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Designing Dilemmas January 2007

Working with a Professional Designer

Dear Debbie: We recently had to end a relationship with a local designer because she didn't follow the budget (we) provided and billed us by the hour (and) by the minute for everything, including her time spent emailing us! We really feel she took advantage of novice design customers. We feel like we spent a ton of money and have nothing to show for it. Connie

Dear Connie: Sorry to hear about your experience. My first suggestion would be to speak with your present designer and see if you can salvage her design plans- so that you have something you can implement on your own. If you paid her, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask for copies of her sketches and plans, including any samples she chose. I'm sure she's a professional who wants to part company on the best possible terms and leave you with the feeling that you got what you paid for. Make the call and see where it leads.

If this doesn't yield results, I think you need to interview several new designers and call their references. As a consumer, I am most interested in speaking with current clients who have projects going on right now. Anyone can give you names of happy clients from the past- but what you really need to know is the level of customer satisfaction now, with the designer's present day staff and schedule. Who is she/he working for right now? How satisfied are these clients with the billings, the design work and the installers? Do these clients intend to continue with their designer or are they ready to finish and run?

If you focus just on how the designer bills for her/his time, you'll overlook other talents, expertise and results that make the designer a good value and the right choice for you. Whether its fixed fee or by-the-hour, your goal should be to hire a designer you can trust, who will give you the results you want, all at a fair price that is affordable for you. Paying for good quality and service is a reasonable expectation for designers and for their clients.

More on Working with a Professional Designer

Dear Debbie: We just got our building permit a few weeks ago and are waiting for the contractors' proposals. We are going to expand our family room and re-configure the existing kitchen to make a big great room. We will have some built-ins in the family room and a new fireplace. I'd like to have someone help us with the design of the built-in, the location and the look of the fireplace and color selections.

I know we are very early in the game. When should we hire and talk to a designer? Now or wait until later-at least the construction is under way? I have started the process of looking for a good designer by asking friends and have looked up several local designers' web sites. I have heard some not so pleasant stories. One of our friends told me that she just received an additional bill from their designer on a project done two years ago! So, it has worried me about how can I find a good & reasonable designer who will provide the quality work we want with reasonable charges. Sandra

Dear Sandra: I can't speak for all designers, but for me, the best time for a designer to see the project is now, before you choose the fireplace materials/size/location and while the drawings can still be changed for the built-ins. If history is any indication, the right designer will have great ideas your architect or builder never thought of- and you'll want to incorporate some of these changes, if not all, while you still have the chance.

In your case, it's likely that you'll want the help of a designer again as you choose flooring, lighting, windows and other elements that serve as the foundation for the style and function of your room. As the addition gets finished, the designer will focus on color, window coverings and furniture lay-out that will help the kitchen and family room flow and function just as you would like.

Even if it's a short appointment, have a designer look at the drawings now, while they're still in play. The expertise and discipline the designer will bring to your addition will be well worth the expense- she will focus on how the finished space will work for your family- and that's the whole point of the home renovation.

Now, about finding the right designer. Let me put you in the right frame of mind. Hiring a designer is not about saving money. It's about saving yourself from making costly mistakes you can't live with and saving yourself from the aggravation of finding painters, curtain installers and that perfect coffee table that makes you smile every time you enter your room. From where I sit, a designer is only as good as the people who work on the projects with her, the sources she shops from and her experience and creative expertise. She's invested in her career, her craftsmen and her talent- so she needs to be fairly compensated to be motivated and give clients the attention, responsiveness and creative genius they deserve.

The right designer is one that gives you everything you need and more than you imagined at a price that is comfortable for you. Is it the best price? No- price shopping is not her job. Is it worth it? Oh, yes! Find this designer and every penny you pay her will be worth it. Again, in the right frame of mind, this is not about nickels and dimes, it's about results. Set aside a realistic budget that you're comfortable with, compensate the designer fairly (after all, she's in business to make money) and communicate clearly. Your designer WANTS to make you happy- this formula should work for you both.



Make a Great Room Cozy

Dear Debbie: We have 20 foot ceilings in our great room. We want to create a more homey feeling, but we have no idea what to do with all the wall space. Any suggestions? Lynn

Dear Lynn: Yes, those twenty foot ceilings can be a challenge- both to decorate and to maintain energy efficiency. So, right at the start, install a ceiling fan that circulates the warm and cool air twelve months a year.

If you're shopping for new furniture, pay special attention to the back height of upholstery. Having too much floor space may not be an issue, but anything too low in height will look Lilliputian against a twenty foot ceiling. You want tall pieces to begin closing in the distance between the ceiling and floor.

Do also consider dividing the room in half, height wise that is. Install molding around the room perimeter to break up the soaring ceiling. Above the molding, paint the walls in a dark color, like chocolate brown, charcoal gray or navy blue. Below the molding, use a lighter, complimentary color, like pumpkin, gold or a soft green. You'll be adding a new-found coziness to the space without a big expense.

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