Becoming an Interior Designer

By Christine Piotrowski

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-23286-6

Chapter One

An Introduction to the Interior Design Profession

We spend over 90 percent of our day in interior spaces. Despite this, most of us take interiors for granted, barely noticing the furniture, colors, textures, and other elements-let alone the form of the space-of which they are made. Sometimes, of course, the design of the interior does catch our attention. Maybe it's the pulsing excitement of a casino, the rich paneling of an expensive restaurant, or the soothing background of a religious facility.

As you are reading this book, you obviously have an interest in interiors and interior design. It might be because you have always enjoyed rearranging the furniture in your home. Maybe you like to draw imaginative floor plans for houses. It could be that a relative or friend is a contractor and you have been involved in the actual construction of a building in some way.

Interior design professionals provide the owners of homes and many kinds of businesses with functionally successful and aesthetically attractive interior spaces. An interior designer might specialize in working with private residences or with commercial interiors such as hotels, hospitals, retail stores, offices, and dozens of other private and public facilities. In many ways, the interior design profession benefits society by focusing on how space-and interior environment-should look and function. By planning the arrangement of partition walls, considering how the design affects the health, safety, and welfare of occupants, selecting furniture and other goods, and specifying aesthetic embellishments for the space, the designer brings the interior to life. A set of functional and aesthetic requirements expressed by the client becomes reality.

The interior design profession is much more than selecting colors and fabrics and rearranging furniture. The professional interior designer must consider building and life safety codes, address environmental issues, and understand the basic construction and mechanical systems of buildings. He or she must effectively communicate design concepts through precisely scaled drawings and other documents used in the industry. The professional interior designer space-plans the rooms and the furniture that goes into them, determining location of partition walls, selecting colors, materials, and products so that what is supposed to occur in the spaces actually can. Another critical responsibility concerns how to manage all the tasks that must be accomplished to complete a project as large as a 1,000-room casino hotel or as small as someone's home. The interior designer must also have the business skills to complete projects within budget for the client while making a profit for the design firm.

The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ)-an independent agency whose purpose is to administer an examination testing the competency of interior designers for professional licensing and association membership-offers the following definition of the interior design professional. It was developed with the cooperation of practicing interior designers and educators:

The professional interior designer is qualified by education, experience and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces.

For the purpose of improving the quality of life, increasing productivity and protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public, the professional interior designer:

analyzes the client's needs, goals and life safety requirements;

integrates findings with knowledge of interior design;

develops and presents final design recommendations through appropriate presentation media;

prepares working drawings and specifications for non-load bearing interior construction, materials, finishes, space planning, furnishings, fixtures and equipment;

collaborates with licensed practitioners who offer professional services in the technical areas of mechanical, electrical and load-bearing design as required for regulatory approval;

prepares and administers bids and contract documents as the client's agent;

reviews and evaluates design solutions during implementation and upon completion.

Professional interior designers are not interior decorators and interior decorators are not professional interior designers, although the public generally does not see any difference. "Interior design is not the same as decoration. Decoration is the furnishing or adorning a space with fashionable or beautiful things. Decoration, although a valuable and important element of an interior, is not solely concerned with human interaction or human behavior. Interior design is all about human behavior and human interaction."

Although a professional interior designer might provide interior decoration services, an interior decorator does not have the education and experience to perform the many other services of a professional interior designer. A decorator is primarily concerned with the aesthetic embellishment of the interior and rarely has the expertise, for example, to produce the necessary drawings for the construction of non-load-bearing walls and certain mechanical systems that are routinely produced by a professional interior designer.


COMPARED TO MANY other professions, the interior design profession has a relatively short history. Architects, artisans, and craftspeople completed interiors before interior decorators began offering their services. Architects created the design of a building's structure and often the interiors. They would engage craftspeople to create and produce the furnishings needed to complete the interior. Other artisans lent their expertise with decorative embellishments and the production of handmade pieces for the interior. Of course, all this was accomplished for the world of the wealthy and the mighty-not the average person.

Many historians have credited Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) as the first person to successfully engage in interior decoration as a career separate from architecture. At about the turn of the twentieth century, de Wolfe established a career by offering "interior decoration" services to her society friends in New York City. "She was an actress and a society figure before she began to remodel her own home, transforming typically Victorian rooms with stylish simplicity by using white paint, cheerful colors, and flowery printed chintzes." Her friends recognized her alternative decor, which was a great contrast to the dark, deep colors and woods of Victorian interiors. She is also believed to be among the first decorators to charge for her services rather than be paid only a commission on the goods she sold to clients.

The door opened for this profession at the turn of the twentieth century for several reasons. One was the development of new technologies during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that helped make possible machine-made furnishings and other products.

These mass-produced items were cheaper and more available to the average consumer. As demand for these goods grew, department stores-a new concept in the nineteenth century-began displaying the new products in their stores, attracting the average consumer. This exposure to new products helped generate interest in the decoration of residences by trained decorators.

The success of the early decorators encouraged many women to seek this avenue of professional and career enrichment. It was, after all, one of the few respectable ways for women to work in the early part of the twentieth century. Educational programs were developed to train the early decorators in period styles and to provide the educational background needed to plan interiors. One of the first schools to offer effective training in interior decoration was the New York School of Applied and Fine Arts, now known as Parsons School of Design.

As the profession continued to grow in the major cities, "decorators clubs" were formed in order for the decorators to meet, share ideas, and learn more about their profession. The first national decorators association was formed in 1931 and was called the American Institute of Interior Decorators (AIID)-later to be called the American Institute of Interior Designers (AID). In 1975, the two largest groups of professionals at the time-AID and the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID) merged to form the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

By the 1940s, due to changes in the profession and the built-environment industry in general, many individuals working in the field began to call themselves interior designers instead of interior decorators and to refer to their profession as interior design rather decorating. The distinction reflected in these new terms was first applied to those few interior designers working with business clients. In addition, many kinds of new business clients appeared, slowly providing other opportunities for the gradual growth of the commercial interior design profession. Dorothy Draper (1889-1969) is well known for her design of commercial interiors such as hotel lobbies, clubs, and stores. Her influence grew in the 1940s, and she is often identified by historians as one of the first interior designers to specialize in commercial interiors rather than residences.

Of course, numerous influential interior decorators and designers contributed to the development of the profession as we know it today. The names Eleanor McMillen, Ruby Ross Wood, Mrs. Henry Parish II, Dorothy Draper, Billy Baldwin, Florence Schust Knoll, and T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings are familiar to many practitioners in the field. Architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Richard Meier along with designers David Hicks, Mark Hampton, Michael Graves, and Warren Platner are just a few of the fine professionals whose talent immeasurably contributed to the growth of the interior design profession in the twentieth century. If you would like to learn about the history of the profession in greater detail, you may wish to read one of the books listed in the references.

Ethical Standards

The consequences of unethical behavior by politicians, business leaders, sports figures, and many others are widely discussed in the media. Ethical behavior by all members of our society is expected, though not always forthcoming.

Ethical standards help those engaged in a specific profession understand what is considered right and wrong in the performance of the work of the profession. In the case of interior design, ethical standards are guidelines for the practitioner's work relationships with clients, other interior design professionals, employers, the profession in general, and the public.

Interior design professionals who affiliate with a professional association are required to abide by that organization's written code of ethical standards. When they do not, the association may take action against them-and it does not take ethics charges lightly. Designers who remain independent are also expected to conduct their business in an ethical manner, although they cannot be charged with ethics violations. Many unethical actions have legal consequences as well.

Behaving ethically is not hard. What is hard is facing the consequences when one behaves in an unethical manner, regardless of whether or not one is affiliated with an interior design professional association.

Getting In

Getting a job in interior design today requires an appropriate education and mastering skills from drafting and drawing to effective communication. It involves learning technical areas of construction, mechanical systems, and codes as well as showing you have the interest and enthusiasm to work in the profession. Getting in also means knowing what kind of job you want and whether you want to work in a residential or commercial specialty. You also need to consider if you would work best in a small studio, a large multidisciplinary firm, or an intermediate-size practice.

When it comes time to look for a job, be sure to do your homework on the companies in which you are interested. If you know something about the company before the interview, you will make a far better impression at the interview. Investigate the style and type of interior design work the firm does by researching trade magazines and local print media. Look for the firm's website and carefully examine as much of it as you can. Talk to professors who know something about the company. Your college placement office might be able to help as well.

You can also find out about possible jobs and about a specific company by researching:

Chamber of Commerce articles and reports

local magazines and newspapers

Dun & Bradstreet Reference Book

Registrar of Contractors

Board of Technical Registration

Yellow Pages directory

professional association chapters

family and friends

You may need two or more versions of your résumé, each specific to a type of design work you are interested in obtaining. For example, you should organize your résumé differently when you apply for a position with a firm primarily engaged in residential design work versus one that specializes in hospitality interior design. The résumé also should be somewhat different if you are applying to a large multidisciplinary firm versus a small firm. The same goes for your portfolio. Showing a commercial firm a portfolio of residential projects could be a waste of time all around. Résumés and portfolios are discussed in other sections of this book.

Looking for a job in interior design-whether your first one as you finish school or when you move from one firm to another-is a job in itself. It is important that you go about it in a sensible and organized fashion. The more prepared you are, the more homework you do before you even start your search, the greater your chances of gaining that ideal position.

High-End Residential, Construction Remodeling

DONNA VINING, FASID President, Vining Design Associates, Inc., Houston, Texas

What has been your greatest challenge as an interior designer?

Interpreting clients' wishes and giving them what they want and need.

How important is interior design education in today's industry?

It is monumental. If we are to be a profession, we must have a consistent, quality educational program, ever changing and evolving as today's advances move faster and faster.

What led you to enter your design specialty?

My mother was a huge influence. She was my very own Sister Parish, always decorating our home.


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