The interior design industry is broken

By Betsy Helmuth

Interior design has a bad rap for good reason. This industry is riddled with hidden costs, mark-ups, and under-the-table affiliations.

Potential clients call my firm with horror stories from past experiences. Designers have strong-armed them into buying more. Designers have taken their retainer and run. Designers have marked up budget pieces.

These clients are scared to try again, to trust again. I don’t blame them. I‘ve seen a lot in my 15 years in business. There are reputable firms. There are business models that aren’t sketchy. But many of the big players have hidden agendas.

Traditional interior designers make more when you spend more. First, you pay them a retainer to work with you. Then you pay a surcharge on every item they find.

If they find a dining chair for $100 and the same dining chair for $200 elsewhere, it benefits them to show you the $200 option. Then they get a 20% trade discount and mark up your price 30%. Voila, you pay more for a piece that is often available for much less.

Some of these designers get deep wholesale discounts which can make prices competitive. Still, they get paid more when you spend more. So many of them insist that you have a sizeable budget or they won’t work with you.

High-end design works in a similar way. Yet, high-end designers are doing a lot of custom. Custom fabrics, custom bookcases, mucho money. Years ago, custom was imperative. Lovely pieces were not available at decent price points. Nowadays, the furniture world has cracked open. Amazing quality pieces are available in retail chains that are accessible to everyone.

There is a place for high-end designers. They are for the 1%. Jean-Georges restaurants are also for the elite. For the rest of us, great-tasting food is available for much, much less.

Speaking of less… There are online-only companies: the fast food of the interior design world. They design a room for the price of a couple of value meals at McDonald’s.

These virtual plans are created by inexperienced newbies, underpaid designers, or foreign bots. The companies lure you in with low fees. Behind the scenes, they’re shopping a handful of stores from which they get big kickbacks.

You can opt for in-store design services. From West Elm to Ethan Allen to Restoration, stores will create designs for you. We all know the catch there. The reps will only be using their store’s pieces. Gosh forbid you want a personalized look or need help tackling clutter. If you don’t want your place to look like page 34 from the catalog, it won’t be a fit.

Then there are the places in between. Charging between $5,000 and $100,000, they oftentimes conceal the full cost upfront. You buy bundles of hours, blocks of time.

What do you get for 10 hours? How much work can get done? Well, they can’t exactly tell you. You’ll have to take a financial leap of faith.

That is the current landscape of the interior design industry. Back in 2004, I was working at a high-end firm in New York City. I saw what was going on. I knew the industry needed a redesign.

Coming from the Midwest, I believed a lovely home should be a right not a privilege.

I opened Affordable Interior Design on a mission. Design for the rest of us! Design for the 99% who deserve a home they are proud of without maxing out their credit cards.

The design industry needs transparent pricing.

Clients need designers on their side, without ulterior motives.

Clients need someone to curate the options but not with a financial stake in how much they spend.

They need trained designers to show them pretty pieces that are also practical. Practical for people who are short on space and storage and time and money.

And they need to talk to a real human, someone they can work with in-person. Heck, let’s get really crazy and meet face-to-face!

Affordable Interior Design was born from those ideals and stands by them today. Since our start in 2005, the interior design landscape has changed but not enough.

Affordable Interior Design’s commitment to transforming the industry remains as fierce and important as ever.