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By Shaila Wunderlich

RISMEDIA, Jan. 3, 2009-(MCT)-Everybody could use a little help now and then, especially when it comes to decorating. But not everyone can afford it. At least not in the traditional, hire-someone-to-transform-your-entire-house sense. What many people don’t realize is that there are affordable ways to get professional-quality design advice-some of them even free.

Designers for years have been willing to customize their fees and services according to a client’s budget. This is especially true in today’s economic climate, when even the most upscale interior designers are giving their fee structures a reality check. “Interior designers are having to re-market themselves at the moment,” says River Forest, Ill., interior designer Karen Sheridan. “Very rarely have I ever taken on a project that’s less than a whole house, but that may start to change.”

Here’s a broad look at three different ways to tap expert design help-from the resourceful (read: DIY and affordable) approach to the “menu” mode of picking and choosing select design services to the more traditional (and more costly) professional-all-the-way route.

Level 1: DIY
Scope of work: Research and implement design guidance on your own.

Cost: Free (or, if using a design software program, $10 to $100)

You’re rearranging your living room but are clueless as to where to start. You’re buying a new sofa but have no idea what style will look right next to your grandma’s antique cocktail table. Or you’d like to paint your kitchen cabinets in a bold red but worry they could end up a bloody mess. And other than the cost of the sofa and the paint, you have no money to spend. Not a cent.

Resourceful types can get a lot of help with a little legwork. Start by gathering inspirational references. “Make a project of studying interior design books and magazines,” says Chicago interior designer Janet McCann. She also sends her clients on field trips to showhouses and design events-such as the Dream Home or Dream Rooms at Chicago’s wholesale venue The Merchandise Mart.

Take pictures, clip tear sheets and make sketches of what appeals to you most. This will define your personal style, which, in turn, will drive your purchases and decorating choices.

When it comes time to make those shopping choices, get more help by asking for it. McCann recommends taking advantage of the sales associates at the place you’re buying furniture. Sheridan loves stores such as Macy’s, Toms-Price, Crate and Barrel, Room & Board, Dania and Z Gallerie for the design services they offer. Room & Board features an in-house design station where design associates can walk shoppers through fabric selections, draw up floor plans and schedule “fit calls” (for a small fee) at the shopper’s house to ensure a desired piece of furniture will fit through doorways and around tight turns in stairways.

“Take photographs and measurements of your space with you,” Sheridan says. “Tell them, ‘We need a sofa. Given the color of our walls, the room’s measurements, and this one chair that’s staying put, what do you think is going to work in terms of style and color?'”

For not much more than the cost of a magazine or coffee-table book (and sometimes for free), you also can answer those questions with the help of DIY tools.

Free online planners such as and let you enter a room’s dimensions or choose from a menu of template rooms and try out different brand-name furnishings, paint colors and room arrangements.

Manufacturers such as Benjamin Moore and Armstrong Flooring let you upload photos of your room and swap out paint colors and flooring materials.

Room spacing kits such as Canvas (around $10) tackle space planning with the help of graph paper and repositionable stickers.

Serious DIY-ers might consider software programs such as Better Homes and Gardens Interior Designer ($79). These comprehensive programs produce professional-quality plans that can be handed over and implemented as-is to an interior designer-or realized by yourself. Though you can expect to invest many hours on tutorial and practice, the effort is worth it if you are serious about creating a meticulous, well-conceived design.

Level 2: A la carte
Scope of work: Hire an expert for one specific, short-term task.

Cost: $50 to $300 an hour or one flat fee from $200 to around $1,000

If you have a little money in your budget, pick the one project that you need the most help with-or the part of your space that gets the most eyes-and hire an expert to help with that task alone.

Furniture designer Angela Finney-Hoffman, who also owns Post 27, an 8-month-old furnishings store in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, took this approach with the newly renovated Chicago home of Tereasa Surratt and David Hernandez. The husband and wife had a garage full of collections that they had no idea how to live with.

Finney-Hoffman hand-picked the most graphic, right-sized pieces from the couple’s stash, sketched out custom displays, and then handed the sketches over for the couple to install themselves. Surratt’s vintage suitcases are now displayed in a 12-foot-tall graduated tower in the living room, and Hernandez’s collection of antique cameras now cover a canvas above the guest bedroom’s headboard. “Ninety percent of what we used they already owned,” Finney-Hoffman says. “We basically shopped from their garage.”

Designers amenable to this kind of selective service will typically charge by the hour or with a flat fee. The payoff, of course, is not having to spend thousands of dollars and not having to commit to more than one project at a time. “I was so intimidated to use a designer,” Surratt says. “I had never used one before. This was a great way for me to not have to put out a lot of money but still get exactly what I needed.”

Christine Frech felt the same way after her mini-project with designer Anne Chalesle. Christine and her husband, Todd, built their house in Chicago’s Lincoln Park three years ago. The architecture was the easy part. The interiors, not so much. “I’m lame with decorating,” Frech says. “I can tell you what I like, but I’ve never been able to pull the individual things together into one complete look.”

With two young children and a baby on the way, what Frech really needed help with was the kids’ bedrooms. Six-year-old Maria would be sharing a room with new baby sister Sofia, while 4-year-old William was transitioning from his crib to a big-boy bed. Christine had come to admire Chalesle’s style through frequenting her former textiles boutique, C’est Moi. For several hundred dollars, Chalesle came to the house and rearranged the girls’ room, and helped Christine pick out new bedding, a rug, and paint colors for William’s room. “She did things like suggest I replace my glass lamp with a red lamp and gingham shade, and suggest I frame some of William’s maps and hang them above his bed,” Christine says.

Before saying goodbye, Chalesle left Christine with a floor plan to implement when Sofia is ready to move to her big-girl bed.

Level 3: I’ll take it all
Scope of work: Hire an interior designer to design your entire house, from the bottom up.

Cost: $50,000 to sky’s-the-limit, depending on furnishings purchased, size of house, duration of project and homeowner’s budget

By the time Julie and Louis Bucksbaum decided it was time to build their dream ranch in 2001, they had already formed a strong mental image of what it would look like inside. “We wanted it to have a mountain, rustic, lodge feel,” Julie says. “We wanted it to feel like we were on vacation every day.”

The Bucksbaums also had an unlimited budget, something not uncommon in this kind of upscale, whole-house project. Their example is what many people think of when they hear the word “interior design.” It entails large budgets, subcontracted custom work, extended timelines-two years in the Bucksbaums’ case-and a top-to-bottom scope that covers everything from the plumbing to the stair rails to the drapery. The Bucksbaums began working with their designer, Janet McCann, even before ground had been broken on their Northbrook, Ill., property, but such whole-house projects also can include remodels or straightforward redecorating jobs.

Whichever the project, the process is generally the same. It starts with the designer getting to know the homeowners and their personal style. “I’ll often do several interviews in the home,” says interior designer Karen Sheridan, who recently completed a whole-house project in Lincoln Park. “I observe their existing interiors, their style vocabulary, even the way they dress.” Next, Sheridan gives her clients a homework assignment: “Go buy as many magazines as possible and tear out the images that appeal to you-and the ones that don’t.”

Ever the over-achievers, the Bucksbaums already had completed that assignment before hiring McCann. “For a long time our Friday and Saturday night dates consisted of going to Borders, getting coffee and working our way through piles of design magazines,” Julie says.

The getting-to-know-you phase can take anywhere from one week to three or four months. Considerably more time-consuming is the next phase: creating layouts and selecting furniture, materials and finishes. Layouts help designers determine what size, number and types of furniture and materials will best fit each space. Once those parameters are established, the designer can get to work on selecting those products. “I go shopping by myself first just to see what’s out there,” Sheridan says. “I’ll take tons of pictures, maybe 20 pictures of different sofas. Then I go back and edit down those to a top three or four to show to the client.”

This can take up to a year depending on how decisive and involved the homeowner is. Julie happened to love not only being involved in final selections, but also tagging along with McCann on shopping excursions. “I loved going to the furnishings stores, picking out fabric. I loved it all,” Julie says. “Janet (McCann) had to put blinders on me or I would have gotten distracted. That’s why I needed her; she kept me focused.”

Once materials have been selected and ordered, it becomes a waiting game.

“You can get all of your list ordered and then find out the focal point of the room-the cabinets, for example-are going to take five months to arrive,” McCann says.

The final touch, what’s considered the fun part by most, is the installation. “We’ll take at least a good week to install the carpet, the window treatments, arrange the furniture, hang pictures,” McCann says. “It’s my job to ensure that the client is going to be nothing less than thrilled with the end result.”

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.