Modsy vs. Mies van der Rohe

An online interior design service could vaporize the industry on the way to making shopping more efficient

I live in a townhouse in Lafayette Park, Detroit, a neighborhood designed by Mies van der Rohe, and am also an architect with a background in technology. When I saw the website Modsy offering interior design services for under $100 per room, and all conducted virtually, I needed to find out what makes it possible. So I signed up and asked Modsy to redesign my living room. Pitting Modsy vs. Mies points to some useful ways to think about how traditional practice might advance (read: catch up) and also speaks to larger changes in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) sector that stand to impact traditional practice over the long run—that’s code for “clobber.”

Below is a snapshot of the Modsy process and outcomes and the larger thoughts are below that. Note: the screenshots below are now two years old, so things may have changed with the app!

Modsy follows a simple checklist that starts with basic projects info:

This is Modsy
Screenshots of Modsy’s “Basic Details” pages

Seeing the use of a budget slider above makes me wonder about the affordance of asking questions like “what is your overall budget” via a slider instead of a face to face question. In discussions with clients, questions about construction budget still sometimes garner vague replies, but there’s not much room for that on the UI above.

Next up are basic measurements of the room you’re designing, after which the site instructs you on how to take photographs from specified vantage points. How long until this is replaced with an app that uses photogrammetry to generate a 3d model in realtime?

Screenshots from Modsy’s “Room Details” section

Then comes the hard part. To begin understanding qualitative choices, Modsy shows you a series of options and asks you to identify what resonates with your style. For instance, choosing among a series of rooms (left below) based on example imagery or a handful of brands (center below). After divining what you’re into—“modern and dramatic spaces,” apparently—a series of products are presented to let you drill down even further. I like this pillow but not that chair.

Screenshots from Modsy’s “Style Quiz”

The approach of understanding questions of aesthetic preference by using comparative imagery is something we do at Dash Marshall with what we call “optometrist” or A/B slide decks, with two examples below. On the left is a side by side comparison. Based on the project we compile specific imagery to show side by side. It works great to get conversation started—which do you like more? Why? The image on the right is the same idea but with more variables on the screen at the same time. When it comes to ferreting out aesthetic nuances, a comparative discussion of two images is well more than twice as productive as discussing one image at a time.

Dash Marshall A/B comparison decks from a project we’re currently working on

Modsy also has an option to also specify any special furniture you want to keep. For a small additional fee they will make a 3d model and ensure that it’s part of the layout proposals. In the spirit of making it interesting, I asked Modsy to feature a stool from Company’s ‘Secret Shop’ in Helsinki. Not an easy thing to model in 3d but they did a decent job, again based on photos and measurements that I provided.

After this you finalize the project and hit submit. Modsy takes a couple days to build a 3d model of your space and populate it with design options. The 3d model they created was pretty good, all things considered. Below shows Modsy’s interpretation of Mies van der Rohe on the left and the actual floorplan on the right.

Modsy (L) vs. Mies (R)

In addition to a 3d editor where you can drag furniture around and make edits, you’re presented with more refined renderings. Below are three different design proposals for my living room, each motivated by a different set of style advice. Note the little white dots on everything…

Not the little wooden stool in the foreground!

Those dots correspond with a list of products included (below right) and sources for where you can purchase them. Presumably Modsy has negotiated commissions with companies like West Elm and Crate & Barrel.

What does all of this add up to? The service outlined above is not the same, obviously, as a private interior designer, and Modsy even addresses this with a special page on their site. I’m not worried about Modsy stealing my clients, but then again traditional design services are already expensive enough that they’re often beyond the reach of a vast number of people who nonetheless are spending money on furniture and renovations. Modsy is well suited to serve these people, as well as those who are paralyzed by choice and need a little assistance but do not like feeling ‘sold to’ in a showroom.

All things considered, Modsy does a decent job. None of the example room designs above are enough to make me rethink my professional education and training, but they’re coherently put together. And yet, when I think about the Modsy service from the perspective of a technologist I have to wonder if what we’re seeing is a future where traditional design services are minimized or replaced altogether, as an afterthought.

They’ve raised upwards of $70M in at least three rounds from a bench of name brand investors like Comcast and Google Ventures, so Modsy is clearly not taking on interior design services as their competition. The business model is revealed in an interview with CEO Shanna Tellerman from April wherein she notes that, “it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category… Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.” Ahh, there it is, Modsy’s business model.

If e-commerce and media are the foci, then that tells us Modsy is likely using design services as a loss-leader or neutral-cost service. On a common sense level this checks out: even if they’ve built a highly automated 3d render and model pipeline and compiled a massive catalog of products, the $100 bucks or so they make for designing a room is unlikely to net out once they pay a human to make the 3d model and put everything together. That would imply a couple pathways to profit that stretch beyond interior design services:

  1. Media channel, like a TV station. Modsy brings an audience (attracted by the design assistance detailed above) to advertisers and gets paid for doing so. They want to be HGTV of the internet.
  2. Store. Modsy collects commissions on all products sold via affiliate links and eventually when they have enough clout they’re able to sell premium space within the app like a grocery store selling shelf space. Modsy is Amazon with a better interface for decisions that can be hard to make online.
  3. Market intelligence service. Modsy compile aggregate data on interior design trends and sell that to manufacturers for use in designing next years furniture offerings, and retailers for use in stocking next month’s virtual shelves. Modsy is Gartner for home decor and furniture.
  4. New shopping technology. Modsy builds a new, more effective way to sell furniture and home decor and then sells it to a big player like Amazon, Wayfair, or IKEA or licenses it to smaller players on a non-exclusive basis. Modsy is Shopify for furniture and home decor brands.

Of the four options above, one and two are called out by Tellerman, and 1-3 are able to work together as aspects of one large play, akin to something like Martha Stewart Living for a new generation. Based on this, option 4 looks more like a fallback option: if Modsy cannot build enough of an audience to make 1–3 work, they can always try to sell the technology.

If Modsy does work out and they become a fixture, their success threatens to nibble around the edges of interior design services — or gobble them up entirely. It will do so not out of some desire to revolutionize interior design but as merely a loss leader for one of the four business models outlined above. Think about that: a traditional business model potentially vaporized as collateral damage while Modsy (or a likeminded competitor) addresses the fact that “e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet!” Could a similar play work for the long tail of residential architectural services? Maybe! Could this model be hyper-charged by applying automation to Modsy’s design phase which, we assume, is currently one of their cost centers? If it seems challenging to imagine AI putting forward design ideas that can compete with a human designer, look at recent experiments with GPT-3, a new AI from the OpenAI non-profit that can convert plain language into basic web code.

What pitting Modsy vs. Mies tells us is that the AEC industry, still quite old fashioned despite massive efforts toward digitization, needs to continue to watch for unexpected competition. If you’re an interior designer or architect, it’s not your peers that should keep you up at night, but software engineers and sharp business people who know enough about the AEC sector to imagine completely different means to achieving the sector’s traditional ends. Architects and designers, now is a great time to be hunting for and experimenting with ways to accelerate, automate, and rethink your own workflow. If we don’t change this industry, someone else will do it for us.

Modsy‘s interpretation of Mies (L) and the actual space (R)

Buildings & cities & all the things between. More at bryanboyer.com

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