What It's Like to Hire a Virtual Interior Designer

It’s easy to become overly optimistic while hunting for a new home. Maybe it isn’t really as small as it looks! Maybe it will look brighter at a different time of day! Maybe it’s OK that there’s only 2 feet of counter space—you don’t cook that much anyway!

At least that’s what I thought when I signed a lease on a new apartment. Sure, it was smaller than my current place, but I live in New York—small apartments come with the territory. Then I got the keys, and panic set in. The open plan kitchen/living room barely seemed big enough for a couch, much less any kitchen storage or a table. We may not need a dining table, but we need a couch.

So I was delighted when I got an offer to try out Modsy, an online interior designer service that allows you to create a 3D virtual model of your space, then suggests products to furnish it with. (The company gave Mental Floss a free trial of its services.)

To start, I had to create an account and answer a few questions about the room in question, my design tastes, and whether I was adding just a few new pieces to a furnished room or starting from scratch. I uploaded eight photos of the room I wanted help designing, one taken from each side and each of the corners of the room. Then I put in the space’s measurements, submitted them to Modsy, and sat back for a few days while the company generated 360-degree renderings. Because I had yet to move any of the furniture into my apartment, I took photos of the empty room, but Modsy can also work with photos of your existing design layout—clutter and all.

An illustrated floorplan shows an open kitchen/living room combination with furniture.

Two days later, I received an email from Modsy’s customer service department asking for a few more details: Was there any specific furniture I wanted modeled in, like a table or a TV? What’s the primary use of the space? How much seating was I looking for? A few hours after, I received an email telling me the designs were ready to view.

And there my apartment was, in a 3D rendering that was accurate in everything but how much cleaner and brighter it looked. There were two designs, each with a slightly different layout. In one, the couch sat against the wall and faced toward the open kitchen; in the other, the couch sat essentially inside the kitchen facing out toward the opposing wall. One was a largely white theme with a few accents and a clear coffee table; the other sported a gray couch and a wooden entertainment console. Both included a two-person dining table in the entryway, something I had long given up on having.

A rendering shows an apartment featuring a white couch and several lamps against a wall.

In the virtual world, my apartment looked amazing. It was like a catalog, everything tasteful and perfectly placed and accessorized. There were artfully stacked piles of books and decorative mirrors. Two miniature coffee tables were situated with thoughtful asymmetry. There were beautiful plants that would immediately die in my real-life windowless room.

Still, the designs didn’t feel quite right. If I put the couch in the kitchen, we wouldn’t have any room to cook. We absolutely weren’t going to decorate our apartment in all-white furniture, given my roommate’s predilection for perching glasses in precarious places. We already planned on buying a kitchen island, and where would that go?

For a few extra bucks ($200 a room instead of the basic $70 package), you can get a one-on-one consultation session with the Modsy designer working on your space, so I chatted with Modsy designer Karina Lameraner in a phone session with a screen-share so that I could watch her play with my space in real-time from my laptop.

A screenshot of software used to manipulate floorplan designs

I was upfront with her about my issues: I needed to incorporate a kitchen island, I didn’t want a white couch, and everything had to be able to withstand my cat’s regular pukefests. I also told her what I liked about the first designs: the bright pops of color, the couch set-up near the wall, the idea for two smaller coffee tables instead of one big one.

Most customers, Lameraner told me, upgrade to the live style session because they’re looking to get advice or see something different in their Modsy designs. “Home design is very daunting,” she says. “It’s kind of nice to be able to talk to somebody.” As it was, I could have taken bits and pieces of Modsy's initial renderings and run with them—or asked for changes over email, which are included for free in your basic design package—but chatting in real-time was, in fact, nice, if not totally necessary.

For my space, she pointed out a few things I hadn’t noticed in the renderings, like a thin console against the wall behind the couch for placing drinks and other small items. She told me she would find the IKEA kitchen island I planned on buying and work it into my renderings. Mostly, I just watched her play around with my space. I mentioned the cat puke and the spills, and she swapped the light-colored rug with one made of jute, which she promised would be easier to keep clean. “Stay away from velvet,” she cautioned of my couch choices.

I admitted that I absolutely put my feet up on the coffee table, so I didn’t know how to handle glass-topped furniture. She introduced me to the idea of poufs, which can double as both footrests and informal seating. How did I feel about leather? She inserted a few options and moved them around. She suggested mixing and matching styles—“two of the same look a little, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s two poufs right there,’” she told me. I wouldn’t want to make anyone think “Two poufs! Right there!” So mix-and-match it is. I came away with some solid ideas about how to make the space both livable and Instagram-worthy.

A digital rendering shows a room with a kitchen island on one side and a gray couch against a wall.

I’m in a stain-friendly IKEA furniture stage of my life, not a $1700 white couch stage. Plenty of the furniture on Modsy just isn't going to happen for me. But I knew that going in, and wasn’t expecting to actually buy the exact furniture they suggested. There were plenty of takeaways from the experience that were more valuable than the specific products, since I planned to find similar furniture on the cheap elsewhere online, anyway. Mirrors and glassy tables open up small spaces. A few small tables instead of one big coffee table can give you somewhere to set your wine without completely blocking a middle-of-the-room doorway. I could probably fit a small dining table in my hallway. Maybe I could mount my television on a wall that’s not directly across from the couch.

And while most of the products modeled into my space were way beyond my price range, Modsy does draw from companies that are slightly less pricey than the distinctly out-of-reach-for-me Design Within Reach. There were Target products, too. If you don’t like the exact furniture initially included in your layout, there are suggested alternatives with slightly different looks, designers, and price points.

There were weaknesses in the experience, sure. While the product choices came with alternatives, you couldn’t filter those alternatives in any way, be it by type of material, color, or price. And the interface wasn’t always intuitive. It took me days to figure out how to hide the menu along the bottom of the window to see my renderings in full. You can’t read descriptions of the products, just dimensions.

A digital rendering of a room is overlaid with product links to the furniture inside.

I don’t think that I, a stingy Millennial renter on a writer’s salary, am Modsy’s ideal client. It’s hard to say when I’ll move next, making me resistant to invest in the perfect furniture. Then again, if I wanted to hire a traditional interior designer, I wouldn’t even know where to start, and $80 and at most 15 minutes of taking pictures and answering survey questions isn’t a huge investment when it comes to hiring a professional.

If I owned my home or was living a more stable life where I planned to stay in one place for the foreseeable future, an online interior designer might be worth it. It certainly gave me a new perspective on my future living room, helping me solve spatial problems that had been baffling me for weeks as I stared at floor plans and thought, “Could two people use a single armchair as a couch?” Now, hopefully, I can figure out how to fit a whole sofa and still navigate my living room.

All images courtesy of Modsy.

New Color Scale Makes Data Visualizations Easier for Colorblind People to Read

Mars topography visualized on a rainbow scale
Mars topography visualized on a rainbow scale
NASA/JPL/USGS

When designers want to visualize changes in data, like in a heat map or a topographical survey, they often reach for the rainbow. The rainbow color scale is almost the default for visualizing scientific and engineering data. And yet, putting all the colors of the rainbow into a single image isn’t a good idea. For one thing, as Scientific American reports, it makes visualizations impossible to read if you’re colorblind. And even if you can pick out every color in the image, that doesn’t mean you understand what going from red to violet means.

Now, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington have developed an alternative to the rainbow color scale that will make data visualization and other images easier to decipher for people with color-vision deficiency and the general public. Using a mathematical model of how the brain perceives differences in color, they created a new color scale they call cividis, which shows data exclusively in shades of blue and yellow—the colors that someone with colorblindness would see while looking at a rainbow color scale.

A nanoscale image overlaid with four different color scales
The new blue-yellow color scale is labelled CVD-Jet
Nuñez et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

They took traditional rainbow color maps and ran them through software that converted them to look closer to the blue-yellow scale that reflects what someone with the most common form of colorblindness sees. Then, the software adjusted the color and brightness of that image to look more consistent with how people interpret data. One of the problems with the rainbow scale is that people automatically see the brightest color as a peak, sometimes leading them to incorrect conclusions. Even though yellow is one of the middle colors in Roy G. Biv, it often jumps out at people as the most extreme color on the map, though red is the highest on the scale. In this color scale, the color does get brighter as the values go up, so you don't have to work as hard to interpret it.

In general, most people don’t intuitively know what order the colors of the rainbow should appear in at all. Red and violet are at opposite ends of the Roy G. Biv scale, but that’s not visually apparent. Narrowing the range down to two colors makes it easier for readers to pinpoint where on the scale a specific point is.

The two-color scale also makes changes in data look more gradual, whereas with a rainbow of colors, the difference between each color looks very stark. The ability to show a gradual progression can reflect more nuance.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. An eye-catching, complex rainbow visualization can lead scientists to misinterpret their own data, while an easier-to-read scale makes it easier for them to pick out patterns. In one 2011 study cited by Scientific American [PDF], scientists at Harvard found that doctors were faster and better at spotting signs of heart disease while looking at 2D images of arteries on a color scale that just used black and red than while looking at a 3D rainbow visualization.

Cividis has already been added to the color-scale libraries of some image-processing software, and its creators hope to convince more scientists and designers to use it in the future.

[h/t Scientific American]

Hong Kong's Peculiar Architecture Can Be Explained by Feng Shui

iStock
iStock

Most people are familiar with feng shui—the ancient Chinese art of arranging one's environment to maximize good energy—as it applies to interior design. But you don't need to walk into a building to see feng shui at work in Hong Kong: It's baked into the skyline.

This video from Vox examines how feng shui has shaped the design of Hong Kong's skyscrapers. Some of the most extreme examples are dragon gates: large holes cut out of the center of buildings. The idea is that dragons, which are said to live in the mountains behind the city, will be able to fly through the openings and into the water. If their passage is blocked, bad luck will befall any buildings in their way.

Some superstitious design features are a little more subtle. In the lobby of the HSBC building, the escalators are positioned at a strange angle to fend off the bad energy flowing into the space. When Hong Kong Disneyland hired a feng shui consultant (a real and lucrative job), they were told to shift the entrance 12 degrees to keep chi from flowing out.

But not every architect in Hong Kong takes feng shui into account. The Bank of China Tower is infamous for its sharp angles, which feng shui experts claim damages the positive energy around it. Anything bad that happens to the surrounding businesses is immediately blamed on the tower, and the neighboring HSBC building even installed cranes that are meant to combat any bad luck it radiates.

You can watch the full story below.

[h/t Vox]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER