Cost Comparison: Big Box vs. the Decorator

I’ve always decorated our homes, ever since our first apartment in New York. Not the glamorous Sex in the City side of New York. Washington Heights. Way north. Above Harlem. Where Rudy Giuliani, during his stint as a D.A., reputedly brought a reporter along to witness how easy it was to buy drugs on our street corner. My handsome husband and I were married in 2003, and until five years ago when he finally finished his training, one or the other of us has always been at school while the other earned a relatively low income, especially when balanced with our educational costs. In effect, we were always dead broke, and I decorated with whatever sidewalk, hand-me-down, thrift store find I could. I couldn’t buy new furniture, let alone hire a decorator.

We finally moved into this house in 2012. We’re still on a budget but finally not living paycheck to paycheck, and I’ve been slowly decorating at the rate of about 1 room per year. I started with our bedroom and Thing 1’s room. I knew I could do them quickly and relatively inexpensively, and I wanted our bedrooms to be refuges from the mess of everywhere else. Then came the library.

Why I Hired a Decorator

The library was a very challenging room for me then, even though I’d successfully decorated two previous homes. I had a vision in my head of the look I wanted, but the obstacles were many. Firstly, it was about 35′ long and only 9′ wide at its narrowest in front of the fire. Secondly, I had a baby grand piano I needed to put in there. Thirdly, I needed a LOT of space for books. Fourthly, I was on a budget that, while sizable to me, was not all that big to accomplish all I needed to do.

The “before” pics from our first look at the house.


That's our realtor on the left.
That’s our realtor on the left.

I knew of the great upholstery brands like Baker, Hickory Chair, and Henredon and so forth, but when I walked into a furniture store for the first time and priced out some pieces, I was literally struck speechless. $5,000 for a chair!!! Still, I never loved Big Box upholstery either, having grown up with a father who was a carpenter and a total snob about quality when it came to furniture (you know, kiln-dried hardwood, mortise and tenon joints, 8-way hand-tied springs, etc.). Made-in-China just doesn’t have that lifetime warranty on a sofa.

I was terrified of making a very expensive mistake. So I hired Dena Hamilburg, a decorator with whom I’d become friends while I was doing the afore-mentioned bedrooms, to help me with a floor plan. That way I knew what I ordered would fit. I’d always loved creating and had been bitten by the decorating bug long before, but that friendship opened my eyes to seeing what a decorator could do and started me on this path. (Well, that and, after experiencing wholesale prices, I never wanted to go back to retail prices ever again!)

The “afters.”

Photography by Eric Roth
Photography by Eric Roth
Photography by Eric Roth

The Benefits of Hiring a Decorator

While I’ve discussed the benefits of hiring an interior decorator/designer in past posts, I don’t think I’ve ever really put them down in one place. Lots of other people have, though. The Decorista lays it out pretty well here. Briefly, some her reasons are thus:

  1. Function and form work in harmony: Every thing is the right scale, every piece is well placed/spaced, all the walk ways work, and the shapes/colors of everything work harmoniously.
  2. The mix makes sense: Mixing metallics, furniture styles and periods, patterns, colors, etc. — it’s actually not that easy to do, whatever lots of bloggers and Better Homes & Gardens may say. It takes a really good eye. Just like photography; it doesn’t necessary follow that just because a person has a camera and all the instructions on how to use it, he/she will be a good photographer.
  3. Unique ideas. A decorator has been exposed to a lot of other ideas and has a bunch of her own as well! She may come up with things you wouldn’t normally think of to make your house even more your style.
  4. Save a whole lotta time. You could spend years and dollars learning the lessons that decorators have learned, or you can save yourself from spinning your wheels, endlessly cost comparing and getting style sidetracked.
  5. YOU WILL SAVE MONEY.  Clients often call decorators when something just feels wrong about a room and the client can’t put her finger on why. Maybe the colors are off, maybe the pattern scales clash, maybe “the mix” looks like hodgepodge. A decorator looks at a room as whole plan and can keep you from making lots of “one-at-a-time” purchases into mistakes. A decorator also has access to both trade-only resources as well as big discounts. Yes, you have to pay the decorator’s fee, but for a fairly similar cost, you will have a comfortable and beautiful home.

Don’t believe me about the money?

Stereotypically speaking, while many a wife or girlfriend might be convinced to hire a decorator by the first four reasons, many a husband is not (and I’m not talking about anybody specific here 🙂 ). Since money talks, I thought I would conduct a little experiment.

Big Box vs. the Decorator — Counting the Cost

I decided to take a single page from the current catalog of a Big Box store. I then totaled up all the things pictured in this family room to see what it costs as a whole. (And BTW, this is not a completely finished room in my opinion — no window treatments, more lighting needed, more occasional tables, couple more pillows, etc.)

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 1.45.47 AM

The items include:

  1. 84″ sofa
  2. 2 lounge chairs
  3. Coffee table
  4. Side table
  5. Table lamp
  6. Floor lamp
  7. Ceiling light
  8. 3 pillows
  9. Media console
  10. Art
  11. 8′ x 10′ rug

I did not use any sale prices.

For these 11 items, the grand total is: $9,185.50 (not including taxes and shipping)

(That may seem like a huge amount, especially to those of you who have never put a whole room together at one time. I understand. I’ve been there, and I’m still there. But as you can see, little stuff adds up. And this room isn’t even done. If you have to start from scratch for a family room, a $20K+ budget is more comfortable.)

Next I decided take approximately that same budget and recreate the room using the same 11 types of items from my trade vendors but according to my own design scheme and my own standard of quality and value, spending where it counts the most (particularly upholstery) and saving on other items. To be fair to my Big Box budget, I did not try to use any clearance items from my vendors but only used items at full wholesale price.

I came up with this fabric and color scheme a while back and have always loved it for its feminine/masculine dichotomy. There are some super reasonably priced fabrics along with a splurge. I thought it would be a good place to start for my fictional challenge room.

Screen Shot 2016-12-31 at 4.11.02 PM

Using only my vendors and not any consignment, Craigslist, auction, or Big Box purchases, I came up with this family room. Same 11 types of items.

Big Box Challenge Collage

1. Paint color / 2. Ceiling light / 3. Floor lamp / 4. Art / 5. 2 pillows in this fabric / 6. 1 pillow in this fabric / 7. Table lamp / 8. Sofa with Crypton fabric / 9. Side table / 10. Rug / 11. Coffee table / 12. Chair / 13. Media console / 14. Chair fabric

Then I added on 10% for my fee, estimating this plan would take 10-12 hours of my time and would have needed a floor plan as well. (As I charge by the hour, the more revisions a client has to my initial proposals, the higher the fee gets. It’s a good idea to really communicate your style and likes/dislikes to your decorator up front!)

For these 11 items + 10% design fee, the grand total is: $9,427.66 (not including taxes and shipping)

(The fee I estimated does not include follow up time spent purchasing and admin work after proposal approval or installation.  That might be another 5-10%.)


I’m sure you have a million questions. In particular, why I haven’t broken the price down by item? Well, in fairness to my vendors and the many other designers who charge a markup on their goods, I can’t publish my wholesale prices. Others may not charge by the hour like I do, instead charging a single flat fee that may (or may not) cover all the time they end up spending on a project. The markups cover overages. Who knows, I may have to change my own fee structure some day.

(Besides, when you walk into an Ethan Allen, or Cabot House, or Pompanoosuc Mills, or any other furniture/rug/whatever retailer, you don’t ask what their markup is, right? Just know that, whatever markup a designer charges, you will still get a better deal that you can find online 90% of the time.)

 The Decorator Benefit Breakdown

Whether or not you like the fabric/color scheme, I feel the room I came up with has some significant benefits:

  1. Better upholstery. The sofa and chairs are both handmade in North Carolina. To keep costs a little lower, I used tight backs (no loose cushions to fluff or look saggy and less use of material) but I did factor in an upgrade to spring down seat construction vs. the Big Box polyester foam core.  These have coil spring rather than sinuous spring construction. Yet, all for almost the same price as Big Box.
  2. Choice of fabrics. Upholstery fabrics were chosen to be super durable without sacrificing softness. The sofa is covered in a neutral Crypton fabric (Super stain resistant yet very soft. Red wine will just bead up and blot off — amazing fabric.) and the chairs are in a very durable — but very economical — tweedy herringbone in a fun heathered mulberry color. The fabric for the two floral pillows is also super economical, with a splurge pillow in the geometric neutral/purple woven fabric.
  3. Saving on the case goods. It turns out that Big Box’s prices on tables and case goods aren’t all that awesome. I was able to save a lot on the coffee table and side table and then come up with a really beautiful media console.
  4. Better lighting. I was able to get better quality lighting for a similar cost. I saved big on the floor lamp — it’s a favorite of mine!
  5. Art & Rug. I spent a little more on the rug to get the look I wanted and still have 100% wool. However, I spent less on art — and was able to customize the art’s size down a little bit (the original is enormous)!
  6. Overall complete and satisfying room scheme. I was able to draw items from multiple sources to find the look I wanted for the price I needed and coalesce them into one complete, unique room.

BIG Caveat

I’m really not a hater! I buy and recommend products from Big Box stores all the time. Moreover, I personally have yet to create a room that doesn’t include eBay, Etsy, consignment, Craigslist and other finds. I was just trying to compare apples to apples as much as possible.

This exercise is merely to show that if you want something unique, if you feel overwhelmed and want help with your home, if you feel you want to expand your horizons beyond the catalogs that show up in your mailbox but you’re unsure about the cost of hiring help…

you just might be able to afford it.

And, of course, if you have a much bigger budget, the sky is the limit on details and customization! Hehehehe.

What do you think of all this? Any questions? Any reluctant spouses or design mistakes you regret? (Don’t worry, we’ve all made them.) I would love to hear your thoughts.

I’ll be back next week with a story about ART. ‘Til then!


2 thoughts on “Cost Comparison: Big Box vs. the Decorator”

  1. I love your comments!! I’m wanting to redo our living room and SO wish you were closer to help me. You have wonderful thoughts and express them beautifully! Miss all of you and love you!

    1. You are so sweet, Aunt B! Just so that you know, I work with remote clients all the time. There’s a little more work on their end — sending me measurements and pictures — but that means less time that I bill them for on my end. If you’re ever interested, just let me know. Love you, too!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Home Style Compatibility QUIZ!

Have you tried decorating your home with that all elusive “mix”…

yet nothing seems to work?