When Paul Voresis purchased a new home in Sacramento, California, he wanted to redo the décor in a style that better suited his tastes: modern, yet classic. But rather than hiring a full-time designer locally or picking out all the furniture himself, Voresis took a different route.
After compiling a selection of inspiring images he hoped to use as a basis for his redecoration and putting together a list of questions, he arranged for a series of design consultations with an interior designer he had long admired using The Expert, an online platform that facilitates short, virtual conversations with home décor experts.
Voresis paid $2,000 for an hour with Jake Arnold, an interior designer who co-founded The Expert and counts celebrities such as Katy Perry as clients, for input on how to best style and set up his new living room. This first session allowed him to pick a rug, couch, and coffee table, with subsequent conversations devoted to smaller details including lighting, accent chairs, wall colors, and storage space.
All in all, Voresis spent about $8,000 for the chance to speak with Arnold, which he considers a small price to pay for access to a designer of his status. "Someone local wouldn't have had the caliber that I was looking for," says Voresis. Typically, a traditional engagement with a local designer would come with end-to-end service—not just the consultation, but everything from the purchase and delivery of the furniture and accents, as well as the installation and arrangement of the pieces. It would also come with a much larger price tag. In this case, Voresis handled the heavy lifting himself. "It was more work on my part," he says, "but I didn't mind."
Online platforms such as The Expert or Intro cater to savvy consumers who are already devoted to design and willing to do some of the legwork themselves. But instead of paying the 6-figure cost often associated with an entire design project, they are paying as little as $150 for short video chats that give them a chance to consult interior designers without committing to an entire project. Costs vary for each consult based on the designer, ranging anywhere from $200 for 15 minutes to $2,000 for an hour-long conversation.
Designers say that the new online platforms make setting up these online video consults easy, allowing users to share anything from floor plans to mood boards. "These are design-loving customers who may not have the budgets or the desire to do it all themselves," says Alison Giese, a San Antonio, Texas designer who offers consults in 15-minute increments online. "It does feel a little bit like speed dating."
Giese, who specializes in what she calls refined-yet-casual interiors, says that she often suggests that people opt for a consult if they are unsure about pursuing a longer project. Her full-service design fees typically cost anywhere from $40,000 to $400,000, while her hourly rates via The Expert are just $650. Often times, Giese has limited capacity to take on longer projects, so the mini-consultations make it easier for her to advise more people. In the past, she had to turn down potential consult clients, she adds.
Most clients send in documents, images of the rooms they want to work on, and mood boards beforehand, which Giese reviews for 15 minutes prior to each call. Many also mention furniture that they want to reuse, heirloom pieces they'd like to incorporate, and other design problems they hope to address during the video chat. "The people that come to the table with the most information always get the most done," she says.
While designers, including Elena Frampton, have long offered existing clients follow-up consultations to further update their space, many were wary about engaging in one-off consults with those not looking for a more comprehensive service. But after experimenting with the platforms during the pandemic, Frampton says that her relatively inexpensive, 15-minute consults on Intro have proven to be a great way to meet more clients and expand her network.
Recently, she spoke to a client about a kitchen redesign. During the conversation, she helped them figure out what kind of backsplash they should get, how best to orient the kitchen island, and which furnishings in the adjacent family room would still fit the new look and feel—advice that, in the past, she would've only been able to provide in person. "The pandemic created the space and collective comfort level with video as a robust format," says Frampton, who is based in New York.
There are downsides to working virtually with designers in such short increments of time. Some customers log onto the Zoom-style appointments without any specific questions, which makes progress slower. And many consumers may not be prepared to deal with today's unpredictable supply chains or costly furniture returns. Others may simply not be able to convey their vision in a single session.
Leo Seigal, who co-founded The Expert in 2020, says most users clearly understand that they are paying for access and prepare well ahead of time for the conversations. "Our goal is to bridge the gap between full-service high-end interior design and figuring it all out yourself," he says.
Designers say it offers a new way for them to work without taking on a more costly décor client. "I can immediately give quick advice and make a difference without all the grunt work," says New York designer Kati Curtis, who consults through Intro. "It's a lot easier."
Curtis says many people schedule a consult with her because they are interested in her take on incorporating statement pieces or mixing patterns, something that she tries to do often in her work. "Some of the time, I'm just giving people the courage to go bold on color," she says. Clients can book Curtis's time in 15-minute increments on Intro, which cost $200. In addition to designers, Intro also allows users to book chats with experts in careers, style, and wellness.
Voresis says that the consults were worth it. He took the designer's advice on where to put built-in shelving and what kind of lighting to get. Even a set of upholstered armchairs that he felt might too old-fashioned proved to be a perfect fit. It took a few months between each session to implement Arnold's advice. Whenever he decided to tackle a new project, Voresis would schedule another call. "To put my trust in this and have him make all these suggestions and put them in a room and have it work beautifully was amazing," he says.