Since founding her eponymous interiors studio in Toronto 10 years ago, Stacey Cohen has had to turn down many prospective clients. She designs the kind of luxurious houses that get written about in Oprah’s O magazine, Elle Decor and House & Home. The notoriety has resulted in inquiries from homeowners who want her aesthetic, bold modern lines softened by warm, rich materials, but don’t have the requisite five- or six-figure budgets (a necessity for all the brass, marble and pretty fabrics).
“Luxury design is expensive and it’s not for everyone,” she says. “That said, I don’t think that design should always be a luxury service. My studio has declined projects based on budget. But after thinking about It over the years, I realized I was saying no to people who still needed help, who still deserved the expertise they were looking for.”
Much the way high-end fashion designers diversify their costliest creations with mass-market lines – a cashmere sweater from Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label retails for a mortgage payment, Ralph Lauren’s Polo hoodies not so much – Cohen decided recently to start offering lower-priced services. And because this is 2020, she decided to do so digitally with an online tool called Room Edit.
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Room Edit works by inviting homeowners to upload photos of their abode, specify room dimensions and take a short quiz that determines their aesthetic sensibilities (by, for example, picking out Pinterest images that resonate). The onboarding process takes less than 15 minutes (I tried, it’s very easy), and is followed by a phone consultation with a member of Room Edit’s design team. Within two weeks, the homeowner gets three renderings depicting design solutions and a shopping list of potential furniture, art and finishes. That it’s “so quick,” is one of the reasons Toronto model and mommy vlogger Valeria Lipovetsky signed up to be among the first to try Room Edit, using the platform to design her new YouTube studio – a hotel suite-inspired set-up decked in creams, whites and greys.
Room Edit isn’t the first digital design tool to try to democratize once exclusive and expensive services. In America, start-ups such as Havenly and Modsy provide room renderings, mood boards and shopping lists with fees starting as low as US$69. But Room Edit excites because it’s part of a new wave of ventures based in Canada and sources items available in the Canadian market (something many U.S. alternatives, including Havenly, don’t do).
It’s also led by professional designers, not Silicon Valley techno-crats. In 2019, Vancouver interior designer Corey Klassen started offering e-services through his website, coreyklassen.ca. Likewise, Spec, run by Vancouver designers Angela Robinson and Tanya Schoenroth, is launching later this year. “Both Tanya and I focus on high-end residential interiors,” Robinson says. “We know there’s a lot of demand from homeowners who want a cohesive, considered design, but don’t have $10,000 to $20,000 to spend on professional design services.”
According to Klassen, the difference between a designer-led venture versus a tech-led one is that many “e-design companies are tech focused and want profit,” he says. “Design businesses need profit but not at the costs of diluted, or untrained service.
A common frustration with online design assistants – the people who produce the renderings and shopping lists – is that rather than being top professionals, they tend to be low-paid freelancers trying to make a bit of extra money on the side. One way a service such as Room Edit sets itself a part is that Cohen herself oversees the five or six members of the design team who all work in her studio, in an office next to hers. She doesn’t personally pick the colours and the furniture, but she reviews every proposal before it’s sent to the client.
“I have to look at everything,” she says. “I have to ensure that we’re upholding the same level of taste and style that people come to expect from the studio.”
That attention to detail puts Room Edit’s pricing above Modsy and Havenly. Room Edits fees starts at $950 and go up depending on the size of the space. A 1,200-square-foot condo would ring in at $1,650. But that’s still many multiples less than hiring Cohen for a custom job directly. And it’s in line with similar, design-led ventures. Corey Klassen’s prices start at $1,312.50, and Spec’s will be around $875 for a small house ($440 for a single room).
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Spec’s focus is limited to finishes such as tiles, countertops and carpeting, and doesn’t include any furniture. The narrow scope might necessitate using multiple e-design platforms to envision a whole home.
Another critical difference between using an online design platform and hiring a full-service studio is that the homeowner ends up doing most of the leg work themselves, starting from measuring all their spaces and including all the furniture shopping and project management. Room Edit might suggest a certain wallpaper, but the client has to buy it themselves, find a good tradesperson to install it and deal with the headaches if the tradesperson doesn’t show up.
“What an app will never be able to do is manage all the craziness,” says Ali Budd, a luxury interior designer who currently has no plans to start her own e-design platform. “I would say 25 per cent of our job is the design work and the rest is problem-solving, co-ordination, communicating with the trades, managing damages and so on. Think of it like a wedding planner. Everything looks beautiful on Pinterest, but what happens if the dress has a rip or the flowers are late? That’s what a wedding planner is for. Similarly, an interior designer deals with all the moving pieces.”
That said, she’s thinks services such as Cohen’s have a lot of potential. “If I were going to use an app I’d use one like Room Edit,” she says. “I can see the appeal. Furniture is a big investment and these apps could lead some people in the right direction. Help them make better choices.”