Internet Decorating Comes of Age

A decade ago, when the internet was burgeoning forth to change our lives forever, when websites were springing up like weeds in spring and technology was promising to do everything faster and more efficiently, the Interior Design Industry was scratching its head as to how to participate – not exactly resisting change out of sheer ornery-ness but more wondering if the web was really the place to sell high-end furniture, fabrics, and —“Eegad!” — actual design services.

Some early attempts to harness the power of the web to search for particular furnishings sounded like a great idea but proved very limited from lack of participation by furniture manufacturers.  Design Management software took off but the actual design side of the Interior Design business resisted.  In fact, I currently buy from some custom “Designers Only” furniture manufacturers that still don’t have websites (a tiny minority now).  I guess that custom furniture is unlikely to become an “instant gratification” process any time soon so these few manufacturers who have a select audience of Interior Designers still don’t feel the burning need to go online.

Web-based Design Services

Nevertheless, as people became comfortable with ordering clothing, books, appliances, and do-it-yourself legal services online, the Interior Design industry did venture forth into web territory and started selling furniture, fabric, lighting and all manner of accessories and artwork online.  The one thing that was tough to package was actual “Design Services.” So while there are all kinds of items to buy out there on the web, you are on your own as far as putting it together in a room with a professional designer’s flair.  Now, it seems that barrier has been broken too.  We’ve noticed a number of websites popping up that purport to offer Design Services online:  “Room in a Box” and “Decorator in a Box” to name two. (See www.burnhamdesign.com and www.mydiab.com.)

What do they offer and how do they offer it?  Well, they offer typical services that Interior Designer’s offer: room layouts, furniture selection, fabric, materials and color scheme coordination.  How does it work?  Well, you, the client, have to provide quite a lot of information to the online designer. Say you are going to engage an online designer to do your family room. Typically, you will have to provide a rough floor plan with accurate dimensions; you will have to fill out questionnaires about your living situation, lifestyle, and style preferences; and it’s helpful if you provide
photographs of the room and any pieces you want to incorporate into the design scheme.  You email all this information to your designer with your online payment, and in about three weeks time you will receive a design scheme for your room.

The Old-fashioned Way

At this point in the process, the online service reverts back to good old-fashioned hard copies – and as the name of the sites imply – your design scheme will arrive in a nicely presented box or binder.  You will get a room layout, a shopping list, a color board and whatever else your particular agreement has promised.  As of now, no one has figured out a way to accurately render texture and color on an electronic screen. To me, looking at a great interior design presentation on a screen is like looking at a photo of a fabulous meal along with the recipe for making it; you can see that it looks good but you can’t actually taste it!

In my own company, we are developing an online decorating option as well, and we also decided that presentations are best delivered the old-fashioned way.  Although floor plans and furniture layouts can be created in CAD and electronically transferred,  scale can be an issue in transmission so, for the novice design client, a hard copy is probably the safest way to communicate.  Likewise, a shopping list can be generated electronically but the photos may have to be compiled from a variety of mediums – not all electronic – so again, a good old-fashioned collage of photos may tell the story best.  Finally, a color and materials board may not translate at all well on a computer screen; color is often inaccurate and texture is just plain indecipherable. Nothing beats samples of the “real stuff” to see and touch. The web has its limits.

Costs for these services are pretty reasonable as compared to engaging a flesh-and-blood designer to come to your home and work the magic, so, if you are a “do-it-yourselfer” at heart or if you are on a budget and admittedly have no design sense, this could be a solution for you.  If you want to give it a try, my own company will be adding online services on our website later this month. And, I’m sure more options like this will be popping up now.

Tips for Shopping on the Net

1. Be Aware of Scale
Remember, when seeing objects on a computer screen, it is impossible to judge scale. They are sized to fit the screen format which can usually be manipulated by the user.  Check the
dimensions carefully.

2. Color
Most paint companies have wonderful websites and offer lots of design ideas and room settings showing color combinations.  These are great resources for ideas about color but don’t expect the colors on the screen to match the actual colors of the paint.  (This is true of magazine photos as well).  If you fall for a particular color combination you will probably have to experiment with a variety of paint colors to achieve it.

3. Fabric and Wallcovering
Unless you can secure an actual sample of the fabric, do not choose or buy fabric online.  First and foremost, the color is never true and then the texture, the feel, the durability and the overall pattern just don’t translate well on the screen.

4. Furniture
The same goes for furniture.  Color, quality, subtleties of finish can be very deceiving online.  I personally buy a lot of furniture online but I always have finish samples and buy only from manufacturers whose quality of work I know and trust.

5.  Plumbing Fixtures
Yes, if you know what you’re doing, you probably can successfully order faucets, sinks, and whatever can fit in a UPS shipment online for less than you will pay retail.  Be sure to find out what the return policy is if the item is not right or not needed.  Also, weigh the pros and cons of saving a few dollars with the better service you may get from a local plumbing distributor.  Often, by the time you factor in the shipping and delivery costs, the savings have disappeared.

Internet technology has absolutely transformed the way we communicate and do business; who knows what’s next.  I haven’t even touched on the world of Design Blogs; we’ll save that for a future story!

[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 4 South Washington Street Tarrytown, NY. www.barbarasternau.com[/blockquote]

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau