01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, June 17, 2007 By CHRISTINA S.N. LEWIS and LORETTA CHAO The Wall Street Journal
Eve Sinclair was so proud of the decorating job she'd done on her Los Angeles apartment that she decided last month to enter it in a contest sponsored by a home-design Web site. After spending two days cleaning, vacuuming and primping the 640-square-foot space, the 33-year-old furniture-company manager posted pictures and waited to hear the public's verdict.
It wasn't great.
Saggy chic! proclaimed one critic, describing Sinclair's futon and armchair. The purple faux bearskin rug she'd placed under a modern wood-and-glass coffee table was called the stuff of nightmares, while another voter singled out her greenery. For the love of God . . . someone save those poor, poor houseplants in the corner. The final insult: The apartment's design aesthetic was likened to the interior of an Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks.
It was kinda like, ˜Oh man, my house looks like a chain restaurant?' ‚ says Sinclair.
No longer satisfied with feedback from friends and family, amateur decorators are increasingly turning to home-design Web sites and forums where strangers weigh in. Apartment Therapy says it receives about 100,000 unique visits a day and that pictures of ordinary people's homes like Sinclair's are consistently among the most-viewed features. Rate My Space, part of HGTV.com, says it has logged more than 14.5 million page views since it launched in February ” and now has more than 24,000 members who have posted photos of their decorating projects. But beyond the friendly praise ( would love to sleep in this room! ) and discussions about the merits of bamboo flooring, these sites have added a new dimension to the normally genteel realm of home decorating ” the unvarnished truth.
Unlike interior-design professionals, for whom tact is a vital part of dealing with clients (especially those with bad taste), some commenters on these sites cut to the chase. The mauve shower curtain says that the owner/decorator is over 80 years old, read one recent post on Rate My Space. If you are, then fine. Otherwise, get a new curtain.
Lisa Gardner opened her San Francisco home up to scrutiny on Apartment Therapy, hoping to hear some praise for her ingenuity ” she furnished the space with items picked up at flea markets and scavenged from sidewalks on trash days. While most comments were favorable, she felt that some critics were unduly harsh about her clapboard-cottage style, including one person who took issue with the $10 American flag she'd hung over the sofa. She says the negative comments have discouraged her from posting any more pictures. I would never do that to someone else's home.
Aware that things can get pretty heated online, site owners and managers say they are working to maintain a level of civility. Criticism is fine as long as it's not personal, says Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, who says he's written a code of conduct and requires people to register before being allowed to comment. To encourage people to continue to submit house-tour slide shows, he will disable the comment feature if they request it.
Self-policing also keeps the insults down ” or at least, minimizes their sting. On Rate My Space, one member who posted pictures of her bedroom last month was told that the blue and brown thing has been done to death and that the room had no style. But other members leapt to her defense, in rather harsh tones themselves: Don't let her bother you, wrote one. She probably went off her medication again. As with many sites, Rate My Space also uses a comment-flagging system that allows users to report abusive posts.
Biting comments are only a small part of the online design scene, however. People who post photos on Curbly, a site launched last year, are more interested in exchanging tips on do-it-yourself projects. IkeaHacker, a site that is not affiliated with the Swedish furniture chain, is populated by users who are interested in customizing the retailer's products (transforming a daybed into a banquette, for instance).
This week, a new homeowner who uses the screen name heathernicole83 turned to the readers of Rate My Space with the following message: HELP! Pink Kitchen! Within hours, photos of the kitchen had been viewed more than 700 times and had set off an online discussion about color alternatives. I would go with something more earthy . . . sage green? wrote one. Everyone wants green now, parried another. Maybe go with something out of the ordinary.
When the chenille does hit the fan, some people appreciate the candor. Nina Cancellieri, 43, a part-time public-school computer aide in Seaford, N.Y., likes the anonymity of the online forums. Strangers on the Internet aren't afraid of hurting your feelings, she says. Friends are going to tell you it looks nice whether they really believe it or not.
Cancellieri recently posted pictures of her living room and asked for feedback on whether or not to buy an area rug. Heeding the advice of several commenters, she picked up an earth-toned geometric print from home-improvement retailer Lowes, then posted pictures of the readjusted room and got confirmation that she'd chosen well. A 5-star all the way! wrote one fan.
Even Sinclair, whose one-bedroom apartment was compared to a franchise restaurant, says she's grateful for the objective ” if bracing ” commentary. When she and her boyfriend, Paige Moore, move to Philadelphia in the fall, she's planning to post regular updates of her decorating progress in their new loft and is even considering entering the Apartment Therapy contest again. I guess it's kind of a challenge, she says.
The open forum doesn't work for everyone. Chris Gardner, a 24-year-old divinity-school student in Columbus, Ohio, recently logged on to Curbly to ask for suggestions for improving his ugly 900-square-foot townhouse, with its stained brown carpet, plastic faux-wood trim and awful brass knobs.
So far, though, he says most recommendations haven't jibed with his taste for classic, mid-century design. It would be nice if there were an online community where we all had the same taste, says Gardner, who still relies on magazines and books.
Lloyd Princeton, a design-industry consultant who charges up to $5,000 a day, calls Internet-based decorating low-level stuff that's fine for cost-conscious people who want to do it themselves. But certain people will always want someone to do it for them.
Nonetheless, these sites continue to grow. In four years, Apartment Therapy has expanded from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, and plans to add a MySpace-style section in the fall to make it easier for readers to connect and display photos. The nearly 4,000 members of the Interior Motives discussion group on Yahoo trade e-mail messages every day with advice ranging from how to tone down a peach bathroom (add neutral art work with hints of the paint color), to what colors to weave into a grey, black and cream French Country-style dining room (one suggestion: try soft buttercream yellow).