Lately I’ve been pondering how to communicate the value of what professional interior designers bring to a design project that no one else can, and like many other designers, coming up a bit short on a good explanation, although it’s something we designers certainly all know intuitively. Conveying that to the public is a different matter, however. The following articles explain it better than any I’ve seen elsewhere. Stanley Abercrombie is one of the most influential design writers of our time, for many years the editor of Interior Design magazine, one of the industry’s most important professional journals. In a profession sadly lacking in philosphical underpinnings such as architecture has, he’s also written one of the most thoughtful (and indeed only) books on the subject with the appropriate title of A Philosophy of Interior Design.
The value of interior design, 1994. (interior design as an artform) (Editorial)
Article from:Interior Design Article date:January 1, 1994 Author: Abercrombie, Stanley
Please don’t think I plan to make a habit of this, but just this once I want to take more than the usual space for an editorial statement. On this page in October, comments titled “It’s the Design” urged designers to value–and to charge for–their design expertise. Some of you agreed with my comments (for example, see Marvin Affrime’s letter in our forum section); some of you didn’t agree; and the following expansion of those thoughts will also, inevitably, be controversial. That’s fine. But I feel passionately about the danger of something important being lost if designers continue disguising their profession as just another business.
Interior design is a business, we recognize, and a demanding one; the forum instituted exactly two years ago and dedicated solely to business and professional news and opinion, demonstrates that recognition. But, for most of us, the business aspect of interior design is not its chief attraction. What drew most designers to their profession is the fact that interior design is an art.
It is not a fine art, but an applied art. It cannot luxuriate in its independence as can painting and sculpture, forming itself without regard to any but aesthetic demands. It is, instead, a hardworking art, with serious and sometimes mundane problems to solve. And just as there are a great many buildings that never achieve the status of architecture, there are a great many interiors that never achieve the level of art. But there are many that do, and, at their best, interior designers are artists. Although the artistic element is difficult to separate from interior design’s more practical elements, it must not be denied that it often exists and can add an important extra value to our work. Granted, a designer who idealistically focuses solely on art may have trouble finding any opportunity to practice the art; still, it seems undeniable that in today’s difficult economy, the art of interior design is undervalued. Talking recently with the impressively articulate principal of one of our Giant firms, I was told that the firm’s emphasis now, in its efforts to get new work, is on economic benefits for clients. Similarly, a fine designer in California told me a couple of months ago that he never mentions appearance or design in making a presentation these days, but that instead he promises to produce a more efficient plan than his competitors. And one firm that used to call itself “architects” is emphasizing its technological savvy by now calling itself “cybertects.” If the work of these firms sometimes transcends problem solving and becomes art, they’re certainly not bragging about it. One likely reason is that in interior design, the element of art is inseparable from more practical elements.
It arises, in fact, from the thoughtful accommodation of very practical needs, not from any impulse or motive that is extraneous to such accommodation. As architect W. R. Lethaby wrote in Form and Civilization, “Art is not a special sauce applied to ordinary cooking; it is the cooking itself if it is good.”
Another reason for ignoring the element of art in interior design is that the value of art is notoriously difficult to measure. The essence of art is intangible. It cannot be quantified as a number of square feet or pounds or yards; consequently, it is difficult to value in terms of dollars. It is true that the number of hours taken to achieve a work of art can be recorded, but such records rarely include the value of previous experience. Whistler, accused of excessive pricing for one of his paintings, was asked, “For two days’ labor, you ask two hundred guineas?” He replied, “No, I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.” Which reminds us that, if it is both an art and a business, interior design is also a craft.
Technique and experience count a lot in this field, just as they do in the finest of fine arts. Whistler had more than a painter’s vision; he also had the technical expertise to effectively manifest that vision. Such expertise is not achieved by the novice or the housewife-with-flair or the guy-who-can-get-you-a-good-deal. It is achieved through the increasingly rigorous education that our profession requires and through the subsequent practical application of that education. Like the surgeon or lawyer, the interior designer must be both educated and practiced. Like them, the designer deserves appropriate compensation.
But Whistler’s vision was his main asset. Beyond skill and competence, there remains the special but hard-to-measure value-added element of art, and only the designer’s education, practice and vision can combine to produce that element. The designer does more than plan; the designer designs [emphasis added]. I believe it is the difficulty of determining appropriate compensation that has led to attempts by many interior designers to measure their art in inappropriate ways. Sometimes, by ignoring their art altogether, they underestimate their own value; at other times, by confusing their art with the more mundane functions of their practice from which their art arises, they overestimate that art. Art, for example, does not necessarily solve social problems.
I do not mean that interior design cannot address and sometimes solve such problems; in some cases, it must do so. But the aspect of interior design that is aesthetic does not solve them; it does something quite different.
In the early 1950s, designer George Nelson, speaking to the American Institute of Architects, expressed it this way: “…nothing is less consequential in the creation of a work of art than good intentions.”
And a couple of years later, lecturing in Vienna, Alvar Aalto made a similar point: “Form is a mystery,” he said, “which eludes definition but makes us feel good in a way quite unlike social aid.” [emphasis mine]
If art is amoral, then, and “quite unlike social aid,” what is it that art can do for us? How is it that it “makes us feel good?”
Art heightens the quality of our lives. Walter Pater, in the last paragraph of The Renaissance, his book of just more than a century ago, observed that “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing, except the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” This view has been criticized as proposing “art for art’s sake,” but, at least in this passage, Pater is clearly proposing art for the sake of the quality of our lives and of our clients’ lives. It is this heightened quality that interior designers as artists can offer and that no one in related fields–not space planners, nor realtors, nor developers, nor construction cost analysts, nor facility managers–can. These people perform useful functions; interior designers can perform them too; but interior designers can bring something more to a project. It is this heightened quality, this civilizing of our living places and working places, this art that designers not only must continue to offer but also, I believe, must emphasize. Despite the difficulties in isolating, measuring and evaluating the artistic element of interior design, that element must be recognized [emphasis mine], and even be bragged about, for it cannot be appreciated and will not be properly rewarded unless it is recognized. A question designers should ask their clients and their potential clients to ask themselves is this: What are you going to be seeing in your new space? Assuming that your newly planned environment is going to be efficient, well organized and supportive of increased productivity, is it also going to be interesting, uplifting, enriching–or even bearable–to look at and to be in day after day, year after year?
Art is worth paying for because, in these days of social discontent and random violence, in these days of homelessness, drugs, guns and plaque, when our urban environments are becoming increasingly brutalized, we increasingly need both physical and mental refuge from that brutalization. We need the solace of interiors that are not only intelligently functional but also intelligently artful. In these days more than ever, the art of interior design is worth paying for, because a heightened quality of life is worth paying for.
It’s the design. (design profession)
Article from:Interior Design Article date: October 1, 1993
Author: Abercrombie, Stanley
It is commonplace these days to hear architects and interior designers describe job meetings at which they are surrounded by various representatives of the client’s interests: lawyers, developers, real estate brokers, strategic planners, programmers, construction managers, project managers, facility managers. Every one of this new crop of experts demands and gets reasonable time for performing a function; every one demands and gets reasonable pay for doing it. Only the designer is expected to turn out overnight miracles, and it naturally follows that work done quickly comes cheap.
Today’s designer, it seems to this former designer, will not be paid what he’s worth without conveying a clear idea of that worth, not by competing with all those lawyers, brokers and managers, but by proudly providing the services the designer alone can provide; not by presenting the profession in some new guise but in the old and honest way; not by pretending to do work that necessarily saves the client money; but by doing work that is worth the client’s money. That client must somehow, gently, tactfully, but firmly be made aware that:
1. The primary function of a designer is to provide design (and that design includes not just decorating but an interrelated network of problem solving) [emphasis added].
2. Good design requires the time and effort of highly educated professionals.
3. Such time and effort deserve fair compensation.
Not every prospective client really needs design services, perhaps, but those who do should be prepared to pay for them. The current abhorrent practice of clients demanding severe cuts in designers’ fees cannot be expected to end until those clients are reminded of what those fees are purchasing. In these economically troubled times, the design profession does not need to be reshaped; it needs to be reasserted.
Thanks to Vicente Wolf for raising the issue of why designers ourselves tend to undervalue what we do.