There’s a lot of confusion out in the world about what the difference is between interior designers and interior decorators. Although in most states there is no legal distinction, and anyone can call themselves either a decorator or a designer – and practice their craft – within the profession, we do use the terms to mean different things, which amount to a difference in scope of work and expertise. In reality, many people use the terms interchangeably still, though, even in the profession, particularly among older designers, but many younger/newer designers will be very offended if you call them a decorator, because of the difference in scope of work and education.
One of the better, more concise definitions of the distinction I’ve come across yet comes from CCIDC, as follows:
An “Interior Decorator” is someone who primarily deals with colors, finishes, and furniture and typically stays within the residential boundary of interiors. Typically they might charge a fee for their creative services such as laying out the furniture in a room, or putting together different colors and finishes in order to create several palettes from which the client can choose. In most cases a decorator will charge a “mark-up” on all the products they sell to you. This mark-up can vary wildly, anywhere from 20% to 50% in some cases. Most decorators are reluctant to prepare a formal contract or letter of agreement spelling out what the services are that they are going to provide, and how much they are going to charge.
An “Interior Designer” is someone who can complete an interior design project from start to finish, including preparing construction documents for bidding and permitting, as well as supervising the construction and installation of the work. This person in essence becomes your agent to deal with local building codes and building departments, and licensed contractors. They have the expertise to handle all of these different players, whereas you may not, or may not have the time or inclination.
Interior designers cover all types of projects from commercial (offices, medical facilities, retail shops, restaurants, hotels, retirement and nursing facilities, to name a few) to residential. Typically an interior designer has a lot of education and experience, as well as possibly having sat for one or more examinations in order to test their competency and to attain state recognition of their profession.
Again, just because someone uses the title “Interior Designer”, it doesn’t mean they are any more qualified than an “Interior Decorator”, or any one who chooses to use either title irrespective of their qualifications or experience, which may be none at all.”
Interior designers do it all
I should add that interior designers also do all the same work that decorators do – this is definitely not an “either/or” proposition. Furniture, finishes, etc. are all integral parts of a quality interior design. It’s just that designers can do so much more, including manage the entire project, coordinating the work of all other design and construction professionals such as architects, contractors, lighting designers, landscape designers, and many specialty trades.
The very best interior design jobs happen when the designer is either hired first or at the same time as the architect and contractor, because then you get the input from all sides from the beginning, and you end up with a much more cohesive project than you would if you just hired a designer or decorator once the architect was finished.
What will it cost?
Interior designers typically charge an hourly fee (at least for residential design), often in addition to a product markup, which also varies, but will typically be around 30-35% in most places. Hourly fees will vary more widely, depending on geographical location, the amount of experience a designer has, etc., but you can expect them to start around $125 per hour (at least on the coasts) and go up from there, topping out around $400 per hour or more for some of the most prominent. Prices are probably somewhat less in more inland states. Decorators usually charge much less – and rightly so, since they are also doing much less, and typically know a lot less.
It’s very rare to see a flat fee any more, because every project is so different that it’s very difficult for even the most experienced designers to accurately estimate how long it will take or what will be involved, since there are often unexpected surprises, so the entire industry has moved away from this pricing structure.
(update October 2012) We are actually now starting to see a move back towards flat fees (often now called “value based fees”), as we learn that this is what many clients prefer. The hourly and other models still prevail at this time, however.
Do they have to be licensed?
CCIDC goes on to claim that the best way to ensure you’re hiring someone competent is to hire a CID, which is a CA certified interior designer, which obviously only applies in CA. Some other states have various different rules, but the majority do not regulate the profession in any way, except at most for restricting the use of a specific title such as *certified* interior designer. (Please see the NoDesignLegislation blog if you want to know more about these issues.)
However, since certification is entirely optional, and the vast majority of designers are not certified, you would be limiting your selection options tremendously to only select from this limited pool.
And since certification has nothing whatsoever to do with creativity in any state at all, and isn’t even tested for anywhere, it’s no gauge at all of the quality of the work a person does – only their ability to pass a test, really.
In fact, many of the nation’s top designers (some of whom call themselves decorators) do not hold any form of certification or any other credential, do not belong to any of the major design organizations, etc. Conversely, some of the absolute worst (or at least mediocre) design work I’ve seen comes from designers who do hold these designations or related credentials from one of a variety of professional organizations.
The reality is that great design knows no educational or legal bounds. Great designers exist across the spectrum, as to poor ones.
So how do I find a good designer?
The very best way to find a decorator or designer is really through word of mouth – and trusting your own eyes as to what you like and don’t like. Ask your friends whose homes and offices you like who they used, then check the designer’s website, call to request an interview and to look at their portfolio if they don’t have a website (and many designers still don’t). Alternatively, you can look through design magazines, find designers through local decorator’s showcases, or just do a Google search for designers in your area. If you know what style you are interested in, that can help narrow your search further.
Make sure this person does work you like, and that you feel comfortable with them, because an interior design project can be a very long and involved affair second only to marriage in intimacy, in some ways. This person is going to end up knowing a whole lot about you in order to do a great job for you and to see it through to completion, and you’re going to be spending a whole lot of time together, so you absolutely must be able to trust them and feel at ease around them. Ask a lot of questions about how they work, what you can expect, how they bill, what their contract terms are, etc.
In your interview, also ask them about their education, experience, and background. Formal training may be an asset – or it may not, but it certainly won’t hurt. Again, many of the world’s top designers have little to no formal training (including the designer tapped to do the Obama White House, Michael S. Smith!), so a degree is simply no guarantee that this person will be any better than anyone else. But this can be a very technical field indeed, so some indication that your prospective designer keeps up on what’s new is important, even if it’s not required for anything – so ask about how they do keep current. You want to know that they at least take some classes to keep up on changes in the building codes, if nothing else, but you also want to know that they know what the latest products and technologies are, and are able to source products that you yourself cannot, since that is a lot of the best reason to hire a designer in the first place.