Commentary: Occupation? Planet Caregiver

March 24, 2009
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of professional licensure and title acts, the A&D community needs to universally embrace designs that protect the public and the planet.

Glancing over a simple medical form, I read the words “We like to get to know our patients.” Then appeared the word “occupation” followed by a colon; seemed innocuous enough, yet I inexplicably felt compelled to write “consultant/educator” instead of “interior designer.” Here I was not being forthright with my new dentist. I thought I was over this!

More than 10 years ago, as I was speaking at a design event, I told the audience how important it was to take the time to educate the public about what an interior designer does; otherwise they wouldn’t know the difference and would continue thinking that interior designers were interior decorators.

In 1996, I wrote a piece for IIDA’s Perspective magazine titled, “Damn it, I’m a Designer!” explaining how, despite all the misunderstanding about what interior designers do, we had an obligation to call ourselves what we are—not interior architects (it’s illegal to use that term in the United States anyway), but interior designers. Yet, here I was, selling out my own profession.

“What do you consult on?” my dentist asked. I paused, “Organizations that are trying to improve work productivity and enhance employee surroundings. Sometimes that work results in facility change and sometimes not.” Now, that was all true—it’s what I do (and why I went back to school to get my M.S. in Organization and Management), but … “Oh,” he responded, “I bet you could do a lot with insurance companies—there’s an inefficient bunch.” How would the conversation have been different if I had written, “interior designer” on the form? Would he have said, “Could you take a look at our waiting room?” or (the classic line), “My wife is great with color.” I don’t know. But, now I feel like Edgar Allen Poe in the Tell Tale Heart. What will happen when, a few visits from now, he learns that I am an interior designer? Will I be sitting in his chair, my mouth agape, hearing “interior designer fraud, interior designer fraud” every time he turns on his high speed drill?

His sign says “Dr. Theriault, Dentist.” He didn’t shake my hand and say, “I work with people’s mouths to ensure they have healthy teeth and gums, which may lead to a longer lifespan.” Yet, I know that that is one of the things a dentist does. With dentists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, even architects, the public has a basic understanding of what these professions do. More importantly, they know that these are professions requiring education, experience and examination. But what does the public know about interior design? They know that virtually anyone can practice it (in all but six U.S. jurisdictions: Florida, Nevada, Washington D.C., Alabama, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico, which all have practice acts). Even though various titles are protected in 19 additional states (certified interior designer, registered interior designer and interior designer), what does that mean to the public? Confusion, mostly.

It made me wonder about massage therapists. I remember when the term “masseuse” was considered a cover for a prostitution ring. How did this profession gain credibility and stature with the public? It certainly has happened in my lifetime—it hasn’t taken 30 years to accomplish. What did this group do that was so effective? In researching the profession, I discovered a wonderful organization—the American Medical Massage Association (AMMA). AMMA is young—established in 1998 by a small group of healthcare professionals, “who believed a change in the practice and identity of massage therapy was urgently needed.” Here’s the point I found so beautiful about this group: They know they have detractors—people who practice different forms of massage who may not agree with AMMA’s mission; and there are several large professional massage associations that do not want to be associated with AMMA. Yet AMMA, in its holistic approach, came up with a unity statement, which in part reads:

“To all other massage therapists: Although we may come from different paths to this sacred art of healing, you are my brother and sister in massage therapy. I welcome you to both this art and profession. I recognize the beauty in your healing hands, mind and heart. … I see richness and reward in our sharing of knowledge and experience. As you are my brother and sister in healing I will uplift you. … If you need assistance, without hesitation I will support you. To those that speak against you, I will arise to defend you. If you need my good counsel or teaching it is yours. … May we never forget that we are more alike than different. … May we always realize that if there is a time for healing it is now, and it is always. For if the healers are not reconciled among themselves, from where will healing come?”

Wow … is that too touchy-feely for you? Well, come on, they are massage therapists after all. But (stay with me here) can you see a vision where we substitute design for healing? Can you imagine a statement like this being shared with interior decorators, interior designers, kitchen designers, furniture showroom designers, architects ... or with the board members of professional associations such as IIDA, ASID, AIA, and NKBA? Years ago, when I was trying to find my courage at a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) meeting (June 2000 to be exact), I shared a favorite quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century theologian:

“We are challenged to live gracefully with ambiguity, with the tension of both having and not having the truth. In holding to our convictions, we must also be open to the possibility that those who disagree with us may not be less principled than we and, in fact, may have the information and moral insights we lack.”

NCARB had proposed a resolution that stated that interior design was harmful to the public. A few days before the meeting, NCIDQ had filed a complaint with the antitrust division of the Department of Justice against NCARB. I believe that the president of NCARB held as firmly to his beliefs, as I held to mine. I sat in the audience as a representative from Maine’s Regulatory Board of Architects, Landscape Architects and Interior Designers, but I was also president of NCIDQ at the time and was desperately trying to recall Niebuhr’s words about being “open to the possibility that those who disagree with us may not be less principled than we.” Those words (and drinking some good scotch with my friends that evening) helped me get through the meeting.

I remember an NCARB resolution that proposed that interior designers should be allowed to become architects with a sub-standing, recognized within the NCARB umbrella. “No,” I publically stated, “if I wanted to be an architect I would have attended an NAAB- (National Architectural Accrediting Board) accredited school, participated in the IDP (Intern Development Program), and taken the ARE (Architectural Registration Exam). I chose to become an interior designer.” I chose this?

I have taught interior design programs since 2001, even directing a CIDA-accredited program for a few years. I consistently urge my students to take a stand for the profession and to remain as committed to advocacy in the profession as they are to being great designers. Countless students have come to me saying, “So and so says I should be studying architecture because I am smart.” (As if those who study interior design are dumb—argh!) “Patience, persistence,” I preach. After talking with them and clarifying (and sometimes reminding them) why they chose interior design, I will counsel, “We need you. You chose this profession. Stick with it!”

I am a purger; a collector and then a purger … often waiting too many years in between the two actions. However, in a recent purging moment, I sorted through six cardboard boxes in my garage from the years I was on the Maine State Regulatory and NCIDQ boards. I came across letters, memos, and snippets I had been saving for this moment. As I reflected on the energy that went into the work that was inside those boxes, I realized, “It is over.” That energy must be dispersed—through the writing of this article. Those memorandums and letters need to be let go so that new positive energy can come into my life (via my garage). In this Feng Shui moment, I declared my intention to move away from the negativity of fighting for the legitimacy of my profession.

I asked more than 12 years ago in that article for Perspective, “What would have happened if the energy that was expended in the past years fighting architects to prove it is a separate profession was instead put toward educating the public about the impact of good design?” To write this article, knowing that 12 years have passed since I posed that initial question, and to know that the public is only slightly more aware of the impact of good design, makes me wonder again: I chose this?

So, today I feel a new urgency; one of protecting the environment and our children. I feel a need to turn my focus toward something that goes much deeper than defining a profession. Therefore, I propose a unity statement for the design professions, including our brothers and sisters who are decorators, kitchen designers, residential designers, or architects. This is a statement for the leaders of IIDA and ASID as well as those professionals who have chosen to not belong to a professional association. Borrowing from the work of AMMA, I propose:

“To all other designers of the built environment: Although we may come from different paths to this art of designing, you are my brother and sister in design. I welcome you to both this art and profession. I see richness and reward in our sharing of knowledge and experience. As you are my brother and sister in design, I will uplift you; to those who speak against you, I will arise to defend you. If you need my good counsel or teaching, it is yours. May we never forget that we are more alike than different. As specifiers and designers, may we make good sustainable choices for our environment and our children; may we always realize that if there is a time for unity it is now, and it is always. For if the designers of our built environment are not reconciled among themselves, from where will good sustainable design come?”

We are needed, now more than ever, to create healthy, supportive environments that will sustain us and our Earth’s resources. At the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild conference in November, biologist E.O. Wilson stated that, “A group like this one can probably be thinking of itself as a movement. And, to belong to it and to be engaged in that part of the profession that is actually making it happen is to be regarded not as an occupation or profession, but as a calling.” Not a profession, not an occupation, but a “calling.” Let us use our energy to create great environments that protect the public and our planet, no matter what our occupations. This, I choose. Will you join me in this calling?

Lisa Whited is a certified interior design practitioner, consultant, educator, advocate, writer, and planet caregiver. She also works as a Chapter Growth Consultant for the USGBC. Her firm, Whited Planning + Design, is in Portland, Maine. She can be reached at [email protected].

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