No More Surprises: When to Start Your Interior Design Project So You’ll Be Ready for Guests Any Time of the Year!

“It should only take about two months for my living room design project – right?”

I always feel terrible when I have to break the news to someone who calls two or three months ahead of a big event in hopes of completing a design project that it’s just not possible in that amount of time.

It happens fairly often and frankly, I can understand why. There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding how long a design project should take. In fact, many home design television shows seem to imply that even large projects can take just a few short weeks to complete.

But the only reality that can happen in is on reality TV.

So what is a realistic timeline to anticipate for your interior design project? The short answer is . . . it depends. Candidly, I have a love/hate relationship with timelines – especially in this industry. While I love being able to help my clients know what to expect upfront based on my firsthand experience with various kinds of projects over the years, there are so many variables that come into play on every single project. One of the biggest challenges for my team and I can be working to keep our clients’ projects running on time.

Despite that, there are definitely some basic guidelines that can help you plan ahead – in particular helping you know when to start calling an interior designer. I’m laying out here exactly what you need to know about typical project timelines, as well as giving you a calendar that outlines exactly when you should start calling a designer if you want to get a design project done and beautiful in time for holidays and certain major life events.  

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When to make the call?

You need to realize that most interior designers won’t be able to start your project the week after you call them. They’re professionals, and just like other pros, their project calendars can get booked out well in advance. Additionally, it takes a week or two just to lay the administrative foundation for a new client project – drawing up and sending the contract, processing a deposit, and organizing your project’s schedule and other back-office details that have to be in place before the designer begins on your space’s design.

That’s not to say that you should bring a designer on board months and months before the start of your project. If you understand how long each aspect of a typical project is likely to take, you can back into a reasonable start date, and then you can be sure to give the designer some runway by calling them a good 4-6 weeks ahead of time.

The scenario

Let’s walk through how a typical project runs. Imagine you’ve hired me to redesign your family room. We’ve determined together that to get the look and functionality you’re looking for, you’ll need new furniture, drapes, paint or wallpaper, new light fixtures, and some custom built-ins.

You might assume the timeline for the entire project is based on how long it will take to order and receive all of your furnishings. You might also assume that having your designer order to-the-trade furniture will take roughly the same amount of time as it would for you to order retail furnishings.

But there’s actually much, much more than meets the eye in a project like this. The truth is, a project like this would take about 6 months to complete. Here’s why.

Before the ordering begins

Before we can start ordering, we need to sit down and establish your goals for the project and some concrete ideas. Then we begin creating the design as a plan that roughs out possible color palettes, products and layouts.

It can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to settle on the final design because – in addition to the design process itself – any number of disruptions can prolong this phase. You and your partner might not be on the same page about the options you prefer and we all may need to work out a compromise. You might struggle with indecision and commitment to the plan and the furnishings and need more time to mull things over. You lead a busy life and you may not be available to meet at intervals that would keep things moving along. Kids’ schedules, vacation plans and work commitments can all throw a wrench in the works for your timely decision-making and the communication with us.

Even once we get the design finalized, it’s still not yet time to place the orders. From there, it will take up to two full weeks for us to contact all the vendors and manufacturers for you. Prior to placing your orders, we have to:

    • Get ETAs on all the furnishings (including rugs, lamps, etc.). If we find something in the design plan is backordered and won’t be available for several months, we’ll need to make strategic decisions about the merits of selecting something else instead versus waiting on the item
    • Create and set in motion all necessary work orders
    • Collect deposits to pay the vendors (most vendors require at least partial payment up front before they’ll begin take an order)
    • Order the fabrics we’ll be using to cover furnishings and to fabricate window treatments and pillows, and have those fabrics sent out to the appropriate fabricators or manufacturers

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Time to order

Once all of that is complete we can finally place your orders! If you’re doing the math, we’re now at around 6-8 weeks after your project started, and at least 10-12 weeks after you first called us.

With all your orders placed, we begin a lengthy waiting period while your furnishings are being made. To-the-trade furnishings take around 8 weeks or more to be fabricated and shipped out after an order is placed – longer if there are a lot of other orders in the manufacturer’s queue ahead of yours.

Unlike retail furnishings, these items aren’t manufactured by the thousands and left in a warehouse, ready and waiting to be shipped out almost as soon as you order them. These unique, high-quality items are essentially “made to order.” Trade manufacturers offer a world of customization options that just don’t exist in retail outlets. These options let us get you exactly the right sizes, fabrics, finishes, styles and details needed to create your room’s design.

And because all of your orders don’t get completed and shipped at the same time, it’s usually a good 3 months or so from the time your orders are placed until we’ve received absolutely everything and we’re ready to install it all in your home. This leaves us with an installation date right at about the 6 month mark from your project’s start from start.

Expect the unexpected

All of that said delays do happen sometimes. By way of example, we recently ordered fabric for two chairs to be sent directly from the fabric vendor to the fabricator of the chairs. It was a gorgeous velvet with a sumptuous pile – but when it arrived at the fabricator, they alerted us that it looked rather flat. We determined that it simply needed to be steamed, but the fabricator (understandably) wasn’t willing to take on the liability of doing that for us. If anything went wrong, they would be on the hook for the time and the money required to replace the fabric.

It’s my job to troubleshoot these problems and so I ended up having the fabric sent back to the mill so they could steam it, then having it sent back again to the chair maker. All of that back and forth added 3 weeks to the project’s timeline, which of course is less than ideal. But when it’s a choice between adding a few weeks to a project in order to get our clients’ items right and skipping details like flattened velvet and risking items that aren’t done well for the sake of staying on time, I’ll opt for the delay.

Additionally, delays can crop up with the construction aspects of your project. Even something as simple as changing out a light fixture can go wrong. The electrician might realize after he or she arrives that they need to add more support to hang your stunning (and heavy!) new chandelier – and of course, they need to order the necessary materials or come back another day with an assistant.

Delays often happen as plans on paper are translated into reality. We always work off of shop drawings and unexpected things sometimes arise. A measurement that’s even 1/8 of an inch off can cause a cascade of adjustments and resulting issues that need to be overcome; or an aspect of the plan doesn’t take into account a limitation of the materials or a functionality problem it creates; or quite simply, someone can misread the plans and execute their part of the job incorrectly.

Scheduling woes

Coordinating all of the trades in the right order and at the right times can be a huge challenge – and yet another source of delays. Unless your project is a full-fledged renovation, we typically don’t schedule the contractors (painters, plumbers, electricians, etc.) to start work in your home until your furniture is almost ready. That way, you don’t have to live in a construction zone for six months!

But getting their schedules to line up the way we need them to in those last couple of weeks before we install your furniture is a monumental task. While we might be able to get the painters to come one week, the millwork installers may not be available until an entire week after that (and incidentally, it can easily take 8 weeks to create millwork – the same amount of time as furnishings – once everyone has signed off on the shop drawings!).

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The good news is that’s what your designer is there for. We handle all of those headaches and curveballs – and you may never even know they happened at all. This keeps your project experience as stress-free as possible, while we figure everything out and do our best to stick as close to the project’s timeline as possible.

The takeaway: Plan well in advance!

I hope this doesn’t scare you away from starting your design project. Although it’s a long process, we try to minimize the uncomfortable lead time for you and to keep you in the loop all along the way so you’re not left wondering what’s happening with your project.

Most importantly, if you want to get a design project completed for an upcoming event, be it a graduation party, a wedding or even just a visit from long-awaited guests, I always recommend giving yourself ample time. Depending on the specific needs of your project give yourself up to 6 months to complete a room from top to bottom.

That way, you can avoid rushing around looking for temporary furnishings or having anxiety over not being able to get it all done before the big day. 

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