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So many colors, fabrics and textures to choose from. // Interior designers and decorators can be the wind beneath your whims if you'll give it a WHIRL

Sandye Bendazi of Tampa had a wonderful experience working with an interior designer.

She got the yellow-and-hunter-green bedroom of her dreams through her association with the designer who goes by the single name of Arrachme (a-RASH-mee) of Designs by Arrachme in Tampa.

When she tried to shop on her own, Bendazi said, she was "in a daze" from too many choices _ none of them what she really wanted. But Arrachme "found the perfect carpeting" for the bedroom, located the right fabric for a custom-made bedspread, and found someone to hand-paint a border in the foyer to reflect the nature theme Bendazi wanted.

Bendazi had searched unsuccessfully for eight years for the right lamps for her bedroom. Arrachme showed her a catalog and "I found exactly what I wanted."

Bendazi, 55, isn't wealthy: She's a kindergarten teacher at Apollo Beach Elementary School, and she lives in a modest 1,700-square-foot townhome in south Tampa. "I wanted my home to reflect me," she said, and that's what she got. The designer even came up with a specially made rug with the Seminole logo for the room that ardent FSU alumna Bendazi has set aside as "not a Florida room, but a Florida State room." For that room Arrachme created custom window treatments that look like pennants in garnet and gold.

Becky Fellows of Largo, 39, also a kindergarten teacher _ at Walsingham Elementary in Largo _ has a different story.

Over a period of several months last year she called four interior designers and asked them to come out to her home for a consultation, for which she was willing to pay. Some never returned her phone calls. Another, she said, wanted her to come down to the studio and pick out wallcovering when all Fellows wanted initially was new carpeting. She bought a clock from another design studio and asked repeatedly for an appointment with a designer, but she said no one would come out or call her back.

Finally she found a designer at a home show who offered suggestions on carpet. Later she turned to Home Depot for guidance on wall covering.

"I guess nobody needs my money," she said of the designers with whom she tried to do business. "I still need a decorator in here to do the finishing touches" on her 2,500-square-foot, five-year-old home, "but I don't know where I'm going to turn to."

When the interior design industry conducted a survey of 1,044 Americans two years ago, every one volunteered a designer horror story. Even if respondents had had a good experience, they volunteered their friends' horror stories.

That survey showed that people wanted to use designers for professional ideas and suggestions, to avoid making serious buying mistakes, and to help coordinate colors. But they were turned off by designers who wouldn't listen to them, weren't cost-conscious and wouldn't work with the homeowners' schedules. And they said it was difficult to find an interior designer.

Everybody has heard the stories _ the designer who wants to inflict his or her taste on the homeowner, who will do only an entire home and can't be bothered to do a single room, whose signature "look" _ the plaid sofa, the architectural prints _ makes every house look like every other.

Tampa Bay designers roll their eyes and shake their heads and say that's not the way it's supposed to work. "I feel my purpose is not to design for me in someone else's home, but to design for them in their home," said Susan J. Nice of Lasting Impressions Interiors in St. Petersburg.

Said Tampa designer David Van Ling of Van Ling/Shepard Designs: "I don't ever want a client to come back and say, It looks like David Van Ling, not like my client. I want them to be happy in their space. I don't live there; it should reflect them."

So how can you find and work successfully with an interior designer? What will they do? What will it cost?

Designers say as much as 80 percent of their business comes from word of mouth _ references from satisfied customers. Other clients see their work at show houses or model homes. Others walk in off the street or pick a name out of the phone directory. (See the box on Page 5D for suggestions on finding someone to work with and on differentiating between designers and decorators.)

First, however, do a little homework. "The biggest joy is when a client comes in for the first interview and has a file already pulled of what she does and doesn't like," Van Ling said.

So start by buying some interior design magazines. Pull out pictures of what you like and what you don't. No one expects you to pick out the exact style or model of sofa or lamps you want in your house. You're looking here for general ideas: I like this color; I like the feel of this room; I like this kind of furniture; I like this bullnose edge on the kitchen counter. Or: I hate the clutter in this room; I don't like puffy, fussy window treatments like these; I hate tiny tables like those.

The file you put together can be revealing, said Michael Thomas Muller of Michael Thomas Interiors in Tampa. If your current living room is glass and chrome and industrial carpeting, and you hand your designer a file full of chintz and lace and pastels, he or she can ask the questions that help you sort out what you really want. Or if one half of a couple likes traditional and the other likes contemporary, a designer can help create a room that satisfies both.

Give some thought, too, to what's wrong with your room now: Not enough storage? Not enough seating? Too dark? Too bright? Dated colors? The blahs? The more specific you can be about what isn't working, the more help the designer can be.

When you meet with a designer, he or she will likely show you a portfolio of previous work. Your goal here is not to pick out a room that's exactly what you want and tell the designer to replicate it for you; rather, you're looking again for ideas, for style, for a sense that this designer can speak your language.

Ask to see the least expensive and most expensive rooms a designer has done: What can he or she do on a shoestring? How does that differ from a project where more money was available?

Ask for references, and then call them: Would the clients work with the designer again? Was work done on a timely basis? Does the designer stand behind the quality of work and behind the subcontractors? Did the work reflect the client's personality or the designer's?

Ask the designer if he or she has time now to work on your project. If you have a specific deadline in mind (a wedding, or the holidays), say so.

Your initial conversation with the designer should give you some idea if the two of you can work together. You don't have to become close friends. You do have to be able to talk and listen to each other. As the client _ the person who is paying the bills _ you should feel that your ideas are listened to and respected. At the same time, you are paying the designer for his or her professional knowledge, education and experience. If you're going to ignore everything the designer says, maybe you don't need a designer after all.

What do you want your designer to do?

Traditionally, clients expect that a designer will come up with ideas, drawings and a color scheme, then execute the plans: oversee any construction and the purchase and installation of furniture, wallcoverings, window treatments, plumbing, lighting and accessories.

But some designers offer a variety of levels of service that may appeal to those on limited budgets.

You can hire a designer to spend a few hours with you on a consultation, discussing ideas and floor plans and colors. You will pay an hourly fee for this service.

This might be an appropriate course of action if you want to complete your project on your own: You do the shopping, you arrange for painters and paperhangers, you oversee the work yourself. If you're handy or you like doing your own decorating, a professional's guidance and a detailed plan may be all you need.

Many people start out asking for a consultation because "they fear the unknown, they think you'll suck them dry financially," Van Ling said. But he estimated that 85 percent of the people who start out wanting a consultation end up as full-fledged clients: They overcome their fears, they feel comfortable with the designer, they realize that the job at hand is really beyond their capabilities.

Or you can ask a designer to "style" a room that looks generally okay but needs some brightening and perking up. Designers can bring out a van full of accessories _ pictures, pillows, plants, knickknacks _ and "dress" your room: rearrange things slightly, add the finishing touches, the eyecatchers. Said Nice: "Accessorizing is the most important part of the process, not just the furniture."

Van Ling agreed. "Some people specifically want us to rearrange what they have, their bookcases and furniture and pictures." Sometimes it may be as simple as putting on new lampshades to give a room a fresh look. Sometimes he digs out hidden treasures clients have forgotten, in their closets or china cupboards, and shows them how to display what they already own.

When Becky Fellows started looking last year for a designer to help her choose carpet colors, she had a timetable in mind: First, new carpeting. Then, maybe a year later, the walls. Later, the window treatments.

She was typical of homeowners, who want to know: Will a designer work with me in stages? Or will they insist we have to do this all at once? I can't afford it!

Designers say: We're glad to work with you in stages.

"Ninety-five percent of our clients, with the economy like it is and all the expenses people have, do it in stages," said Van Ling. "They have prioritized their budgets."

"I work with people for years," said Nice. "At markets we'll look, knowing "This would be great for Mrs. Jones; she doesn't want it now but when she's ready, we'll have it.' We take pictures at markets and slide them in their files," and when the client is ready to buy that sofa or that lamp, the picture and specifications are at hand. "The job where we do the whole house at once is few and far between."

Designers are watching the bottom line, too: A small job is better than no work at all. And it's an investment. "I've had people just do the wallpaper in a bathroom," said Michael Muller of Michael Thomas Interiors. "Once you do work for them, they see how you work, they develop a rapport. Next they need carpet, or this or that, and it turns into a good relationship."

Over and over again, designers made this plea to potential customers: Tell us how much money you have to work with.

Some clients are afraid to name a dollar figure, for fear the designer will laugh. Or they worry that if they get specific, the designer will spend every penny.

But designers say: We can serve you best if we know what your price range is.

"If someone tells me they have $10,000 for a room, that tells me where to look," Arrachme said. "I don't show her a $200 fabric, I show her a $20 fabric."

"If people say, "I have $10,000 and I want my whole living room done: sofa, window treatments, carpet,' knowing that, I would not suggest one piece of furniture for $3,000," Nice said. If you're paying the designer by the hour, you're wasting your own money having him or her put together a proposal and samples without a clear idea of what your budget might be. And once clients fall in love with top-of-the-line items, only to learn they can't afford them, Nice said, it's hard for them to be satisfied with anything less.

For clients who have no idea what things cost, Michelle Jennings, who heads the Largo design studio that bears her name, said she might show them photographs and say, "Here's what this would cost," or "I would give a range _ tell them that carpet would start at $10 a yard and go up to $100 a yard," or explain that she can find similar items in a wide variety of price ranges.

If your funds are limited, say so, designers urged, and let them help you figure out how to get the maximum impact for the money you do have. If your budget is $1,500, you don't want to spend that on one table, Arrachme said. "It's better to spend that on the wallpaper and put some color into the room, or paint, or drapery treatment. Do one section that introduces color, something that gives the room a lift," where your investment will show and make your room look immediately better.

"If you have only $500, there are lots of things you can do: accessories, greenery, a focal piece," Susan Nice said.

Designers are compensated in several ways. They may bill by the hour, as they frequently do for consultations and planning time. In the Tampa Bay area, designers charge from about $50 an hour up to $150 an hour.

They may bill on a cost-plus basis for purchases made through them. Designers buy at wholesale, then mark up the purchase by a percentage, which may be 20 to 45 percent.

Some use a combination of hourly fee and cost-plus for a complicated job, such as working with new construction, which requires a lot of planning time and decisions, as well as purchases. Others may bill a flat fee for a project, or charge by the square foot (this is more common in commercial work).

What do designers offer? Knowledge of construction systems, lighting, space planning. Resources that are available only to the trade for fabrics, materials, furniture and accessories. Reliable suppliers and workrooms, installers and subcontractors. Familiarity with what's new, what's merely a passing fad and what's a long-term trend. The ability to solve problems and avoid mistakes.

"Our job is definitely not just picking out wall coverings," Jennings said.

Often they'll work with clients who are building a home to make sure it's going to work for them when it's done: In an open floor plan with huge windows and doors and few interior walls, where will the entertainment unit go? If the sofa is going to be positioned in the middle of the room, where will lamps be plugged in? Is the wiring adequate in the future computer room? Can the security control panel be positioned so it doesn't occupy a prominent wall in the foyer?

Designers can educate. What's the difference between a $399 sofa and one that costs 10 times that? They can show you. They can also help you get the most for your money. "We know how to spend money in ways that give you the best look," Muller said. If you decide to go with that inexpensive sofa, for example, a designer can dress it with expensive pillows and make it look fabulous, "but people don't want to hear about $100 pillows," he lamented.

Designers can "just make your lifestyle easier," Jennings said. "That's what you want to do: not just make it look pretty, or make money, but improve people's lives."

DESIGNERS ON DESIGNERS

"If you can go into a home and say, "I know who did this', that designer did not do justice to the client."

_ Arrachme, Designs by Arrachme, Tampa

"It's important that clients say, "This is my budget.' It helps you fit the scope of the project to their budget . . . so the client isn't caught off guard and the designer is able to develop the best project."

_ Michelle Jennings, Michelle Jennings Design Studio, Largo

"A big thing people fear is, "Will I get what I want, or what the designer wants?' They should ask previous customers if the job was done to reflect their personality and not the designer's."

_ Susan J. Nice, Lasting Impressions, St. Petersburg

Clients should realize that "things take time, and quality is very, very important vs. quantity." It's important to get clients to open up: "I learned a long time ago there are some things very important to people, and you need gentle ways of finding those things out."

_ David Van Ling, Van Ling/Shepard Designs, Tampa

"Some designers slash and burn, but realistically you have to work around a family heirloom or something clients happen to love. Some people are intimidated and afraid to ask questions, but if they don't ask, we can't help them."

_ Michael Thomas Muller, Michael Thomas Interiors, Tampa

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