Solving Our Identity Crisis

Oct. 1, 2003
Harvey Rosenberg, IDEC, ASID

Solving Our Identity Crisis

What is an interior designer? If you ask this question to the average person on the street, you will probably learn that she is someone who decorates rooms, selects curtains and rugs and hangs pictures. If you then inquire who it is that designs offices, retail stores, restaurants, banks, hotels and apartment house lobbies, the answer will inevitably be architects.Who are we? Why are we in this conundrum? Why is the ratio of male/female students studying interior design more than 85 percent female? On the other hand, why is it that in many design firms, the proportion of males/females is closer to 50/50? From where do these extra males come? Where do the other females go? Inversely, why is ASID's membership 85 percent female and IIDA's 80 percent? Why do men shy away from the so-called "professional" design organizations?Years ago when I told my parents I wanted to be an interior designer (I actually said "interior decorator" in my high school yearbook), my father, whose entire family was involved in the textile business, said, "It is not a profession for a male; it's for sissies." That perception seemingly has not changed. In the public eye, interior decoration, rarely called interior design, is considered one of the female professions if it is thought of as a profession at all. High school guidance counselors list our profession together with teaching, nursing, fashion design and hairdressing. Parents are advised that decorating a house is a great career for artistic girls. Architecture is still considered a profession for men, even though a high proportion of architectural students now are women.As was my experience, males are still discouraged from studying interior design. What is this stigma that will not go away? Perhaps it persists because most of the public will rarely know or even meet a commercial or contract designer. If they do happen to make such an acquaintance, they assume the interior designer to be an architect because he or she is involved in designing offices, restaurants or retail shops. Furthermore, the general public seldom, if ever, sees a design trade magazine, which is where contract work is published. I cannot remember any of the shelter magazines publishing contract projects, and the home sections of national newspapers primarily concentrate on residential installations. Residential designers, the majority of whom are women, are better known. Many middle-class Americans retain them to decorate their homes. In addition to the dominance of residential design in shelter magazines and newspapers, television has been of little help in changing this image. Such shows as "Will and Grace," "Trading Spaces" or "Designing Women" induce a frivolous image of design and designers. How often has an interior designer been portrayed by a macho actor?Another interesting factor to consider in the gender issue is the composition of faculty in interior design educational programs. Frequently, the faculty ratio is 50 male/50 female. In some schools, males even comprise the majority. The public should become aware of this statistic.Aside from the gender issue, we still must defend the scope of our professional competencies. When the legislators of New York State decided to add additional categories to the sales tax code, interior design/decoration was combined in the same act with barbershops, hair salons and shoeshine parlors. Does this action reveal how legislators view the interior design profession?Likewise, on Netscape's Job Site, which outlines career opportunities, "interior design/decoration" is not even listed; only "architectural services" is mentioned. Plainly speaking, no jobs were offered for interior designers.How can we, who have such an impact on the built environment, be so overlooked, ignored and disrespected? Why do architects get the credit for work actually completed by interior designers? Why are architects—who may be untrained and often disinterested in color, texture, furniture, history and the creative possibilities of interior spaces—retained by clients to perform space planning and interior design? Possibly it is because so many architectural firms employ well-trained graduates of interior design programs. Why, then, are interior designers in some firms treated as second-class professionals by their architectural co-workers and the firm's principals in matters concerning professional credit, salary, bonuses and promotion?Another problem is the continuing turf war that yet exists in some states between architects and interior designers. Since the economic decline of the 1970s when architects discovered there was money to be made in designing interiors, there have been efforts to disparage, discredit and prevent interior design from being recognized as a legitimate profession. In some instances, architects have attempted to legislate interior designers out of business. Even now, chapters of the AIA are striving to prevent or overturn legislature relating to interior design. Architects are better organized, have greater sources of funding, and are focused on a mission. Too many interior designers seem unaware, unconcerned and unconvinced about the need for public and legislative recognition. The fact that ASID and IIDA cannot agree on the importance of unification—one voice to promote the profession—may be symptomatic.Some suggestions that might improve the status of the interior design profession include:
  • If two organizations must exist, perhaps a logical solution for the profession's dilemma is to establish a distinct organization for interior decorators and another for interior designers. The organization for interior decorators could represent those who have not completed, or do not wish to complete, the NCIDQ exam. These members could use the previously established and widely recognized title of "interior decorator," a title which truly may describe more accurately the services they wish to perform—the decoration of interior space.

  • The organization for interior designers could represent graduates of formal interior design educational programs who have passed the interior design certification exam. This membership requirement would help clarify in the public's mind the difference between an "interior designer" and an "interior decorator." This organization would then represent persons knowledgeable in the technical areas of building construction, interior systems, accessibility, life safety and building codes, to name but a few.

  • The interior design profession could adopt a more unique title such as "interior architecture," which might be less easily confused in name with "interior decoration." It also correctly implies a distinctly different orientation. Presently, the term "interior architect" is used to represent the interior design profession in many European countries. Architects in the United States, however, might not be comfortable with the widespread adoption of this term.

  • Professional organizations should launch, or if one is in place, strengthen a public relations campaign to educate the public about the scope of services that interior designers perform.

  • If existing organizations remain, appellations such as ASID and IIDA always should be required after members' names when their work is published.

  • High school students, their parents and especially their guidance counselors should be educated to know that interior design is a viable career possibility for both males and females.

  • Shelter and decorating and design magazines could include articles on commercial interiors that relate to general consumer interest. Examples could include retail shops and restaurants, as these are places their readers might visit frequently.

  • Home and design sections of newspapers could feature other aspects of interior design beyond residential installations and, when doing so, recognize the designers of such spaces. As a case in point, reviews of restaurants published in The New York Times rarely mention the designer's name.

  • Present day interior designers could leave a conspicuous signature logo on their completed designs, a practice indicative of other artistic professions.

  • Restaurants could give credit on their menus to the interior designer who creates the ambiance of the space just as they credit the chef who develops the menu and cuisine.

    In summary, the interior design profession must resolve the persistent issues of gender diversity, title usage, education, certification and scope of service if our profession is to advance. How will you help?

    Harvey Rosenberg, IDEC, ASID, is professor and former chair of Interior Design at FIT, New York, NY. He is a graduate of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, where he has also taught. Rosenberg is a former IDEC East Regional chair and served on the board of directors from 1990 to 1995. He is also one of the original leaders of ASID's STEP workshops. IDEC can be contact at (317) 816-6261 or
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