Home Decor

How To Work With A Virtual Interior Designer

With a few calls and clicks—and a bit of legwork—it’s easy to outsource a decor update.

A living area with grey couch styled by a virtual interior designer.

(Ficus lyrata potted plant, $27.99, ikea.ca. Glattis tray, $19.99, ikea.ca. Coffee table, Article Lenia Oval, $509, article.com. Oui beige cushion cover, $34.50, indigo.ca. Hjorthede rug, $499, ikea.ca. Basket, tall faux plant, framed art, floor lamp, sofa cushions, throw, gold drum table and coffee table decor, homesense.ca.)
(Produced by Stephanie Han Kim, Photography by Erik Putz, Prop Styling by Christine Hanlon)

They say love is what makes a house a home, but some well-chosen art, a few throw cushions and, oh maybe, furniture that actually fits your space must play a role, too. Because despite all the happy vibes happening in my own little Toronto semi, there’s nothing about the still-blank walls and media unit bulging past the living room doorway that screams “happy and functional humans live here.”

It’s not for lack of trying. Since moving in last January, my husband, Colin, and I have repainted, replaced the kitchen cabinets, added a second bathroom sink, opened up walls, ordered new windows and more. But the seemingly simpler task of furnishing the place? After my third attempt at buying an area rug for our living room, I was ready to admit that I didn’t have the time, eye or decisiveness to decorate this house on my own. Enter a virtual interior design service, which can help with everything from finishing touches to a full remodel using video conferencing and other online tools.

“Even as someone who loves design, I still took two years to furnish my home,” says Gloria Song-Foster, founder of White Dahlia Design, a virtual design service based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. She and her team now help clients get their rooms in Pinterest-worthy shape in less than a month, all without setting foot in their houses.

Packages start from $200 for choosing paint colours and sourcing small accessories and go up to $749 or more for a 3-D renovation plan. I opted for their mid-level package for my open concept living and dining areas. Starting at $649 per room, it includes a 3-D floor plan, furniture and accessory shopping lists, and pre- and post-design calls, plus placing and tracking your orders (and returns) for you.

“Most people know their style; they just don’t know how to pull it off,” says Song-Foster. But with a few calls and clicks—and a bit of legwork—it’s easy to outsource a decor update. Here’s how to max out your virtual makeover.

A living area with mismatched furniture before the interior design overhaul.

The Before Times: Bare walls and mismatched pieces demonstrate the decor indecision we’d been living with.

1. Consider your space.

The process for most services is similar: They all require some upfront work and a little soul-searching. “The number one thing to consider is how you experience your current space,” says Song-Foster. “What kind of functionality are you missing?” Maybe you’re low on storage; maybe you can’t see the kids playing when you’re cooking dinner. The other big question: How do you want to feel in the space? In our case, we wanted an inviting area to host friends but lacked seating.

Then I took pictures of my space, filmed a video walk-through, made a list (with dimensions!) of every piece of decor and furniture that I wanted to keep and drew a detailed floor plan. I uploaded all of this to an online portal and added comments where needed, explaining, say, the vision behind our DIY slat wall and media unit.

A black slat wall with a TV on a table in front of it.

A dark, DIY slat wall helps electronics blend into the background. (Media unit, Article Envelo Short, $799, article.com. TV wall speaker, Sonos Beam (Gen 2) in Black, $559, sonos.com. Tote and decorative vases, homesense.ca.)
(Produced by Stephanie Han Kim, Photography by Erik Putz, Prop Styling by Christine Hanlon)

2. Think about what you like.

Before your first call with your designer, you’ll also need to figure out what aesthetic you’re going for. “It’s less important to have it captured in a specific style name,” says Song-Foster. “Instead, curate the photos you love.”

On the call, we chatted about some of the common elements among my inspiration photos: a pared-back paint palette, subtle colours through accessories, and natural textures and clean lines in furniture. Song-Foster also took me through further questions about fabrics, finishes and colours. We ultimately decided the space should feel contemporary and clean, with warmth added through natural elements. “Like walking into a boutique hotel lobby,” she threw out. That felt exactly right.

An entryway area with a glass console table under a mirror.

A mirror, a console table and a dish for keys make this space pretty and practical. (Large faux plant, plant basket, golden bird candle holders, watering can, wall art, white plant pot, dishes and decorative vases, homesense.ca. Stockholm mirror, $59.99, ikea.ca.)
(Produced by Stephanie Han Kim, Photography by Erik Putz, Prop Styling by Christine Hanlon)

3. Set your budget.

After tallying the large items we needed (dining set, lounge chair and, potentially, a media unit) and rounding up for accessories, we landed at $5,000—a sum that probably wasn’t going to go as far as we thought.

Song-Foster says it can cost from $7,000 to $9,000 to furnish a room on a budget: “People underestimate the cost of accessories, but it’s the little things that make a room look finished.” I was open to investing in key pieces, so we chose a high-low mix. We also talked about the brands I love: EQ3, Article and Sundays for furniture; HomeSense, Indigo and Ikea for accessories. With that, the team took it away.

A bar cart with alcohol and glasses on it.

A dramatic coat of Sherwin-Williams’ Greenblack (SW 6994) transforms the dining area, while sunset tones and a mix of glass and ceramics serve up a well-styled bar cart. (Hanging planters, ca.umbra.com. Floor lamp, gold drum table, bar cart accessories, large faux plant and baskets, homesense.ca.)
(Produced by Stephanie Han Kim, Photography by Erik Putz, Prop Styling by Christine Hanlon)

4. Review the plans thoroughly.

“Our house can look like that!?” Colin asked when I showed him our two 3-D design options a week later. I shared his sense of awe.

It was clear that layers of accessories would make a huge impact: tall plants, tons of cushions, a throw blanket styled just so, mirrors, wall art, and every surface neatly styled with vases and objets. But there were larger differences to consider. In the first option, our existing furniture layout remained intact, along with our DIY media unit and couch, but the shelf had been replaced by a narrow console table, a functional upgrade as it’s near our front door. In the second, our living room layout was flipped, with the couch on a different wall, a new media unit and room for two lounge chairs. Most notably, the white dining room wall was painted in the same green-tinged black as our slat wall behind the TV—the perfect solution to divide the long common wall that runs along the living and dining areas.

Song-Foster says one of the biggest mistakes her clients make is scheduling the post-design call before they’ve properly reviewed the plans. With this in mind, Colin and I carefully scrutinized each option before booking the call. We ultimately decided to cherry-pick from both: keep our couch configuration, upgrade our media unit, swap the shelf for a console table, add one lounge chair and, yes, paint that wall black.

Video: White Dahlia Design

5. Take it all the way.

New stuff—exciting! Ringing it through on your credit card—daunting! Being about $3,000 over budget made it even more nerve-wracking. All those pillows and vases can add up, making them tempting to put off. But that’d be a mistake, says SongFoster: “If you wait to add accessories, the room doesn’t quite feel finished.” And because my goal was exactly that—a home that looks like an actual living space—I realized that it’s those details that would separate my blank-slate box from its boutique-hotel potential.

Of course, I made some compromises. Because I knew I’d like to eventually splurge on original artwork, we stuck with prints for the moment. Otherwise, I checked off all my product selections in the portal, and White Dahlia handled ordering and tracking. One by one, boxes started showing up. After a few messages to the design team about what height to install the plant hangers and how to artfully arrange our new throw pillows (they offer 30-day support for these types of questions), the transformation was complete. With our new furniture, a rug I actually like and every perfectly styled surface, maybe it is love that makes a house a home—love for how it looks from floor to ceiling, with every well-designed detail in between.

The author sits on her couch in her newly redesigned living area.

(Produced by Stephanie Han Kim, Photography by Erik Putz, Prop Styling by Christine Hanlon)


Spruce up your space with Canada’s top virtual design services

If you want to skip the shopping hassle. . .White Dahlia Design

This firm handles not just design and item sourcing, but also ordering, tracking and returning, too.

If you want to use your own items. . .The Room Editor

Toronto-based decorator Elias Blunden-Stone’s DecorBlitz service focuses on repurposing and restyling items you already have.

If you don’t want to wait. . .Room Edit by Stacey Cohen Design

The Instant Package serves up design direction in minutes: Pick a style (from “modern moody” to “sophisticated nomad”) and room type, and then receive a floor plan, an inspo board, a 3-D rendering and a shopping list.

If you’re planning a major reno…Spec

Select a design scheme from this Vancouver-based company and they will mail you a hefty binder of material samples and product specs from various suppliers.

If you need advice stat. . .Articulated Design Studio

Among other services, this firm offers 60-minute video sessions to pick a designer’s brain on anything from paint colours to building codes.

If you want a detailed game plan . . .Good Space Plans Online

Founded by a mother-daughter duo, this company develops customized plans for all your decor needs, including furniture arrangement, lighting plans, fabric recommendations and more.