New accreditation for interior designers in the works

Accreditation is in the works to weed out rogue designers and firms, but some question the proposed criteria, while others think it is impossible

To make dinner at home, Mr Abdul Halil and his wife, Ms Stevanie Nur Rindyanie, squat over a cutting board and temporary stove on the floor in their kitchen.

There are no cabinets or work counters to speak of.

In their bathroom, loose wires hang from the ceiling. Around the rest of their executive apartment in Woodlands, tools are strewn on the floor.

Whatever fittings there are are shoddy, such as uneven floor tiles and a panel of skirting nailed to walls in all the bedrooms.

This "war zone" look is the work of contractors hired by someone they say claimed to be an interior designer.

 

''INTERIOR DESIGNER' TERM ABUSED

Professional standards among interior designers here vary and untrained individuals can call themselves interior designers. The term is being abused.

MR KEAT ONG, president of the Society of Interior Designers Singapore, which is launching an accreditation scheme for the industry

Starting from July, the couple said they paid $54,000 - in weekly instalments of about $10,000 - to the man.

They found him on Carousell, an online marketplace, and picked him after shortlisting about 10 other interior design firms.

Mr Halil, 42, a Singaporean environmental health and safety officer, says he signed with the designer because he clicked well with them and spoke well.

"I did my own checks and nothing came up," Mr Halil adds. "My wife said Singapore is a First World country, so she wasn't worried about being cheated. I let my guard down."

Ms Stevanie, 34, an Indonesia born make-up artist who is a Singapore permanent resident, had planned to have a walk-in wardrobe to display bridal gowns and a space for a mini salon for her home wedding business, but neither materialised.

Two months after renovations started, contractors stopped going to the flat. Mr Halil says he called the designer more than 100 times in a week, but no one picked up.

To get his money back, he has been to the police, seen his Member of Parliament and filed a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals.

DEGREE UNNECESSARY

A paper degree is certainly not a guarantee of competence. I have worked with several designers who have qualifications and been disappointed.

DESIGN INTERVENTION FOUNDER NIKKI HUNT, who says there are successful designers who do not have formal training

He also found other home owners in the same predicament with the firm, but says they have given up. He is resigned to the fact that the process will be long and he is unlikely to see any of the money again.

But that does not make him feel any less frustrated. "There's a loophole in the law. This guy can cheat other people again. I'm a victim, but I can't get anyone to help me," he says.

Mr Halil is not alone in dealing with rogue interior designers.

From January to October this year, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) had 187 filed and assisted cases involving interior designers and contractors. Last year, there were 244 incidents and in 2014, 262 cases.

There is no regulation or accreditation for interior designers here, so the onus is on the home owner to run his own checks.

So it should come as good news that an organisation is planning to introduce an accreditation scheme for the industry.

Two weeks ago, the president of the Society of Interior Designers Singapore (Sids), Mr Keat Ong, told The Straits Times that the group is launching an accreditation scheme for Singapore interior designers.

  • How to pick an interior designer

  • BUDGET

    Decide on your budget before searching for an interior designer. When you have shortlisted designers or firms you would like to work with, tell them how much you are willing to spend and if you are open to the budget being stretched.

    Some interior design firms may not want to work with small budgets.

    INTERVIEW PROSPECTIVE DESIGNERS

    Do not hire the first interior designer you come across. Shortlist a few and talk to them.

    On its website, the American Society of Interior Designers advises home owners to treat the search for an interior designer like an interview process.

    "Keep in mind you will be working closely with the designer. You will want someone whom you feel will make the right choices according to your specifications and listen to your ideas and concerns."

    Ask to see work that he has done. If you need more assurance, ask for a client reference.

    DISCUSS STYLES AND LOOKS

    Each designer or firm will have his or its own style or excel in a particular look. But a good designer should be able to work to your tastes, even if he has a different style.

    Prepare visual references of interiors or colour schemes you like. Make sure you are on the same page with your interior designer before work starts, so there will not be any disputes later on.

    CONTRACTS AND PAYMENT

    Go over contracts with a fine-tooth comb and understand the terms and conditions, says the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).

    Its executive director, Mr Seah Seng Choon, says home owners should ask for payments to be made in instalments as the project progresses, instead of paying in full upfront. Handing over a lump sum carries more risk if anything goes wrong.

    WORK OUT A REASONABLE TIMELINE

    As interior designers work on multiple projects at any one time, set a renovation timeline.

    Also, decide how the designer will keep you updated on work progress and what is the best way to stay in contact during the process.

    SOURCES: CASE, WASHINGTON POST, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF INTERIOR DESIGNERS AND FRESHOME.COM, HOUZZ

This is to differentiate interior design businesses from design-and build firms and renovation contractors.

There is an accreditation scheme in place for renovation firms, helmed by Case and the Singapore Renovation Contractors and Material Suppliers Association since 2014. It allows customers to claim from insurance companies for botched jobs.

Many design-and-build firms and renovation contractors often offer interior design services for free, Mr Ong says, though they factor the service into the final bill.

"The level of professional standards among interior designers here varies and untrained individuals can call themselves interior designers. The term is being abused," adds the 41-year-old, who is also the managing director of the award-winning, multi-disciplinary Nota Design Group.

He estimates that there are more than 3,000 interior designers and firms in Singapore.

Although the planning is in the early stages - a Sids accreditation scheme is likely to be ready only in a couple of years - some of the criteria are a designer's academic qualifications and his portfolio, he says.

Also under consideration is a fee guideline that helps interior designers know what price range is acceptable to charge for different types of projects.

Sids also wants to work with a government body to validate the accreditation scheme, Mr Ong adds.

The Interior Design Confederation Singapore (IDCS), a non-profit organisation and a registered society, is on the same page.

Since 2014, it has been working with the DesignSingapore Council, the national design agency, on an accreditation programme for interior designers.

Mr Alan Fan, 44, an IDCS executive council member and founder of award-winning architecture and interior design firm Topos Design Studio, says that accreditation for the industry is "long overdue".

He points to other countries that have regulation systems in place.

For example, the Philippines has introduced laws governing the interior design profession. Under the Philippine Interior Design Act of 2012, decorators, architects and furniture-makers cannot call themselves interior designers, and foreign designers have to get a permit and work with a local designer.

An accreditation scheme "will give the industry a new direction and improve its professionalism", Mr Fan adds.

Do interior designers want accreditation?

Some say yes; others question what criteria are relevant; while some feel it is simply impossible.

Established firms tend to be proaccreditation, especially in a saturated industry with low barriers to entry.

Mr Stanley Tham, 39, co-founder of 12-year-old KNQ Associates, says: "Some who claim to be designers may not even have a deep understanding of proportions, colour coordination or how to tailor homes to suit clients' lifestyles, instead, just following the clients' request to create something fashionable."

Even if there were an accreditation scheme, there could be disagreements on what criteria firms need to satisfy to get the badge.

One of the criteria Sids proposes is academic qualifications, but Design Intervention founder Nikki Hunt, 47, says: "A paper degree is certainly not a guarantee of competence."

"I have worked with several designers who have qualifications and been disappointed."

She points to successful designers, such as South Africa-born Kelly Hoppen, who do not have formal training.

Hunt moved to Singapore from Britain in 1993 and set up her interior design business a year later.

She says home owners should "look at the portfolio of the firm and for consistent quality".

Others feel that the industry - from interior designers to renovation companies - is simply too large and diverse to be regulated.

Mr Lin Weizhang, 39, principal at Super Fat Designs, a five-year-old multi-disciplinary interior firm, says that while accreditation is necessary, getting all interior designers on board would be "next to impossible".

He adds that as his firm relies on word-of-mouth publicity, being accredited will not snag Super Fat Designs more jobs.

While it remains to be seen how accreditation would work out for the industry, there are some informal safety nets for home owners.

Renovation and design platforms such as Houzz have options where home owners can leave reviews of good and bad services by interior designers listed on the sites.

Mr Jason Chuck, managing director of Houzz Asia-Pacific, says: "The Houzz team moderates all (reviews) for legitimacy and objectivity. We believe they serve as an independent voice that helps provide an informed view of working with that professional."

There is also Qanvast, a "one-stop shop" for home owners looking for interior designers and furnishings. It has a website and a mobile app, where projects by approved interior designers are displayed.

So confident is Qanvast of its stable of designers that last month, it launched The Qanvast Guarantee, which covers a home owner for up to 50 per cent of his contract value, or a maximum of $50,000 - whichever is lower. Home owners do not pay anything to be part of the programme.

The home owner has to request a quote and pick one of five interior designers recommended by the site. Once the home owner has settled on an interior designer, he can choose to send Qanvast his signed quotation within seven days to be covered.

Qanvast will make payouts to up to four home owners a year, or up to $100,000 in total.

Qanvast's operations and customer experience manager, Mr Johann Lim, says: "It's meant to give home owners peace of mind. We stand by the interior designers we endorse."

One of their customers is home owner Kenneth Tan, 28, a project manager with an IT publishing company who signed with 10-yearold Fineline Design, a Qanvast endorsed interior designer. His three-room Housing Board flat in Bukit Merah is now being renovated for $34,000.

Mr Tan says: "In the beginning, my aim was to find just someone who could renovate my house within my budget. The guarantee is an added value. I don't have to panic if anything bad happens because of the interior designer."


Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, it was stated that the Houzz team moderates all reviews for legitimacy and objectivity. Mr Jason Chuck, managing director of Houzz Asia-Pacific, has since clarified that Houzz reads every review submitted, in addition to having filters and flags in place to identify questionable reviews. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Fleeced by interior designer'. Print Edition | Subscribe