Elizabeth Gumb and her husband were setting out to renovate the house that had belonged to his grandmother when the wish for an interior designer became plain. The style of the house, more contemporary and open, was new to them; the work planned was extensive; and it was their forever home, something they would live with for a very long time.
“I was used to a Georgian style or more traditional house where the rooms are more divided,” said Gumb, 36, a personal shopper, standing in the Wild Dunes house at an eclectic intersection of a bright open kitchen and a coastal casual living area with a partial view of a somewhat traditional wallpapered dining room and a transitional entryway.
“I needed help bringing all the styles together. I needed them to tell me it was OK to do champagne bronze hardware in here with my prissier Southern pieces in there,” she said, pointing with one hand to the hardware in the living area and, with the other, gesturing toward the dining room.
The designers, Archetype ID, helped her pick furniture, hardware, paint colors and fabrics, repurpose art and draperies and arrange accessories; but perhaps equally important, they helped her access a stylistic world she didn’t expect.
“They elevated my style and moved it forward several years to a more sophisticated place ... and they pushed me outside of the box,” she said. “I could not have done it alone.”
Opening one’s home to an interior designer requires an extension of trust and, to some degree, a surrender of control. But hiring an expert can not only beautify your home but forge a human connection, help challenge stale assumptions and enrich one’s life.
Fear not, experts say: Designers are there to learn about you, translate your dreams for your home and improve your quality of life.
“A good designer is a good psychologist who helps the client move beyond the fear of the process to become involved in it and to enjoy it,” said Sandy Gordon, chair of the board of the American Society of Interior Designers.
“What a designer really brings to the picture,” she said, “is the expertise on the impact of a space on the human experience. ... They think from the inside out with the client at the center.”
Stubborn misconceptions persist that interior designers come into your home and tell you what to do, and that before hiring one, you should work hard to make sure his or her style matches yours.
“It can be very intimidating,” Gordon said. “Some people think, ‘This person who knows everything comes into my home and I am just going to turn it over to them.’”
In fact, designers are trained to place you and your taste at the center of their work. What you see reflected in their portfolio should be their ability to capture the multifaceted nature and style of their clients.
“I don’t have any one particular style,” said Margaret Donaldson, a well-established Charleston designer. “More important for me is to understand the client’s style.”
“I help them express their personality and lifestyle,” said Trudy Mercy Brown, a longtime Charleston designer who is now in real estate sales. “It’s not about me. It’s about being able to relate to who your client is as a person.”
In fact, in setting out on a design job, designers embark on a forensic analysis of what you like and don’t like, which is often easier said than done.
“Most clients in their heads know what the end result should be. My job is to ask them questions so I understand what that is,” Donaldson said. “I quiz them about their lifestyle and gather clues. ... You have to learn to be like them, to think like them. I get to a point with some clients that I can flip through a catalog and say, ‘They won’t like this,’ or ‘They will love this.’ ”
Usually designers use a combination of photos of spaces and furniture, colors and fabrics to help divine the client’s taste and style preferences. They look at pictures of what they have now and listen to what they want to change.
“It’s sort of like putting together a puzzle,” said Mercy Brown.
Indeed, the success of a designer rests in asking the right questions and listening, Donaldson said. Clients, meanwhile, should aspire to be as clear as possible.
“The words that people use to describe something often still need to be qualified,” said Donaldson. “The harder part is when they use a word like contemporary or traditional but when you put it in front of them it’s not really what it means.”
A series of questions leads not only to understanding a client’s taste but also helps delineate a designer’s job, which can range from very small to very big: from staging a house for sale to making suggestions on how to reupholster a piece of furniture, to helping you build your dream home from the foundation up.
Sometimes clients understate how much they want done, or don’t have a clear understanding of the possibilities available to them, Donaldson said.
In many situations, designers bring more to the table than aesthetic sense. Formally trained designers, as opposed to design enthusiasts or decorators, said Gordon, are experts in matters such as color psychology and the properties and best use of materials. Their education requires them to be well-versed in everything from universal design to building codes and lighting and plumbing. Their knowledge should span from product safety to environmental issues.
When working with a client on the construction of a new home, they are equipped to handle everything from choice of paint colors to designing spaces to kitchen and bathroom layout, which involves important decisions for ergonomic well-being, safety and livability.
Because of that, Gordon believes that a designer’s education, continuing education and certification (taking the National Council for Interior Design Qualification exam and being a member of ASID) are essential, particularly in situations involving special needs or design for the aging.
“How we design those spaces has a huge impact on how those people are going to live,” Gordon said.
But, you should have no fear to call on a designer for the smallest of suggestions (though some have job minimums).
“Sometimes clients just want you to come and say, ‘You are doing this right,’” said Gordon. “Sometimes a professional can come into a room and say, ‘This is what’s wrong.’ Some people just need that.”
Mercy Brown, who appreciates the helping nature of the interior designer’s job, said she will help people pick out pillows if that is what’s needed.
“You can change the smallest part of a room and change the way it feels,” she said. “I am happy to do that.”
Mary Major hired Mercy Brown when she bought a house on the Intracoastal Waterway at Wild Dunes and needed help on how to use the furniture and belongings from her riverfront house in Columbia.
“I was looking for advice on what could go where and to help me decorate because I just don’t have that gene,” Major said.
They liked each other immediately, and Major bought a package of hours. Mercy Brown drove to Columbia to see Major’s old house and ended up doing much more than furniture placement: She arranged Major’s things on shelves, hung her art and family photos, helped her pick out accessories that were missing such as new lamps, and suggested bedding and reupholstering changes that integrated new things with old.
“She was willing to do anything. ... She used all my things from the old house and made it all work,” Major said. “She put some things in patterns I would never have known how to do.”
Overall, she ended up with a house she loves; she saved money by not having to buy a lot of new things and she learned how to hang a picture, she said laughing.
“I am very happy with how it turned out,” Major said.
When Gumb set out to renovate her Wild Dunes house, she was bursting with ideas. From Houzz.com to Pinterest, she could barely keep up with the pictures she saw and her resulting frenzy of enthusiasm.
“I think they thought I was a lot to handle as a client,” Gumb said, talking about her designers. “It’s overwhelming. You see all these things and you don’t know how to make it real.”
She laughs. “They were really good at reigning it all in.”
She got stuck on an expensive hand-painted wallpaper that would have crashed her budget, unnecessarily.
“I said, ‘I am doing this!’” she recounted. Her designers talked her out of it by showing her better choices, for which she is now grateful.
In an upstairs living room, fronting expansive views of a golf course, Gumb wanted a neutral palette. “I was afraid to work with a lot of color.
“‘You can do it,’” they said. They led her to integrate some oranges, lilacs and aqua, in small doses. “They helped me be more daring,” Gumb said. “It is a much more sophisticated style I didn’t really know how to attain and I am proud of it.”
But empathy and good communication were central to that evolution.
“They were very sweet,” she recalls. “‘Breathe,’” they said, “‘breathe!’”
In some ways a relationship with an interior designer is much like a friendship or a marriage. To make it fruitful, Gordon recommends that clients check their fears and designers their egos. Inflexibility or unwillingness to relinquish control on either side can make things difficult, and poor communication can be a deal-breaker.
Mercy Brown told of a relationship with a client who, in the midst of their work together, went to buy furniture that didn’t fit the plan they had agreed upon.
“She would send me pictures and go out shopping,” she said.
“Maybe she didn’t express herself well from the beginning, or maybe I misunderstood it,” she said with a tinge of regret. “I was worried that I had disappointed her.”
Of course, if you invite someone in your home to give you advice, you have to be open for what will come.
“You are allowing someone in your home and talking about your finances. That requires a lot of trust ... and it’s key,” said Gordon.
Talking money bares vulnerability, but, said Donaldson, it’s important to be clear about budget and expectations from the beginning.
Most projects end up being collaborations of some degree, and as such they require give and take. Whatever you do, communicate and trust. “Listen to the chemistry and the communication,” Donaldson said.
In some ways, Gumb said, the client has to let the designer be his or her eyes.
“What you have in mind when you start may not be what you end up with,” said Gumb. “I could not see the final product in my head and that was unnerving sometimes ... But you have to trust the process.”