Interior Design Versus Interior Decoration

I recently took a phone call from a lovely lady who, having had a number of different jobs, had subsequently taken a career break to have children and was now hoping to follow her dream in becoming an interior designer. She asked me how one finds a way into the industry and where a good starting point might be. Some way into the conversation, I asked her what she thought the role of the interior designer was. What was her understanding of what we do on a daily basis? Her answer was “to make things look pretty.”

Whereas this is certainly part of what we do, it is a very small part and it struck me that, with the number of times I’m asked this type of question about my industry, there continues to be a distinct lack of understanding when it comes to the role of the interior designer. I gave a talk to a group of designers and architects in London last year and it was entitled ‘The interior designer wears many hats but an interior decorator wears only one’. There are some designers that focus solely on the furniture, fixtures and fittings. This is called FF&E and there are some highly skilled practitioners out there. However, ask them to design a kitchen or bathroom, or ask them what the building regs are for installing a staircase, and they would struggle. This is effectively the difference in the role of the designer and the decorator.

Because of the blurred lines that exist between the two roles, it is incredibly difficult for the poor client to determine who they are hiring. One hopes that the designer/decorator would always be honest with the client (and themselves) and not take on more than they can cope with. Sadly, this does not always happen and, consequently, the industry gets bad press.

Let’s also look at the extremely talented designers who concentrate on the techy roles, such as those who create computer generated imagery. Also known as CAD Technicians, a great number of these folk have interior design degrees and are bona fide interior designers. Recently graduated designers will have these CAD skills, and some will choose to make this their specialist subject (yet another strand of this varied industry). It is important to say that the skill of being able to produce great Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI, is invaluable to an interior design practice and I am certain that my business would not have secured some of the exciting projects that we have worked on over the years without being able to offer the techy side. We hire two such interior designers who are trained in AutoCAD.

So here’s the thing: if you want to be an interior designer that can do all of the above, get yourself off to university or to Chelsea Harbour in London and commit thousands of pounds to getting trained up… WRONG! There are important things to consider before you part with a penny. All too often we at Penny Allen Design are faced with bringing in students past and present who are not industry-ready. The education system seems to have lost touch with industry, failing to sufficiently prepare young people for the commercial world. In some cases, students are given false assurance of a definite job at the end of the degree course. Again… WRONG! Competition is fierce, jobs are limited and employers want designers who can hit the ground running and actually design. We have supported many graduates over recent months, both with mentoring and educational support. If we didn’t do this and through no fault of their own, these promising young designers would be languishing in the job centre.

If you are considering a career in interior design and want to get qualified, make sure you’re signing up to the right course. If you sign up for an interior architecture course then you are unlikely to spend much time (if any) on the FF&E side of the role. In my view, if you’re interested in architecture then go be an architect. Arguably, it’s getting harder and harder to find interior design courses that focus on what the job is actually about. Tutors seem nervous to step outside of what they know and work with the industry to make their graduates employable.  This is a particular thorn in my side and it frustrates the hell out of me, but for the moment I would just seriously urge young people to check and double-check the degree course that they are signing up for.

There are some great courses out there. The KLC School of Design in Chelsea charges a lot of money for their on-site courses, but they do offer a very good distance learning programme, as do some others. It’s also worth looking at the Society of British & International Design as they will list the courses and universities that they endorse as being industry relevant. Be sure to do your research before committing to anything.

We are working on producing some accredited courses of our own at Penelope Allen Design. We believe that Interior Design is a fabulous career. It’s incredibly hard work but the creative perks are endless. We design interiors for beautiful houses (both large and small); shops; hospitality spaces; sporting venues; penthouse apartments; outdoor living spaces; and even weddings. I love what I do and I am determined to do my level best in supporting those who seriously fancy having a crack at it!

So, do we make things look pretty? Well, yes and no. We definitely make spaces look super stylish, exciting, thought-provoking and uber-cool, but we do it with skill, knowledge, flair and confidence which, after all, is what the client is paying the bucks for.

Penelope Allen