Designer vs. Decorator

Elsie De Wolfe, the actress, before becoming America's first professionl interior decorator.
Before I begin the second post in a series about the interior design business, let me apologize for my recent lack of posts. A combination of bad back, flu, work, and family commitments pretty much overwhelmed my November, but I am working on several posts for the upcoming season.

One topic that can cause confusion for the public is the question of what is the difference between an interior decorator and an interior designer. In fact, is there a difference? And if so what is that difference, and what does it mean to the client? The answers to these questions, unfortunately aren't clear and simple.

1. What is an interior designer, formal definition. The fact is that the state legislatures are the bodies that determine if designers in a particular state have to be licensed and registered in order to call themselves "interior designers." Some state require such licensing; some do not. And in the states that do require it, the requirements themselves for licensing vary. They do all contain some version of an education requirement (usually at least a bachelor's degree in interior design from a 4 year program at an accredited university), an experience requirement (up to 5 years working under a licensed designers), and passing an exam (the NCIDQ [National Council for Interior Design Qualification]---the exam, the design equivalent of the bar or the CPA exam, covers topics such as ergonomics, code requirements, and architectural programming.) Once the designer has passed the exam and met any other state requirements, they are legally entitled to use the term interior designer. They must also enroll in on-going continual education requirements, and are usually members of ASID (American Society of Interior Design). The ASID is dedicated to developing interior design as a serious profession such and is pushing for all states to regulate practitioners. Read more about this at Cote de Texas (here).

The idea behind such requirements is to make sure that when clients hire a designer, they can be confident that the designer has a minimum of education and experience. In states that require such licensing, non-qualified professionals are barred from using the term "interior designer," using other terms such as interior design consultant or interior decorator.

2. What is an Interior Decorator? Someone who decorates a room. Sorry, I know that not much of a definition, but that is one reason why this topic gets muddy. There is absolutely no requirements for someone to call themselves a decorator, and their scope of work is likewise undefined. Some high end decorators, like the fabulous Charlotte Moss, have a little (or a lot) of formal training, self taught knowledge, and experience, and design every aspect of a home from custom furnishings to place settings. They can be knowledgeable about design history, construction techniques, and soft furnishings and can basically act as a contractor on a huge project. On the other hand, someone with no training, education, or experience, but with a lot of flair can also call themselves a decorator.

3. Interior Designer vs. Decorator, informal definition: So, formally, a licensed interior designer is one that has passed the state requirements needed to use that term, and a decorator has not. However, that is kind of a dry definition. Informally, the difference between a designer and decorator is usually thought of as a difference in scope: A decorator is thought of as "decorating" a room--that is cosmetically treating the existing services--choosing paint colors, wallcoverings, window treatments, furniture arrangements, etc. He (or she) creates a space with in the existing architecture of the room, making only minor changes to the room itself. In contrast, an interior design is thought of as "designing" the space, making major changes (in the case of a remodel) or creating interior architecture in the case of new construction and developing lighting schemes. This in addition to choosing (or designing) furniture, fabric, and lighting.

The reality, of course, can be quite different. Some decorators design every item that enters a home that they have worked with an architect to also design, while some licensed interior designers prefer to "decorate," loving to work with wallcovering, fabrics, and other soft furnishings. One difference is that an interior designer can sign off on some minor structural modifications while a decorator needs to work with an architect or licensed contractor.

4. Designer vs. Decorator: What does it mean for the client? I've briefly touched on formal and informal definitions of designer vs. decorator, but the real issue is which is better for the client? For commercial, hospitality, or government work, a licensed designer is usually required. The same is not true for residential work. The answer for residential projects is that it depends on the individual professional. I've seen beautiful work done by a decorator with no formal training or internship. I've also seen hideous interiors done by the same. I've seen incredible. awe inspiring interiors done by ASID interior designers. I've also seen work done by licensed designers that look like a before interior on Trading Spaces. It all boils down to reviewing the portfolio and references of the designer or decorator you are considering. I'll discuss how to pick a design professional in the next post on this series.


Visual Vamp said...

Now it's clear as mud :-)
Seriously, a very good post.
xo xo

Design Junkie said...

I know, right? But honestly that's a huge part of the problem, so much of the debate of designer vs. decorator is ambiguous and subjective, except for occasional legislation which really doesn't quailify for designing beautiful spaces.

professional interior designer said...

Wow the line between decoration and interior design is pretty clear to me...has been for about 25 years.....let me enlighten you.
Interior decoration is a creative endeavor, or occupation, that concerns itself with the ornament and arrangement of objects within an existing space.
Here is the definition of interior design.


There is a clear difference.