Swatch this: Designers deftly adapt to COVID-19 restrictions

Like many local designers, Alison Sheffield of Sheffield Interiors in Cohasset posts design boards and material swatches on her Instagram feed. She’s currently working on five remote projects. This mix of fabric, rug, and wallpaper samples is for a client in Buffalo. Alison Sheffield

On a breezy afternoon in April, Lisa Bonneville of Bonneville Design in Manchester-by-the-Sea presented preliminary drawings and finish samples to a client she had started working with a few months prior. It was her first “tailgate’’ presentation, so named because it happened out of the back of her husband’s Toyota Highlander. “The bed was table height, and I anchored each section of my agenda with tiles to keep the wind from blowing it around,’’ she posted on Facebook. “We stood on either side of the car in masks and gloves and made decisions that can only be made in person and in natural light.’’

By the time the state shut down, designers were ordering extra sample sets for clients. Some dropped shopping bags on doorsteps, rang bells, and retreated; others shipped packages containing carefully labeled swatches and corresponding presentation boards. “When the samples arrive, it’s like opening a Christmas present!’’ Cristina Hadzi, a designer on Cape Cod and New York, exclaimed.

But a small swatch isn’t always enough to go on. When one of Hadzi’s clients rejected every rug sample she sent them — the patterns were abstract, which made imagining the full effect difficult — she turned to The Rug Company, which will deliver, install, and let clients live with a rug before purchasing it. Good thing, as their rugs are hefty investments. For those looking for artwork, local galleries do this even in normal times.

Designers are tweaking their approaches in real time. Annabel Joy of Trim Design Co. in Swampscott now sends multiple color samples when she’s helping clients make choices that involve pieces she hasn’t seen with her own eyes. (Computer screens do not accurately represent color.) She also asks clients to shoot videos of their homes so she can get a more realistic sense of spaces than two-dimensional photographs provide.

The scheme for a Newton nursery designed by Sage Conti Design. With five kids under 10 and schools on a reduced schedule, Sage Conti of Sage Conti Design in Concord has a lot to juggle. “My husband and I alternate virtual school schedules in between my meetings. It’s bonkers, but we are settling into a routine,” she said. —Courtesy of Sage Conti Design
AFTER: The Newton nursery. —Joyelle West
AFTER: Conti was on a FaceTime call directing an art installer where to place the decals and framed prints in this Newton nursery the morning her client went into labor. —Joyelle West

Obtaining measurements is another challenge. Barbara Hirsch of Elza B. Design in Concord enlisted her 15-year-old son to help measure an (empty) house in Milton since she couldn’t comingle with her assistant. Sometimes homeowners themselves fill the gap. Although the team at Boston-based Eleven Interiors had already measured a clients’ Gloucester home pre-COVID, designer Madison Mitchell asked them to remeasure. “It turned out to be a fun way to engage them in the design process,’’ Mitchell said. “They had free time during quarantine so they didn’t mind, and they could involve their kids in the activity.’’

Zoom is an integral part of the equation, allowing designers to conduct remote site visits with contractors and interact with clients in new ways. Nina Seed had never executed the finishing touches from afar until she recently styled a client’s bookshelves over Zoom. “I literally directed her: ‘Put the black vase in the corner. Move it to the right. Stand back. OK, that looks good,’ ’’ said Seed, of Westwood-based Nina Seed Interiors. She conceded that while some of the mystique has disappeared, the process still results in a happy client.

Erin Gates Design in Newton Center has offered remote-design packages for quite some time, testing out several e-design models using a flat fee structure. When all design work went virtual in March, the firm reevaluated. Now they bill all projects at an hourly rate. “We saw an increase in inquiries in March/April, both for single-room e-design projects and larger, more involved projects,” said Molly Lynch, director of marketing and partnerships for the company. —Courtesy of Erin Gates Design
The team designed this dining room in Lake Forest, Ill., from afar last year. —Courtesy of Erin Gates Design

When a Silicon Valley client insisted that a designer oversee the installation of pricey hand-painted wallpaper, Melanie Coddington of California’s Coddington Design turned to technology. “I was out of town, and my senior designer actually had COVID, so my Los Angeles designer tuned in via FaceTime to make sure everything went perfectly,’’ Coddington said. While half of Coddington’s staff has worked remotely for some time, she has since pivoted her luxury firm to a fully remote operation and developed additional remote services.

Nicole Hirsch of Nicole Hirsch Interiors in Wellesley went the opposite direction. After posting on Instagram in April that she would take on remote projects, she got an influx of requests from potential clients across the country. Now, with showrooms open again but school not fully in session, she has re-embraced local. “Nothing beats face-to-face interaction with your clients,’’ she said. “It’s a happy place to be.’’

View some of the designers’ projects below:

 Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at Send comments to Subscribe to our newsletter at and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.