Designers specialize in shopping big-box stores



Some interior designers are responding to a niche-market group of clients who want to put a room or a house together with furniture and accessories purchased from a store such as Ikea — but don’t have a clue about how to do it efficiently, economically and with a stylish outcome.

These clients are enlisting designers to help them devise a room plan and then go shopping.

Once the furniture arrives — as pieces in a box — the designer has it assembled, installed and then adds the finishing touches: paint or wallpaper, drapes, lamps, pillows — even towel bars in the bath.

Sarasota’s Lisa Helphenstine charges between $75 and $125 per hour depending upon the project. Other designers might charge a flat fee for the whole project.

“Most of my clients who want this big-box design experience are homeowners who are furnishing a guest house, an investment property that’s going to be used as a rental, or it’s someone who has a vacation home and wants to furnish the place quickly and relatively inexpensively,” said Helphenstine.

“Recently, I did a little pied-a-terre for a couple who live on Longboat Key but they keep a small apartment in downtown Sarasota for weekends when they have theater or opera tickets. They wanted comfort and convenience, but a stylish modern look, too. We did it with one-stop shopping. I’ve done Crate & Barrel installations with great success and also Lowe’s and Home Depot, but lately it’s Ikea that clients are interested in.”

Helphenstine’s most recent project was for the brother of a Sarasota client who lives in St. Augustine.

“Ron Wolf lives in a 1,200-square-foot duplex,” she said. “And when the apartment next door became available, he bought it with the intention of using it as a guest house. He did not connect the two apartments, they are separate dwellings. He favors a minimalistic style — clean lines and absolutely no clutter. His favorite colors are black, gray, browns. I knew that his style and his color palette would be compatible with Ikea products.”

Wolf told his designer that he doesn’t care for shiny surfaces and that he wanted all side tables on wheels so he could move things around when entertaining. He had an overall budget of about $17,000, which included new flooring throughout the two-bedroom unit, a bathroom update and the services of a contractor. The Ikea bill came in at about $5,000 and the project took Helphenstine 30 days from initial consultation to hanging the final piece of artwork.

“Why people need a design professional to guide them through the big-box experience is to save money, time and to keep homeowners from making design mistakes,” Helphenstine said.

“The minute people walk into a place like Ikea, they are overwhelmed. They get distracted by competing styles, confused about sizes and colors and half the time they leave without buying anything or they buy a lot of inappropriate things for the look and function they are trying to achieve. The trick to this kind of shopping is to do a lot of prework and then stay rigorously focused when you’re inside the store.”

Helphenstine measured the spaces in Wolf’s apartment and made a diagram locating the doors, windows and electrical outlets. With Wolf, she made a list of what he wanted in terms of function, and they checked the Ikea website. Once they narrowed their options, they went to the store to shop. Ikea will deliver (for a charge), and in some cities they have an installation service, but not in Sarasota.

“When buying chairs, sofas and bedding especially, you want to sit and you want to feel the fabrics,” said the designer.

DIKEA07b“Also, it’s best not to choose artwork or drapes online because you want to see the colors up close. And you have to remember that everything in a store as big as Ikea is going to look smaller than it will look in your house with lower ceilings. Ron initially didn’t want any window treatments beyond the vertical blinds already in the place. But, when he saw the Ikea drapes in the store, he changed his mind and we bought them for the living room and master bedroom. These drapes, by the way, only come in 98-inch length. I had to hem them for Ron’s windows.”

Helphenstine said it helps to ask a lot of questions of the staff in the store, but that once in a while that won’t help.

“When we bought the platform bed, I asked if everything was included except the mattress and was assured that it was,” she related. “But when we assembled the bed, there were no slats. Turns out you have to buy slats separately, because they come in different strengths. It pays to ask detailed questions about exactly what comes in the box.”

Small glitches aside, Helphenstine said that big-box decorating can be a satisfying experience for designer and client.

“It’s almost instant gratification for a designer like me who has highly customized projects that can stretch into three years,” she said. “The short timeframe is less frustrating for the client and the designer. But, success depends upon the client being happy with the quality and the style of furniture that Ikea specializes in. The pieces tend to be compact and more contemporary in styling. The furniture collections offer great storage options because everything is designed for European homes, which are smaller than ours and where every nook and cranny is used.”

Helphenstine believes that the quality of what Ron Wolf selected is fairly good. “I’d say in a rental unit, you’ll get five to seven years out of big-box store furniture,” said the designer.

“In a guest house or vacation home that is not used so often, big-box furniture and accessories will last longer. All the clients I’ve done the Ikea shopping experience with have been totally satisfied. They like the look and they’re happy with prices. But, they have all told me they would not have wanted to do the project on their own because this kind of shopping is not as easy as it seems.”

Marsha Fottler

Marsha Fottler has been a newspaper and magazine lifestyle, food and design writer since 1968 first in Boston and in Florida since 1970. She contributes to regional and national publications and she is co-publisher and editor of a monthly online magazine that celebrates the pleasures of the table called Flavors & More. (941) 371-8593.
Last modified: August 22, 2013
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