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I let strangers design my apartment

If you hate redecorating, make someone else do it for you

Some people have the ability to walk into a furniture store and pick out various pieces of housewares that appear seemingly mismatched but somehow work perfectly together when placed in a room. I am not one of those people. I moved in June and decided that after years of having a sloppily put together 20-something’s apartment, I was ready for something that felt more composed and intentional. If I wanted to fake being an adult, at the very least I could try to have an adult-looking apartment, right?

Faced with this task, I looked to e-interior design services for help. You may have seen ads about them in your inbox, Instagram, or on flyers at your local big brand furniture store. These services promise to make revamping your home as easy as a few clicks on a computer, so I put a few of them to the test to see if paying someone to restyle your house is worth the investment.

Control

For the project, my boyfriend and I were willing to invest up to $3,000 on new furnishings and art (about a fourth of that budget I anticipate to make back in selling furniture we’re replacing). Our small (but reasonably sizable, for New York City) apartment needed the most work in the living / dining room, which is open to the kitchen. We cook at home a decent amount, but never have enough people over for a formal dining space. We do have friends over frequently to hang, drink, and play games, so we wanted the room to feel light, bright, and easy for multiple people to maneuver around.

While we were flexible about furniture choices, we did have some pieces we wanted to keep, like the gray / wood armchair I dragged home through the streets of Brooklyn on my own in the middle of August. There was no way this thing’s going on Craigslist just yet.


Naturally, there were some design challenges with the space itself. First, the apartment features steel floors, and we wanted a little bit of warmth to counter the industrial vibes. Second, we’re on the top floor, which has a sloped ceiling from the roof in the living room. Lastly, there is a brick feature wall that we cannot mount anything on, and it’s directly across from a west-facing window that could add glare to a TV.

Keeping these factors in mind, I tried out four different services to see how our main space could be laid out.

Roomstyler 3D Room Planner

Trying to stretch as much of my budget as possible, I first tried a few free services for modeling my soon-to-be home. Some light Googling led me to Roomstyler, a 3D rendering tool for mocking up rooms and furnishing them with select furniture pieces from a catalog. This seemed like a good start for envisioning how we could lay out some of the items that would make the move with us.

Before moving in, I took photos of the unit (old tenant’s things and all) and measured all the walls and windows. The tool lets you click and drag walls around to fit any irregularly shaped rooms, or specify wall length and height. You may not find exact matches for your home materials but you can get pretty close. There were no options for steel floors that I could find, for example, but dark grey brick replicated the feel.


Choosing the wall colors and floor felt surprisingly zen until I got to the furniture layout portion. While you can choose any color under the sun to virtually paint your room, the furniture selection tool is super clunky to use. A search for sectionals offered up hundreds of results, but filtering by color suddenly slimmed the results down to one or two options, even though there were clearly pieces that fit what I wanted when I didn’t clarify color choice.

Some categories would also randomly disappear. A look under home entertainment did not offer anything resembling at TV I could stick into the room for a visual, even if it wasn’t my exact model. And I couldn’t find a single art piece to place on the wall to create any kind of interest in the room.

I got so tired of scrolling through options that I just plopped a couple of items in there to visualize the space. Eventually, I felt embarrassed by the duckling I’d created. The room looked as if I was trying to re-create a West Elm showroom by memory using only stuff I can get from a local Walmart. I had to move on.

Use if you:

Love to play The Sims.

Don’t use if you:

Actually want to style your real-life home and implement the design.

Ikea Place

Augmented reality furniture apps have become surprisingly common after Apple and Google made their mobile operating systems more AR-friendly in 2017. While there are plenty of apps on the market for placing furniture in your home, I decided to go with Ikea Place as it was one of the first furniture AR apps. Presumably, two years of existence might have given it some leverage over newer apps. Plus, there is an Ikea close to me, which would make the decoration process faster if we ended up with a layout we liked.

My presumptions failed me. Ikea says it has thousands of items from its catalog on the free AR shopping app, but I could not find a single floating wall shelf to stick onto my wall for visuals, forcing me to resize a media console for effect. Like Roomstyler 3D, there was also a lack of art options as these tools mostly focused on large furniture items for rudimentary layouts.

The problem with AR, too, is unless everything has been virtually placed, some items might not take foreground into effect. That left me with planters I couldn’t stick in a corner next to a media console, or chairs I couldn’t place behind a coffee table. Scale was also an issue, as each time I moved things up or down the items tended to dramatically shrink or expand, making it difficult to lay things out in a realistic way.

Oh… dear.

I applaud the folks working with AR to create interesting use cases, like on-location work training. But kitschy applications like this are just… not very fun to use? Holding my arm out for minutes on end gets tiring fast, especially when you have to browse through thousands of items just to find the one thing that might work in your space.

Use if you:

Are only trying to envision one or two items in a room at a time.

Don’t use if you:

Have a tendency to fling things (i.e, your smartphone) at a wall upon frustration.

Havenly

Fed up with free tools, I gave paid services a go. I was first introduced to e-interior design startup Havenly a few years ago at SXSW. The service promises to create a mood board, layout, and a shopping list to help make implementing the design easy — all under a flat rate instead of an hourly bill you might get with an in-person designer. (Havenly starts at $19 for a consultation, while the full experience is $169 for a bare room, with help on where to lay out each piece.)

Havenly starts with a style quiz where you select photos of rooms you like and answer a few personality questions. You can select the level at which you want to be involved in the process, or say screw it and let your designer take the wheels. Then, you’re presented with a few color schemes and mood boards to rate, before you’re asked to upload photos of the room and any relevant inspiration pics. All this information allows Havenly to match you with an in-house designer that best suits your style and needs.


If you’re impatient, here’s where the service might start to get annoying. Havenly has a modest group of designers it works with, which means if your aesthetic best matches someone who’s currently working on several projects, you might end up waiting a while until they can start yours (not unlike sought-after designers in real life).

And once they finally get started, they’re going to start asking you more questions, with a day or two in between each response. I began my style quiz on April 19th and heard back from Cathrine, my paired designer, on April 28th. She gave me some initial mood boards on May 1st, and sent a revision on May 6th after I rated them on a four-star scale. You’re also able to rate individual pieces in the mood board so your designer knows what exactly in the room you love or hate.

The first few mood boards felt like a good start, but as the process went on we continued to have the same feedback on tiny things, like coffee table and art choices. These two critiques took until May 13th to implement, with a final layout showing up on May 20th.




One month is probably a reasonable timeline if you are working with a designer in real life, too. But the constant back-and-forth made things feel like they were particularly dragging, especially when we were just waiting for a new coffee table idea. Toward the end, I just accepted that this is the best we were going to do. I did like the multiple layout options our designer provided, the varying floor plans, and the unisex color scheme I hadn’t previously thought of. It also felt like everything in the design was within our budget, give or take a few key decorative pieces (the mirror and wall lamp felt less urgent than the sectional and media console, and doing without them for the time being did not lose the entire aesthetic).

Use if you:

Are willing to take the time to revise until you get what you want.

Don’t use if you:

Are impatient.

Modsy

Concurrent with Havenly, I also started a project on Modsy, a competing e-interior design tool. The main difference is that Modsy will also render a 3D version of your room which you can use to view multiple angles. The service also partners with several popular retailers so you can swap in a piece of furniture with something else from its catalog if you don’t like what the designer has created for you.

Modsy starts similarly to Havenly, where you fill out a style quiz by picking photos of rooms you’re more drawn to, like or dislike pieces of furniture in the example designs you chose, and explain the goals of your project. Then you upload photos of your room to cover a 360-degree view.


I was unable to get a good 360-degree angle of the room since the previous tenants were in the process of moving out, so using the few photos I had, I stitched them together in a super choppy way, alongside some images from the apartment’s real estate listing. Modsy somehow managed to take the mangled photo I slapped together and made a reasonably realistic render of the room, with only the floor color represented incorrectly. (This was later easily modified when we provided feedback.)



I received the first batch of designs in about a week. While they were a great start, the designs felt a bit bare. It also felt like Modsy blew through my budget by suggesting not one, but two West Elm shelves in addition to a new sectional. Thankfully, it does partner with several retailers with 3D renders of their catalog available to you, so you can change out pieces you don’t love with something else.

This was by far Modsy’s main advantage over other services. I could erase excess embellishments that I didn’t care for, or replace items with less expensive versions or a different color to change up the scheme. The renders also looked quite realistic, and gave me a lot of optimism for what the space could turn into.



I particularly liked that Modsy imagined the second half of the room as a cafe-inspired dining area, as it could functionally turn into a workspace when I am working from home. (And maybe it’s because I am a Googleable figure, but after providing Modsy feedback that our household loves to travel, I couldn’t help but notice the JFK to Tokyo wall art in the back, clearly a nod to a previous video I did for The Verge.)

Modsy also came to our rescue when we started unpacking our stuff and realized we had a lot more art than we thought, and didn’t know what to do with them. I sent the team photos of all our mismatched pieces of art and Modsy was able to render how to hang them on the wall in ways I wouldn’t have thought to do.

In the end, our budget only allowed us to buy a few staple pieces that Modsy recommended. And while I loved what the designer created for the second half of our living room, currently I have repurposed this area as a review “room” for an upcoming gadget, so hopefully we’ll be able to see the dining area design through in a few months.

In comparison with Havenly, Modsy starts at a higher price point at $69 for a slower turnaround time (seven to 14 days) and $149 for the base package for one room (five to 10 days). But the premium feels justifiable, giving you more flexibility to experiment on your own without necessarily waiting for the designer to send back a mockup. Still, though, it is clear that Modsy makes most of its money from referral purchases you make through its designs, and often you’ll get renders with a bunch of little pieces you might not want or need.

Use if you:

Are indecisive / need to see a lot of options before deciding on something.

Don’t use if you:

Need to stick to a strict budget.

While these services had their merits and disadvantages, if I had to go through the process again with another room, I would probably choose Modsy. For someone who lacks a design eye, it was helpful to see exactly how things were supposed to be placed. The catalog of items that you can swap in and out of your design also made it easy to try out a bunch of options in case the pieces Modsy picked didn’t work for you.

That said, there is a personal flair to Havenly, too. You’re interacting directly with a human being, which gives you the chance to communicate exactly what you want. But if all this is too much work, then your best option is to go the old-school route of actually working with a real-life interior designer, who you can pay to do the work down to hanging up photos and laying out your rugs. Plus, it’s always nice to support local, independent artists when you can afford to.

But as my former colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany says, life is expensive, and you have to pick your luxuries. If your home is your sanctuary, then do what you can to make it a place to be.

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