Design: Match designs in your virtual front room

Want to know if a sofa from one shop will work with chairs from another, and your existing table? Kate Watson-Smyth tests a website that creates a virtual image of your home
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The Independent Online

Two years ago, the internet entrepreneur Brent Hoberman was feeling frustrated. Having just moved into a house in south-west London, his wife Genevieve, an interior designer, was bombarding him with ideas, pictures and suggestions for their new decor. "I couldn't get my head around why one sofa could cost £500 and another £2,000, when they looked pretty much the same to me," Hoberman says. "Then I couldn't visualise what they would look like in the room anyway, so it was even harder to choose between the styles.

"Then I couldn't work out how to decide whether a sofa from one place would go with a chair from another because there was no easy way of comparing things from different shops."

It was this exasperation that recalled an idea that had come to him some years earlier. Back when he was running Lastminute.com with Martha Lane Fox, the thought had occurred to him: wouldn't it be great if the web could help people to share decorating tips, and make the endless bewildering choices on the high street real for us all? And so www.mydeco.com was born.

Launched last month, this one-stop website allows you to upload the dimensions of your room, add in the windows, doors and fireplaces, and then choose from more than 20,000 items of furniture and accessories to see how they will look in the space. Once arranged, you can look at a three-dimensional view of the room, and then, at the click of a button, you can buy it all.

Mydeco is a brilliant, simple idea, which hides the fact that a lot of ground-breaking technology is involved.

For those of us who simply want to paint our walls, or are wondering what a touch of flamboyant wallpaper will look like, the website allows us to upload a photo of an existing room and then see it in a variety of colours, or we can just add a particular sofa or set of shelves to what we have.

Hoberman founded Mydeco in February last year, having raised $10m (£5m). After a tricky start persuading the first companies to sign up, he is now being inundated by shops wanting their products to be featured on the site.

"The furniture market is the most fragmented I have ever looked at," Hoberman says. "The largest companies have a less-than-20 per cent share of the whole, which just shows you how many shops there are out there vying for your money."

Mydeco has now secured tips and room-sets from designers such as Celia Birtwell, currently enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to her collaboration with Topshop; Kelly Hoppen, the queen of understated taupe; Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the king of overstated flamboyance; Sir Terence Conran, and others. Just click on a button and you can get the look.

Shops featured on the site include John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Lombok and Laura Ashley. This means that you can compare and contrast some 820 sofas at the moment, and then draw up a shortlist.

On first visiting the site, it's worth taking a few minutes to play around a bit, as it can seem baffling – but be patient. If you haven't moved into a property yet, simply insert the dimensions of the room you want to decorate into the planner, or upload a photograph of the room you're planning.

Then follow the instructions to choose sofas, chairs and tables. You can add pieces of furniture to a shortlist for later comparison, and change the colour of the walls and floors. You can't yet design kitchens, bathrooms or gardens on Mydeco, but that is to follow in the next few weeks.

Smaller boutique designers and cottage industries are signing up all the time. And there's even a green-living section for those of us who are more concerned about where our furniture comes from.

Hoberman is also planning to add a builder's section, where you can get a rough estimate of what you should be paying to install a fireplace, wallpaper a room or sand a floor.

Of course, this will be no substitute for a real builder who can walk in, suck in his cheeks and discover a hitherto unforeseen problem that will bump the price up beyond your wildest nightmares, but fair play to Hoberman for trying to address this most common of frustrations.

Hoberman says that he is delighted with the traffic to the website since its launch. Protesting that it is too early to release any figures, he insists that everyone is delighted and that the expansion will be rapid.

"It might seem that this is a good idea for men, who can't always visualise things as well as women, but our research suggests that women are using the site a lot, either as a tool to persuade men to part with their money, or as a kind of 'taste validation' product, so that they can show their design ideas to their friends and get feedback and second opinions."

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