Choosing an interior designer can feel like dating—a potentially awkward initial meeting, the hope he or she will “get” you, and the possibility for a long-term relationship. We asked Santa Fe interior designer Cara Scarola for the essential questions to ask (and answers to look for) to make sure you’re a good match
1. What kind of degrees did you earn?
In the pool of practicing designers, there are interior designers and interior decorators. Interior designers earn a degree that includes coursework in architecture and are licensed. An interior decorator may not have those qualifications, has likely interned or gained experience another way—but is unlicensed. “You’d vet your doctor, you’d vet your lawyer, you should vet your interior designer,” says Scarola. “It depends on the scope of your project, but if you’re gutting your kitchen, you’re better off with someone with architectural experience and formal education.”
2. What is your signature style?
“When I first entered the field, I felt very strongly that if you’re a good designer you can capture anyone’s style exactly,” Scarola says. “Now I disagree.” Designers tend to work on projects that appeal to them—Scarola says her clean, modern eye wouldn’t necessarily be right for a traditional home. If you have the option, ask to see the designer’s own home, she says. “Their budget may be more or less than yours, but it’s a good indication of their aesthetic.”
3. How do you help me discover and communicate my style to you?
A good designer should be able to get it out of you by guiding you through photos, asking questions about what’s already in your home, what’s in your closet, or what type of artwork you like. “You don’t have to understand why you like something, just that you have a positive reaction,” Scarola says. “We’ll figure the rest out.” And make sure the designer asks you about how you live day to day to make sure the design will function for your lifestyle.
4. Do you have examples of work that are similar in style, scope, and budget to my project?
If they do, it’s a good indication they can handle your project. If they don’t have a similar project to yours, ask if they can pull images of a project they feel is similar, Scarola says. It’s a good conversation-starter to find out if “a mix of high and low” (or any other request) means the same thing to both of you.
5. How do you document and share your work?
Listen for the designer to mention detailed drawings, including a floorplan and interior elevations, a schedule for when decisions about materials need to be made, and often a presentation board with samples. In addition, Scarola’s firm documents every item specified in a master spreadsheet and shares that with the client. To keep track of all this information, it’s reasonable to have regular meetings in addition to phone calls and emails, Scarola says. Also ask if the architect and interior designer will meet regularly during the project (they should).
6. How do you charge for your services and when will my payment be due?
Scarola says charging hourly is the most straightforward, but others may charge a percentage of the overall budget, especially if it’s a large project. Either way, ask for an estimate and a clear, consistent schedule for payment. “If something takes longer than we told them, before we begin that billable time, we ask for permission to proceed,” Scarola says. If the designer doesn’t mention a policy like that, ask if they will. Then be aware that some of the time spent rests on you: if you are slow to make decisions or ask for five rounds of toilet options, the hunt for more is billable time.
7. How do you manage the project budget?
The designer should have a system in place—for Scarola’s office, it’s a line item spreadsheet that the client has access to. “If you cannot spend a cent over your budget, say that,” she says. “It’s important to know from the get-go so when I’m selecting materials and finishes I’m not picking out $35 dollar and up/square foot tile.” Another particular question to ask is when most of the actual purchasing takes place. “We don’t like to do a lot of the buying until we have all the pieces,” Scarola says. “Then we know where to push and pull.”
8. How much time do you think my project will require and when will you be able to complete it?
“You just want to know if your designer is booked up for the next six months, if they have other projects they’ve committed to, and make sure your timeline fits in their timeline,” Scarola says. Use the answer they give you to determine if they have time to communicate on a weekly basis as well.
9. Where do you find inspiration? How do you stay up to date with current trends, technology, and codes?
Building code is a non-negotiable—your designer should take continuing education classes and attend appropriate trade events and seminars for that purpose. But Scarola thinks inspiration is just as vital. “Magazines, Pinterest, blogs…it’s important they have their head in that stuff and are following other designers, too,” she says. “Not necessarily in a trendy way but to be current, to let you know what the current offerings are.”
10. What does a successful project mean to you?
“You’re not looking for someone who says, ‘It’s a beautiful house where you love having your friends over,’” Scarola says. “They should say, ‘When you’re happy in your space, it reflects your personality, and it functions with your lifestyle.”
About Cara Scarola
Cara Scarola is an interior designer who recently joined architect Carlos Kinsey to form BUILT Design + Development in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her projects emphasize clean lines, tailored styling, and real-life comfort.
See her portfolio here.