This Interior Decorator Fits in Your Pocket

Expert interior design has always been a privilege of the uber-wealthy. But one San Francisco-based company wants to bring luscious interior design to the people. (And also? There is a magic box.)

Photo Courtesy of This "after" room is the ultimate pin-it-and-do-it challenge, and it costs a fraction of a traditional interior decorator's rates. (Plus, the cat seems to like it.) 

We live in the age of Pinterest, where the design-obsessed can create boards devoted to their dream homes, and the age of the Maker Faire can-do spirit. Yet the journey from fantasy to reality still eludes many: You might think one bold wall and some stripey wallpaper will look oh so shabby chic, but in practice, you just end up living in hodgepodge lodge.

But just as Target has democratized designer fashion with its low-cost lines from Phillip Lim and Todd Oldham, proving that one can be frugal and fabulous, and just as gourmet standards and home-cooked goodness have become everyone's birthright, a home designed with flair and taste is becoming much more attainable thanks to an innovative new upstart in San Francisco called Tastemaker. 

The idea is this: Rather than hiring an interior designer for upwards of $125 per hour to take care of every aspect of a home improvement project, you pay a flat fee, agreed on ahead of time. You only pay for a designer's expertise — not their time, not their company, not their hand-holding. And the result is a unified design plan for a fraction of the traditional interior design experience, which you implement yourself for more great savings.

"Traditionally, there hasn't been a way to get help from a professional designer in a cost- and time-efficient way," says Joe Fraiman, co-founder and CEO of Tastemaker. "We've invoked two key innovations: using the technology that we all now have at our fingertips, and deconstructing and streamlining the process so that nobody's time is wasted." As an added bonus, big-city decorators can "travel" to the most far-flung locales (even Fraiman's hometown in Alaska) with the click of a mouse. 

The technology comes down to a smartphone and a laptop: You upload photos to a deliciously designed website, answer a volley of entertaining questions, pick a budget and three designers compete to get your business. The streamlining comes down to Tastemaker knowing the right questions to ask, and allowing you to be the captain of the project.

Within a week three designers send their concepts for the room. You still have not paid a penny; if you decide to go forward, you can at this point pay a $100 deposit to have two of the three designers create "mood boards," or single-sheet encapsulations of their interpretations of your ideal. When you pick your designer and agree to a budget, Tastemaker acts as a go-between as you have phone and email meetings with the designer over the period of about a month.

There are 33 designers available via Tastemakers, and many more long to be on their rolls. "We have a very high bar," says Fraiman. "The designers all have their own traditional practices in addition to working with us, and each has a talent not just for design but for communication, project management and everything else that makes someone easy to work with."

Within about a month, you receive your Design Box, which contains your mood boards, floor plans, detailed product specifications, and even paint and fabric samples. "We have basic standards of what needs to be in there," says Fraiman, "but each designer has his or her own style. Some will hand-draw their plans, for instance. But we go over everything to make sure it exceeds our standards." Also, the director of design operations is "a former wedding planner, so the level of finish of the design box is like a wedding invitation."

Do you take this spare room to be your lawfully wedded reading nook? You do. You absolutely do.

At this point, you swing into action. "Traditionally, the designer was shopping for you, working with custom furniture designers whose prices you couldn't check, and then overseeing, hour by hour, the contractor, the painter, everyone." Instead you pay only for your designer's expertise, and you have the option to buy furniture sourced through the site at a savings — but you hire and oversee your own handypeople. Where a traditional design price might be $5,000 to $10,000 per room, Tastemaker's average is $1,000 to $2,000 per room.

There's more to it, of course, but it comes down to this: Most people know how to make phone calls, take bids, snap photos. But "picking out paint colors for your walls? That is almost impossible," says Fraiman. "It's maddening. It's mind-bogglingly difficult. I can't do it. That's the part you pay for. And it's worth it."

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