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Vancouver Interior Decorator talks about Atmosphere; The one thing you cannot Buy

By 11/05/2009February 10th, 201736 Comments

The talented ladies at The Skirted Roundtable recently interviewed Charlotte Moss and I loved her answer to the question: What is the most essential element of a room?

“Atmosphere. It’s the one thing you cannot buy, it’s not about an object; it’s about the end result.”

Interior by Charlotte Moss

Atmosphere is the reason I always encourage my clients to just skim right past the cost of a custom toss cushion or pillow sham and rather, look at the total cost of the entire project.

Why a toss cushion you ask?

Because the cost difference between an off-the-shelf cushion and a custom made throw pillow is so big, clients always question it. And the difference between a store-bought cushion and a custom made–specifically chosen for your home–is of course the look and feel that is being created.

Charlotte Moss Interiors

Elle Decor interviewed Charlotte in their November issue and one of the questions they asked was; ‘Clients are becoming increasingly design-savvy and sophisticated. Has that influenced your work?’

It’s a double-edged sword, because possessing a lot of information doesn’t necessarily connote knowledge. At the end of the day all that information is good for people to know, because it means they are taking an interest in their surroundings. But I’m the one who has to put it all together and make A plus B equal C.

This week a client called and asked if she could pay me for half an hour to come and choose a colour for her living room. I said “You just need one colour?” Her response was “Well no, I need you to come and tell me what other furniture I need to buy, and help me create the look and feel for the room as well”. Exactly. Which [by the way] takes longer than half an hour 🙂

Charlotte Moss Interior

When [with a designers help] you have created the look and feel that you want, you’ll get happy just walking into your home!

And, if you are spending money anyway, a designer will save you their fee many times over because you will be buying the right furniture, because the space planning has been done in the first place, etc, etc. I explored this at length in my post; Hiring a Designer; Luxury or Necessity. If you don’t have the money to hire a designer for everything, one day of shopping will get you all the basics and a little extra.

Charlotte Moss is famous for her canopy beds! Now how much are those cushions 🙂

It’s funny, the money saving aspect of hiring a designer is mostly lost on people. Can someone enlighten me here? Why does it always seem like it would cost more? You are spending money anyway (if you are buying new furniture, etc) doesn’t it just seem like it would make sense to have everything you place in your home including the colour be absolutely perfect (or certainly as perfect as your budget will allow)? It costs exactly the same to paint the right colour as it does the wrong one, but if it’s wrong. . . well now it costs you even more.

To make sure you pick the right colours download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours: It’s All in the Undertones.

We would love to help you choose colours, select the right combination of hard finishes or create a plan to pull your room together. You can find our fabulous email consultation packages here.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn to how choose the right colours for your home or for your clients, become a True Colour Expert.

Related posts:

Interior Design may look Easy; It’s not

The Three most important Words in a Colour Consultation

10 Ways to save money Now by Creating a Focal Point

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49 pins


  • Tara Dillard says:

    What is the 'atmosphere' of a beautiful room or garden?

    It's GRACE.

    Proof? When grace is created you don't have to be in the space. Looking at the pictures you posted today proves atmosphere is grace.

    Your pics today are calming, energizing, inspiring, educational, beautiful and a pure hit of oxytocin to look at.

    Grace (atmosphere) isn't about the size or cost of a room/garden it's about putting everything together with intention.

    Atmosphere, grace, is what designers create and what a few non-professionals create too.

    Others? Save time & money, hire a designer.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • VictoriaArt says:

    Such great examples of atmosphaeric rooms. I agree so much, it is a gift, some people have it, some don't.
    I love to create atmosphare in a room and have made the observation even in the most beautiful appointed room this feeling needs to be transported through living. The active part of living in rooms.
    There are people, who have had their house decorated and then nothing is changed, no flowers brought in, no piece ever moved, staged. No book left next to the chair, unless it had been put there in the first place. That kills atmosphaere. Living with your things, objects loved and arranged according to your life and interests of the moment. It does not mean things can not be there just for the beauty of it, of course, but I feel there is an aspect, that can not be brought in from the outside. It comes from within! Use your rooms, eat at the dining table, light those candles, read the books, feel those pretty things, smell the flowers!
    Rooms and their owners need to relate to each other!
    For the second part: Why do people feel it is too much money spend on a designer? Because they don't see the true value behind the work. Firstly people think of what they can do themselves, they don't have to spend the extra money, furniture cost enough already…there is a false frugality, secondly they don't have the need, they do not feel IT! It is not that important. We might not understand it, but I have heard and seen it so often.
    A well designed space is not their priority! It comes with education, upbringing, culture and background.
    And I don't mean to be a snob, I really believe some people are simply not aware of it at all!

  • Hill Country House Girl says:

    Maria, what a great post! I cannot say anything better than Tara Dillard and VictoriaArt. They both hit on exceptional points.So often people just don't get the whole picture of what a designer can do for them. They think in terms of "30 minutes with some paint samples" will do the trick!

    I run into the conversation you had with the client all the time. People walk into my house and say "oh, I love your house. Will you help me with mine?" but when it comes down to really helping them create an atmosphere, they just don't get it. I don't mean to be a snob, either, but some people just don't have an eye nor do they see the value. Thank goodness for those who do!!

    Thanks for a thought provoking post with well chosen, beautiful photos.

  • Lauren says:

    great post and well said! WHen I first start out with clients I tell them we'll be going all the way through to the details and that it's that last $1,000 or so they spend on pillows & acessories that will make or break the room. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't. When they do listen, they're much happier. When they don't, well, it's just a half-followed through design!

    I start all of my designs with fabrics so when you take them out of the equation, the space is definitely missing something. oh well!!!

  • Tammy@InStitches says:

    Maria, Some people get it and some people don't. The majority of my work is done for interior designers who have been involved in the house from the beginning of construction. When my installer and I get there, the house is beautiful but when we leave there is such a transformation. The fabric really gives the room the wow factor and brings the atmosphere to life.

  • Kelly, Arte Styling says:

    I love Charlotte Moss's philosophy – absolutely agree! The atmosphere – or spirit, or mood, etc. – is definitely the most important "element" of a room. I think that's hard for some people to grasp because it's not a tangible thing. When a client buys a sofa, they get a nice chunk of furniture in their space. A direct value for their money. It takes a little bit more imagination for a client to understand the value of paying us to create a concept. We, as designers, have all these ideas…but those ideas cost money. And it costs even MORE money to execute those ideas. And then we end up with some projects that are half-done, like Lauren mentioned.
    I think the DIY industry is partly to blame for this perception, along with 1/2 hour makeover shows…and some large furniture/home retailers…but I'm still searching for a solution to this. And, like Maria, am curious to hear other's comments!

  • Anonymous says:

    Speaking as a future client, here is my perspective.

    The shelter magazines have done a bit of a disservice by never mentioning price, unless it's to boast of a $1,000 DIY project. Consequently, I have absolutely no idea how to begin to budget for a redecorating endeavor. I know how much furniture costs, but textiles are often to the trade, so how do I estimate a stark rug? Also, designers don't usually explain their fee–is it a flat fee? Hourly? And if so, how do I estimate how many hours it will take?


  • Anonymous says:

    I was sniped by Kelly, whom it appears sees eye-to-eye with me! Curse those DIY shows! 😉


  • Anonymous says:

    I had a neighbor come in my house and they quickly wanted one of my wall colors for a room, I started to ask where & if it would really work for them, but they were not interested in the least! They say I have the best house in the neighborhood (ha I know I do), so let me help you already.

  • Sara @ Russet Street Reno says:

    I think that most people do not consider hiring a designer because it's thought of as an extravagance, like hiring a maid service or landscaper when you can do it yourself. And to be honest, most people are not very stylish and don't really care/understand what makes a room shine. I would be happy to hire you, though! I simply love your ideas.

  • chanteusevca says:

    I so agree with the thought of creating atmosphere. I am on board with hiring a designer to make A plus B equal C, or the atmosphere I want created in my home. Getting my husband on board is another matter entirely. How do you make someone understand that we hire professionals for almost every other aspect regarding our homes and lives? When you have an advanced DIY husband, who can't fathom why I can't DIY design projects myself, I try to explain that it would be similar to me asking him to do my dental work. We may be able to use a paint brush, but we can't understand how the colors we picked aren't working with the rest of the house and the mood and atomsphere we wanted to create. We may be able to install our own hardwood flooring, but how can we be certain that the color of flooring works with the furniture and paint? It's an art and a science that I am not equipped or learned or gifted enough to accomplish, as much as I may try. Thanks again, Maria, for an always thought provoking and colorful post!

    Victoria in Texas

  • Tracy @ Comfort and Luxury says:

    Completely agree with Ms Moss about "atmosphere" (and most anything else she has to say!). I've stressed to my clients that as much as I want them to like the way their spaces LOOK, I also want them to FEEL right. It's a difficult concept to explain in words but when they see where a project is going and experience how the room works and "feels" as it comes together then they "get it". That's the moment I think I've actually earned my fee.

  • Rachel says:

    ack, i totally know what you mean about clients just not getting the value of a consultation. i try to liken it to the cost of purchasing the wrong color paint- 1 hour of color consultation equals the cost of approx 2 gallons of paint plus countless hours of priceless time. right there, they've already made their money back. works sometimes…

  • Design Junkie says:

    As a professional in the design field, I've had the same frustration with clients who don't seem to grasp the value of a designer. I think it's for a variety of reasons:
    1. HGTV and similiar–even on the shows with larger budgets, labor cost is rarely mentioned, product placement deals and design fees are never mentioned. Additionally, the extremely fast turnaround (because the shows never disclose the huge work crews behind the scenes) leads some of my less knowledgable clients to honestly think that a room can be designed and installed in 48 hours on a $1000 budget.

    2. I think another issue is that design often happens "off camera." That is, inside the designer's mind. Even if you explain your thinking, clients often can't see the thought process (not to mention the years of training and experience and footwork) that lead to their design solutions. Therefore, it looks like it's an easy process, and people don't value easily achieved things.
    3. People thing design is all fun and glamour. Don't get me wrong–I love my work and my field and get incredible satisfaction from it. But it's hard work–really hard work. Yet, all I ever hear from clients are things like, "Y'all must have so much fun shopping." "Doing this must be so much fun." etc., etc. And it is fun, but fun is only a small fraction of it. It's not fun when you spend hours on hold with a manufacturer trying to find out why the client's sofa is 3 weeks overdue when the party is in two days. It's not fun when you go to the work site and discover the contractor has finished the tile job–in the wrong tile. It's not fun when you have to figure out how to fit a rug, two chairs, and a coffee table into a budget that would normally only cover one item while making it look like money was not an object…I could go on, but you get my point.
    4. There is no standarization in the industry. Designers charge in different ways: flat fee, hourly fee, mark ups. While being a licensed designer means one has a degree, experience and passed an exam, a decorator can be self taught. There are so many differences between how designers work that some clients get great value and some may not. The point is, each client's experience is different so comparing designers to design jobs to design jobs can be like comparing apples to oranges.

    The question is how do we make sure client's understand the role and importance of design professionals? Education is key, and I think blogs like this that explain how and why professionals do what they do are valuable resources.

  • Chic Coles (Cole Design) says:

    What a wonderful resource you are to the design trade. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

  • Shoshana says:

    I've just found your blog and love it. I want to add that many people don't have the money to decorate their homes all at once but get the money to do it piecemeal. I would LOVE to hire a designer to consult to create a timeline–is that possible? Is it worth his/her time if right now I have money for paint but not for custom cushions?

  • Ideezine says:

    Every designer wants to work with a client that respects their integrity for the design process and every client wants respect for their taste level.

    Our society lacks self-respect therefore they see little value in collaborative efforts of designer/client projects.

    When you see no value in something you won't feel the need to pay for it.

    Just observe the way people drive, how they converse about others and what they consume both internally and externally.

    The way to solve it, is go straight through it by teaching the value. Solutions: Blogging, pod-casts, interviews, projects, online discussions and through this creative challenge value is achieved.


  • Kimberly says:

    To Shoshana and EM,

    I hope someone addresses your questions because I have the same ones.

    I just hired someone to help me because I do realize that I can't do it by myself. I've already wasted way too much money trying! But, I don't have enough money to do much at the moment. I, of course, plan to pay the hourly rate, which is somewhere in the 130-140.00 per hour range. I have and will purchase what I can from the designer, but I have to shop around for the best prices on some things, I just do.

    FYI: One place in town that I went to see about hiring help, was offended when I asked if we could do some less expensive things, like curtain rods from Target or Home Depot, to save a little money. Someone quipped "we're not Pottery Barn!" Was that an unreasonable request?

    And, is it fair to do things piece-meal like that? Pay for the service of coming up with a plan and purchasing things in my time-frame, which could take… a couple of years, or am I the person designers want to avoid?

    Please give suggestions for those of us who don't have 20k, 50k… to do it all now.


  • Anonymous says:

    Atmosphere is everything, but not always understood. Its our job to educate our clients, and create trust.

    In terms of pricing the current economic crisis is taking its tole. All the trades that I do business with are complaining about being talked down in price for services and product. Hopefully this will get better, sooner then later.

    Love your Blog Maria.

  • Brillante Home Decor says:

    Very interesting post and comments, I read them all and I have nothing more to say than I agree with each one. As C.M. said so well "atmosphere" is the only thing you cannot buy!

  • DesignTies says:

    So many thoughtful and thought-provoking questions and comments.

    As a new-to-the-business decorator, I recently completed jobs for my first two clients. One wanted paint colours only, the other wanted a complete plan for her main floor. After the hours & hours I spent thinking about her rooms and and going to stores and picking up samples and drawing up plans and presenting it all to her, I realize how truly valuable a decorator or designer is. They save you an enormous amount of time and legwork, not to mention they have access to so many trade-only things. In the end, the money spent on hiring a decorator or designer is SO worth it because it saves YOU money and time.

    My two cents 🙂


  • colorexpert says:

    As always a great post. A designer at one of the House Beautiful events (sorry can't remember who) said that a viewer should get an impression of the overall room design and, in their opinion, if someone walks in and comments on just one element the room design isn't successful. It is about the overall look for me and not any one element. It is all about whether or not I love the feel of a place for me.

  • Linda Merrill says:

    Hi Maria – very thought provoking – thanks for continuing the SRT conversation!

  • Diana says:

    Oh Maria what can I say!!! Your blog is fabulous and you are so right, I just finished reading your post and monthly letter and the have been the high on a horrible day in the hospital (the drs are not sure what is happening with my kidney)

    The end result is like icing on a cake, I just love it when a room turns out scrumpcious, and hopefully we all amateurs will learn from you how to achieve that.

    Keep up with this fab work! Congrats and keep colouring us happy!!

  • Jane Hall The Voice of Style says:

    Hi Maria,

    Great post as always and a great forum for discussion on the value of a designer.

    It can be intimidating for the average consumer to think about hiring a designer. Seen as an extravagance we make up for what they pay in the value of the service we provide. I believe the advice I have to offer can lead to huge cost savings. You can spend 10,000 on a room or 2,000 on a room depending on how you put it together.

    I like to believe I am a equal opportunity designer and in my store I bring design to the street, making it attainable for anyone. I charge 200.00 an hour but I will recommend where to get the "look in your price range weather thats Ikea Homesense or some of my favorite antique and vintage stores. My clients pay me to shop with them and I take them on what I call my Magical Mystery Tours, around Toronto to all my favorite haunts, where I get great deals! One client was looking at a desk in a chi-chi neighborhood for 4500.00 dollars and I found an antique for 450.00.

    I also watch out for my clients interests and practice intelligent design, spending the budget where it makes sense and finding the deals where I can. My clients love that.

    I also take them places in design they never thought they would go, and they have a home that reflects an imagination that they forgot they had. In short we have a blast!

    It IS the dream job.

  • Kimberly says:

    Jane Hall, you sound like a dream designer. Wish they were all like you!!!

  • Finds says:

    Good Morning,
    Have you ever told a prospective client on the phone that you have a blog and a web site… and that they may like to go there and see and understand better what you can create and what you are all about.

  • Karen Davis says:

    Great Discussion!

  • Anonymous says:

    Your blog has helped me realize of the value of interior design but when I'm loathe to spend any money at all, make due with used furniture, do our own painting and construction, I can't see where/how I can use services such as yours. After all, what interior designer is in the middle of nowhwere where I live and would do a project for an hourly rate since I don't intend to purchase furniture? Interior designers are a luxury.

  • Maria Killam says:

    Dear Anonymous,
    I get your dilemma if you live 'in the middle of nowhere' and if you hire a designer to custom design every single thing for your home, then yes, interior design is a luxury service.

    However, many times a designer (even for a few hours) come in and create a look and feel using what you already have.

    Finally, if a client is already going to spend money either DIY painting or buying furniture, hiring a designer for a few hours to help create the look and feel is where the money saving aspect comes in.

    Otherwise, people spend too much money in the wrong places or on the wrong items which end up being the designer's fee many times over!

  • Ruthie's Renewed Treasures says:

    I'm a decorator and was inspired to start my business because so many are intimidated by designer's. We have so many decorator's/designer's that aren't open to sharing their ideas, they cost a fortune and make client's feel like their houses need to be totally gutted before they can even start. My philosophy is to offer my services to clients no matter what budget they have. Sometimes it's what I call a "walk-thru", sometimes it's a total remodel. No matter what their budget is $200, $2,000 or $20,000 I can help somehow. Even if it's a 2 hour consultation, at least they feel like they get a start. I've found that those 2 hour consultation often lead to them hiring me to do everything. I can
    create a vision with what they have (sometimes their things can be used, sometimes not). So many people are stuck because they have tried doing it on their own, partly because they have been watching DIY shows and then can't move forward because they realize it's harder than they thought. I love to be able to go in, untangle their mess and get them on the right track by offering them my hourly services or completely tranforming their space.

    It's hard, hard work but when you listen to your client's and really work with them on their budget as much as possible (marriage counseling very often) they become your friends and the process is enjoyable. The atmosphere is created as they TRUST YOU, know that you have their interest at heart and are willing to stay humble while doing it.

  • Cristin says:

    Just linked here from TSR. I enjoyed the Moss interview too.

    Atmosphere indeed.


  • sunita says:

    I love this post and the terms atmosphere and grace applied to the designers efforts.As if they have a magic wand, the same old objects look so much better and not out of place. But you see there exists a category of people like me who appreciate all this and its worth yet can not afford it.For me your pages and other similar ones are an inspiration, thank you.

  • Erin says:

    I love your blog and this post. Speaking as a prospective client of a designer, I have three main reasons for not hiring anyone yet. 1.My location- I'm at least 1 hour from any big city, in the middle of the midwest. There are one or two designers in our area and they specialize in what I would consider a grandma-ish early 90s style. I could hire a web-consult design service, but I'm afraid they won't be able to give me a plan tailored to my space until they see/feel my house in person. 2.Price- Unfortunately, much as I love design, I have such a small budget. I realize that doing it right the first time costs less, but when your budget to do an entire room is less than $1000, I don't think I could afford the kind of designer I would want to hire. and 3. All those HGTV shows have given me a false sense of believing that I can handle it on my own-haha! I know I'm not professionally trained, but I enjoy doing it myself and enjoy the learning process of decorating our house over time.

    That said- if I had the budget and a designer I liked nearby, I would love to hire one!

  • 2 Hounds Design says:

    I think if clients thought about budget for the entire project they would see the value of hiring a designer/decorator.

    People are willing to pay $2000 and more to have a painter come in and paint a few rooms but balk at spending the equivalent for design help, which, to be honest would get them so very much more bang for the buck.

    Everyone can learn to paint but not everyone can create the desired atmosphere.

  • Peggy and Fritz says:

    I absolutely loved this post. Megan from Skirted Round Table lives down the street from me and I've become addicted to their interviews. This was one of my favorite interviews she did. I'm a business person who couldn't quit my day job and desperately wanted to do design but everyone was nickeling and diming me and wanted a project done for $2000.00 – that was their entire budget for paying me, the furniture, etc. I know you have to start somewhere but because they are use to watching HGTV one of your commenters made a great point they think it can all be done for that. I live in LA so it's difficult to start a business surrounded by fabulous designers because everyone wants a big name. In the interim, I read all of your blogs and live vicariously through you. I agree 100% on atmosphere. It's the number one thing that makes a room. You can have the most decorated room with no atmosphere. You know it when you see it and to convey that to a client is very difficult because it's the personal touches, the way in which you live in your house, it's the way your company feels when they are in your home. I thought her interview was fabulous and from someone who has met some top designers – I thought she was incrediable (business wise as well). Great post.

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