The fist step in working with a decorator is finding one. How do you find a decorator? The best way is to ask for a referral from friends, neighbors, real estate agents, painters, and local furniture retailers.  Another good way is to do a google search on local decorators or use a local resource like

Most decorators offer free consultations for the initial meeting. It is the opportunity for you to meet in your home and talk about your project. It’s also your chance to ask about the process, the fees, view previous work, and then decide if you can work together. A decorating project can take several weeks, so you want to make sure you like this person enough to see them in your home for a while!

During this meeting the decorator will ask you questions about your project and your budget. It is a good time to review what things typically cost, especially if you’re not sure what budget to set for the project. For example, you may discuss the difference in the cost to reupholster an existing sofa versus purchase a new one.

After the initial meeting the decorator will send you a contract. The contract will include the scope of work outlined for the project and the decorator’s fee. Decorators charge several ways. Some charge a retaining fee at contract signing, with the remainder of the fee to be paid upon completion of the project. Others break their project fees into thirds (typical for larger projects). They may also charge a 10-15% fee on bringing in and overseeing tradespeople, such as contractors and painters.

Decorating jobs tend to be fluid. At some point you may want to include something that wasn’t in the original contract or you may want to expand on the project. These are common scenarios and just mean that you sit down with the decorator to determine what the additional cost will be going forward.

Once the contract is signed, the work begins! The decorator will analyze the function of the space, take measurements of the room, photograph and measure the room and any existing pieces that will be included in the design. Sketches will be drawn and floor plans and elevations created. The color scheme, furnishings, fabrics, flooring, lighting, and window treatments will be initially selected. You should then take a shopping trip with the decorator to visit showrooms to finalize your wants and needs. While shopping the decorator is collecting tear sheets, taking samples, getting vendor pricing and lead time information.

Now the final design is presented to you. The design will include everything that goes into the room, including furnishings, textiles and colors. The last and important part of the presentation is the budget. You will go through the entire budget with the decorator.  It’s rare that everything is agreed upon, so there is a discussion to remove items, replace items, and amend the budget as needed.   

Once the budget and plan is signed off on, the purchasing begins.  The decorator will order everything that goes into the room: the window treatments, the furnishings, the flooring and lighting. This is a highly detailed oriented process. There are lots of pieces of information being exchanged: purchase orders with detailed product and pricing information and delivery dates.  The decorator needs to be precise in this process because she needs everyone and everything to follow a specific timeline. There is a lot of paperwork in this process, and this is where the decorator must manage expectations: things may out of stock. Things may be on backorder. Things will be delivered and broken or in the wrong color or wrong fabric. Sometimes it is necessary to make second and sometimes even third choices. It’s okay: it’s all part of the process. Things can go wrong, but as long as the decorator can make the process as transparent as possible, it should run smoothly with very little surprises.

A decorating job often require tradespeople: contractors, master craftsmen, painters, flooring installers, electricians, window treatment installers, etc. The decorator will recommend and use people she’s worked with previously because they know how to work well together to get a job done. The decorator will work with whomever you choose, but if you don’t have anyone, allow the decorator to bring in her team. The decorator will oversee work to make sure everything is running smoothly and on schedule.  She makes several site visits to insure everything is on track. If there are deliveries, she will be there to sign for them, refuse them if need be, handle refunds and make sure things are delivered properly.

Once your room is complete you will meet with the decorator one last time to do a final walk through, make sure everything was done that was supposed to get done and all loose ends are wrapped up.

Hiring a decorator is about design, but it’s also about project management, managing expectations, working side by side with contractors and other vendors, and supervising installation. It’s a sales and management process but in the end it’s about creating a beautiful space for you to enjoy for a long time.

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Lexi Nielsen

Lexi is an interior decorator living in Oak Park. Her projects range from simple color consultations to gut rehabs. She fully appreciates that not everyone salivates at the thought of shopping for home...