Do you know the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator? If you are about ready to embark on a move, renovation or makeover, read this to make sure you pick the right expert for your project. We’ve asked several professionals for their advice.
There are three main characteristics that distinguish the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator: education, special skills and who is best for the scope of the project, according to Fresh Home. The education difference is a licensed degree and formal training in interior design. Although most interior decorators have undergone some training, a degree is not required. The special skills difference is the knowledge of space planning, restructuring if needed and overall physical layout needed for an interior designer; whereas, an interior decorator specializes in bringing expertise of color-theory and harmony to the interior of an existing space. An interior designer or firm can manage the entire scope of a project from architectural plans to construction or renovation to interior decorating. While, an interior decorator may be best for a project if mostly a decorative makeover is desired. It is important to note that not all projects need an interior designer. Some projects simply could use the color and coordination that an interior decorator can provide.
Mary Douglas Drysdale, of the well-known DC design firm, Drydale Design Associates, is our friend and designer who has her Drysdale Signature Color Collection with Casart Coverings. She offers an extensive account of the differences of interior design and decorating as a written piece for the Interior Designer Master Class book by CJ Dellatore, publishd in 2016 by Rizzoli, the publisher of countless, interior-design-related books that grace many coffee tables and bookshelves throughout the world. Here are some of Mary’s key quotes from her article:
“Both the interior designer and the interior decorator deal with the aesthetics of interior spaces, and while both the decorator and the designer are motivated by the creation of beauty, it is the scope of work that principally distinguishes them.”
“Interior designers most often propose and shape spaces, which they also typically decorate. The interior decorator is not the delineator of new architectural plans, but the talented producer of well-schemed and fully furnished rooms. Interior decorators are mainly concerned with surfacing and the selection of the movable objects within an existing architectural context.”
“The divide between design and decoration has everything to do with the ability to manipulate and architecturally detail interior spaces. Indeed, interior design is a discipline of architecture, although it involves a narrower scope of interest and expertise than the broader field of architecture.”
“A further distinction between interior design and interior decoration is regulatory. In many places, the practice of interior design requires a license while the practice of decoration does not. The ‘product’ of the designer, creating the interior architecture of a dwelling or commercial building, often touches on safety issues, and as such, it is regulated by local codes and building practices. Designing can require building permits and may be subject to inspection by the relevant municipal agencies. Decoration typically does not require permits nor inspections.”
“Edith Wharton’s classic book, The Decoration of Houses, was first published in 1897, and it ushered in the century that gave rise to the specialized fields of bot interior decoration and interior design…The decorator was the purveyor of taste…Interior design gained a foothold in the mid-twentieth century in response to the proliferation of multistory office and apartment buildings and the rise of importance of the American kitchen and bathroom…Interior design is now so specialized that work of commercial interior designers is quite different in its focus to that of residential design.”
Note all following images are used with the owners’ permission.
Claire Tamburro is a licensed interior designer with a wealth of experience in commercial interior design. Now that she has her own company, she is broadening her talent to include residential design in the Alexandria, VA and the Washington, DC area. She adds that, “The subject matter of residential design and commercial design is different but the principles of design and the methodology remain the same. One goes through the same steps to arrive at a completed design though the actual steps are different because of the scale and scope of a project.“
Interior Designers practice their profession for hospitality, restaurant, retail, healthcare, educational, institutional, commercial office interiors, and residential projects…
She expressed that it was primarily her background that led her on a path to interior design:
Marymount University, in Arlington, VA where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design, is a FIDER Accredited institution (now called CIDA), which is the only accrediting agency for interior design. This distinction made a big difference in the quality of education I received both in the classroom and off-site in the field and workplace from the practical interior design lessons learned prior to graduation. The professors from then to this day are industry leaders who are well-respected interior designers and architects with a wealth of practical experience in the field and the classroom. The curriculum was a combination of design, fine art, and liberal arts core courses with emphasis on all aspects of the built-environment and the impact interior design has on the health, safety, and welfare of people and the environment.
Design classes provided a strong foundation and broad understanding of architectural principles, human-behavior concepts, aesthetic theory, technology, and business practices along with learning to incorporate the design process, programming skills, client goals and needs, graphic and written communication, problem solving, critical thinking, and ethics as part of our everyday practices. Both hand drafting and freehand sketching skills were taught and AutoCAD was introduced as the new industry standard. Graduating from Marymount University gave me a world-class basis from which to launch my career and has opened many doors for me.
Here is an example of Claire Tamburro’s commercial design for the HI Connect 2016.
Our dear friend Florence Hawkins, who is a well-respected, and a formerly trained, licensed interior designer has served multitudes of happy clients in the DC area and beyond, suggests:
There is a huge difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator.
However, from a client’s view point, if their needs are only decorative, an Interior Decorator might be all they need/want. If they want their building designed professionally and with knowledge of what will work by a trained, educated, and tested professional, then they need a licensed Interior Designer.
For a great visual representation of these differences, click this link from the New School of Architecture & Design.
Merry Powell, an interior design ‘tastemaker’ who has been operating her Richmond, VA interior design business for over 30 years and understands the difference as she states:
I began “doing” other people’s homes as an offshoot of an antiques shop I owned. Customers liked my window displays and asked if I would come to their homes and help pull their rooms together. As this became a more frequent occurrence, I decided I should go to school to learn what I could and to make sure I was giving my clients’ their money’s worth. My formal education in Interior Design came from Horry-Georgetown Technical College. I attended a single-focused 4-year curriculum that was condensed into 2.5 years. It was intense and I had incredible teachers, all of whom were either working interior designers or architects. This was in the Dark Ages when CAD was brand new, so we learned the old school way of putting pencil to paper and using triangles and squares. At graduation, we were invited to take the NCIDQ. At that time, I already had a job, not to mention a 2-year-old, so I opted not to go through the additional prep classes for the test.
Fast-forward 30 years and my business is still thriving. The retail shop went by the wayside as I began to focus more on design. I have a special place in my heart for old homes but love the fun of working on everything from beach houses to new construction to condos. I currently enjoy a wonderful working relationship with a well-known architect/preservationist in Virginia. I help our clients with custom cabinetry and kitchen design, surface selections, lighting and plumbing, color and space planning as well as the more traditional aspects of decorating such as furniture and window treatments.
The line between what defines and Interior Designer as opposed to an Interior Decorator is not well defined across the US. Since I work in several states, I am careful not to call myself an Interior Designer, as this requires NCIDQ completion and licensing in some states that I don’t have. On the flip side, I have a lot of experience working with things slightly outside the normal job description of an Interior Decorator. My architect friend calls me a “tastemaker.” I like that description.
Merry is participating in the RSOL benefit Design Show House for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, this fall. Here are some examples of her work.
Marilyn Young is an interior designer in Louisiana whose work involves the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge. She has some interesting points to clarify:
Each state has different laws that apply to the practice of interior design. Louisiana has what is called a “title & practice” act, which means that in order to use the title “interior designer,” one must be licensed. Anyone can use the title of “decorator” or “designer” but not “interior designer.” Other states may have only a practice act which means a person must be licensed in order to practice in the commercial arena but anyone can use the title of “interior designer,” whether they are licensed or not. Generally an interior decorator only needs the ability to pick colors and determine styles of furnishings and may not have any specific education for the field and may not be aware of building codes. An NCIDQ Certified interior designer is trained on psychology of color, ergonomics of the human body, coefficient of friction for floors for various applications and to use caution in selecting materials for individuals with allergies.
Currently Louisiana requires a college degree, to serve a 2-year apprenticeship under a licensed designer, then sit for the NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) test, which is 16 hours total over 2 days. To maintain that license, one has to take 5 hours of Health, Safety & Welfare continuing education every year. These courses have to be approved by the state licensing board to be sure they adhere to the current codes.
Our responsibility is not just decorating but making sure that our design of the interior of a residence or a commercial building meets all building codes. All items used in the interior must meet current codes. We need to be sure that the fabrics have the proper fire rating, and that we maintain proper clearance spaces between permanent fixtures to allow for safe egress, among many other things.
Many states choose not to license interior designers as they are afraid it will cost the state money that is better spent elsewhere; however, our licensing board is supported 100% by the dues paid for the license which is only $150/year. The volunteer members of the board are all currently licensed designers who meet quarterly in order to regulate [requirements for membership].
I earned my license in 1999 & have been an active member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). Because this is a national professional organization, clients can tell a licensed interior designer, as they are the only members who are allowed to use their name followed by “ASID.” Those who are not licensed will have “Allied ASID” behind their name. I have continuously served as an officer in various capacities since I joined in 1999, including serving as Chair of my local Design Community twice, and serving on the Chapter board for 3-1/2years. ASID is the only professional organization that has both commercial & residential designers and has more commercial designers than any other organization. My specialty is residential design, especially kitchen & bath design as well as flooring. I have also become a CAPS (Certified Aging In Place Specialist), several years ago. This also requires continued education units. I am self employed as a designer & also employed for Jim Owens Flooring & Cabinets in Metairie, LA. I can be reached by email at email@example.com or cell phone 504-451-8917.
Jane Dunning another business entrepreneur and friend has changed careers after successfully running her own clothing business. She is attending Marymount University to receive her master’s degree in interior design. Nearing this completion, she shares some of her hands-on experience regarding the technical knowledge taught to interior designers:
When I changed careers from fashion merchandising to Interior Design I thought my knowledge of color and textiles and my experience remodeling kitchens and bathrooms would be enough to get started. I soon realized that there was much I did not know and to use the title, Interior Designer, I would need a degree from a CIDA accredited Interior Design program. I made the decision to pursue a master’s degree at Marymount University.
The knowledge I have gained from the Interior Design program has given me the skill and confidence to create interior spaces that are both functional and beautiful while best serving the client’s needs and expectations.
Some of the specific skills I have acquired include: incorporating research, programming and space planning into the design process; mastering hand sketching, rendering and CAD for visual communication of ideas and enlisting technical knowledge of color, fabrics, furnishings and lighting to make informed choices for clients. Also, understanding the practical side of the “business” of interior design including ethics, contracts, billing and sourcing will be valuable in the profession.
Perhaps the most important learning is that bringing creativity, evidence, based design and commerce together delivers successful results for both the designer and client.
Oskar Torres has his BA interior design and operates his company, Oskar Torres Interior Design out of New York City. We’re always fascinated with what led professionals on the path to their current career. Here’s Oskar’s story:
As a young boy growing up in Guayaquil-Ecuador, my family used to move everything out of all the rooms in the house for the monthly deep cleaning and I was assigned the task of re-arranging the furniture back in the rooms and the rest is history.
I came to the USA when I was 15 years old, attended the New York School of Interior Design where I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Interior Design. For more than 25 years I trained with the A-List of Interior Designers in New York City. Working with all those amazing firms and their principals taught me the ability not to be “Flat” in creating an environment for clients. My signature is unique to each individual project. I don’t sell a “look” I create spaces that are singular to each one of my clients.
Also, 65 % of the furnishings and fabrics I use in all my projects are up-cycled …My mantra is “Be-Green-buy-Vintage.”
Many interior decorators respect the amount of training that goes into practicing interior design and the requirements involved in claiming that one is an interior designer. They realize each state has its own requirements that may limit what they can do or the title they can take. Yet, like interior designers they have a passion for appreciating the art of assembling an interior and understanding that the sense of “home,” “place” and “livability” can mean different things to different clients who have a variety of tastes and styles. There is not a one-size-fits-all and there are many talented professional interior designers and decorators to help provide appealing interior solutions for many clients.
Sandra Dykes explains how she began her interior decorating business and provides examples of two types of clients’ work. One shows a large project with the historical home ‘Kells Castle’ in Asheville, NC, in which she was awarded a Griffin Award for the renovation. The other is a smaller budget project where the details of the stairs cheerfully welcome you when you enter the front door.
Home has always been important to me. I love coming home at the end of a long day. I enjoy having family and friends gather with us in our home. I have been decorating all my life, starting with my Barbie’s houses. But I didn’t begin doing it professionally until my late 30’s.
My husband’s corporate career caused us to relocate many times. I enjoyed the redecorating of our own home… a new start each time we moved! In each neighborhood we lived in, I soon became the neighbor everyone came to for decorating advice.
I made the decision quickly, rather than to try to keep my own corporate career alive, I would create my own business of decor and design. I jumped right in!
Having had no formal training, I initially worked as an assistant with two different interior designers, observing how they ran their businesses while continuing to help out neighbors on the side…now for money. During this initial phase I also enrolled in an intensive 4-week class on how to start your own business, still decorating all the while. The decorating gene came easy and now I had the knowledge to make money doing it. Though I don’t have a formal degree in design, I have enjoyed a very successful career over 20 years and am still running a brisk business for myself. I am the recipient of several design awards, I volunteer my services for non-profits in the area, and I mentor young designers and even use them as my assistants as established designers once did for me. I continue to take classes, go to seminars and have developed a collective of interior designers today in the Asheville, NC area, our current home. We meet monthly, share trade contacts, talk shop share referrals and support each other. I enjoy working residential projects of all budgets. I do everything from total renovations to accessorizing a room. Now I help my clients enjoy coming home at the end of a long day.
Patti Ryan is a self-taught interior decorator, who transferred her talent painting decorative finishes into a profession using interior styling, “In Virginia, if you do not have a design degree, you are technically not allowed to use the word “designer.” Thus, I call myself an interior decorator. Self taught all the way—painting to decorating!” She further states:
My journey began as a young girl. I remember cutting out hundreds of over-scaled flowers and taping them to the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. I had a nomadic childhood as an “Air Force brat.” I loved moving furniture around in hotels, temporary military housing, or my bedroom. I discovered “faux painting” while trying to create an interesting home with a small amount of furniture. I became “addicted” to painting walls, floors and furniture—totally self-taught—trial and error. I finally enrolled in a professional faux painting class and discovered I knew a lot about decorative painting!
Twenty years later, I rekindled my passion for interior decorating. I signed up for an on-line course at Parsons School of Design—specifically drawing interior floor plans. That class has served me well! I also worked for a local retail, interior decorating store as one of their in-home consultants. I was trained in the construction of window treatments, furniture, wallpaper and floor coverings. I now have my own decorating firm.
Patti Ryan Interior Design http://www.pattiryan.com/ (and PRyanStyle on Instagram)
Jacy Everling started her decorating business recently in Arlington, VA. She explains her pathway to decorating as such:
For many years I have been encouraged by friends and family to start my own Interior Decorating business. I loved coming into their homes and giving advice and helping them with their space. It felt very natural and I was always very appreciated by them. They loved the fresh eye I lent to their space. It was very organic for me and was very rewarding in the sense of helping someone be happy in their space again! Unfortunately, I was in another career that was not a good creative outlet for me, I always wanted to make the change but never had the courage to take the leap. I was recently forced out which was a blessing in disguise. I’ve taken full advantage of this new opportunity that has come my way. I know it’s the right thing for me. I have full support from everyone around me and have already been helping so many people with their homes! I was an Interior Design major at Virginia Tech, which taught me the basics but the best training has been learning by doing. Entering people’s spaces and truly listening and understanding what they need and delivering a better functioning and aesthetic space for them!
Ashley Shaw operates her business, Ashley Shaw Designs out of Charlotte, NC. We appreciate that she’s used Casart wallcovering in the past. Here’s her story:
In 2014 I founded Ashley Shaw Designs with the goal of helping friends and acquaintances beautifully design and decorate their houses. I love crafting spaces that masterfully balance color, pattern and texture while mixing modern and traditional styles. I grew up in Dallas, Texas where my mother was an interior designer. Growing up I frequently accompanied her to antique stores and showrooms in the Dallas Design Center.
After college, I was fortunate to spend several years in New York working for and learning from fashion icons Tory Burch, Giambattista Valli and Emanuel Ungaro. It was my time at Tory Burch as a fashion merchandiser that taught me how to integrate colors, patterns and textures into well laid out spaces. I would design and layout each season’s collection within the department stores.
I never had a formal education in Interior Design; therefore, I am technically an Interior Decorator. However, I do help people with renovations and new build projects just as often as I help with decorating. To me there are so many elements that go into creating a beautiful house but most important is understanding the client’s needs and lifestyle. After all, they are the ones who make this their home!
Interior designer Jennifer Mehditash helps to bridge the gap between differences between interior designers and decorators and expresses the value they each provide. Her Meditash Design firm is located in Newport Beach, CA and New York. Jennifer is a well-known blogger (editor of Dec-a-Porter, and contributor to many media outlets), and former High Point “style spotter” and continues to speak at High Point Market, the International Interior Design Show with biannual events in North Carolina that set trends for interior design.
In my personal opinion the main difference is the level of education /experience and the complexity of the work that the individual takes on. For example a decorator would perhaps work on projects where the main focus of the scope of work was to furnish, accessorize, “decorate” if you will while an interior designer might be engaged to rework / propose areas where the interior architecture could be better suited to the family or the desired use of the space. Although I know of professionals in my field that are extremely well-respected and work on large-scale commercial projects that consider themselves decorators and address themselves that way. I on the other hand would most likely call myself an interior designer having owned my own business since 1999, worked on commercial and residential projects from construction – new builds and remodels through to small one room makeovers in Europe and across the US.
I certainly wouldn’t take offense though if someone called me a decorator!
More importantly, I wish that our profession would garner the respect from today’s average homeowner and that they would see how much value us “designers and decorators” can bring to their quality of life and property!
We really appreciate everyone’s contribution above, and many more than we could include this time around but will follow up with others who responded for future submissions.
We hope you’ve learned some valuable tips of what to look for in the difference between interior designers and decorators and what will work best for your project. There are a few exceptional ones here, if you’d like to be in touch with them.