Home design right at hand
When I started covering architecture and interior design back in the late 1990s, interviews with homeowners and designers about their projects inevitably turned to manila folders or three-ring binders thick with fabric swatches, torn-out magazine pages, measurements, calculations, paint chips and sketches.

Today, that design file hasn't been replaced, but it's being augmented with a bevy of smartphone and tablet applications that help eliminate lugging a messy binder crammed with loose pages from home to the design studio or paint store and back. Even better, these apps are, in many cases, saving time by eliminating all of that running around.

The more robust apps cost anywhere from 99 cents to $6.99 and offer high functionality for design professionals and homeowners elbow-deep in a major home improvement or design project. Most homeowners, however, won't need everything those apps have to offer, but a nice variety of free apps can be handy for helping with day-to-day home decorating and maintenance needs.

A few of my favorite freebies include any number of color selection apps offered by most major paint brands, Home Depot's app, the "iHandy Level", Kravet / Lee Jofa's "eDesign Assistant" and the ubiquitous "Flashlight" app.

The major paint brands, including Behr, Benjamin Moore, Olympic and Sherwin-Williams, all have apps designed to help you select paint by browsing color cards, using a color spectrum, or taking a photo on your phone or tablet and using a color in that image to match with one of their paints.

Bryan Koerber, president of Budeke's Paints, which has locations throughout the Baltimore region, says that Benjamin Moore's "Color Capture" app is a good starting tool for narrowing down the colors you might want.

"But nothing replaces actually going to a paint store, checking out a fan deck to further narrow down your options, and then getting a color sample and testing it out on your wall before painting," says Koerber.

Taking the functionality of the paint apps a step further, the free version of the "Home Decorator" app lets you take a picture of the room you want to paint and then recolor the walls with hues from preloaded color cards, a free-form palette or by using a color from a photo you've taken. The drawback here is that the app doesn't match up with any actual paint colors.

"Palettes" is another interesting color app that takes images you like and breaks them down into manageable color palettes you can use to decorate a room. For example, in a recent conversation I had with interior designer Penny Mickum, she mentioned using a "coastal palette" for a house she had just finished decorating. "Palettes" allows you to take a photo of an actual coastal environment and then parse the image into a palette that could work as the basis for a room or house scheme.

Kravet / Lee Jofa's "eDesign Assistant" takes the color-matching technology a step further and adds search functions that allow for product selection based on pattern, texture and style, as well as color. Choose from a library of colors, or take a photo from your smartphone for a color match, and the app will find coordinating fabrics and styles. Registered interior designers can sign in for additional capabilities.

"I like the Kravet app for finding prices and availability on the spot with our clients," says Baltimore interior designer Lisa Steinhardt of Design Loft Interiors.

Another product search and purchase app, this one from Home Depot, gets you access to over 100,000 products and as a bonus includes a handy interactive toolbox with a caliper for measuring length and width of small items, a measurement converter, a nut-and bolt finder, a tape measure, and drywall flooring, insulation, and paint calculators as well as in-store maps and "how-to" projects and videos.

The "iHandy Level" is a free tool that comes as part of the "iHandy Carpenter" toolkit, which costs $1.99, The full carpenter kit is more advanced than I need, but the level is great for hanging framed art and photos and easy to calibrate using any level surface.

I'm sure many people are familiar with the "Flashlight" app, but it's worth mentioning, because I probably use it more than all the others combined. The app fills the screen of a smartphone with bright light to illuminate dark spaces. It's handy for times when you wouldn't expect needing a traditional flashlight and lets you finally take that mini flashlight off your key chain—even my plumber uses it.

As much as apps, mobile devices themselves are revolutionizing the way some architects, interior designers and builders work with clients. Building on the basic premises of cloud computing — where resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices by way of a remote server or "cloud"— architects and interior designers are creating electronic project folders so that when they meet with clients all they have to bring is a laptop computer or tablet to access everything from blueprints and elevations to product PDFs and images of fabrics patterns and paint colors.

Architect Paul Hume, is cutting down on the paper work by using an iPad to access stored files, images and sketches.

"It is useful for fieldwork because I do not have to carry around drawings. It also gives me access to documents, everything from contracts to emails," says Hume.

"Evernote" offers similar functionality — it has an app for mobile devices and can be used to organize notes and documents, images you've taken yourself or copied from web pages, links, video clips and more all in one place. Searching is easy with an autocomplete function that recognizes words you have typed before as well as those that appear in saved files.

"We use 'Mobile Me' to allow our designers to view the client files, pictures and information from anywhere," says Steinhardt. "I save all of this information to a public file and we can all view it. This application is very useful as a designer. I never have to have physical papers/folders with me. I only use my iPad."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.