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International Interior Design Association

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Crossroads

By Ross Foti

The interior design profession is poised to conquer the world. By all accounts, demand for the unique services designers provide is rising worldwide. In China, increased affluence points to strong growth potential for the profession, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. What’s more, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are loaded with commercial activities and large-scale, landmark projects.

In New Zealand, both government and business are recognizing the aesthetic and productivity benefits in a well-designed work environment, and as a result, interior designers are more likely to oversee projects than in the past, according to Statistics New Zealand.

Other countries such as Russia are experiencing a surge in design interest as the general public accumulates expendable income. In Europe and the United States, world politics are driving demand, in light of a weak economy.

Once perceived as expensive, or even frivolous, residential interior design is slowly joining its mainstream commercial cousin. But despite the growing opportunities and public understanding, residential design has yet to firmly entrench itself in society.

Designers view growing demand with cautious optimism. “We’re at a very pivotal moment when we must make strong clear decisions about who we are as professionals,” says Shashi Caan, IIDA, Founder and Principal of Shashi Caan Collective, New York. “We get to be the scientist, business person, innovator, lawyer—we wear many hats, but we must decide the priorities of these hats. From the training of our young in professional practices to educating the community, we must decide who we are. We are lacking vision at this time.”

The Evolution of Identity

Today’s designers are not stretching, and they are content to maintain the status quo, according to Caan. “We’re making tiny shifts, but we’re not inventing, we’re iterating. There is a malaise in our profession due to cultural constraints, and that’s very serious.”

The problem is intrinsic to designers’ slowly shifting role in the overall construction process. In the past, residential customers relied on contractors for help, but as design professionals become a valued part of the holistic building process, they’ve had to carve their niche.

“We have become interior architects engineering spaces,” Caan says. “Interior design is everything from strategizing space and personality to imbuing an environment—making the right choices that support the architectural components. The outside world thinks we are quasi-architects or décor experts. Professionals need to qualify themselves, institute the right value systems and be very serious about selling services that are substantial.”

Collaboration with architects and contractors has become a best practice, but leading the effort has been difficult. “We need some serious soul-searching,” Caan says. “We must be clear about what we bring to the table and lead cooperatively. We don’t want to take leadership at times, and then we give our power away.”

This conflict is perpetuated by the similarities—and differences—between commercial and residential design. While commercial design has gained wide acceptance, residential design has been slower to gain recognition for the value it provides. Years ago, interior designers were portrayed as expensive divas in films and print, but today middle-income professionals are looking to interior designers for help.

However, not all designers approach their craft from the same direction. Instead of selling their design services, some residential designers sell goods, products and finishes, tripping over into the domain of the contractor. Jan Johnson, IIDA, Director Workplace Learning, Teknion LLC, Mount Laurel, N.J., agrees. “People look down on residential design when it’s just merchandising. Being able to connect the physical environment to the business strategy or correctly interpret how we assign physical meaning, that’s where the meat of our profession lies.”

Changing Perceptions

Residential designers must become better at balancing creativity with business savvy to see the same success as commercial professionals.

“Interior designers should not downplay the unique abilities they bring to the table, such as knowledge of color, materials, furnishings and how people relate to their immediate environment,” says Suzanne Scott, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We should be emphasizing these values rather than trying to be the architects on a project. We should also push for earlier involvement in projects so our knowledge of environment and behavior can influence the space planning and project concepts from the beginning.”

While tangible expertise is easier to demonstrate to potential customers, creative consultation services are harder, even with a public eager to see potential value. “Interior design has a difficult role to play convincing the world that it is critical that our human psyche, our well-being, our evanescent experiences, our memories and our lives are shaped by the spaces we occupy,” says Designer Karim Rashid of New York. “It is not always possible to show a real quantifiable translation between a better space and a better experience, a better space and a healthier life, or that a better space can create great revenue and a more financially successful result.”

Best Foot Forward

Residential designers worldwide are learning to capitalize on the changing political and social context. “Interior design is a growing interest of the public in Russia, mostly among the while-collar Russian middle class and business elite,” says Nadezhda Lazareva, Ph.D., Director, the International Design School, Moscow, Russia. “There will be more growth in demand for interior design services in Russia during the next 10 years, especially in the format which the Moscow International Design School teaches, which is interior architecture plus decoration. Demand is growing because of an explosion in residential—elite apartments and houses—and business center construction.”

Security also has come to the forefront in consumers’ minds. “I think the key challenge for European designers is the same as their main opportunity—the nesting instinct,” says Dean Keyworth, Armstrong Keyworth Interior Design and Consultancy, London, U.K. “With all the upheaval in the Middle East and political uncertainty at home—the Bush/Blair double act is not popular here—people are staying at home more and enjoying their own private space. They are, therefore, prepared to go to greater lengths and expense to create their perfect cocoon.”

Keyworth asserts that the same upheaval and uncertainty is motivating a whole other group of businesses and individuals to put off renovation projects until the global political and economic picture seems more stable. Competition among designers, therefore, is fierce. “There is a bit of a duel going on between England and Italy at the moment,” he says. “Having thrown out its Chintz a few years ago, London has been swamped with Italian furniture and lighting, and it made us feel that all we were good at was the restoration of 18th century stately homes. However, the counterattack is now underway, and bright, young British designers are being smuggled to Milan to provide fresh ideas for the Italians.”

The Future is Now

Technology is dramatically changing the way designers work. Computer-aided design programs have become increasingly sophisticated, allowing designers to produce more complex three-dimensional designs than those produced a decade ago.

“Telecommunications and digital graphic information is changing where designers can work, the range of consultants they can communicate with and the speed with which they are being asked to produce their work,” Scott says. “Design visualization technology is allowing more options to be considered and more informed fine-tuning of solutions. The technological advances in materials are also dramatic and are helping interior designers solve problems more effectively.”

Mitzi R. Perritt, Ph.D., President, Interior Design Educators Council, Indianapolis, says technology has enabled collaboration on designs, accuracy, and speed and efficiency through the use of digital sample boards. “The refinement and enhancement of graphic software encourages designers, previously uncertain of their drawing skills, to attempt perspectives more readily,” she says. “With little effort, interior scapes can be produced to allow a client to see the proposed solution in three dimensions or to virtually walk through the space and experience it.”

However, technology isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. “Computers can be pretty precise and literal, as opposed to loose sketches, which can facilitate thinking,” Johnson says. “CAD can be the process of recording and not necessarily thinking. It makes decisions more concrete and earlier. The permanency has almost been a disservice to us and our creative process.”

Many questions remain, but the fate of the residential profession rests on how today’s designers choose to lead.

Shooting Stars?

In the past, design firms reflected the personality of the designers, but today, business has permeated larger design offices, which often strive to look like their clients. The end result is a streamlined, efficient approach to interior design, with smaller, more collaborative firms and fewer “stars.”

In other cases, the opposite is true—the economic climate has resulted in consolidated, larger firms—but with the same result. “The star system has somewhat come undone as companies have gotten so large that they’re populated by so many designers, they’ve had to find another way,” says Jan Johnson, IIDA, Director Workplace Learning, Teknion LLC. “Star is now in the cache of the brand rather than in the person.”

In both cases, the interior design star may be a dying breed, with a spotlight only on the Home & Garden Television Channel.

Setting the Bar

To gain an even greater respect in the public eye and gain acceptance as true professionals, residential designers, like those in all specialties, must contend with the paradox of certification. Namely, while technical skill can be tested, creativity and innovation can’t.

While most agree that a standard of professional services is necessary to further the profession, first and foremost, lawmakers regulate to protect consumers, not for the good of the industry.

To be taken seriously, legislation of the profession as a whole is critical. Licensing is important to protect consumers from untrained individuals practicing design with dangerous implications. Licensed interior designers, who seek to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, must differentiate themselves from those without the necessary expertise or credentials who merely pose as designers.

At the same time, to protect the legitimacy of the profession, continuing education and an innovative spirit are necessary internal components to the mature interior designer. “I was a full-time professor for 10 years in design and my greatest disappointment was the lack of theory and study of the world’s bigger issues,” says Designer Karim Rashid. “Design is a political act, a creative act and a social act. The more one is informed of the world, the better one is a designer.”