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When you think of interior design, what pops into your head?
A lot of people associate interior design with high-end furnishings, expensive home decor and out-of-reach hourly rates. Not only can the expense seem daunting, but the time commitment involved can give potential clients pause. Finding a designer whose style complements your own and then working through the design process can seem like more effort than it's worth.
For those short on cash, time, or design know-how, there's a solution. What began as a business school project for partners Lakshmi Bhargave, Katie Miller and Jessica Goldberg, turned into an interior design program for the masses. Their website, www.roomations.com, turns the traditional process on its head, connecting clients with designers online and promising affordable design plans for anyone with a computer.
School project turns into business
Bhargave, an Oak Parker, says the project began as a passion but turned into something more practical.
"Before going to business school I used to be a graphic designer, and I've always had an eye for interior design. I was the go-to person for decorating for my friends and family. I love color and design.
"My friend Katie [Miller] has dual degrees with masters in architecture as well as business, and she began working on the idea of the website during business school at the University of Michigan. Because of the recession when we graduated in 2009, I didn't have a job and Katie lost her internship. As a bare bones website testing the concept, we started up in 2010, and launched our current site about two weeks ago."
A visit to the website begins with a style quiz that allows potential clients to define their personal style. The pictorial quiz leads potential clients through a series of questions using design photos in order to help decipher their interior design style. Later in the process, clients can share photos of their own spaces and furniture as well as favorite shops.
Roomations offers three levels of design consultation. The Tell Me level lets clients ask specific questions of designers for $20 a month. The Guide Me level includes a style board created specifically for that client by a designer and three months of follow up advice, with prices beginning at $250. The Amaze Me package, which includes style boards and a three-dimensional room visualization as well as three months of follow up advice, begins at $400.
Bhargave points out that their site is different from the get-go. Rather than trying to find a designer through personal connections or references and interviewing designers in person, everything is done online.
"No one ever comes to your house. Clients submit photos to the potential designers via the site," she explains. "One of the advantages is that this keeps costs low for our customers and it's convenient."
Clients can submit their style preferences and room photos to several designers if they want to explore more than one room concept, and then choose a personal designer based on style boards. Designers will provide shopping lists with their final design plans so that clients know where to purchase chosen products.
Bhargave notes that the shopping recommendations are all accessible. "All of the products that you get in your shopping list will be from everyday stores like Crate and Barrel, or Target or Ikea, depending on your budget and the stores that you tell your designer you like," she says. "You'll be getting recommendations from everyday type of stores, not Merchandise Mart type stores. The suggestions will be for items that the clients can afford."
With experience in the design industry, Katie Miller supervises the designers on the website. "To get our designers we reached out to the top interior design schools, which generated a lot of initial interest on the parts of designers, and now they're finding out about us through word-of-mouth. It's incredible to see that people from California to Nebraska to the Midwest are all a part of this through an online community.
Miller says that they require that all designers submit a portfolio with digital renderings because "that's just where the business is going these days." "Once we've judged their portfolios and accepted them, designers get a lot of freedom on the website," she adds. "They can post their portfolios for potential clients to see, and clients have the opportunity to review designers on the website after using them for a project."
Miller emphasizes that providing opportunities to freelance designers is a big part of the business model. "It's really about providing a network for designers to have work opportunities and develop their portfolios and also have the resources available to help them get into the business."
Clients and designers also benefit from the access that Roomations gives them to the latest three-dimensional design software, which can give online clients increased understanding of what a designer's proposal will look like in their own home.
Bhargave notes that all interior designers train with the software while in school, but on an individual level it is expensive to purchase. "We provide access to the software to make their work easier on them."
Changing the place of design
By moving out of a design studio and onto the computer, Bhargave says she hopes that more people will feel like interior design is within their reach. "Our concept is so new that we have to explain it a bit, but we're using word-of-mouth, networking and blogging to get the word out. We want to reach the people who might not have considered an interior designer before."