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Interior Designers: Pillow pickers or creative think tanks?

A deeper look into the Interior Design profession and its value within the design community.

/Madison Gentry


Designers teamed up to create one-of-a-kind runway fashions out of Interior design materials. These creations then hit the runway at the Gem Theatre on November 3, 2016 at 7 p.m. to compete for multiple prizes. Some teams that participated included KCAD, Gensler, dPop, and many others.

Design is not just a product or service. It is an approach. Approach to work. Approach to life. Approach to pillow picking? Or, is there more than meets the eye when it comes to Interior Designers?

Designers of all kinds are considered to have a bohemian type of creative intelligence. They are avant-garde strategists and universal thinkers. In some cases, their work may be perceived as that of a mind reader, sorcerer, or untrained therapist. 6 Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network, describes designers as integrative thinkers; “they not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all of the salient – and sometimes contradictory – aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives” (6 Seconds). Designers are grasping the 21st century by its manhood and pulverizing the walls between universality and us. They help us see the next big thing. They are humanistic innovators.

The National Council for Interior Design Qualification defines Interior Design specifically as, “a multifaceted profession that uses creative and technical solutions within a structure to achieve a built interior environment. These solutions are functional, enhance the quality of life and culture of the occupants, and are aesthetically attractive” (NCIDQ). Jack Weber, Design Principal at Gresham, Smith, and Partners, describes interior design as “creating an experience, an emotion, or a story of your surroundings; helping life’s functions to be pleasing to the senses while organizing you” (IIDA).

The work of Interior designers far exceeds the visual aesthetic as well. The American Society of Interior Designers of Illinois says, “In addition to the aesthetics of a space, an interior designer creates a space that is functional, efficient, and safe and enhances the quality of the working and living environment” (ASID). The responsibilities of interior designers are extensive: space planning, following national / state / local building codes, universal design / standards, cultural influence, ergonomics, light quality and quantity, acoustics, flame spread ratings, and smoke and toxicity classifications as well as material selection.

However, some individuals still conclude that an architect or engineer does not need an Interior Designer. The American Society of Interior Designers of Illinois addresses this problem as well. “Increasingly, buildings are designed not as completed objects, but as “shells” into which tenants and others create their own design…Interior Designers focus on and specialize in the planning of the interior elements of a building’s design” (ASID). Additionally, Dr. Andrew Dent (from Material ConneXtion) says, “If you want to constantly improve on something, you hire an engineer. If you want something entirely new, you hire a designer.”

Finish2Fashion, an IIDA event – International Interior Design Association, took place on November 3rd, 2016 at the Gem Theatre in Detroit. This was an opportunity for Interior Designers to take materials they use every day – samples, carpet backing, vinyl floor tile – and transform them into a runway creation. This year’s theme was Hollywood. Companies from all over Michigan such as Herman Miller, Gensler, dPop – all design giants in their sector – participated. This provided interior designers the opportunity to push the envelope of their profession and challenge business norms as well as find an additional creative outlet to use their expertise in (Finish2Fashion). 

Yet despite the fact that Interior Designers are creating and participating in events like this, they are still so often labeled mere “pillow pickers.”

Take, for example, a recent article posted by The American Institute of Architects that grossly underestimates and devalues a modern Interior Designer’s expertise and knowledge in fields traditionally dominated by Architecture and Engineering. The presentation poses both careers against one another by identifying the overlap in responsibilities as “scope creep.” The result of this article clearly paints Interior design in a negative light and demotes them to a status of pillow picker. The backlash was so great that it was taken down from the site almost immediately (AIA).

This idea of pillow picker is not limited to a social or professional understanding, though. Google defines interior design as “the art or process of designing the interior decoration of a room or building” (Google).

Merriam – Webster’s dictionary defines interior design as “the art or job of planning how the rooms of a building should be furnished or decorated” (Merriam - Webster).

Contrast this then against definitions of other design principles.

“Collaborative design recruits a wider range of contributions to the design process. Collaborative design research often involves the creation and observation of novel design processes, intended to move beyond conventional technical roles,” as stated by University of Cambridge (University of Cambridge).

Industrial design is defined as the “creation and development of concepts and specifications aimed at optimizing the functions, value, and appearance of products, structures, and systems” by (Industrial Design).

Why is there such a disconnect between these definitions? Why is interior design defined as “decorating” while other design careers are defined as “novel” or “optimizing?” Many guesses can be made as to why Interior Designers are given little value. Perhaps it is the fact that the aesthetics and design of the interiors of spaces are historically considered the domain of women, and Interior design suffers under the weight of lingering industry sexism. Perhaps it is because society fails to consider the positive effects a space can have on our mental health and wellness because mental health is still considered a taboo subject. Regardless of the reason behind these assumptions, they are simply wrong.

Next time your cubicle feels as if it is sucking out your soul, just think, “an Interior Designer can fix that.” Next time you get irritated that you cannot interact with your guests while you slave away in the kitchen, just think, “an Interior Designer can fix that.” Next time you get angry that your disabled son cannot enter a restaurant without going through the service entrance, just think, “an Interior Designer can fix that.” And, if you still are not convinced of this career’s value, attend the next Finish2Fashion event, and let us show you.

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