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.

Bathroom Reading: This 18th Century Toilet Was Disguised as a Book

Image courtesy of Daniel Crouch Rare Books - crouchrarebooks.com
Image courtesy of Daniel Crouch Rare Books - crouchrarebooks.com

When producers of the family sitcom Leave It to Beaver wanted to air an episode in 1957 in which the Beav and brother Wally hide their pet alligator from their parents in the toilet tank, CBS was wary. Despite the fact that all humans, fictional or not, needed a commode was irrelevant to the network: It was considered in poor taste to show one.

This bashfulness over toilets has persisted for centuries, as evidenced by a recent offering from Daniel Crouch Rare Books. The “book,” which was produced circa 1750 in France, appears to be a weighty tome meant to impress guests with the owner’s literary tastes. In reality, it’s a toilet.

The combination toilet and book 'Histoire des Pays Bas' is pictured
Image courtesy of Daniel Crouch Rare Books - crouchrarebooks.com

With the cover closed, you wouldn’t know it. Unclasp it and it folds out to a wooden stool, with a gaping hole meant to accommodate a chamber pot underneath. As Atlas Obscura noted, the publisher had a winking sense of humor about it, too. The title, Histoire des Pays Bas, translates to History of the Netherlands. Netherlands. Nether regions.

Perhaps the French weren’t advanced humorists, but they did know how to preserve some semblance of modesty. It’s possible such objects were used to obscure chamber pots while people were traveling.

If you happen to be a collector of fine lavatory antiques, the toilet book can be yours for just under $10,000. As for the Beaver: Network censors prohibited the show from depicting the toilet, but they were allowed to show the tank.

The Reason Why Button-Down Shirts Have Loops On the Back

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

The apparel industry has presented a number of intriguing mysteries over the years. We’ve previously covered why clothes shrink in the wash, deciphered the laundry care tags on clothes, and figured out why shorts cost as much as pants. But one enduring puzzle persists: What’s with that weird loop on the back of button-down shirts?

The loop, which is found on many dress shirts for both men and women, is a small piece of fabric that typically occupies the space between the shoulder blades, where the yoke (upper back) of the shirt meets the pleat. While it can be an excellent way to annoy someone by tugging on it, history tells us it originally had a much more pragmatic function. The loops first became popular among naval sailors, who didn’t typically have much closet or storage space available for their uniforms. To make putting away and drying their shirts easier, the loops were included so they could be hung from a hook.

The loops didn’t remain exclusive to the Navy, however. In the 1960s, clothing manufacturer GANT added what became known as a locker loop to their dress shirts so their customers—frequently Ivy League college students—could hang the shirts in their lockers without them getting wrinkled. (The loop was originally placed on the back of the collar.) Later, students repurposed the loops to communicate their relationship status. If a man’s loop was missing, it meant he was dating someone. Women adopted an apparel-related signal, too: wearing their boyfriend’s scarf to indicate they were taken.

Particularly enthusiastic partners would rip the loop off spontaneously, which became a bit of a trend in the ‘60s. At the time, women who had crushes wearing Moss brand shirts complained that their loops were so strong and secure that they couldn’t be torn off.

For people who wanted to have a loop without ruining a shirt, one mail-order company offered to send just the loops to people in the mail.

You can still find the loops on shirts today, though they don't appear to have any social significance. Should you find one that's torn, it's probably due to wear, not someone's relationship status.

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