So you've recently realized that guests who describe your living room as "eclectic" are being diplomatic?
Or perhaps you and your spouse are at last building the house of your dreams.
Or your youngest has left for college and you'd like to give your childproof home a more sophisticated look.
Planning to design a new home or redecorate several rooms can be exhilarating. But if this is the first time you've worked with an interior designer, the mere prospect of finding and hiring one may be daunting.
What if you don't have much money? What if the designer laughs? What if you expend a lot of time, energy and money . . . and still hate the end result?
Relax! If you think it through, the design and decoration of your home will be a beautiful, collaborative effort between you and the designer.
DEFINING THE PROJECT
Even before talking to a designer, you can take steps to define your likes and dislikes in design and decor, and to focus on exactly what function you want the space in question to perform.
Nailing down your expectations -- as well as your designer's -- ahead of time can help the entire creative process flow more smoothly, and in the end may save you money by heading off costly mistakes. (For tips from both clients and designers on how to evaluate what you want in home design, see the story that begins on Page 16.)
FINDING A DESIGNER
Far from being hired simply to help pick out colors or choose fabrics, designers perform many kinds of service and offer many types of advice -- from what lighting works best to what office chair will best support your aching back.
Some designers prefer to work with the architect from the conception of a new house, while others revel in renovating older homes. Still others specialize in a particular look such as contemporary or Colonial.
"Years ago, designers didn't need much experience; they could easily hang a sign out and go into business. That's not the case anymore," says Joe Pryweller, senior editor of the ASID Report, the magazine of the American Society of Interior Designers.
"Designers need to know about everything from flame-retardant carpets to building codes, to the environmental impact of your design to ergonomics and space planning."
But for the average first-time client, it's hard to know what kind of designer would suit you best -- or even how to ask.
Ask to see the designer's portfolio. This will give you a general idea of what the designer's work looks like. Ask the designer for his or her references and check them.
Asking what professional organizations the designer belongs to is one way to discover what kinds of expertise a designer has, says Mr. Pryweller. To join ASID, for example, a designer must pass what's called the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) exam, which covers topics as diverse as the history of furniture and electrical wiring.
In the near future, prospective clients may ask Maryland designers if they are state-certified.
To become certified, designers will need to meet requirements including earning a four-year design degree, having two years of work experience and passing the NCIDQ exam, administered twice a year by the National Council for Interior Design, a professional organization.
Designers who already have been in business for years will be granted certification based on years of work, he says. After VTC certification, designers will be required to take 20 hours of continuing-education classes every other year.
So far, 16 states require designers to become certified. Maryland probably will begin certifying designers next year, says Harry Loleas, deputy commissioner of occupational and professional licensing, which licenses about 19 occupations.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
Often, money is a source of worry for homeowners considering hiring an interior designer. Knowing approximately how much you want to spend on design and decoration before beginning your search for a designer will save time -- and probably money.
If you have no idea how to budget -- or if you absolutely know that you cannot and will not spend more than say, $3,500 -- tell the designer up front. Some designers won't accept very small jobs; others think they are just fine.
Methods of charging vary almost as much as designers themselves. A designer may charge by the hour (around Baltimore hourly prices range from $35 to $200 per hour), or by the job (a flat rate for the entire project). Or, he may ask for a retainer fee up front -- to be used against purchases made as the project gets under way, or she may charge commission on furniture and supplies purchased.
Also, a combination of these methods may be used. For example, you and the designer may agree that an hourly wage plus a commission taken on things purchased is fair. Most important, sign a contract that outlines everything you expect the designer to do.
FOCUSING ON YOUR NEEDS
When you begin your search for a designer, it may help to remember that while designers come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of expertise and fields of interest, most share an understanding of their clients' concerns.
"Designers will act as a liaison between you and the builder or the contractor. They will listen to your concerns and needs and they will add to them their knowledge and talent," says Mr. Pryweller of ASID.
"And they want to walk away knowing that their designs reflect you and what you need and like, and that you are happy."