A group of interior design students recently engaged me in a conversation about using "interior architect" on the business cards they were designing for an assignment. "What's the harm?" one student asked. "What's the advantage?" I replied. The discussion that followed illuminated the perils of perception as well as a path for action.
After we established that the students were using the term interior architect to mean "interior designer," we talked about the perceived benefit of using interior architect instead of interior designer. These students felt that describing themselves as interior architects made them appear smarter; more respected and more valued by the client, and would enable them to work on more exciting projects and charge higher fees for their services. In other words, architecture has sizzle. Interior design, in this group's eyes, was not as enticing.
It is understandable how the students reached the conclusion about a perceived difference in value. Anyone can call himself or herself an interior designer in many states simply by saying it is so. Unrestricted use of the term has resulted in misconceptions about what constitutes professional interior design services. The popular media has perpetuated this misunderstanding through distribution of programming content that further muddies the picture. For example, Bravo's reality show, "Top Design," features a group of interior designers with various work experience and educational backgrounds, each vying for the title of America's top designer. The winner will be determined by a panel of four judges, who also come from various backgrounds, including product design and journalism. All are described as leading style makers. To follow the students' thinking, one could conclude interior design is about style. Architecture is about substance.
Of course, we know differently. We know that great interior design as well as great architecture must have both style and substance. We, however, are not the clients, and the students understand that clients may not be so enlightened.
Perhaps the interior design students want to use the word "architect" to describe themselves because they feel there is less chance for any misunderstanding. According to them, everyone knows what an architect does. That definition is clear. Interior design is a different matter. Although there are statutory definitions, there is no simple definition for the practice of interior design or one that is commonly adhered to. In fact, interior design practitioners sometimes struggle to define themselves and their services.
Contrary to what the students believe, however, not just anyone can call themselves an interior architect. The use of the word architect is restricted in every state in this country because architecture is a licensed profession. Only a registered architect may use the term interior architect in the United States and Canada, as well as in a number of other countries. Increasingly, state boards of architecture and departments of professional regulation across the country are turning their attention to the misuse of the title interior architect by any individual not licensed to practice architecture. In one such instance, the executive director of the Georgia State Board of Architects and Interior Designers, found the misuse of the term to be "illegal" as well as "unacceptable and misleading to the public."
Moving interior design up the ladder of respect is an urgent matter and requires the enrollment of all interested parties. Licensing the profession in all 50 states will go a long way toward enabling the public to have a clear definition of the profession and recognize those who are capable of practicing it. Educators should invite conversation about the differences between interior design and architecture among their students and help them to understand the implications of perpetuating confusion about our profession by not calling themselves interior designers. College administrators need to understand that by naming their interior design department "interior architecture," they may be graduating students who think they are going into the world to practice interior architecture when it is illegal for them to do so.
The root of the problem and the solution to it lies within every one of us who practices interior design and belongs to this wonderful profession. We must label ourselves correctly as interior designers and explain to our clients what that title reflects. To avoid confusion, we need to be vigilant in our use of the words interior designer when that is what we mean and be careful not to substitute only "designer" or interior architect when describing an interior designer. Most of all, we need to recognize the power of our chosen profession, understand the profound effect it can have on human behavior, and speak of it with pride and without apology.
ASID president Suzan Globus, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer, who consults on public, educational and museum libraries. She is a principal of Globus Design Associates in Red Bank, NJ. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at www.asid.org.