Thursday, March 3, 2011

Decorator or designer?

Last week, in my post Il Gattopardo I made a remark about David Hicks to the effect that he "... was undoubtedly a snob, but in that he was no different from many a modern decorator or, as they frequently prefer to be called, designer - another step in the dance of status and branding."

There were comments, of course, and on reading them, it occurred to me that there might well be a confusion about the difference between a interior decorator and an interior designer or, even, that there is a difference. I tend to use the term decorator because I almost exclusively deal with residential design and would rather refer to myself as a decorator than a designer. Some decorators prefer to be known as designers and with that, personally, I have no problem for it is a matter of peceived status. But I will say that in many people's minds the two terms are interchangeable - yet there difference, and I would like to explain something of that difference.

Basically the situation is this: states regulate the professions that impact health, safety and welfare of the public and in twenty-six of those states interior design professionals are included in that regulation - they must be licensed to practice and the title of interior designer is specific to those individuals. The main path to licensing is long - a four-year bachelor's degree from an accredited interior design program, followed by an internship for a minimum number of years with a licensed practitioner before one can sit for the NCIDQ* examination. The point of professional regulation is to set a minimum level of competence required to safely practice a profession - in this case, that of an interior designer working predominantly in contract design. A decorator, on the other hand, suffers no such regulation in any state (I think).

The quotation below explains the difference between interior decorator and interior designer very clearly, if a little tendentiously. I have no disagreement with the definition of what an interior designer does but I have reservations about the explanation of what a decorator does. However, those reservations could consume many an hour and I shall spare you that. I wonder, though, if you decorators recognize yourselves in the quotation. Italics are mine.

"Interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to create functional spaces within a structure. Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things. Interior designers may provide interior decorating services, but decorators are not qualified to provide interior design services.

"One primary difference between the two professions is that interior designers are responsible for the elements that affect the public’s health, safety and welfare. For example, an interior designer can evaluate wall finishes based on durability, acoustic properties, cleanability, flame retardancy, allergens, toxicity and off-gassing properties. An interior decorator can evaluate finishes based only on color, style and texture."


There is absolutely no connection between the paragraphs above and these photographs of the ravishing Gallery of Mirrors in the Palazzo Gangi - the room where, as I mentioned previously, Luchino Visconti filmed the ball scene from his movie, The Leopard. I simply find the room one the most beautiful and atmospheric I've ever seen. A room redolent of warm winds and roses, candlelight and perfume, silk and damask, coruscation and lambency, blushing and fading, black-eyed men and etiolated chaperones - the one louche and vigilant of honor, wives, mistresses and daughters; the other spiteful, fans atremble with scandal and malice.

First two photographs by Joel Laiter to accompany text by Lydia Fasoli. From The World of Interiors, October, 2002.

The last is by Marc Walter. From the book Private Splendor: Great Families at Home, Alexis Gregory and Marc Walter, The Vendome Press, 2006.


  1. Albert Hadley said, when asked by myself 30 years ago...are you an interior designer or a decorator--"JUST a decorator".

  2. Craig, thank you. If it is good enough for Mr Hadley, it's good enough for me.

  3. At Parish-Hadley, there were two categories for the creative staff. Those who made the decorative decisions -- choosing the furniture, the fabric schemes, and the finishes -- were Decorators. Over the years, this included Bunny Wiliams, David Easton, Mark Hampton, Kevin McNamara and David Kleinberg. A sub-category of this was the Assistants, which included Thomas Jayne, Michael Whaley, Thom Filicia, Brian McCarthy and so many more who, of course, are full-fledged decorators today. Those who were trained in architecture worked out the details for construction and new furnishings in addition to drafted furniture plans were Designers. Of course there was overlapping with some Decorators contributing more to the design, and some Designers adding more to the decoration, depending on the individuals. But I can assure you there was not one person on staff at Parish-Hadley that ever flinched at being referred to as a Decorator, thinking of it only as a well-served achievement and a worthy title.

  4. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I didn't understand the distinction, with occasionally expensive consequences.

    Ever since, I've almost always employed architects whenever as much as a light switch was moved. (But not as "interior designers.")

    P.S. Blue -- "Coruscation and lambency"? Were you ever at Studio 54 on a really crazy night? (Great post, by the way.)

  5. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

    To a great degree there is a two-tier profession, certainly within professional organizations such as ASID with its ASID and Allied ASID appellations. I understand the reasoning behind it but do not agree with it. A few years back I heard a newly minted NCIDQ graduate, someone who couldn't decorate his way out of a box, refer to an acquaintance as "only a decorator."

    If I were to give myself a style it would be that of decorator.

  6. The Ancient, thank you. It was your comment and Stefan's that drove me to write about the distinction.

    Whether decorator or designer, it seems to me both need professional education and experience before being launched on a grateful world. Design is a business, first and foremost - a fact frequently forgotten - and all businesses, and here I show my naivete, should be professionally conducted. Any competent decorator should have a stable of professionals - architects, electricians, etc with whom he or she works.

    As to Studio 54 - I wish! Those were my shyer years when even walking into a store was a trial.

  7. Thanks for flushing out the details! Personally, I never understood why people said 'only' a decorator. It's a talent, a rare gift and brings so much enjoyment to so many people. I'm an architect and sometime decorator myself and proud of it!

  8. I wrote a tiresomely long comment here-and I hope it is gone-such stuff, but decorator is what I like to called myself.

  9. Little Augury, thank you. I too consider myself a decorator and am proud to say it. I hate the way the profession has become two-tier.