Interior design dilemma? Time to call in the online consultants


In the small bedroom of my house in south London, nine different paint samples have been slicked on to the walls. It is a rainbow of heady hues, ranging from Farrow & Ball’s aptly named Arsenic to the handsome Rectory Red. Every couple of days, my partner asks if I’ve chosen one yet. I tell him I’m close, but after six months of delivering the same answer he’s developing suspicions.

Paint is just one of many decisions currently holding up our house renovation. Since December, our clothes have been smooshed on to a single freestanding garment rail from Ikea not because we haven’t been able to find a joiner — we found an excellent one — but because I can’t shake the feeling that yanking out the Edwardian pine fire surround and building wardrobes from wall-to-wall, as the joiner suggested, will irrevocably rob the room both of its balance and an important original feature. The garden isn’t exactly progressing apace, either.

I’ll admit it: I need some help. But hiring an interior or garden designer whose work is beyond anything we could do on our own — a Max Rollitt, say, or a Rachel Chudley or Arne Maynard — is not within our renovation budget. I still recall with embarrassment when I asked a fashionable interior designer to quote for the redesign of my former one-bedroom flat, and her assistant told me that since the bathroom tiles weren’t too bad, I should expect to spend between £165,000 and £200,000, with £30,000 allocated to the design fee. (I emailed back apologising for wildly underestimating the cost.)

Plus, I enjoy coming up with room schemes and hunting for antiques, and wouldn’t want to hand that over to someone else.

So I was intrigued when I saw that Rollitt, Sophie Ashby and several other designers whose work I admire were now offering hourly consultations over video chat. Most are bookable via The Expert, an online interior design consultancy platform and ecommerce marketplace launched two years ago by Los Angeles-based friends and fellow Brits Jake Arnold and Leo Seigal.

Arnold is an interior designer whose star-splashed portfolio includes the homes of Dan Levy, Rashida Jones, and John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. Seigal is a serial founder who has sold three companies including, most recently, direct-to-consumer accessories label Pop & Suki.

Lauren Indvik at home standing beside a bookcase
Lauren Indvik at her London home: ‘I’ll admit it: I need some help’

Seigal was helping Arnold with his Instagram when California first went into lockdown, and was interested to see that Arnold’s account was inundated with messages offering money to give feedback on their homes on Zoom. Arnold wasn’t keen. “It’s not how we do high-end interior design,” Seigal recalls him saying, “and I don’t know how [good] I would be over video anyway.”

Seigal persuaded him to give it a try, and it turned out Arnold really likes giving advice over Zoom. One thing led to another and soon The Expert was born, buoyed by $3mn in seed funding from investors including Forerunner Ventures and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow. (Last year they raised another $12mn in a Series A funding round.) Seigal says that thousands of designers have applied to be a part of its 160-strong index of vetted professionals, and the company handles scheduling and client communication in exchange for a 20 per cent cut on each booking.

Half of clients come to The Expert looking for help with picking furniture and fixtures, says Seigal, and the other half for help with renovation floor plans. Paint colours are a popular query, too. “A lot of people don’t want to lift a finger [to design their house], they just want it done,” says Seigal. “Our clients enjoy design and take pride in it, and that’s who we are for.

“For designers, it’s a new revenue stream,” he continues. “They are constantly bombarded for advice, but they never had a mechanism to [monetise] those inquiries.”

Leo Seigal and Jake Arnold of online platform The Expert
Leo Seigal and Jake Arnold of online platform The Expert count Max Rollitt and Sophie Ashby among its 160-strong roster of high-end interior designers © Michael Clifford

Interiors consultancy isn’t a wholly new concept. Paint companies that include Farrow & Ball and Edward Bulmer offer two-hour colour consultations online and at home, for example, and art consultancy has been around since at least the days of US financier John Pierpont Morgan. Some interior designers will take on sourcing or single-room projects on the side. But historically, top-tier designers haven’t taken part.

One of the reasons an online platform like The Expert didn’t already exist is because “‘fee design’ was thought of as more low-end,” Seigal explains. “Designers of Jake’s calibre never imagined doing anything online. But when the pandemic normalised Zoom for everyone, more [high-end designers] were open to it.”

Interior designers charge for their work in a number of ways. After an initial consultation, they will typically type up a bespoke quote with an itemised design fee, with additional work later charged by the hour. Others will bill a percentage of the total project cost. And some — particularly those early in their careers, or who are helping with a smaller project — will charge by the hour or day. Designers also have access to significant trade discounts on materials and services, which they might use to supplement their own fees or pass on to their clients.

The Expert’s hourly online consultations are by no means inexpensive. A 55-minute session with Rollitt is £650. For Ashby, it’s $1,000 (£796). The Americans are pricier still: former J Crew creative director Jenna Lyons commands $1,500 an hour, while Brooklyn-based influencer and interior designer Athena Calderone costs $2,000 to meet over Zoom. But, naturally, they are a fraction of the tens of thousands of pounds these designers would charge for full-service projects and, I reason, even one well-timed piece of advice could save thousands during a renovation.

Indvik with paint swatches and fabric samples
Indvik with paint swatches and fabric samples: ‘Paint is one of the many decisions holding up our renovation. The garden isn’t exactly progressing apace either’

Which, as it turns out, is what happens when The Expert pairs me with Chris Graves of Clarence & Graves, whose former London house I had greatly admired in House & Garden last year. At £550, he is one of the more accessibly priced designers on the platform. His taste is more contemporary than mine though, so I am both sceptical and curious to know how much he is going to be able to help me.

Graves, bless him, has almost no time to prepare. The Expert recommends I send photos and a brief in advance, so at 11pm on the evening before our 9am consultation, I send him a 10-page PDF with a floor plan, some thoroughly unglamorous photos of our half-furnished rooms (I suddenly become self-conscious of our furniture and paintings) and a couple of paragraphs on what we like, taste-wise.

For the session, I write, I’d like some guidance on bedroom joinery, hallway lighting and where to source a large antique ottoman because I don’t want to have a reproduction made. And, I add almost an afterthought, any thoughts on paint colours would be welcome.

Graves, I am delighted to discover, is highly opinionated and a bit sassy (he describes his manner as “quietly brutal”). He immediately agrees that the wall-to-wall bedroom joinery is a terrible idea — “It will ruin the integrity of the house, and you’ll want a fire in the bedroom” — pulls up the floor plan and begins drawing over it with an iPad pencil, highlighting other recesses where built-in wardrobes might sit more comfortably.

Graves then tries, unsuccessfully, to challenge my bias against spotlights (too modern); discourages me from evenly spacing wall lights in the entry, in favour of clustering them around “what’s on the walls” (I agree to this); and advises I reach out to the antiques dealer Rebecca Christie-Miller at Ralfes’ Yard about converting an antique daybed into an ottoman (I do). And then — and this was a real lightbulb moment — he suggests I bin the bright sample pots and paint the walls in “muddy” colours such as Farrow & Ball’s Dead Salmon and Blue Gray. Oh, I think, of course.

Indvik’s floor plan with suggestions and notes by ‘quietly brutal’ designer Chris Graves
Indvik’s floor plan with suggestions and notes by ‘quietly brutal’ designer Chris Graves

Graves says he does one to two online consultations a week, mostly for
Americans, and projects have ranged from a ski chalet renovation to a beach hotel in Miami to a Brooklyn town house. It usually takes him between 15 minutes and an hour to prepare. Most come to him for help on floor plans and colours, and for his “black book” of antiques dealers, curtain-makers and other suppliers. “Some come for therapy, as it turns out.”

To those considering an online consultation, Graves advises sending a brief as early as possible, and being honest about your budget and your taste. “Tell me if you want a huge TV in your Georgian living room,” he warns. After a few months with The Expert, he says, online consultation feels like “the future” — it “empowers the client and democratises an industry that historically felt quite closed”.

RHS Chelsea award-winning garden designer Lottie Delamain wouldn’t go quite that far. She began offering virtual consultations directly through her
website during the first UK lockdown in 2020. “It was wildly popular, and after lockdown I had to stop because I didn’t have time for [full-time projects],” she says. “Now I do a couple a month. It’s fun, it’s a lovely way of meeting people and understanding what people want and how they think about gardens.”

A one-hour session is billed at £300. Delamain sends a questionnaire beforehand, asking about the client’s goals and what inspires them, and spends an hour preparing. She then does about two hours of follow-up work, sending a robust deck with (in my case) rough layouts, a mood board, colour schemes and 12-month planting suggestions.

Delamain acknowledges that, for most people, a complete design and build service — which tends to cost five figures or more — can be too “expensive and lengthy”. But trying one’s luck at a garden centre can also be “disastrous and overwhelming” (and costly, I’ve found).

Of the virtual consults, she says that “there’s an appetite for something in the middle, where you can dip your toe in [with design help] without having to go the whole hog”. Some clients come to Delamain for a single session, while others work with her in stages, booking a series of appointments to check in and review their schemes.

“Gardens are particularly impenetrable, it’s not like interior design, where you look at a red sofa and think, that’s a red sofa I can buy,” she says. “If you see a picture of a garden that you love, you have no idea what’s in it, how many you need, how it grows, why something feels calm and something else feels chaotic.”

RHS Chelsea award-winning garden designer Lottie Delamain, whose virtual hour-long sessions start at £300, and one of her garden plans

I send Delamain photos of my neat but uninspiring back garden, with its long strip of half lawn, half moss edged by two narrow sleeper beds, and ask for help developing a layout. I tell her I am a “Bloomsbury superfan” and want to make the space work for my dog Piper (she likes a long stretch of lawn to chase a ball) and visiting wildlife. We don’t entertain much, I add, and I’d like to know if there’s enough room for a greenhouse.

Delamain quickly dispels that idea. She asks about how much I’m planning to spend on the garden, which I think is rather decent but Delamain tells me is a “plant budget”. Fortunately, the existing paving is in good shape.

A few days later, she sends a 15-page deck full of ideas for developing my scheme. I am so taken by her total understanding of what we’re after that I ask her to quote me for a full design — the FT paid for her hour-long consultation, as it did for Graves’s. When I explain to my partner that I’d probably end up spending that amount on plants anyway — and probably not with a very good result — he agrees, rather too quickly, and we decide to move ahead.

A jumble of plant pots in Indvik’s garden
A jumble of plant pots in Indvik’s garden

Is virtual consultancy the future of interior design? I’m sceptical. There are certainly designers, particularly those frequently on US TV, with enough of a profile to book up a month’s worth of hours. But I suspect, as with Delamain, they’d soon be itching to dig into a real project again.

The Expert’s Seigal is also doubtful. He believes the company’s main revenue stream won’t be the cut it takes on consultancy, but from the shopping recommendations designers make during those sessions, which can then be executed on The Expert’s newly launched ecommerce platform.

But for DIYers in need of some top-tier advice, it’s a helpful development. And I’ve finally picked the paint colours for the bedrooms. The painter-
decorator is coming in June.

Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor

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