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Virtual interior design services go mainstream as the boundaries between work and home continue to blur

February 14, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
We’ve heard the stats: home-improvement projects became more popular in 2020. That’s great for staining the deck or reorganizing the garage, but what about designing an entire room with an interior designer?
Courtesy of Decorist

Imagine buying your entire living room—couch, armchairs, media console, lamps, rug, and objet—with the click of a button on your computer screen.

That’s become a reality for many shoppers, who have flocked to virtual interior design services to lay out spaces full of bed frames and bar carts, chandeliers and chaises. No time was that more prevalent than 2020, when coronavirus restrictions meant we spent more time at home. Not only did that motivate us to upgrade our living conditions, but we also had to do so without setting foot in a store.

“We are all staring at these four walls, and now, using our space in a different way,” says Shanna Tellerman, chief executive officer of Modsy. “It was a great moment from a customer standpoint to really invest in and rethink your home to make sure it’s satisfying your needs during this time.”

Tellerman founded and runs Modsy, one of the most popular virtual interior design services, which saw an impressive spike in use in 2020—more than 275% year over year during the height of the pandemic. She started the company as a way to make interior design affordable to consumers, by using real designers but a lot of technology to create a seamless experience, right down to the universal checkout. For years it coexisted alongside similar products in the marketplace, like Havenly and Decorist, and proprietary design services from major brands like West Elm and Ikea. But what really changed for these companies in 2020 was the consumer behavior. Consumers who might have hired the neighborhood interior designer as a face-to-face service provider transitioned instead to digital design and e-commerce for a touch-free way to elevate their homes. That, and many people needed home office setups.

Digital interior design platforms aren’t new. But they became more popular in 2020, and some of the features of these platforms benefited from the need for social distancing.
Courtesy of Decorist

When coronavirus lockdown restrictions commenced last spring, the world seemed to turn to Zoom, including your local interior designer. But what these virtual services have over a solopreneur is a vast store of data on how consumers approach design, what pain points they face, and which products are most often purchased by any type or design style. Add to that customer-facing 3D tech, machine-learning programming to predict furniture choices, apps that instantly measure a room, and an unified checkout experience, and, well, your average interior design business is facing an uphill climb in a pandemic world—unless it was also building out these products for years.

“There was a very real fear of bringing people into your home, the fear of going into a store [if it were even open],” Tellerman says. “It was the perfect storm for a service like Modsy where you could supply an outlet for people to re-create, rethink, and bring joy into their space in an entirely virtual and safe way.”

Modsy, for example, works like this. When you purchase a package, you take a style quiz by literally choosing which photos you like best—no interior design jargon needed—which helps pair you with a designer who likes to work with that aesthetic. You sketch out a layout of your room and send any specific measurements or use Modsy’s newly launched mobile app to instantly measure the room from your phone. That allows the software to populate a 3D mockup of your space, where the designer will drop in furniture options in different layouts. You can call or email your designer to request materials with high rub counts for kids and pets or to discuss how to incorporate furniture you already own.

The designer creates two versions of your room for the flat fee, which you can then play around in. It’s almost the best part, swapping in other products from the site’s database of thousands, as if you’re in some 2021 remake of The Sims video game. It gives consumers confidence in their choices. If you don’t like something the designer added, you can swap in another color of fabric or a different lamp without conversations with the middleman.

It’s also not particularly expensive when compared to traditional interior design. Modsy’s packages start at $159 per room, with deals if you’re doing two or more spaces. Havenly offers design services from $79 and up, and Decorist even hosts a free Design Bar for questions and answers with its team, which includes celebrity interior designers.

There are benefits for the designer too. The data-driven product, which gets better as more people use it, helps designers streamline options. Based on the results of the style quiz, they can shop from a pre-populated curation of products based on similar users in the past rather than starting at square one. An independent designer may be able to do this too, but it’s likely more mental memory and spreadsheets than models of products that appear on screen.

Modsy makes money by taking a cut of any products you pick, but that’s not unlike a traditional interior design business, which does the same. The perk for designers, says Tellerman, is that they get to focus on what they love—creativity—and less on things they don’t, like business administration. Plus, Modsy’s product team has made the process of constructing the room mockup as efficient as possible. It may take a designer days to turn around a virtual room using CAD software; Modsy does it in minutes. The company has created a database of thousands of products from major brands like Serena & Lily, Wayfair, Anthropologie, and CB2. (Shockingly, it is not common for a furniture company to have 3D models of its products available for use by interior designers, so Tellerman’s team has spent years building that for every furniture retailer the site works with.)

Consumers are flocking to digital interior decor services to reimagine their homes as an oasis where they spend most of their days (living rooms) and building out home offices now that many industries went full-time remote.
Courtesy of Decorist

It’s a similar business model at Havenly and Decorist, and all three companies saw major growth in numbers last year. Decorist almost doubled its traffic, and Susie Doyle, vice president of operations, says that the business saw users double their spending in key areas of the home, like living and family rooms. At Decorist, nursery design is also big business, thanks to its partnership with BuyBuyBaby. The service just launched its newest feature, which allows consumers to purchase any of the 15 pre-designed nurseries in one swoop or come up with their own nursery by dragging and dropping products themselves.

“Customers have the ability to swap furniture and decor such as cribs, dressers, gliders, bedding, rugs, paint color, and even wallpaper in and out of a room to create a personalized space,” says Doyle. They can have the items automatically added to their baby registry at BuyBuyBaby too. It all makes it a simple and safe experience for expectant parents, she says.

Havenly experienced such a bump in traffic that it had to institute a wait-list last year, even though the company has a community of 800 interior designers. Founder and chief executive officer Lee Mayer says one of the most interesting, yet not surprising, increases was the home office. Havenly received almost five times as many requests to add desks to existing spaces like living rooms, master bedrooms, guest rooms, and kids’ bedrooms as before March 2020. What was novel, says Mayer, is that her designers were now working on creating office vignettes tucked into corners of the home, since many people do not have a dedicated office room. It’s a trend she, like others in the industry, doesn’t see going away, as remote-work stations continue as the norm.

The room with the largest increase in requests, according to interior decorators? The home office.
Courtesy of Decorist

She expects this demand to actually go up. Many companies, including Havenly, are considering offering a budget to employees to design a welcoming workspace in their own house or apartment. If the company is not spending money on rent and resources for a commercial office space, why not reroute the funds to at-home desks with more than a computer and monitor? What a perk.

“A number of companies have approached us to have us decorate their employees’ spaces as they are transitioning away from a centralized office structure,” says Mayer. “We can partner with employers to provide this as a benefit.”

Anecdotally, Mayer says, a welcoming desk improves quality of life and quality of work. And if that is what interior design services can provide, on top of beautiful nurseries, comfortable living rooms, and everything in between, then it’s a technology product that will only grow from here.