Hester Lacey on a scheme to take interior design to the masses
WHY do we bother to do our own decorating? Why not let someone else juggle paint charts, fabric swatches, matching up and measurements? The British are strongly resistant to calling in the interior design professionals; but this may change at the Ideal Home Exhibition, which opens next Thursday at Earls Court. KLC School of Interior Design is inviting the nation to bring along photos of their lovely homes; a team of professional designers, all past pupils of the school, armed with samples, catalogues and colour charts, will give free advice.

Potential clients are often shy about exposing their efforts to professional scrutiny. One of the aims of the consultations is to prove that designers are not frighteningly supercilious, and will not snigger at the sight of flock wallpaper or a bathroom that has been swathed in peach festoon blinds. "You can't hurt people's feelings or tread all over them," says Jenny Gibbs, principal and founder of the school. "You can't be arrogant."

It seems interior design means far more than skipping about ethereally with paint charts. The recession has weeded out many designers who weren't up to scratch - "the people who just said `oh, yellow and blue are lovely together', without having any idea of anything structural," sniffs Jenny Gibbs disdainfully. "Ideally you start by analysing your space, thinking about the way you live, looking at the money you have available and maybe working out a three- or five-year plan, how what you already have will fit in - and only then you think about colours. It's a very logical process."

Choosing a designer, like choosing a therapist, requires care; just any one will not do, however well qualified. "Sometimes the chemistry just isn't right. A designer should be like a best friend at your elbow - and a good designer is like a psychologist," says Jenny.

Confronted with a Real Living Room (mine), well-lived in and furnished second-hand, she did not flinch. "We expect all sorts at the Ideal Home. This is a lovely room," she began tactfully. Aiming for a "spacious and streamlined look", she suggested rearranging the furniture and adding large mirrors to make the room seem larger. "And you're not doing anything from the lighting point of view - the two pendant lamps don't really achieve anything." She recommended uplighters "for fun" and a "really elegant standard lamp. I know standard lamps can be monstrous and just the name puts the fear of God into everyone but there are some very chic and elegant ones around."

How could I not have noticed that all the curtain poles were a vital few inches too low? "The positioning of tracks and poles is very important," warned Jenny. "For the windows I would recommend something silky and pretty that drapes well, caught back with a brass rosette or a plaited tie-back."

The cream walls, with their elegant patina of years' worth of nicotine, passed muster. "But I would recommend painting the fireplace, and painting the bookshelves a pale colour - perhaps one of those antique distressed looks that are fashionable at the moment." Those bookshelves are the only pristine-new piece of furniture in the room! I like them as they are! Luckily, Jenny is flexible. "Well, we would normally have a good old gossip before making any plans, so that I would know exactly how you feel."

Some householders will be difficult to convert. "My sister-in-law fancies herself as an interior designer, and when she saw my new flat she advised me to move again and start from scratch," snapped one. "She's lucky I didn't remodel her from scratch."

"I happen to quite like doing it myself and I'm more than capable of working out all on my own that putting orange next to cerise is a bad idea," said another. Others are just plain lazy. "I just leave things until the paint is flaking and the carpet is curling up," admitted one lazy non-DIYer. "I love the idea of getting someone else to do it all for me. But doesn't it cost a fortune?"

Jenny Gibbs would like to think of her services as a cost-cutter. "A professional designer can save expensive mistakes. Some do charge huge sums but things are getting better. On big projects you would be charged a percentage of the whole cost, on smaller ones a flat fee or an hourly rate." Around £30 an hour would be considered reasonable. To do up my humble living room (including carpet, curtains, those chic and elegant standard lamps plus all other lighting, new upholstery in "neutral shades with interesting textures", cushions, mirrors, painting and Jenny's expert touch to "dress" the room) would total up somewhere between £2,500 and £3,000.

A cheaper alternative is to do it all yourself, with a home computer interior design package (widely used in the US). Not included in the price, however, is the luxury of having someone else to do all the work. "Decorating is very stressful. It's way up the scale, shortly behind bereavement and divorce. At the end of the day," says Jenny, "you wouldn't have had the hassle. You would have had fun."