Design Legislation News: South Carolina

Jan. 12, 2015

If there’s one name design advocates in South Carolina should know, it’s Patti Morrow, founder of the Interior Design Protection Council (IDPC).

On December 10, Morrow was awarded the 2014 Unsung Hero Award—and $25,000—from the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation for her organized opposition to any legislation that would require interior designers to become licensed and registered in order to practice.

Since starting the IDPC in 2004, Morrow has testified at congressional hearings throughout the country, and has stopped design legislation from passing in at least five states. That includes South Carolina, where bills to enact the “Registered Interior Design Practice Act” died in subcommittee in the House (H.3417) and Senate (S.339) in early 2013.

Morrow provided testimony at both the House and Senate hearings, acting as representative for an alphabet soup of IDPC clients: the Designer Society of America (DSA), Decorating Den Interiors (DDI), Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association (FEDA), Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Manufacturers Agents’ Association of the Foodservice Industry (MAFSI), and North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM).

Representatives of the National Kitchen & Bath Assoc. (NKBA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), Lowe’s Companies Inc., and the Retailers Association also provided dissenting testimonies at the hearings.

Testifying in support of H.3417 and S.339 were representatives of ASID Carolinas, the South Carolina Interior Design Coalition (SCIDC).

On the day of the Senate hearings, Morrow posted a blog titled “SC Cartel Gets Thwarted…Again,” stating, “The Cartel never misses an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot. I never cease to be amazed at how incredibly dense they are in sticking to bogus talking points that have previously been thoroughly debunked…. As in the last hearing, when questioned by the subcommittee, the Cartel stuttered and stumbled trying to justify their positions and opinions.”

Needless to say, Morrow has a certain panache for incendiary language. But do ASID, IIDA, NCIDQ, and their affiliates really add up to the cartel she would have legislators believe? (And could such an apparently bumbling cartel even live up to the word’s conniving connotations?)

Let’s take a look at some of the language from the original legislation:

First, the bill set out to create “the South Carolina Registered Interior Designers Board,” including one NCIDQ-certified tenured interior design educator, two NCIDQ-certified designers, and “two members from the public at large who must not be registered interior designers, an agent or employee of a person engaged in the profession of registered interior design, or the spouse of such an individual.”

Next, the bill required any designer seeking registration to “submit evidence of education, experience, and examination to the board that he is qualified to practice registered interior design.”

Once registered, a designer would obtain a “Registered Interior Designer, State of South Carolina” seal, which “must appear on each drawing or sheet of drawings, and each set of specifications offered to secure a building permit.” Likewise—and most importantly—the bill stipulated that “a county or municipal building department shall accept and file as a public record any contract documents or interior contract documents related to a registered interior design service and prepared by a registered interior designer.” Here is where designers currently have to pay for an architect to put their seal on permit documents, even if the work is non-load bearing and in the realm of the interior designer’s own training and expertise.

Then come the exemptions, and in this case the bill did not apply to a long list of individuals, including licensed architects and engineers (for obvious reason), retail employees who provide interior decoration consulting, and designers working on buildings under three stories with less than 5,000 square feet of total floor area. But here’s the kicker: the bill included an exemption for “a person who provides a decorating service or assists in residential kitchen and bath design, selecting surfaces materials, window treatments, wall coverings, paint, floor coverings, surface-mounted fixtures, or loose furnishings not subject to an applicable provision of a building code, fire code, or local ordinance.” It also placed no restrictions on homeowners and businesses wishing to perform design renovations or modifications “without entering into a contractual agreement with a registered design professional including a registered interior designer.”

In other words, language of the bill provided exemptions for essentially any design professionals who would fall under the membership of the AIA, NKIB, and Morrow’s crew of client-opponents.

And yet, in an interview with The Greenville News announcing her Unsung Hero Award, Morrow said, “The problem is [that] when they sponsor a bill, legislators are not told that the bill will put interior designers out of business… They're quite horrified to learn that they've pretty much been thrown under the bus.”

Members of the South Carolina Interior Design Coalition—including current president Nicole Norris—believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the impacts and benefits that interior design legislation would have on the industry in the state. While opponents like Morrow worry about the costs of registration pushing designers out of business, Norris says those designers will still be able to practice, just not on state contracts and public projects, which they can’t do now anyway.

Having the bill does not prevent unlicensed designers from pursuing the same opportunities they currently enjoy, but not having the bill prevents interested licensed designers from pursuing broader opportunities.

So doesn't that make opponent organizations—particularly those with non-designer memberships who stand to benefit from protecting the status quo—the cartel? 

The defeat of this bill serves to (1) prevent qualified designers from obtaining permits for the interior work that they are already able to do themselves, instead forcing their dependence on other design professionals who profit from the current system; and (2) promulgate misconceptions about interior design as an industry by restricting highly trained designers from distinguishing themselves as such, and limiting their competitive practice area to lowest common denominator qualifications.

Is there something we’re missing?

We do not give four-year college grads Associate’s degrees because other students opted for two-year programs. We give them Bachelor’s degrees because they earned them, and we acknowledge the difference in achievement because it is an obvious means of assessing a person’s qualifications.

And we could certainly ask “Bob from accounting” to help us clean up our books and prepare our taxes, but we’d feel a lot better if Bob was a licensed Certified Public Accountant through the South Carolina Board of Accountancy.

So what is the disconnect with interior design? And are our analogies actually any good? Tell us what you think!

Meanwhile, here are some of the ideas that we’ll be considering as we continue our state-by-state coverage: 

  • How many interior designers have been put out of business by new regulations adopted in other states? 
  • How does this relate to the history of licensing and regulation for other design professionals like architects and engineers?
  • Are there simpler alternatives to regulation that will still allow qualified designers to get the rights and recognition they have earned?
  • Are pro-regulation arguments as “bogus” as Morrow says?
  • Does the language in proposed legislation accurately reflect the aims of pro-regulation industry organizations?

But first, a crash course in legislation terminology, coming up next!

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