Saturday, May 1, 2010

Architecture and the Interior Design Professional

Interiors by Anita Brooks.
Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates, Inc.

Many of our clients are first-time home builders and may not have worked with an interior designer before. (Or an architect, for that matter.)  The process of construction and the creation of architecture is a team effort. Many consultants are involved, from structural engineers to mechanical engineers to lighting designers to security specialists and audio/visual consultants. The list could go on, but there are four key team members at the center of most building endeavors: the owner, the architect, the builder, and the interior designer. This article examines the role of the interior designer, how they interact with the rest of the team, and how to find one that’s right for you.


Several professional organizations lend credibility to designer members, the most prominent being the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and some states require professional licensing of interior designers, as with architects and engineers. But the most important signifier of a designer’s talent and professionalism is the evidence of their past work. Still, there is often confusion as to exactly what an interior design professional brings to the table. Perhaps that’s because they play varying roles depending on the nature of the project, the expectations of the client, and the capabilities of the individual designer. The terminology describing these services has also evolved in recent years. Misunderstandings can be avoided by understanding the definitions of three common job descriptions for interior consultants: (1) interior decorator, (2) interior merchandiser, and (3) interior designer.


Interior decorator used to be the only term for an interior design consultant. (Frank Lloyd Wright famously described them as interior desecrators.  Wright always wanted to control control every detail, from the furniture design to the china pattern.) By most definitions, decorators confine their services to the selection and coordination of colors, window treatments, furniture, and fabrics. This can be a valuable resource. Interior decorators tend to think in terms of surfaces and furnishings, rather than architectural volume. Usually they are not involved in working with the architect in designing major interior features like niches, beamed ceilings, fireplace treatments, or cabinets and built-in millwork.

Wrough iron gate designed by interior consultant Amirob.  
Architecture by Michael  Knorr & Associates, Inc.

The expertise of an interior merchandiser is in the realm of merchant-built products such as tract housing, multi-family developments, and “spec” homes. Their specialty is outfitting model homes or apartments for the purpose of generating sales (or rentals). Interior merchandisers combine knowledge of demographics and psychology. They design to “demonstrate” homes for the targeted market. For large multi-unit projects they may be involved in the design of club houses and other amentities. (Sometimes this is a specialty in itself.)  Many interior merchandisers further their education and professional credentials by joining the Institute of Residential Marketing (IRM) under the auspices of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).  On many projects the interior merchandiser works with the marketing analyst, the architect, and the builder from its conception.

Interiors by Karen McGowan of KPM Design. 
Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates, Inc.

Interior design, as it is understood today, is a specialty that bridges the gap between decorating and architecture. Interior designers go beyond surfaces and furnishings, often collaborating with the owner, architect and builder to augment space in a three-dimensional sense. They are likely to be involved in the design of architectural features such as fireplace surrounds, the shape (as well as the surface treatment) of art niches, decorative lighting, dimensional ceilings, and millwork. Interior designers also facilitate space planning decisions in the early phases of architectural design. To implement these services, an interior design professional will provide a complete package of drawings and specifications for all interior elements, such as built-ins, ceiling details, hardware, paint, light fixtures, and specialty finishes. This documentation is an important aspect of an interior designer’s services because it allows the builder to accurately price and install the interior elements.


Design fees have as many permutations as there are combinations and levels of services. The first step a client must take is to determine what services they expect from a design consultant. Then, when comparing prospective designers, they should be certain they are comparing apples to apples in services and fees. Possibilities for compensation include, but are not limited to, the following:

• Consultation on an hourly basis

• Comprehensive design services (drawings, specifications, and product selections) for a fixed fee based on square footage

• Design fee and/or cost-plus-a-percentage on furnishings and products

Of course, the "title" of an interior design professional is the least important aspect of their services. Talent and ability are the most valuable qualities they bring to the team. Before negotiating a fee, be certain that the candidate for interior designer (or decorator... or merchandiser) has the credentials to deliver the quality and services appropriate to the job.


When interviewing prospective design consultants, consider the following:

• What type of individual or firm will best serve your needs? Interior decorator? Interior merchandiser? Interior designer?

• Is the candidate for the job sympathetic to the interior style you’re after? Can he or she demonstrate (either by past jobs or ready knowledge) a familiarity with your sense of style?

• Do you have a good rapport with this person? Is this someone with whom you will enjoy sharing a lot of time on some very important decisions?

• Does this person share the same vision for the project as the owner, architect, and builder? In other words, is everyone prepared to be a team player in realizing your goals?

• Is the fee basis and billing procedure clearly defined and within your budget?

It may take a little time and homework, but when all these pieces come together, you have found a valuable member of your team.

1.  Knorr
2. Amirob
3. R. Ruscio