Instagram popularized the perfect home. Virtual design services make affording it possible
A renovated apartment in New York City after The Expert consultation sessions with designers Jessica Gersten and Athena Calderone.
Aside from bingeing Netflix, creating the picture-perfect home may have been the pandemic’s most popular habit.
Whether it’s organizing a pantry or adding on a home office, gym or spa-like bathroom, homeowners have been upgrading and expanding their spaces at record rates for over two years.
Although Americans are no longer sheltering at home, the recent rise in mortgages rates has encouraged more people to stay put and renovate rather than relocate.
Even in the face of inflation, ongoing supply chain issues and other factors, the vast majority of homeowners are proceeding with their planned home improvement projects in 2023, according to a Houzz survey of nearly 4,000 homeowners conducted in October.
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At the same time, Instagram and other social media platforms have raised the bar by presenting an endless array of covetable spaces.
For most people, decorating is a daunting task, yet hiring a pro is out of reach.
Few Americans can afford the high-end look depicted online, which often comes with the help of an A-list designer and hefty budget. The average cost to hire an interior designer can vary greatly depending on the region and scope and whether it’s based on a flat rate, hourly fee or percentage of the project, although well-known designers easily charge in the five or six figures.
“It’s a time-consuming and overwhelming process for a lot of homeowners,” said Wayne Gao, co-founder and CEO of Australia-based Furnishd, which offers virtual consultations for $850 per room or $3,250 for the whole house. “It also costs a fortune.”
Virtual design services offer real-world pricing
That’s where virtual services can add value at a fraction of the cost, added Leo Seigal, co-founder and CEO of The Expert. “It’s almost like insurance to make sure you are making the right decision.”
The Expert was started by Seigal and Los Angeles-based interior designer Jake Arnold in early 2021. The service offers one-on-one consultations with over 150 big-name decorators including Arnold, Martin Brudnizki, Brigette Romanek, Ashe Leandro and Rita Konig. Prices range from $250 for a 25-minute call to up $2,000 for an hour.
Of course, online design help is not new. Even before 2020, there were services like Havenly and Homepolish. Retailers such as West Elm and Restoration Hardware offer those services, as well. However, now A-list decorators are getting into the game.
“The pandemic turbocharged interior design and created the environment to get the designers to do this in the first place,” Seigal said.
Americans are also prepared to shell out more based on what they see on sites like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. Consumers are now conditioned “to believe they can get whatever they want, whenever they want,” according to an analysis by McKinsey & Company.
However, home upgrades are another level of spending altogether.
“Any renovation has the potential to get really expensive,” Seigal said. “You can’t really afford to make a mistake.”
For consumers who want help but may not have the means or access to a full-service design firm, “we are bridging the gap,” he said.
The pandemic turbocharged interior design and created the environment to get the designers to do this.
co-founder and CEO of The Expert
Other top designers, too, have spun off their own virtual consulting service to meet the demand for a less expensive and more accessible option.
Marianne Brown, the principal designer and owner of W Design Collective, also now offers virtual design help starting at $500 for a one-hour call, in addition to the high-end remodels and full-service projects she’s known for, which cost substantially more.
“I couldn’t even afford myself,” she said, referring to the latter.
More recently, however, Brown said she’s wrestled with the effect that the constant stream of home upgrades on social media has on homeowners and women, in particular.
“At least when Vogue tells you your skinny jeans are ‘out’ you are only donating a $50 pair of jeans to Goodwill,” she said. “But when Architectural Digest tells you white kitchens are ‘out,’ you are hiring a painter for $8,000 to repaint your kitchen cabinets.”
Brown advises homeowners to resist the urge to keep up with the Joneses. Rather, she says consider how you will use the space and make sure it reflects your personality. “What have I always loved? Where do I come from and where have I traveled? Stay true to who you are.”