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Design Research

Finding the right interior decorator requires legwork (and manners).

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Can a big-name, big-time, and probably big-ego decorator be seduced into taking on your small-scale job? The answer is probably yes, even if you have a tight space, a limited budget, and ambitious ideas. Your chances are better if you follow some simple guidelines:

Do your homework.

Before you try to get Mario Buatta or Charles Gwathmey on the phone, figure out whether their signature look is going to work for you. Many designers have their own Websites; check out current examples of their work. Flip through books and shelter magazines and save pictures of rooms that appeal to you. Do you like all-white spaces or very colorful ones? Does clutter make you wince or give you comfort? Are you going to be unwilling to part with Aunt Tillie's wing chair? If so, you're going to need to deal with that at the outset.

Don't be shy.

In my unscientific poll of a dozen or so top designers, none said they would slam down the phone if they got a call from someone who had a large studio or a one- or two-bedroom apartment. "It depends" seemed to be the mantra. Vicente Wolf, known for his airy, often eclectic modern rooms, wants to know who you are, not just how rich you are. "What do they bring to the table?" he wonders about potential clients. "Will the job stretch my point of view?" And, if publicized, "will the apartment bring me a certain notoriety?"

"Size doesn't matter," adds John Barman, whose wonderfully stylish rooms have a light touch of the seventies about them. "For me, it's all about the quality and what the client wants to achieve," he says.

One thing is for sure: There is hardly a designer worth his weight in passementerie who would refuse the tantalizing prospect of a new client. Designers, no matter how famous or successful, need to keep getting their work out there, to complete projects that can be photographed and published. "Making a prejudgment can be foolish, because you simply never know," says the Greenwich Village–based Michael Formica, whose modus operandi is to suggest a meeting. "Like a first date," he says, "you just go. What's an hour or two out of my life to meet someone?"

At that first meeting, remember: You are both the interviewer and the interviewee. "I find out everything I need to know in the first fifteen minutes," says Bruce Bierman, whose rooms often have a soigné Art Deco–influenced look. "From small jobs come larger jobs," he adds. "What I want is a happy client."

Be realistic.

Designers' fees, commissions, and the percentages they charge for purchases vary as much as their individual styles and personalities. There isn't even consistency on the issue of contracts: For some, a simple letter of agreement with financial terms suffices; others insist on a detailed contract. What they do have in common is that boldface interior decorators are unlikely to shop at Pier 1, Ikea, or even Pottery Barn. AIong with flea markets and high-end salvage shops, they haunt the clubby, to-the-trade buildings, where dozens of showrooms display all the accoutrements that in their skilled hands can turn a blah space into a statement.

Know your budget.

Even the most serene, spare, all-white rooms are the result of perfect, but expensive, paint jobs, invisible hardware, and pricey mohair-covered sofas. "If a client wants a big look, $50,000 won't do it, even for a one-bedroom," says Jamie Drake, a tony traditionalist who has been the longtime decorator to Mayor Bloomberg. Drake charges a design-development fee of $2,500 to $5,000 a room and 30 percent above the net costs of the job. Wolf, who charges 35 percent above the cost of everything but construction work (which has a separate fee structure), says be prepared to spend a minimum of $35,000 to $50,000, plus furniture costs. Formica charges a design fee that starts at $10,000 and a monthly retainer from $7,500, but no commissions on construction or the pieces you end up buying. "I find commissions to be a conflict of interest," he says, adding, "you pay to own a piece of my brain."

Decorators have feelings, too.

Redecorating involves an ongoing, intimate relationship with someone you've probably just met and who is going to know everything -- and I mean everything -- about you and your immediate entourage. And no matter how successful they are, many decorators need to know that you really, really want to work with them. "Being nice and mentioning that they love your work are basic," says Victoria Hagan, who only takes on entire homes. "Decorating is about matchmaking and is based on trust and mutual respect," she adds. "It's about creating something beautiful with people you care about."


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