DIY home decor with just a little pro help

Posted: March 23, 2013

A few years ago, Luna Schlein, an interior design graduate student at Drexel University, posted some ads on Craigslist to drum up business for her one-woman company, Sanctuary Interior Design. It didn't go quite as she'd hoped.

"I got a couple people contacting me, but then when they found out how much it cost, I never heard back," Schlein said. "So I got the idea that people were really attracted to my portfolio and my style, and maybe they could afford the furniture - but they couldn't afford the custom interior design service on top of that."

Her solution: Provide professional design at a fraction of the price by serving up custom floor plans with preformulated design packages that include recommendations for paint colors, furniture, accessories, and everything else a client might need to revamp a room. Leveraging technology and design sense, she's offering something in between hiring an interior designer and calling on a friend with great taste - and a thick Rolodex of resources.

Schlein isn't the only one with this idea. Numerous Web-based companies have begun offering professional, prefab interior design, from HGTV Design Star alumna Cathy Hobbs' $3-per-room "Design Recipes" to Los Angeles designer Windsor Smith's $900 "Room in a Box" service.

But Amy Cuker, 36, who runs Down2Earth Interior Design in Elkins Park, says local do-it-yourself design offerings have a leg up on the online-only competition.

When she learned of those Web-based services, she said, "I thought that didn't sound personal enough. There's so much you learn about a person, their tastes, and their space by seeing the space in context and meeting the person." Like Schlein, Cuker offers everything from full-service design to DIY consultations, though Cuker's offerings are entirely customized and always begin with a face-to-face meeting.

When Cuker first began her DIY design service, she offered flat-rate packages starting at $1,150 per room. Now, she encourages clients to opt for a similar offering at a more flexible hourly rate. In either case, she said, "I'm using a lot of the Web tools and modern technology to meet clients where they're at."

Instead of imposing her own vision, she'll ask the clients to begin the process by making online idea books. "It helps the client in a process of self-discovery," she said. Then, Cuker uses websites such as Houzz or Pinterest to add her own suggestions. "Once they see the Pinterest links, they can look for something similar to what I'm showing them, but maybe cheaper - and we can both be doing this in our pajamas at midnight."

The service is attracting people like Fairmount residents Matt Marrone, 39, and Licia Año Marrone, 44, who hadn't previously thought of themselves as the type to hire an interior designer. "I thought it was something that older or rich people do," Año Marrone said. "It didn't seem like something that was accessible."

At a neighbor's suggestion, the couple called on Cuker to help them create a cohesive design for the living room of their rowhouse, which held a hodgepodge of furniture from when they'd moved in six years earlier.

Cuker created several possible plans for the room, with suggestions for furniture, paint colors, accessories, and layout. It was up to the Marrones to follow through on some of her ideas - even ones that surprised them, like painting the ceiling a pale yellow and painting their brick fireplace - and decide against acting on others. "It was a collaboration," Marrone said. "She set us on the right path, and then we were able to implement it the way we wanted to. It was helpful to feel like you didn't have to do everything your designer wanted."

Ellen Kozac, 56, of Glenmoore, was likewise skeptical of hiring a designer to redo her great room, which she wanted to turn into a minimal, serene retreat. "I had heard horror stories about working with designers: You overspend, you have to do this or buy that." But with Cuker, she was able to stay within a budget and time frame. The two spent hours trading links and ideas via e-mail. It was more work than outsourcing the job, but Kozac retained control of every detail.

Still, Schlein said there's a good reason that designers have that budget-busting reputation: It has to do with the way in which their compensation is structured.

"Most interior designers get paid from the cost of the furnishings they select - maybe 20 to 30 percent of the price," via accounts they hold with trade-only design resources. "I'm more like a friend giving advice, in that I don't have the incentive to select things that cost a lot. I actually have an incentive to make my furnishings as affordable as possible," she said.

In fact, Schlein's design packages, which cost $200, come with anticipated price points: $3,500-plus for "Hollywood Glamour" or $2,600 and up for "Mid-Century Modern." Her packages target new homeowners, first-time renters, and others starting from scratch. Schlein also offers a $50 Room Reboot package for those who have furniture, but need advice on curtains, artwork, lamps, and throw pillows to pull the space together.

Cuker acknowledged that these services aren't for everyone; it helps to have a client who's relatively tech-savvy and has some design sense.

Yet by allowing her clients to take the lead, she's able to create spaces that truly fit their goals.

"I got called by a guy, a recent divorcé. He just bought a house and he had no female in his life to give those tips. So I did all the paint colors for him."

Other requests: A person who has lost a loved one and wants help designing a picture wall ("This is the first time they've been able to face these keepsakes"). Others want to do something special for a sick spouse.

"It starts to feel like interior design isn't just fluff," Cuker said. "It's something that brings people meaning."

In the case of client Kozac, Cuker learned that there were two priorities: Kozac's grandchildren and her dogs. She ended up steering her toward a room that was animal- and kid-proof, with large photos of the dogs adorning the walls.

"I'm in love with that room now, and it's completely transformed how we use it," Kozac said. "Now that all that is done, I'm thinking, 'Wow, I spent a lot of time doing that, but I enjoyed it so much. Do I have another room I can do?' "

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