Designing Commercial Interiors

By Christine M. Piotrowski

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2007 Christine M. Piotrowski
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-471-72349-3

Chapter One


You interact with commercial interiors every day, stopping at a fast-food restaurant for a quick lunch or studying for a test at the library. Perhaps you visit a textile showroom to pick up samples for a project or join a friend at an athletic club to work out. Maybe you pick up your child at a day-care center. All these facilities and many others represent the kinds of interior spaces created by the division of the interior design profession commonly called commercial interior design.

Designing commercial interiors involves designing the interior of any facility that serves business purposes. Facilities that fall under the category of commercial interior design include businesses that invite the public in, such as those mentioned above. Others restrict public access but are business enterprises such as corporate offices or manufacturing facilities. Commercial interiors are also part of publicly owned facilities such as libraries, courthouses, government offices, and airport terminals, to name a few. Table 1-1 provides additional examples.

These interiors can be as exciting as a restaurant in a resort hotel or as elegant as a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (Figure 1-1). A commercial interior can be purely functional, such as the offices of a major corporation or a small-town travel agency. It may need to provide a comfortable background, as in a healthcare facility. It can also be a place to learn.

Commercial interior design was once referred to as contract design. In fact, many interior designers still use this term, which developed from interior designers' use of a contract to outline services, fees, and responsibilities related to the project. Until approximately 30 years ago, contracts of this type were used primarily by interior designers working on business facilities. Today, most residential interior designers also use contracts, so the designation is less applicable.

This challenging and exciting profession has had a huge impact on the interior design and construction industry in the United States and throughout the world. Interior Design Magazine's reports on the industry's 100 largest design firms stated in January 2006 that approximately $1,610,000,000 was generated by these firms in commercial projects alone in 2005. That's right-1.61 billion dollars. Of course, this represents only a portion of the total commercial interior design industry.

We begin with a brief historical overview of the profession, followed by a discussion of why it is important for the commercial interior designer to understand the business of the client. We then describe what it is like to work in this area of the interior design profession. We conclude with a discussion of important issues concerning the design of commercial interiors-sustainable design, security and safety, licensing, professional competency examination, ethics in the profession, and professional growth. Subsequent chapters provide a detailed look at many functional and design concept issues for the most common categories of commercial facilities.

Table 1-2 presents vocabulary used throughout the chapter.

Historical Overview

In this section, we provide a very brief overview of the roots of commercial interior design. Each chapter concerning the design of facilities also includes a brief historical perspective. An in-depth discussion of the history of commercial design is beyond the scope of this book.

One could argue that commercial interior design began when the first trade and food stalls opened somewhere in Mesopotamia or another ancient country. Certainly buildings that housed many commercial transactions or that would be considered commercial facilities today have existed since early human history. For example, business was conducted in the great rooms of the Egyptian pharaohs and the palaces of kings; administrative spaces existed within great cathedrals, and in portions of residences of craftsmen and tradesmen.

The lodging industry dates back many centuries, beginning with simple inns and taverns. Historically, hospitals were first associated with religious groups. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the hospitia, which provided food, lodging, and medical care to the ill, were located adjacent to monasteries.

In earlier centuries, interior spaces created for the wealthy and powerful were designed by architects. Business places such as inns and shops for the lower classes were most likely "designed" by tradesmen and craftsmen or whoever owned them. Craftsmen and tradesmen influenced early interior design as they created the furniture and architectural treatments of the palaces and other great structures, as well as the dwelliings and other facilities for the lower classes.

As commerce grew, buildings specific to business enterprises such as stores, restaurants, inns, and offices were gradually created or became more common. Consider the monasteries (which also served as places of education) of the 12th century, as well as the mosques and temples of the Middle East and the Orient; the amphitheaters of ancient Greece and Rome; and the Globe Theatre in London built in the 16th century. From the 17th century on, the design of commercial building interiors became increasingly important. For example, offices began to move from the home to a separate location in a business area in the 17th century, numerous bank buildings were constructed in the 18th century, and hotels began taking on their grand size and opulence in the 19th century (Figure 1-2).

Furniture items and business machines such as typewriters and telephones, as well as other specialized items, were also being designed in the 19th century. Other examples of the emergence of commercial interiors will be presented in other chapters.

The profession of interior decoration-later interior design-is said by many historians to have its roots in the late 19th century. When it began, interior decoration was more closely aligned to the work of various society decorators engaged in residential projects. Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) is commonly considered the first professional independent interior decorator. A recent publication on de Wolfe called her "the mother of modern interior decoration." De Wolfe supervised the work required for the interiors she was hired to design. She also was among the first designers, if not the first, to charge for her services. In addition, she was one of the earliest women to be involved in commercial interior design. She designed spaces for the Colony Club in New York City in the early 1900s (Figure 1-3).

Although most of the early commercial interior work was done by architects and their staff members, decorators and designers focusing on commercial interiors emerged in the early 20th century. One woman designer most commonly associated with the beginning of commercial interior design was Dorothy Draper (1889-1969). She started a firm in New York City and, starting in the 1920s, was responsible for the design of hotels, apartment houses, restaurants, and offices. Her namesake firm still exists.

In the 20th century, reinforced concrete, modular construction technologies, and numerous other advances in the building industry changed the appearance of commercial facilities. The early commercial buildings of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus architects such as Walter Gropius, and International Style architects such as Le Corbusier, to name just a few, advanced commercial architecture and interior design with contemporary aesthetics. Technology also changed the interior finishing of structures. New products such as bent tubular steel for furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, molded plywood used by Alvar Aalto and Charles Eames, and the fiberglass designs of Eero Saarinen also changed the interior design of commercial facilities. These are only a few of the achievements and advances in furniture design and interior design made in the early 20th century.

The sweeping open spaces of the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, were precursors of the open plan designs that emerged in office spaces. Open planning or open landscape, began in 1958 in Germany. That planning concept gradually gained acceptance and caused major rethinking of office planning. New furniture items focusing on the use of panels and individualized components were introduced in the late 1960s, changing office planning and design dramatically (Figure 1-4). Additional discussion of these changes can be found in Chapters 2 and 3.

Commercial interiors changed for many reasons in the second half of the 20th century. Technological changes in construction and mechanical systems, code requirements for safety, and electronic business equipment of every kind have impacted the way business is conducted throughout the world. Consumers of business and institutional services expect and demand better environments as part of the experience of visiting stores, hotels, restaurants, doctors' offices, and schools-everywhere they go to shop or conduct business. Interior design and architecture must keep up with these changes and demands. This is one of the key reasons that an interior designer must be educated in a wide range of subjects and understand the business operations of clients.

The interior design profession also grew in stature in the 20th century with the development of professional associations, professional education, and competency testing. The decorators' clubs that existed in major cities in the 1920s and 1930s were the precursors of the two largest interior design professional associations in the United States. The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) has over 38,000 members involved in residential and commercial interior design, with chapters located in 48 states and/or cities. The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) has over 10,000 members also involved in residential and commercial interior design, with 30 chapters in the United States and internationally. In Canada, the national association is the Interior Designers of Canada (IDC). It provides a unified voice for the seven provincial associations in Canada to promote education and practice in the profession. Members of the IDC must be professional members of their provincial association. There are many smaller specialized professional associations as well. Contact information on several professional associations is presented in the Appendix.

In professional education and testing, the most significant advances occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Many schools have had interior design programs with varying content and quality since the early 20th century. In 1963 the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC) was organized to advance education in interior design and meet the needs of faculty members in interior design programs. The growth of the profession encouraged many other programs, and in 1970 the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER) was incorporated to serve as the primary academic accrediting agency for interior design education. In 2005, the Foundation changed the name of the organization to the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) was incorporated in 1974 to meet the need for an independent organization to test for competency in the profession. Table 1-3 lists other milestones in the development of professional associations. Contact information and Web site addresses of the organizations mentioned in the preceding discussion are listed in the Appendix.

This overview of the history of commercial interiors is by necessity very brief. The reader who would like more information about the history of commercial interior design can consult one of the references at the end of the chapter.

Understanding the Client's Business

The design of a commercial interior begins with an understanding of the business of the business, which refers to understanding the goals and purposes of a business. In fact, it is important to understand the business specialty even before seeking projects in that specialty. When the interior designer and team understand the client's business in general and the client's goals for the project from a business point of view as well as from a design standpoint, solutions are more functional for the client and lead to more creative design concepts.

For example, space planning and product specifications are different for a pediatrician's suite than for the offices of a cardiologist. Planning decisions are different for a small gift shop in a strip shopping center than for one in a resort hotel. Understanding this from the onset is critical for the design firm.

An obvious advantage of understanding the client's business is that the interior design will be more functional. Businesses seek interior design firms that are not "learning on the job" with the client's project. Of course, creative solutions that are aesthetically pleasing are important to many clients. However, a creative and attractive office that does not work or is not safe is not helpful to the client. Creativity alone does not mean success in commercial interior design.

One issue that influences the interior design of a commercial space is the type of facility: is it a doctor's office suite with exam rooms or a hospital acute care unit? Is it a coffee shop or a high-end, full-service restaurant? Is the project an elementary school or the business college at a university? Is it a bed and breakfast or a convention hotel? Each type of facility has many different requirements. Space planning, furniture specification, materials that can be used, codes that must be adhered to, and the functions and goals of the business are just some of the many factors that influence the interior design based on the type of facility (Figure 1-5).

Location is another issue. Is the project in a small town or an urban area? Will the accounting office be located in a strip shopping center or an office building? Is the restaurant in a stand-alone building or incorporated into a hotel? The impact of the location of the business will relate to the client base the business wants to attract. The dollars spent on the interior may very well be different based on the project's location. Customer expectations will be greater when the business is located in a high-end area.

Another issue is the expected customers of the business. Different design decisions will be made if a restaurant's customers are neighborhood residents, tourists, or business executives. Obvious differences in design and amenities will be made for a hotel along an interstate highway than for a resort hotel in the mountains. Retail stores catering to Generation Y will have different detailing and color choices from stores located in retirement communities.

The type of work conducted in a business also varies with the nature of the business. The work done in a coffee shop that only sells coffee products and bakery goods is very different from that of a full-service, high-end restaurant. The display fixtures and ambiance of a jewelry store are significantly different from those of a sporting goods store. Acceptable accommodations for a traveler at a motel along the highway are entirely different from those of the individual who has traveled across the country to attend a professional conference.

Your client is another influencing factor. He or she may be the owner of an accounting office or the neighborhood restaurant or bed and breakfast, or developer, creating office space for anyone or any type of office function. Then again, the owner might be the board of directors and the facility manager for a major corporation's new headquarters or the local jurisdictional governing body, retaining an interior designer for the design of a new county courthouse. Maybe your client is a charitable foundation adding a new wing to a museum. Each client has different goals for the business, and the interior designer is challenged to satisfy all their unique demands.


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