Decorating's Answer to Online Dating
- The New York Times, 08/19/2009

ALTHOUGH the economy has made it easier to gain access to high-end interior designers, it can still be hard to find the perfect fit. One route is to connect with a new online venture called Decorati Design Advisors (, begun in May by Shane Reilly, a San Francisco interior designer and founder of Decorati, a decorating Web site.

The new service matches interior designers with people shopping for help with projects large or small. Decorati customers choose from six project categories, then complete an online form describing budget, needs and whether a local designer is preferred (although e-decorating renders location irrelevant). Photographs can also be attached.

A selection process that is “part algorithm, part human intervention,” according to Ms. Reilly, helps the Decorati staff cherry-pick 100 designers from their database of 20,000. (The site plans to begin charging designers a $200 to $500 annual membership fee in September.) “It’s like a dating game,” she said.

The staff then sends an e-mail message notifying the designers that they are a potential match and outlining the project’s specifications. The first five designers to pay the $10 lead fee have access to the customer’s contact information. Customers can then chose which designer they want to work with. The leads, which typically sell out in an hour, are being snatched up by some of the most established names in interior design.

The New York designer Amy Lau, for example, a frequent presence in top national decorating magazines, bought a lead for a three-room apartment renovation in Manhattan. “To do a living room, a kitchen and a master bedroom is not something that I would particularly look to take on” under normal circumstances, Ms. Lau said. But in this faltering economy, she said, she is more receptive. “In a world where everything’s up and down, it just provides that many more choices,” she said.

Some designers express frustration with the impersonal element that the Internet introduces, particularly with small projects that the client wants completed quickly.

Shirley Parks, a Mill Valley, Calif., interior designer, bought a lead to find eight new dining chairs for Paul Schneider, 66, a computer consultant in the same town, and was hired for the job. Ms. Parks suggested they meet so she could understand his “goals, who you are, what you want,” she said.

But Mr. Schneider shied away from an intimate — not to mention expensive — relationship. “He told me: ‘No, we don’t need to meet. Let’s just keep e-mailing and we’ll tell you what we want, and you’ll go get it for us,’ ” she said.

Through e-mail messages and phone calls, Ms. Parks selected a set of clear acrylic and steel chairs from Janus et Cie, a California furniture retailer, but found the process dispiritingly disconnected.

“As a designer, it’s our job to come up with ideas they wouldn’t have ever come up with and to understand their style better than they even understand it themselves,” she said. “The client is going to miss out on that if they keep the designer at arm’s length.”

But Mr. Schneider thought that the low-cost, low-commitment project was the perfect “trial balloon” for building confidence. “We have ideas that we’d like to pursue, if our 401(k)’s inflate a bit more — again,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate now to go and talk to Shirley and say, ‘This is what we’d like to do next.’ ”

In fact, he said, he is thinking of hiring Ms. Parks for a larger project: renovating his large open-plan living room. “It’s like you can’t paint one wall — once you start, you’ve got to keep going.”