How to choose a good interior designer

Emilee Geist

The problem with the interior design industry is that there are almost no barriers to entry. Anyone in possession of a phone and a clutch of paint charts can set up a business and start charging a fee. In the UK, architects are regulated by the Architects Registration Board, but […]

The problem with the interior design industry is that there are almost no barriers to entry. Anyone in possession of a phone and a clutch of paint charts can set up a business and start charging a fee. In the UK, architects are regulated by the Architects Registration Board, but for interior designers no equivalent statutory body exists.

Books and magazines used to be our window into the once-rarefied world of design. The internet has changed that. Google “interior designer” and you will be met with 35mn results — or at least I was at last attempt.

And the number is growing. In 2012, the British Institute of Interior Design (a voluntary membership body without regulatory powers) had 1,382 members. Now it has more than twice as many — and it estimates there might be as many as 20,000 designers practising in the UK.

Despite the recent hoo-ha over Instagram’s move to prioritise video over photos, the platform, with its 24-hour carousel of aspirational images, is still a useful place to find designers in any style, from minimal to modernist, country house to bohemian. The problem remains, however: if you are looking for the right practice for your project, how do you find someone good? How, among the multitudes, do you separate the truly talented from the dabbler, the chancer and the dilettante?

Designer Lonika Chande believes the industry needs its traditional gatekeepers. Chande’s earliest clients found her through press coverage of her own home: a Victorian railway worker’s cottage, steeped in colour and pattern as a backdrop for art and antiques. “Even our younger clients prefer the endorsement of a magazine, because it’s filtered,” she says.

Drawing room in the home of Philip Hooper, with a fireplace and books on shelves
A drawing room in the Somerset home of Philip Hooper, designer and managing director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler © Dean Herne

A diploma from a reputable institution — Central Saint Martins or KLC School of Design in the UK, for example, and Savannah College of Art and Design or New York School of Interior Design in the US — is a good sign. An apprenticeship with an established firm is equally important. Many leading designers began by doing the coffee run or counting samples in a back room. If anyone you are considering does not list these bona fides on their website, ask for them.

The scale of your project will also determine who you employ. If you want to reboot your paintwork and soft furnishings, then a decorator — often a one-man band — will probably suffice. (In the US, designers are still referred to as decorators, which is considered a little old-fashioned in the UK.) For structural work, you might want to consider a larger practice, with anything from four to 60 employees for companies with established commercial arms. These businesses can collaborate with architectural practices or employ in-house architects alongside senior and junior designers. They will also find contractors and garden designers. The “About us” page of a practice’s website should give you an idea of its size or, again, you can ask directly.

“Decorating is what I love, but 75 per cent of our work is spreadsheets or floor plans, working out where the fuse board will go; making sure there’s a place for everything,” says Chande. “We’re a team of three: me and two full-time, experienced designers. I work closely with both and the projects are divided up so we have one designer leading each one. For larger projects we’ll all muck in.”

Natalie Tredgett at her studio in London
Natalie Tredgett, who began her career working for Nicky Haslam, at her studio in London © Ingrid Rasmussen

Once you have drawn up a shortlist of companies, it is time to make some calls. It is easy to work out if a practitioner is for you, says Philip Hooper, managing director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, one of London’s most respected decorating companies. “A designer should listen,” he says. “If you find yourself with one who only talks about themselves, move on.”

Despite the glamorous veneer of celebrity tastemakers, interior design is a service industry at heart. The perfect project is the meeting of a “holy trinity of factors,” says designer Hubert Zandberg: “my taste, the client’s taste, and a sense of place.”

An initial meeting should cover what you want to achieve — and your budget. Expect a questionnaire about the minutiae of your domestic life, down to the clutter on your bedside table. Relationships can be as frank as the one you have with your hairdresser.

“I know everything about our clients: which partner snores, who’s the splashiest in the bathroom,” one designer tells me.

For the most luxurious commissions, non-disclosure agreements are common and photography is often banned — which is why even the most prolific designers show only a fraction of their projects on their websites.

Designer David Bentheim — whose previous clients include the UK’s National History Museum — compares himself to “an interiors analyst”.

“You have to work out what people really want, rather than what they think they want,” he says.

“Most people come to you for some sort of transformation, even if they don’t know it,” he adds, citing a recent project: a clutter-strewn family house in west London reinvented as a streamlined setting for empty-nesters poised to rekindle their social life.

A mezzanine and dramatic light fitting in Shalini Misra’s north London house
Interior designer Shalini Misra’s Victorian villa in north London © Mel Yates

It can take time to refine a design. In the meantime, beware the designer who bombards you with Pinterest images; it betrays a lack of vision. Or anyone who lives out their decorating fantasies through your budget. The former client of one designer tells me how he insisted on rose quartz (priced at about £600 per sq m) for a family bathroom after spotting it in a smart hotel. “Suitability” is the watchword.

Clients may find it hard to visualise the end result, says Stephanie Barba Mendoza, who spent 10 years working for designer Martin Brudnizki before setting up her own practice.

“It’s important to be able to convey what we do . . . For the design concept we’ll do 3D drawings and 2D elevations; showing how a room will work. Once it’s approved, we contact suppliers to get prices for materials and furniture while developing the interior architecture drawings to show lighting plans, architectural details and joinery: all the details. When you finish that phase, you send it to tender to different contractors,” she says. “That can take another four to five weeks.”

Designers’ fees are a murky area because there is no standard way of charging. One friend was surprised to find a “completion” sum buried in the contract’s small print: “We’d paid a fee upfront for the drawings and building work. But the designer never appeared to supervise the work, so we assumed he’d done his job. We were wrong.”

Another had to stump up for a designer’s cab fares. “Commuting from Chelsea to Stoke Newington on the bus apparently wasn’t her style,” she tells me.

Stephanie Barba Mendoza sitting on a chair
Stephanie Barba Mendoza spent 10 years working for designer Martin Brudnizki before setting up her own practice © Casey Moore

Sandy Mitchell founded the RedBook Agency to matchmake clients with designers who have been vetted by an in-house panel. “We have 80 firms on our books,” he says. But unlike architects, whose fee structure is mapped out by the ARB, “no two have exactly the same pricing structure.”

Some charge a single design fee and pass on the entirety of their trade discounts to the client; others charge a combination of an agreed design fee plus a margin on top of the discounts.

“There are firms who charge a percentage of the overall cost. Within that, there are infinite ways of setting fees: some do it based on square footage, or the number of rooms. Others add an hourly rate for meetings. It’s very confusing unless explained properly,” says Mitchell.

Another way designers earn a fee is by commissioning bespoke furniture. It is worth considering whether you want a generic branded piece that looks smart but has negligible resale value (in general, says antiques dealer Luke Honey, you can expect to recoup around 10 per cent of the original price of a modern, unsigned piece at auction). The alternative is antiques or something by a recognised craftsperson with meaning, and intrinsic value.

The seating area of a bright kitchen with pale turqoise cabinets and a modern dining table
Part of a kitchen in Naples, Florida, designed by Stephen Sills © Simon Upton

Commissioning craft is increasingly important, says designer Shalini Misra, who studied at Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. “We always work with local makers; it conserves skills and is less wasteful than importing things.” Harnessing the hand­made also helps to avoid the “cookie-cutter” taupe-on-taupe homogeneity that gives interior design a bad name.

Resourcefulness is important too. Natalie Tredgett remembers how her first employer, veteran designer Nicky Haslam, would “bedazzle” junk-shop finds with paint finishes. Tredgett, who also designs furnishings, enjoys absorbing influences from art or fashion: a rug based on an antique tile, a singing violet paint colour inspired by a 1980s jacket — so that pieces “are hard to replicate”.

Veere Grenney had an unconventional route into interiors, following the hippy trail in India and running an antiques stall before landing a design apprenticeship. He reflects on an industry whose “trajectory has been in the ascendant” since the 1980s. When he began, he says, the industry was dominated by “a handful of large firms patronised by very wealthy or aristocratic clients” with women in pearls behind showroom desks.

That changed with the property price boom of the 1980s and an influx of design-savvy foreign buyers. Employing someone to do up your home is still a luxury — ignore anyone who tells you it will save you money, that is a marketing trope — but what has altered is choice.

The interior of a London home designed by Aida Bratovic, with contrasting pieces of furniture and a fireplace
Emre Mengu’s home in London’s Sloane Street, designed by Aida Bratovic © Rachael Smith Photography Ltd

Will a recession damp demand for interior designers? Zandberg says not. “The idea of being able to make your life more enjoyable by improving your home has seeped into our consciousness,” he says. “We go to members’ clubs that look like homes. The premium that people place on it has exploded. Design is everywhere.”

But for clients, scrolling through aspirational images can defeat the purpose of hiring a designer: creativity. If you have gone to trouble of finding the right one, it is worth letting them sprinkle their stardust.

You will know a well-designed room when you see it. It is not about expensive matching lamps — or snooty notions of good taste — but that table at optimal height for a G&T; the fresco-pink wall which glows in the dusk. It’s a mixture of practicality and poetry.

Which is why artists often make good designers. Influential contemporary US designer Stephen Sills spent his childhood being ferried to art classes by doting parents and still rolls up his sleeves to do the paintwork. David Hicks, whose bravura use of colour has inspired a new generation, started out drawing cereal boxes at an advertising agency. Monet’s kitchen at Giverny is a concert of blue and white. Even Francis Bacon had a stint designing rooms in the 1930s (rubber curtains were a speciality).

Claude Monet’s kitchen in Giverny, France, with blue and white tiles in various patterns along the walls
Claude Monet’s kitchen in Giverny, France, ‘a concert of blue and white’ © Jean-Claude Amiel / BtooB / eyevine

There is an art to being a good client too. Emre Mengu, whose business Balian&Co specialises in ambassadorial properties, commissioned Aida Bratovic to redesign his London apartment. Bratovic is a Bosnia-born architect who enjoys the “joy and magic” of interior design, not least, she says, because her family lost most of their possessions during the Balkan conflicts of 1992-96. “A home is so much more than brick walls,” she adds.

“There might be pushback during any project. But that’s part of the dialogue — and it helps to avoid a prescriptive look,” says Mengu, a former architect. “If a designer’s vocabulary remains recognisable from client to client, then you know you’ve found a good one.”

Bratovic, whose clients include Lord Rothschild, had the pick of Mengu’s heirlooms: “The brief was to bring everything to life in a new setting, which doesn’t feel like a museum,” she says. Mouldings were reinstated and ceilings raised. A set of carved wardrobe doors became a striking screen; a mid-century triptych inspired the design of a brass bedhead.

“Two eyes are often better than one,” says Mengu, “but above all, you need to be patient. Things won’t fall into place immediately. This isn’t an exact science.”

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FTWeekend Festival, London

Interior designers Emma Burns (of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler) and Sophie Ashby, and Albert Hill from The Modern House, will join the FT’s architecture and design critic Edwin Heathcote for a discussion on ‘How to fake good taste’, at Kenwood House in London on September 3. Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf

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