How to Hire and Manage an Interior Designer 
Home Theater Feature Articles Other
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Saturday, 01 January 2005

AV Education on RHT

How to Hire and Manage an Interior Designer

Written by Jerry Del Colliano

If you are in the process of building a theater or maybe someday looking at adding to or remodeling your home to include a fantastic, purpose-built home theater, the likelihood is you are going to be working with an interior designer. Much like knowing lawyers and paying taxes, they are a necessary evil. The choice you make in picking an interior designer is essential in the success and budgeting of your project.

In most states, there are literally no significant barriers to become an interior designer. In California, where I recently finished remodeling a 1950s “post and beam” home, the guy who maintains my SUV or the guy who washes my hair at my Beverly Hills salon must have state certification, thus insuring at least a cursory level of expertise. An architect has to have years upon years of technical and artistic training before he or she can start building homes, and with each project, a city’s design review oversees your project relative to their codes and standards. All of these safeguards go flying out the window when you hire an interior designer. Any desperate housewife or wannabe Straight-Eye-Turned-Into-A-Designer-Guy who can convince you they can make your house “fabulous” can automatically start to manage what will easily become a six-figure-plus budget. Considering that for most people, their home is their biggest asset, the decision to work with a respected and modest designer is absolutely essential to the success of your project. When a project is completed on budget and has all of the little touches that a good designer keeps in their bag of tricks, you can reap big gains in the value of your home. Pick the wrong designers and prepare the tourniquet because you are going to be hemorrhaging cash within weeks. Having experienced the good, bad and ugly of interiors designers, hopefully the lessons I learned can help you avoid many of the mistakes I made and can lead you to a beautiful home and a no-compromise theater that looks like a gorgeous living environment not a wire strewn recording studio.

Hiring a Designer
When my girlfriend and I started looking to move from my 800-square-foot condo in the hills of West Hollywood, we were quickly drawn to a new, ocean-view condo building in Marina Del Rey called the Regatta that was brand new (a rarity in the Los Angeles area). We found a stack of condos that we liked and, with a few sacrifices, could afford. One particular unit, 1714, was decorated fanatically. We wrote an offer on the unit three times, all of which included the furniture. The real estate agent (who could honestly screw up a wet dream) balked at all three of the offers, thus keeping the unit on the market for five to six more months and getting not a penny more than we offered for the unit despite having the client foot the mortgage plus the $800 per month homeowner’s dues. Don’t get me started on real estate agents – how this mainly incompetent group of “professionals” are worth five to six percent of a million dollar transaction is simply beyond me. But I digress.

Before I wrote my fifth and final offer for units in this gorgeous building dominated by this deal-wrecking real estate agent, I was able to get the name and number of the woman who designed the unit we loved so much. Ultimately, I purchased a modest home in the hills of West Los Angeles and upon closing the deal, I arranged for the designer to come out to see the house and to suggest where we could start. When I spoke with the woman on the phone, she was quick to note that she designed the unit we loved the look of in 14 days, which is really fast. She also bragged that she had completed it for the builder as a spec unit for just over $20,000 furnished. At 1,700 square feet, done up to the nines – this was truly an impressive pitch. A week later, when the designer came to my new home as the building inspector was sitting with me, my real estate agent and the selling agent, going over critical issues relevant to the closing of the deal. The first sign of trouble was the fact she showed up 40 minutes late. When I asked for 10 minutes to finish my meeting, the woman huffed around the home before she interjected herself back into the conversation asking, “Exactly how long is this going to take because I am giving you my time for free – you know?” She was fired before she was hired. Drama queens are your enemy. Tolerate none of their bullshit, no matter how well recommended they are. Your theater will end up completely compromised if you allow some pushy jerk to decide such important elements of your home and AV system.

The next interviewee was an interior designer who lived in my old building who had won multiple Emmy Awards for set design. I gave him a budget of $45,000 to do the most with my house as possible, including a modest guest and master bathroom redesign, along with a rack for my theater. I paid him a $3,500 retainer and an Apple iMac to get him started. When the bid arrived for the entire project, eight weeks in, it was sloppily handwritten, sent via fax, for $128,000. He was even to be commissioned at the rate of 20 percent for each dollar I spent on his contractors that he would subcontract. He too was fired. He claimed that his hand-drawn bid and drawings (which I didn’t get copies of) took him 70 hours, so he kept my retainer but returned the iMac. I sold it on eBay and started to lick my wounds.

Things were looking pretty bad at that point, yet little did I know I was about to make the worst decision yet. My real estate agent set me up with her personal friend and designer who came in and bid the project lower than my $40,000 budget. I hired him just to get going and we started flying by the seat of our pants redesigning the home and preparing the home for a theater in the living room. He took my credit card numbers and a healthy retainer to get started. In retrospect, I needed an architect, but I was told by that designer that he was “an architect” and that I didn’t need anyone else. I was looking into the abyss and didn’t even know it.

The Day My Theater Room Fell Apart
The process of redoing a 1959 home proved to be far more expensive than anyone expected. The point where things went irreparably wrong with the designer was the day we started screwing the Stewart Filmscreen in the new framework. I kept looking at the location of the screen as per the placement of the Wilson WATT Puppy speakers I had bought and where the rack was going to go and things just weren’t adding up. There were a complete set of drawings. Things should have been perfect, but I could see before the drywall went up that perfection was not going to happen. I stopped the project dead in its tracks right then and there. And this is one of the biggest lessons I could offer to RHT readers: if you think things are going wrong – they probably are. We started measuring the room using a retractable tape measure and blue painter’s tape to determine speaker locations, furniture locations and the location of the rack. The reality was a nightmare. There were less than two feet to walk between my rack and my sofa and my speakers would be eight feet from my ears, thus creating a near-field listening environment. Worse yet, the 100-inch 4:3 screen would be six feet from the main viewing position. The rule of thumb is to sit least 1.5 times the distance of the width of the screen from the screen. I made this perfectly clear to my designer from the start, but he wasn’t really ever listening.

The solution resulted in a lost week on the project and needed two custom cabinets to be built, costing me over $5,000 for the mistake. My urge was to fire the designer again, but I was at a point where I was so into the project that it wasn’t in my best interests to give him his walking papers, despite my growing disgust with the situation and his lack of care for what was so dear to me.

Are All Interior Designers Direct Descendants of Satan?
Not every designer is a ruthless son of a bitch who lives to add needless drama and pure professional incompetence to your life. The trick is in finding a good one who will do what you want for an agreeable price. Here are a few of my best tips:

1. Ask your most respected sources (like your AV dealer, architect, etc.) for referrals for top designers. Pick a style that you like (modern, mission, country chic, etc. …) and be clear about what you want. When interviewing a designer, beware of the “I can do that style” line when they don’t have at least one project they have photographed or can show you on a walking tour.

2. Interview no less than three clients who have completed projects with the designer. Ask them what the upsides and the downsides of the designer are. Designers tend to be highly creative, which is good, but it is important to know what their weaknesses are before you make a significant commitment with them.

3. Find out how many purpose-built theaters a designer has done. Also ask which local AV installers have they worked with. Interview the AV installers to see how smoothly the project went. Remember to run from drama queens. If you sense that your AV firm is not comfortable with a prospective designer, then also avoid that situation.

4. Check the support staff of the design firm. Chances are, your dealer has someone who can do CAD (computer assisted drawings), but can your interior designer? Mine couldn’t. He wanted to draw on paper, which really looked pretty, but in the end cost me well over $30,000 in mistakes, some of which could not be fixed. Look to the level of support staff of the designer and the AV design firm. How many assistants do they have? Ordering people? Delivery and install people? If they have this kind of staff, they show signs of being a real company capable of pulling off miracles in crunch time. This is where the good firms earn their money. If a designer is a one-man show – buyer beware.

5. Most importantly, test the designer to see if he or she is listening to you. Many designers want to talk over you and then just do whatever they want, thinking that you will deem it fabulous when they are done, additionally parting with thousands of extra dollars to boot.

6. Beware of any sub who repeatedly tells you how busy he or she is. Ask why the designer is meeting with you if he or she is “too busy” to take on your project. Remind the designer you aren’t too busy to meet or talk with him or her. If the designer makes a big deal out of how “slammed” he or she is, find someone who is hungry. Someone who really wants the gig will assuredly do a better job than an entitled fat cat designer.

Negotiating a Creative Deal with a Designer
One of the most distressing problems with interior designers (and the reason why they often drive nicer cars than you) is the fact that their basic business model simply is designed against your best interests. Interior designers want to charge anywhere from 20 to 33 percent markup on what they purchase for you. On top of that, and despite their cries to the contrary, they get discounts and kickbacks from the firms that they buy from. This means they often are making money on both ends of each of your transactions.

If you are just buying furniture and painting rooms, then this model can work, but if you are getting down and dirty with a bigger project, I recommend that you negotiate a different relationship. Despite my long list of nightmares with designers, I was ultimately able to find a firm to help me in a way that made sense and brought my entire home and my theater together with very nice results. The deal we worked was on an hourly basis. There was no markup on anything other than the art and sculptural pieces we bought, which they sell from their retail location. The difference was huge. The level of efficiency went up dramatically, while the costs stayed reasonable. Suzi Scott Design did things like finding me a $120 window treatment that matched the Zen theme in my den at a store like Target. What did they care – it looked right, did the job and met my budget at a time when I was broke. To have the woman who did the blackout drapes in my theater do room treatments was $1,950. It wasn’t worth it, and thanks to me negotiating their need to make a commission, I got a deal. You too can work such a deal. Did Suzi Scott do some expensive work for me? Certainly, but the firm earned points by proving that they were truly interested in getting me real value in my project without breaking the bank on every item of every room. They established trust with me and that is the sign of people you can work with over and over again. On the same hourly deal, I hired their firm to design the Audio Video Revolution offices in Beverly Hills.
Not all designers are Antichrists. You will need to work with them even if you don’t like them as friends. You have to understand that they work at your convenience. Accept no drama – ever. Don’t fear firing a firm if they get out of line. The longer you wait for a cancerous situation to cure itself, the more money it will cost you in the end. Ask your AV designer candidly if he or she is comfortable working with your designer. The last thing you need is some flamboyant numb-nuts convincing your wife that you need to toss your “big ugly” Revel speakers for some heartless in-walls. You don’t have to and should not stand for that kind of foolishness.

Negotiate yourself a good deal and get excited about what bringing a creative force in can do for the enjoyment of your room. With automated drapes, lighting controls, advanced system controls, ultra-comfortable theater seating and a beautiful overall design, your theater can be a selling point that makes your house more valuable. For this reason alone, it might be worth considering a few calls to get your next design project started.

Recommended Resources:
Suzi Scott Design
Scott Barr
4004 Riverside Drive
Burbank, California 91505

Simply Home Entertainment
Tim Duffy and Christopher Hansen
499 Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, California 90210


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