Help! I Hired The Decorator From Hell

Hey Guys,

We’ve all heard of the so-called “client from hell.” A while back I wrote a post about an interior designer who fired her client.

Oftentimes, its not that the person is difficult. It’s that their expectations are not in line with their designer and that’s when conflict can arise.


To be fair, while not the majority of my colleagues, there is such a thing as the decorator from hell.

The note below is based on an amalgam of stories I have heard over the years.


Dear Laurel,

I hired a decorator to help me furnish our living, dining and family room. I gave her a budget of no more than 75k for everything.

She said that was no problem. Well, it’s six months later. I have already paid her nearly 20k in design fees and in the way of furnishings, all we have are draperies, a couple of sofas, pillows, coffee table and a rug.

Quite frankly, I think it all looks rather bland. It definitely isn’t what we wanted.

She talked us into this expensive fringe on the hideously expensive silk Roman shades. Oh, and the clincher? All of that so far, has cost us with shipping and tax $35,791.31!!! The shipping alone on all of that was over 3k! What? With the fees, we have already spent almost 56k of our 75k budget!

In addition, she often foists her assistant on us.

Well, this woman is as thick as mud and horrendous about returning phone calls. When we ask to speak to her boss, she is ALWAYS in a meeting. (I’m sure) and never calls us back or returns emails.

I’m so upset. I found her through ASID, so I was positive that since she was a professional member that she would behave professionally and at the very least, give us what we asked for?

Then, I found out that she’s really only “allied” ASID whatever the hell that means. I don’t know. All I know is that we’ve gotten royally ripped off and I’m hopping mad! Lucky me.

But, this is making me wonder is there a difference between a designer and a decorator?

In any case, I managed to find a decorator from hell!




Oh dear… Could Deb have avoided the decorator from Hell?


Yes, I think so. This interior designer mislead Deb and whether she realized it or not, took the job under false pretenses.

Obviously, she could not stay within budget and she was inaccessible. However, unless this designer is an out-and-out lying sociopathic freak, Deb does bear some responsibility as it appeared that she did not properly qualify the designer.



me 1999 Elixer of Love - Taconic Opera - Decorator from hell haha

There she is…haha! from 1999. I was the ditzy (who me? hahaha) sidekick to the Snake Oil Salesman, Dulcamara in the opera L’elisir d’amore (Elixer of Love) produced by the Taconic Opera. Yes, it’s a comedy. ;]


So, let’s say that you’re planning on furnishing your first home or maybe it’s your fifth.


You realize that you’re in over your head. You wisely seek out the help of a professional interior designer/decorator


(***note*** I feel that the terms are largely interchangeable which you can read more about here.)


However, you’ve heard some stories about the possibility of hiring the decorator from hell and you’re leery.


Well, you should be!


There are all kinds of people in the world. Right? Working with an interior designer is a lot like a marriage and above all else, both you and the designer need to feel extremely comfortable working together.


Laurel’s Ultimate Guide To Avoid Getting Stuck With The Sucky Decorator From Hell

(or how to find your perfect interior designer)

  1. Ask your friends or friends of friends if they know of anyone. Realtors can sometimes be another great resource.
  2. Google the interior designers in your area. You do not have to work with someone in your immediate area, but often-times, closer is better.
  3. Look at their websites and portfolios online. Are the websites professional with pleasing colors and images that you like? Does it look like they should be selling plumbing parts instead of exquisite draperies? There are lots of great clues in the designer’s website.


The portfolio.


christmas decorations that don't scream CHRISTMAS!


bronxville-dining-room-buffet-mirror copy



Above images by Laurel Bern Interiors.


Can you see yourself living in any of the designer’s rooms? You don’t have to like all of the interiors, but there must be something this person is producing that resonates with you.


More info about portfolios


Some designers work in different styles and some do not. If you don’t see anything that floats your boat, don’t expect your designer to bend her aesthetic too far off of her norm; even IF she says otherwise. You need proof of this!


Look at the services provided.


Some designers specialize in certain aspects such as construction. While others only do things like upholstery and window treatments. Some do it all. Look at her background, education, years in business. There should be lots of great information which can help you make an informed choice.


All right. You’ve narrowed down the field to six interior designers that have made the referral/google/website cut.


Time to get on the horn. I say that because you can certainly email them, but you are going to have to speak to them eventually. If they do not have their phone number listed. Move on. That’s no good.

  • Make a page in a notebook for each designer and take notes.
  • Did they respond in a timely fashion?
  • Were any employees who answered the phone friendly and helpful?


Once you have the interior designer on the phone, now comes the qualifying round.


Of course, she will be qualifying you too! How do you feel talking to her? Nervous? That’s okay. Take a deep breath. She’s a person, too. (hopefully) And if you feel in any way, not comfortable, it’s not a good fit.

Please have a list of questions all ready to go so you won’t forget any pertinent points. You’re in control!


Laurel’s List of Questions Every Client Needs to Have to Grill Ask Her Potential Interior Designer/Decorator


  • How much does a client spend on average for a living room?

If the designer says between 80-100k+ (and many do) and your budget is no more than 30k, it’s time for… oops. sorry. gotta go. Nice speaking with you, but I forgot I have a cake in the oven. bye, bye.

There is no need to go any further. It could be the other way too. You might have a John Rosselli or Holly Hunt budget, but your designer gets all of her furnishings at Crate and Barrel.

  • What types of services do you provide?

Actually, this should already be on her website, but if not, you need to ask because not all designers handle everything you might be needing.

  • What is your fee structure like?

All right, this is such a sticky, icky subject and there’s a right way to do this and the wrong way.


Please do not ask her how much her mark up is.


I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about this and so do most of my colleagues. It is none of your forking business. Please. Do you go into Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s and pick up a blouse and ask them how much did they pay for it? No. of course not. Don’t put your designer on the spot because it’s an unfair question and impossible to answer.

Designers usually purchase products from a wide variety of sources (as found in Laurel’s Rolodex) and as our discount varies, so does the cost to clients. As a consumer, however, it behooves you to know generally how much things cost.

(however, please do not “shop” your interior designer/decorator. If you don’t trust that you’re getting good value for her expertise and product, then it’s not going to work out.)


What you need to know is if they sell products in your PRICE RANGE.


In addition to markup from wholesale on product, some interior designers do charge an hourly fee.


This is another sticky subject.


How Do Interior Designers Charge For Their Services?


It’s not an easy question to answer, but there are some answers in the above link. A big part of the problem is that there is no regulation or standard way of doing things in this industry. And because of the way that vendors also have no consistency with how they bill us, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to happen.

But… and this is very important. What I’ve discovered in talking with colleagues who charge in different ways, is that in the end, we are all about the same give or take a few.

As an aside for folks that are young designers or those getting into this business later in life; many don’t realize that they can get a lot of their product at stocking dealer prices or at least at a better discount than if they went through a showroom or store.


This is not to say that showrooms are bad.


Not at all! And the designer does have to accept more responsibility. In addition, many vendors will not sell directly to designers.

So, if you are working with a designer who only uses show rooms, that is not a bad thing. Some designers only charge an hourly fee, for instance.

But it’s one reason why I created Laurel’s Rolodex. It’s an insider’s guide to over 500 vendors and brands and features over 150 who are designer friendly. I went years not realizing I could buy direct. Subsequently, I put thousands of dollars in someone else’s pocket that could’ve been in mine. AND, I could’ve sold the same product to my clients for less money.

This guide is for designers and design enthusiasts. It does not divulge pricing or any professional confidence. In fact, it is designed to help both designer and client.


Another great question which will give you lots of clues


Please tell me what are the price ranges for things like sofas, chairs, (especially dining chairs!), fabrics, etc? Maybe you’ll even see something you like in her portfolio and I think it’s fine to ask for a ball park price on how much it cost.

An experienced designer will also have her spiel down as well. And some of these things she should be divulging without your asking. I sometimes ask a client where did she buy her current furniture, to get an idea of her price range or I will say that sofas start as low as about $2,000 on up.

Most designers also have an initial design fee and some will ask for a retainer which will be applied to the final bill.

Do you have a letter of agreement?

It is highly unprofessional to not have a letter of agreement. If there are any questions on it, you need to be able to discuss them as well.

How will I be able to see the items that I’m going to be purchasing?

Obviously, that has to be presented and it’s good to know how. I would not order fabric from just seeing it online for instance.

What if I don’t like what you’re showing me?

We’ll find something else that you love! Look at her very carefully while she’s answering this one. Some designers welcome their client’s input and some don’t. Oh, she might be going along with you kinda sorta. See her squirming ever so slightly? That’s the tell. ;]

Some clients do want their designer to take over, but if you’re one who doesn’t, it’s very important to suss this one out in the beginning.

Will you do space planning and a room layout?

Yes, they better!

Are you able to incorporate some of my current furnishings?

If that is important to you, I would ask.

Are you expecting to furnish my entire home? What if I want to handle certain areas on my own.

Every designer works differently. Some are open to you handling certain rooms or parts of a room and some are not.

This is also a good time to divulge stuff that she needs to know about like:

  • the 3k credit you have with Thomasville.
  • Or the fact that you have a friend who sews.
  • Or your sister/mother/aunt/BFF is a decorator.


Okay. I think we’ve covered the pertinent qualifying issues. How’d she sound? If you feel good and like you’d like to have coffee with her, then make an appointment to meet!

Is there a charge for this appointment? I mean, I don’t know if I want to hire the designer yet or not. So, why should I pay?


Well, you want to have coffee with her so you’re probably at least 90% sure that you do.

My feeling is that designers should charge for that first visit. She has already qualified you on the phone and you, her. But when she shows up, she’s most likely going to be far more helpful if she’s getting paid than if not and you will be able to see her in action.

Therefore, expect to pay for this service, but use it to the max for your benefit!


more questions.

Can I use my painter or contractor/tradespeople?

YES! In fact, my clients MUST have a completely separate contract with these people. The money is not filtered through my company. That is between you and them. Of course, your designer should work with them to help solve any problems that may crop up.

My rule has always been, if it moves, it goes through me, but if it’s not moveable (like a floor or paint) it goes through an outside contractor.

Do you have time in your schedule for my project?

I realize that might sound obvious, however some designers will take anything that comes their way whether they have time for it or not.

Work this one in, somewhere, if you can…

What is the worst problem you’ve ever had and what was the outcome?

This is a question that no one ever asks me, but they should. I have had a few doozies over the many years. And more soul-sucking problems here.

IF she’s cagey or says something like, well, nothing really bad has ever happened.

  • She’s only been in business for a few months.
  • She’s lying.

May I have a list of client references?

Yes! Absolutely!


Questions for the designer’s clients

Did the designer stay on budget?

Were there any major problems and how were they solved?


May I speak with a couple of your trade references?

No one has ever asked me that either. But it’s a great question and I would have no problem giving someone a contractor and/or a trade rep to speak with. No. She’s not going to give you the name and phone number of her custom workroom, but a contractor is perfectly reasonable; especially if you are paying her for her time! If she seems insulted or gets huffy, you do not want to work with this person.

You know what to say…

Thank you so much! I need to speak to my husband and I’ll get back to you. ;]

(sometime in the next century)


Trust your instincts. If you think that you’re smelling a whiff of eau de snake oil, you’ll most likely be right.


However, if everything checks out; you have asked all the right questions and gotten great enthusiastic responses.

And you love her work and she’s fun to be around. You most likely have yourself a winner!

Decorating your home should be a fun, fulfilling activity.




PS: You might also enjoy the following posts, if you’ve missed them:


How to know if your interior decorator is ripping you off

OMG! My interior designer just fired me!

A client who got fired by her interior designer


One Response

  1. Hi Laurel,
    I have been following your blog for quite some time. I enjoy your honest banter and decor style. I researched, spoke with, hired and paid half the deposit for a designer. We had an intial complementary consultation that went extremely well. She said she was interested in my project (“forever-age-in” new home construction which would include kitchen, baths and laundry room layout and install), understood my design aesthetic, could save me money on most products, provide me with her list of vendors to purchase from at her cost to save money. Have there been hiccups? YES! She uses Houzz email/billing, company phone, company email and text that are private if I need to speak with her (so confusing to me). I will admit that I am not computer savy and banking took a while to finalize her large required deposit via wire transfer (she originally wanted ACH). She provided me with cabinet layouts from Ikea (before the deposit was complete and said that she spent many hours that I didn’t expect or like like her designs even though I was still trying to make the other half of my deposit arrangements. I asked her to take a pause until we spoke. She made Zoom arrangements which she cancelled as I was in the process of making final payment arrangements. She has had the final deposit for two days and has not contacted me. I really don’t know how to move forward in this situation. What do I do?

    Thank you in advance.

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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