Everything You Need To Know About Working With An Interior Designer

Last month we published the explainer article titled Everything You Need To Know About Working With A Landscape Designer one of our most popular stories of the year – so we decided to turn it into a series!

This month we’re looking at interior design, to help shed some light on exactly what a professional interior designer does, and how to engage one for your own residential project!

Speaking to Lauren Li of Sisällä, Mardi Doherty of Doherty Design Studio, and Sarah Cosentino of Studio Esteta, we unpack the exact services on offer, how long the process usually takes, and the question everyone wants to know – how much it’s going to cost!

Amelia Barnes

Inside the studio of Sisällä. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Interior design – Sisällä

Amelia Barnes
17th of June 2021

What is an interior designer?

To answer this question, let’s break down the several interior-focused professions in Australia and their specialties. 

Note, that except for ‘architect’, there is currently limited regulation around how these titles are used in Australia, although there is a push among the interior design industry to outline stricter education requirements. 

Interior designer: Interior designers are involved in spatial planning; circulation; design of joinery (cabinetry and shelving) ; and the selection of finishes, fixtures and fittings, In addition, an interior designer may also take on a decorating role that involves selecting furniture, accessories, and artwork.

Australian interior designers usually have a bachelor’s degree, associate degree or advanced diploma in interior design or interior architecture, although this is not currently a requirement. They need to work alongside an architect, builder or draftsperson in order to ‘sign off’ on documentation relating to building permits or permit applications, or alternatively they can become a registered building practitioner with their relevant state regulator. 

The terms ‘interior designer’ and ‘interior architect’ are often used interchangeably, however, as there are strict rules surrounding the use of the term ‘architect’ in Australia, a person advertising themselves as the latter should be registered with their state or territory board. 

Architect: Architects provide the overarching design of buildings. In residential design this may include the design of the exterior shell/envelope, interior spatial planning, kitchens, and bathrooms.

Some architect practices collaborate with interior designers, while others offer both interior and architectural services in-house, such as Studio Esteta.

Architecture is a regulated profession in Australia that requires registration with the relevant state board. To qualify, registered architects need to have completed a recognised university degree (usually five to six years of study leading to a Master of Architecture qualification), completed a minimum two years on-job experience, and passed an exam.

Decorator: An interior decorator creates a bespoke interior space through selection of decorative elements including paint colours, wallpaper, window furnishings, artwork, furniture, floor rugs, lighting, and custom joinery. They may hold a diploma qualification in interior design and decoration.

Unlike an interior designer, decorators don’t usually move walls or deal with changes to plumbing/electrical services, as they work within the existing space. Unlike a stylist, they not only source from suppliers, but can also provide custom soft furnishings and joinery.

Stylist: An interior stylist works with the existing pieces belonging to the client, as well as sourcing loose furniture, homewares, art and lighting pieces, and artfully arranging these inside the home. Think of styling as the ‘finishing touches’ in an already structurally complete space.

There are also specialised stylists such as ‘editorial stylists’ who source and arrange furnishings and decorative elements for the purposes of photography; and ‘property stylists’ who stage homes for the purpose of selling a property.

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Camberwell House by Sisällä. Photo – Eve Wilson

Camberwell House by Sisällä. Photo – Eve Wilson

Camberwell House by Sisällä. Photo – Eve Wilson

Camberwell House by Sisällä. Photo – Eve Wilson

What can I expect an interior designer to do in my home? 

Most interior designers structure their work in several key phases including: pre-design (briefing); concept design; design development; construction documentation; tender; construction/design management; and finally styling if required. 

These terms may sound intimidating to those outside the design world, but they essentially encompass the following:

Firstly, after the initial consultation, an interior designer will resolve the spatial planning of your home, either in conjunction with an architect, or independently if one is not involved.

The next stage involves the selection of finishes, fixtures and joinery that are usually rendered in 3D for clients to review. 

‘I have found that when we present the design concept, clients are surprised with the level of clarity, thought and detail,’ says Lauren Li, founding director of the Melbourne-based interior design studio Sisällä‘Interior designers offer a lot more than choosing colours and fluffing cushions, however we are the BEST at that too. We are great listeners and we’re passionate about making your home amazing for you and your family.’

Approved concepts are then translated into technical drawings and schedules suitable for a builder to price and build from. The designer will provide ongoing support throughout this construction process.

‘There’s a whole non-design aspect to what we do; from dealing with councils, plumbing/electrical regulations, to the intricacies of tile set-outs, and working with trades on site during construction,’ says Mardi Doherty, director of Doherty Design Studio

Lauren concurs, ‘There are a lot of moving parts to the work that we do. Sadly, we don’t get the opportunity to visit design showrooms and flip through magazines everyday, you’ll more than likely find us behind a screen using a wide range of software, putting out fires on site (usually not literally), managing quotes from suppliers and contractors… I could go on! The design aspect is 20 per cent and the rest is running projects and the business side.’

Finally, the designer may also offer styling and decoration expertise. ‘If an item can’t be sourced then often an interior designer will design it such as a custom rug, sofa, dining table or cabinet,’ says Lauren. 

Thornton Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

Thornton Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

Thornton Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

Can I engage a designer to makeover just one room of my house, or does it have to be my entire home?

Some design studios are available to refurbish or design single rooms only, but many prefer to work on entire homes. 

Lauren notes, ‘It can be more cost effective for a designer to take on a three-bedroom home than just one room, as the same design process still needs to be followed including briefing, schematic design, etc… If we are meeting with trades to measure for one room, the meeting still needs to happen, and adding additional rooms doesn’t impact the fees as much as you may expect.’

Don’t be afraid to contact a designer with your vision and budget and ask what’s achievable. If they can’t take on a small job, they more than likely can recommend someone who will!

What about smaller jobs, like selecting paint colours or light fittings? Do any interior designers take on these kinds of jobs? 

That’s a job for a decorator! You could also try a colour consultant for paint colours.

Portsea Beach House by Studio Esteta. Photo – Sean Fennessey. Styling – Studio Esteta

Portsea Beach House by Studio Esteta. Photo – Sean Fennessey. Styling – Studio Esteta

Portsea Beach House by Studio Esteta. Photo – Sean Fennessey. Styling – Studio Esteta

Portsea Beach House by Studio Esteta. Photo – Sean Fennessey. Styling – Studio Esteta

Portsea Beach House by Studio Esteta. Photo – Sean Fennessey. Styling – Studio Esteta

How much does an interior designer cost? 

Ah the million dollar question – sometimes literally. Nearly every professional will tell you their rates vary, but this especially true for interior designers, who work with an incredibly wide range of materials, sites, timelines and stakeholders. 

Some designers bill by the hour, others charge a flat fee, some use a combination of flat fee and hourly rates, and others work under a monthly retainer. ‘There is no one universal method that all designers use for fees, which means it’s important to read their contracts and fee proposals carefully,’ says Lauren. 

When comparing fees, make sure you are comparing the same scope of work and profession. ‘The level of experience the designer has will affect the fee, and you are paying for their expertise rather than their time, as they can work more efficiently than a recent graduate,’ Lauren says. 

In any case, it’s worth remembering that an interior designer’s fee will always be just one small part of the overall renovation or construction budget.

The built price for our projects range in price from $5,000-$8,000 per square metre.’ says Mardi.

So many things can influence this per square metre fee, ‘For example, the cost of a fridge can vary from $3,000 up to $30,000, and tiles can vary from $40 per square metre to $300 per square metre’ Mardi explains.

As a reference point, the total project cost of homes Studio Esteta have worked on range from $300,000 to $5 million (inclusive of construction but excluding landscaping works). 

Even similarly sized projects can significantly differ in cost. Co-director of Studio Esteta Sarah Cosentino recalls a previous partial interior refurbishment of a three-bedroom home in Melbourne’s inner city comprising a new small en suite and walk-in robe, family bathroom with euro laundry, kitchen and butler’s pantry, refinishing of existing timber floorboards, new interior paint works, and a handful of new windows with a total project cost of approximately $300,000.

In comparison, the refurbishment of a four-bedroom home totalled a project cost of $900,000, excluding landscaping. ‘The scope was more substantial, comprising all new finishes, joinery, fittings, fixtures and lighting to the kitchen, living, dining, rumpus, study, laundry, bathroom, ensuite, master bedroom and three kids bedrooms,’ Sarah says. ‘New timber floorboards were proposed, and re-stumping to the house was required, as well as new skirting treatments and external paint works.’

For less exhaustive projects, Lauren Li outlines that decorating alone is a different service, which can range from $10,000 to $50,000 for the designer’s fee, before purchasing furniture. 

Beechworth Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

Beechworth Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

Beechworth Residence by Doherty Design Studio. Photo – Derek Swalwell

How long will the entire design and build process take? 

‘TV and social marketing channels have created a perception and expectation that interior design can be executed within lightning speed and for minimal budgets, but it’s not a true indication of how a timeless and well-mastered new home is created,’ says Sarah. 

The exact time frame again varies significantly, but on average, Mardi estimates the full interior design of an existing three-bedroom Melbourne home would usually take between four to five months for the full design documentation to be completed (excluding council permits, if required), then construction is usually an additional six to nine months.

Brand new homes requiring council approvals tend to take around a year to design, with at least another year to construct. 

If no council permits are required, the proposed interior scope is relatively straightforward, and review periods are minimised, Sarah says the entire project could be completed in 12 months, but that would be the very minimum. 

One final word of wisdom – expect long wait times on furniture pieces! Lauren says, ‘I’ve worked on projects when the sofa took longer to arrive than the house took to build!’ 

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