a designer who can create a depth to your design, under the illusion of simplicity. Someone who can reflect your spirit, and your dreams, in the design. Who can tell the story of who you are, and what you love.

Look for a well-established company that has been in business for at least 10 years; 20+ years is even better. An accreditation through the American Society of Interior Designers for example, will assure you of a minimum number of years of education and experience.

What will experience do for you?

  1. Greater ability to visualize a result. Understanding how a particular color will work on an entire room, how the scale of various elements will interact, how seemingly disparate elements combine to create beautiful spaces with depth and interest. There’s no need to get a “catalog”, a “safe” look when you can have a custom design if you have the experience to make it happen correctly.
  2. Long-term relationships with showrooms, vendors, artisans, contractors, architects and tradespeople can result in better quality, service and pricing for you, the client.
  3. An experienced and talented designer will more likely have had their work recognized – won awards, been published, participated in juried showcase houses and the like, providing you, the client, comfort in knowing you won’t be making an expensive, or embarrassing mistake.

 3. How do you communicate with your clients?

Designing your home is personal. Feeling a comfortable rapport, believing you are being heard and understood is paramount. Typical projects can last from several months to a year or more, and having a trusting relationship is key. Is the designer a good communicator? Does he or she understand your needs, wants, goals and budget? Will the designer be available to you, or will you be shuffled off to someone else in the office?

Good communication starts at the beginning. Are your agreements and proposals clear? Do they outline the elements of your project, and wrap them in a particular time-frame?

Lastly, be sure to understand what your responsibilities are in terms of response times, availability, and being clear and upfront if something makes you uncomfortable. Though I’ve been told many times how amazing it is that I can read minds, it’s not a good strategy on which to rely!

Email is wonderful, as intentions and information are right there, in black and white. Skype or Zoom are great tools when visuals are helpful, even just seeing one another during a conversation. There’s simply no reason for honest communication to fail.

There are hundreds of other questions to consider when interviewing your designer.

Here are some additional ideas:

  •  What specific services do they provide? Which would be required for your project?
  • If outside services are necessary, does the designer hire them, the contractor, or you, the client?
  • Is your budget and time frame realistic?
  • Are they prone to work in a particular style, or does their education and experience allow them to work in any style? (Good design is good design, no matter the style!)
  • Do they offer discounts on furnishings? How transparent is the billing?
  • Who does the purchasing for what?
  • How do they charge? Hourly, flat fee, or a combination? How often are you invoiced?
  • Are there other fees of which I should be aware?
  • What type of project management tools do they use?
  • Do they have someone to project manage the purchases and contractors?
  • What will your role be in the design process?
  • How is the design budget established and what payment terms are required?
  • What was the budget range of your last number of projects?
  • May I have a list of references?
  • What should I do if I’m unhappy with something?
  • What specific challenges do you think we’ll need to overcome on our project?
  • What is your specific design process?
  • What is your design philosophy?

 You are about to embark on an amazing journey. You may find yourself being gently nudged from your comfort zone, but enjoy the ride! Properly done, your result will be a beautiful, comfortable, authentic and empowering home from, and in which, you can live your best life!

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

Stacey Lapuk, ASID is celebrating her 30th year with her firm. Named “One of America’s Ten Designers To Watch” by Design Times Magazine, one of the “Top 100 Interior Designer in North America” by Blink Art Resources, and the winner of multiple national design awards.  Her goal is simple: To co-create with her clients the home of their dreams with responsive and comprehensive solutions, and timeless, beautiful results. 

Her full service firm attracts clients desiring the finest workmanship, materials and custom design. Facets of work include partnering with architects on new construction, remodels, kitchen design and bath design, color consultation, custom furniture, flooring, area carpets, wall and window treatments, lighting design, art procurement and antique acquisition. Service areas include but are not limited to Marin County, San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma, Ross, Kentfield, Belvedere, Tiburon, San Rafael, and Pacific Heights.