The Design Industry: E-Decorating, Fees, How Cost-Plus Works, and More... Everything You Need to Know Before Hiring a Designer

Monday, January 4, 2016

If you are here looking to contact me about e-decorating or other services, please follow this link to email me: SEND EMAIL.

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Why I Am Writing This

A few years ago, I ran across an article about how to work with an interior designer. Initially, most of the comments were from other designers and were adding their advice in the comments. I put my two cents in as well, and since then, get an email whenever someone comments on that thread. And I have to say it has become extremely discouraging and kind of sad lately.  I know there are much bigger problems in the world than being displeased with your decorator. But still, these people paid good (sometimes outrageous) money and some of them have horrible stories to tell. Like the person who spent $1500 and in return the decorator cut some pictures off of her Pinterest boards and put them on a piece of paper. And the decorator who walked away when the client wanted to use a cabinet maker other than the one she had recommended. And so on. I know that as a general rule people are more likely to comment when they are unhappy, and of course for every person who is unhappy hopefully there are many many more who love their decorator. But when I saw the most recent comments I decided to address how the process should work, in my experience. 

Because so many people are unfamiliar still with the concept of e-decorating, I am going to talk about that process. In reality, it is very similar to in-person decorating. The only difference is that the decorator sees your space through pictures rather than in person. Literally, it otherwise should be exactly the same. And although I would never publicly criticize another decorator, I believe that those who say that e-decorating is somehow a lesser job than an in-person design are most likely simply trying to protect their business and feel threatened by the opening up of the market through e-design.  The concern is invalid, in my opinion. The right decorator can do the job by e-decorating or in person, and likewise, the wrong decorator won't make the client happy no matter what. E-decorating simply makes it more likely that clients will be able to get the right designer for them.


1. The Initial Consultation

I ask potential E-decorating clients to send me a few photos of the space they want designed so that I am able to talk intelligently about their specific project when we first talk. After receiving and reviewing the photos, the client and I have a phone consultation that usually takes 30-60 minutes. During that discussion the client and I get to know each other a bit and I describe the process, similar to what I am doing here.

Then, we talk about the client's specific project. While reviewing the photos with them on the phone, we go over the basics like: "What do you want to accomplish in this room? How would you describe your style? How many people do we need to seat? Do you have any Pinterest Boards of what you like? Do you have a color scheme in mind? What is your budget? Are there any rooms you love that you would like this to look like?" etc. I will also ask things like "Is there any furniture that is staying? Can we hang the drapes up really high over that window? Can we paint the moldings?" etc. 

(For in-person local decorating, I would go to the client's house for this portion, but it really is the same whether in person or not.)

2. The Agreement

A. What You Are Hiring Me For (the Design Plan)

After the initial phone consultation, I send the client a proposed consultation agreement via email. It includes three major parts: 

The first part is the agreed-upon services, or what the client will receive from me. 

A Note on Choices

One important note here, and something that I always go over in the initial consultation with clients, is that I never want to say "OK here is your sofa and here is your rug." I want to give you several choices, saying instead, "Here is my favorite sofa that I know will work, but here too are some similar ones in other fabrics and other price ranges and slightly different styles." I strongly believe that there are many pieces that will work in a particular space, and anyone who says "you must have THIS particular sofa" (even if out of budget), is not being honest or fair. So I want to show you lots of pieces –all things that I love, that I know will work in your space, and that all are within your budget. (I stick very strictly to budgets unless they are unreasonable - and if they are, I tell clients that before ever entering an agreement with them. If it can't be done for a client's budget, it is always best to be honest up front rather than contracting for something that can't be done or will cost them way more than they have. Both results are unacceptable in my opinion.)

The things I show you are all meant to be basically interchangeable. So you can say for example, "I love the sofa and chairs that you picked, but I prefer one of the alternate rugs on page 8, and want to go with the higher end curtains on page 10, and the lower end bookcase on page 12." I want you to be as involved as you want to be, and of course want you to have a say in where you budget and where you splurge, and most importantly, I want you to love every single piece. These goals are accomplished best by giving the client lots of choices.

B. The fee

The second part of the proposed consulting agreement lists the flat rate fee that I charge for the room design.  Fees for a whole room re-do start at $1200 (unless you only need a few items).

C. Trade Discounts

The third part of the agreement specifies that I pass trade discounts on to clients. 
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, trade discounts, also referred to as designer discounts, are everyday discounts off of retail prices that are offered to people in the business. I pass these on to clients.

For example, Horchow offers this rug $1000, the pendant light for $400, and the sofa for $2600:

For people in the trade, though, it is 25% off, or $750, $300, and $1950 respectively - so the three items cost $3000 instead of $4000, saving the client $1000. What I do is order the items for you through my trade account at the discounted prices. It still goes on your credit card and is shipped directly to you. Running it through my account just allows me to get you the discount price. This is completely acceptable and not against the rules of any retailer.  Clients often save much more in trade discounts than they pay me in fees, in effect making their designs free.  

Passing on trade discounts is not that common yet, but I think it will be in the future as products and pricing info become ever more readily available to clients. As of now, most designers work on what is called the "markup" or "cost-plus" system.

A Note On Cost-Plus or Markups on Product

I don't use cost-plus and don't mark products up, but will explain it here in the interest of full disclosure on how much of the industry works.

Some designers do not take a flat fee or hourly rate, and instead work exclusively on cost-plus. And some use a cost-plus method of compensation in addition to an hourly fee, but usually at a lower percentage markup. Cost plus is where the designer would buy the items at Horchow, explained above, for the discounted (designer) prices. They would then mark it up a certain percentage, as specified in their agreement with you, before selling it to you. These markups typically range between 10-40%.  So in the example above, honest designers would sell you the rug, light, and sofa (their combined price is $3000) for somewhere between $3300 and $4200 - typically somewhere in the middle.  Dishonest designers would not disclose their discount and would mark them product up on the retail price of $4000.

I do believe that this cost plus method of compensation is an acceptable way for designers to be paid if their trade discount (actual cost to them for product) is disclosed to you. 

Where I don't like this fee arrangement is when the designer's actual cost is not disclosed. In those instances, where the client does not know that the designer is paying far less than retail, I feel that the designer is being less than honest. In addition, I think clients don't like cost-plus because it builds in incentive for the designer to recommend more expensive items for the client, because they make more money that way.

For example, in the Horchow purchase above, some designers will charge the cost plus, say 20%, on the retail price, and not disclose that they got it for far less. So while they spent only $3000, they mark up the retail prices, here a combined $4000, to $4800 (using 20%).  So, the client thinks their designer made $800, but they actually made $1800 because of that trade discount.  When you are doing a whole room, this can amount to thousands of dollars. Now imagine if you are doing a whole house.  Tens of thousands.  Again, it's all good if it is disclosed, but rarely is it because honestly who would intentionally pay their decorator that much?

Note that many many retailers have links at the bottom of their websites entitled "To the Trade," "Trade Program," "Designer Program," etc. If you click on these you can usually find out more information about trade pricing, including what the designer discount is. For example, if you click the "House and Home Trade Program" link at the bottom of Horchow's homepage, you see that designers get 25% off retail everyday

Examples of companies that have trade discounts are Pottery Barn, William Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, Neiman Marchus, Horchow, West Elm, zGallerie, Wisteria, Ethan Allen, Rejuvenation, Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, Wayfair, Wisteria, Dwell, Knoll, Land of Nod, EVERY store at any design center, etc. etc. etc.

3. The Design Plan

Ok, back to my process.

The next step is for me to create your design plan. I try to work on only one person's design at a time because I treat the plan like it is for my own home - I want to live, sleep, and breathe it, and want it to be perfect. I take clients in order of executed consulting agreement and sometimes have a wait list, but from start to finish most one-room projects take me a few days to about a week for a first proposal. 

When it is ready, I email the design plan to the client. It is of course proprietary so I have removed the links to the products, but here is an example of the first several pages of one I did recently, in screenshot form. The client wanted a mostly rustic feel and neutral colors:



Note that the first page is a proposed summary. These are my favorite items that fit the needs and budget, and are the ones that I am recommending for the project. Like I said above, though, I also like to give choices. So the following pages of are other products that I considered and that I believe will work in the space. Everything on the first page, plus the additional recommendations, are linked to their original source with detailed information, pricing, etc.

4. Next steps

The design plan that I provide tends to be very long – usually at least 20 pages for single room projects. Again, this is because I like people to have many choices and have a say in their design. If clients tell me "Oh my god that is so overwhelming I can't do that!" then of course I edit it down to what they feel comfortable with, which has happened on occasion. I have one client who only wanted to see three choices on everything, and another who wanted to see literally every single thing I ever looked at. Both were very successful projects and just show that every client is different. 

After receiving the design plan, the client normally needs some time to review and digest it. When they are ready, we have another phone call to talk about their thoughts – What did they like, what did they love, is there anything they didn't like, etc. At that point if changes or additional products are needed, we would discuss that and I would provide them. 

When the client feels comfortable with everything and all of the final decisions are made, I do the ordering to get the trade discounts for clients. 

I like my relationships with clients to virtually never end. Some of my best experiences have ended up in friendships, both Facebook and in person, and certainly in multiple design engagements. I have clients that I provided work for over 3 years ago who still text once in a while and say "What do you think about this piece for my dining room?" or the like. I love and very much encourage that kind of ongoing relationship. I give clients my cell phone number and hope they use it. Text me a photo of the table at Home Goods and I'll tell you honestly if I like it or not. Text me "where the heck do I get a Lego table that's not ugly?" and I'll do my best to find one (both really happened). I'm not saying I can give additional free design advice forever, but the occasional follow up or random questions are fun for me, keep us connected, and are more than welcome. But even if people don't want to really keep in touch after their project is complete, I am of course always there to answer questions about placement or whatever else comes up during the pulling together of the room when the deliveries arrive. 


I was heavily criticized for writing this piece by other designers. Which proves my point that they are hiding things. Otherwise, why would it be a problem for me to explain the cost-plus system?  I strongly believe that designers can be honest and open with their clients and still make a living. It hurts the industry in general when designers aren't completely honest with clients, giving the profession a bad name.

But none of this is some great disclosure or new information. Indeed, the NY Times published all of this info over 15 years ago. So I am really not telling you anything new, and don't feel like I actually have the power to hurt an industry given my tiny size compared to them, and the fact that the info is already in the public domain. 

Here is the NY Times Article.

I also want to stress the point that I made above that the cost-plus method of decorating is completely acceptable if everything has been disclosed to you. In addition, as emphasized above, good designers who use cost-plus disclose everything and have nothing to hide. In my opinion, these are the ones to hire if you are going with that rather than a flat-fee arrangement. So please do not shy away from any decorator simply because she wants to use that method. It is still industry standard and has been used for as long as decorators have been around. But it is fair to say that clients should understand it before they agree to it.

As always, I enjoy your comments and hearing your stories, and also feel they can be very helpful to other readers.  I hope this post helps people who are interested in pursuing either in-person or e-design so that they know what to expect and have a better and more honest experience with whoever they hire. 

If you are here looking to contact me about e-decorating or other services, please follow this link to email me: SEND EMAIL 

Anonymous said...

Hi Stacy, Thanks SO MUCH for this post! It was very informative and interesting! Barbara from Ma

Melinda said...

Stumbled upon this when your pretty pin showed up in my feed. You couldn't have said it better and work exactly how I do. I also clearly list what the executables will be and note how many revisions I'm up for before we add more hours to the original contract. I view my services as a collaboration with my clients and I'm thankful for the opportunity to do what I love. Thanks again for this great reference. All the best, Melinda Laudy of The Skyline Design Group

Anonymous said...

Stacy - I have a retail interiors store and all I can say is "ouch" for some designers. We deal with several designers that take total advantage of their clients. These designers also believe they are not getting a big enough "cut" and threaten not to shop our store.
Not to throw anyone under the bus. I am commenting anonymous.
Thanks for your honesty.

Katherine said...

Good post Stacy.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that clients expectations are at times - unrealistic. Wanting it all - the best service, undivided attention, industry discounts and low fee's. There has to be a balance to the package, and your information has carefully explained what that involves.

Anonymous said...

HOT HOT HOT under the collar after reading about the fees. I think you did a great injustice to those designers who do work on a cost plus basis and with your readership, I think your negative comments have the potential to hurt a lot of them. I did see the "NOTE" section you slipped in at the bottom but I believe the damage is done.
In defense of an ASID designer, who was renowned in the field for 40+ years of outstanding design and unquestionable integrity and who completed 36 homes in the Isleworth, FL community(Tiger Wood neighborhood of 6000 to 40,000 sq ft homes), she used both the fee and the cost plus basis simultaneously. Using your sofa example, she would either give the client the store discount or better yet, find a similar one that she gets at her cost, mark it up 20%(per her agreement) and the client would pay way LESS than the original sofa price. So the $2700 sofa could become a $1300 sofa(including a 2 hour fee of $200). Can you imagine doing a 15,000 sq ft home any other way? It would be exhorbitant for the client to furnish.

And to add a note about cost, most people don't know that the more a designer buys from a specific manufacturer, the greater their discount...sometime up to 50/25/10 or more. That's 50% off retail PLUS 25% off that PLUS another 10% off(hence the $1100 sofa cost).

Karena Albert said...

Stacy this is an excellent and informative post about interior designers their fees and having an agreed upon up front cost to the client. As you say, as long as all is above board there should be no problem.

The Arts by Karena
New Years Thoughts!

Stacy Curran said...


1. Most of what you say is very untrue. The added discounts are usually kept by designers. Also, as we both know, Tiger Woods and his neighbors are not buying $1300 sofas. The sofas they buy at the design center are usually several thousand dollars and yes they are exorbitantly overpriced by the manufacturer so that the designer has wiggle room and so that they can give discounts of 25% on top of 50% and still let the designer make a lot of money.

2. When you say I put in a note at the end, I assume you also mean the quite prominent underlined text in section 2 saying that cost plus is fine if it is disclosed. Honestly I can't see why you would have a problem on behalf of this anonymous designer if she is, as you say, transparent and honest about her cost for product.

3. If you want to critique the practice of transparency in the industry, maybe you should go after the NYTimes, which published all of this years ago. My readership is quite tiny compared to theirs.

4. I will never accept that I did something wrong by being honest. Also, I will never accept criticism from a person who doesn't have the courage to attach her name to an Internet comment. Criticism is easy when no one knows who you are, and I have little respect for it.


Sandy said...

Stacy, such an informative and honest post. Very rare these days. Thank you so much!
Oh and to "Anonymous " ... I stand behind Stacy on this!

Stacy Curran said...

Here is the 16 year old article the NY Times did saying exactly the same thing I am saying here, for anyone who is interested:



Maddison said...

Thank you! I was always so intimidated by the pricing and wasn't sure how it all worked. Really helpful!

Merlin said...

KUDOS!! It ALL goes back to..."an educated consumer"... franki

Andrea at Opulent Cottage said...

Great post! I'm venturing into some e-Design too, thanks for the helpful tips. And you know what they say, "You can't keep everyone happy. You're not Nutella." lol!

Sandra Lee said...

Great article Stacy! Thank you for your honesty and for sticking to your guns with "Anonymous".

Anonymous said...

Is it customary for a decorator to charge an hourly fee, cost plus and not disclose the cost of items prchased?

bernie said...

Hi there!
I'm french interior designer and living in France, and I have so much problems with pricing! Interiors design in France is actually an open field for everybody who wants to play "the designer" , specially women who bored at home, than there are incredible differences between one pricing and the other, and I think, if you agree that I shall write a blog inspired by yours to explain clients what is the job!
Thank you for your time writing it!

Bella of Bella Tresor said...

Thank you, so much, for sharing this useful information. I admire your philosophy and whole-heartedly agree with your views!