Q&A with an Interior Designer

What does an interior designer do? What's a decorator? What’s the difference?

I am what the design industry refers to as a "full service" interior designer. I'm not the biggest fan of this term because it makes me sound like a gas station, but here's what it means. Practically speaking, I take on additions and remodels both large and small, including kitchens and baths, which may or may not involve moving walls and reconfiguring plumbing and electrical. I create concept sketches, plans, elevations and detail drawings, including electrical plans. I specify fixtures, finishes, materials and colors. I specialize in custom tile design, which can become a project within a project. I meet on site and at showrooms, salvage yards, hardware stores, etc. with both client and installer. In my role as a project manager, I interface with architects, general and subcontractors, artists and craftspeople to oversee the entire process from concept to completion. An interior designer will be your liaison among all of the moving parts. These are the services an interior designer is capable of providing, and what I choose to offer. However, these vary per per firm.

I am also a decorator. A good analogy is "a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square". A designer is (/can also be) a decorator, but a decorator is not (necessarily) a designer. A decorator creates a space plan, and selects furnishings, fabric, art, accessories, window coverings and wall color. These are often referred to as soft goods. Form, color and texture are the primary domains of a decorator. A simple way to think about the division is that a designer works with what's attached, and a decorator works with what's free-standing. A designer affects architecture, a decorator enhances it. I do both. I can plan, manage and execute your remodel from the studs to the sofa!

The single biggest difference between designers and decorators is education. A designer has much more than a "knack for color". Officially, a trained interior designer could do anything an architect can do except make structural changes (without an architect or structural engineer signing off on the plans). An interior designer has schooling in and understands building code, systems, and construction methods. They know how to navigate ADA and Title 24 requirements. A decorator may have an art background, but there are no official requirements for calling oneself a decorator. Some states require licensing to use the term interior designer. Currently, California is not one of them.

How do interior designers charge?

I charge a straightforward hourly rate, but there are about a dozen different fee structures that other designers use.

What would you do in one hour, five hours, or 50 hours?

1: Answer a laundry list of questions about decorating that the client has developed over years of living in their home. Offer resources for purchase and general guidelines, i.e., How big and what color sofa should I get, and where should I shop? What kind of window coverings do you recommend? Can you refer me to a handyman to fix this thingamabob that's been broken for 17 years? Should I get rid of this?

5: A small bathroom remodel without changing the floor plan, and with simple tile design. This could include one initial site visit of an hour, one or two showroom visits either independently or with the client to pull together the materials palette, online sourcing of lighting and plumbing, and a second site visit to make final materials decisions and choose a wall color. No project management.

50: A kitchen remodel including cabinet design (what goes where, shelves or drawers, etc.), plans and elevations including electrical and details, complex tile backsplash, all materials and fixtures specifications including lighting, moderate project management and finishing details such as art and accessories shopping. There may be room within this budget for the design of a custom piece, such as an island.

Do interior designers design entire additions and remodels?

Yes! Because these require structural changes, I partner with an architect, whose focus is typically more on the siting, shell and systems of the building, while mine is on the configuration of the interior spaces. From my experience, most architects design from the outside in, meaning they are prone to focus on the macro. When reviewing an architect's plan with a client, I talk extensively about use and function. The opportunity that arrives when building a new space or home is in designing it to suit your exact needs, which includes where you will sit, how you will entertain, where you will store your stuff, and much more. These considerations are critical and integral to the process. That's where the collaboration between designer and architect comes in: the design gets fine tuned for the the perfect balance of form and function (and budget!).

Why should I hire an interior designer? Won’t my architect or contractor help me make these decisions? Can’t I just figure it out on my own?

I often joke that I work in a crisis response business, but I can’t tell you how frequently I get calls from potential clients who have a contractor breathing down their neck to make decisions- by yesterday! The overwhelm sets in. For example, an average Berkeley bungalow has 75-100 discrete points of hardwired lighting that have to be selected. Don’t forget the closets and the back porch light! It’s my role to bring together all of these specifications in a way that flows cohesively.

Your architect may have some input as to what fixture or finish will best support their vision, but often times these options are left open-ended. Your contractor(s) may advise on the best choice from an installation perspective, but might not be as concerned about aesthetics. An interior designer will manage all of the small decisions your architect and contractor simply don’t have time for, and save you the headache of coordination. The delight is truly in the details- the perfect alignment of your shelves, the grout color that enhances the shape of your custom tile. We will ensure nothing is missed or left to chance.

An interior designer can save you money, by preventing expensive mistakes and helping you set your budget and spend it more efficiently. Instead of just hoping you’ve made the right decision, you can be assured of it. If you’re floating a sofa in the middle of a room, you don’t want a cord running across the carpet. We’ll notice the opportunity to add a floor outlet to your plan during construction, not after the flooring is installed. Interior designers can also help you add value to your home if you are selling, because we understand the market and what buyers want.

Hiring an interior designer can also save you time and effort. Think the sofa you love in the store will be perfect in your home? We’ll help you determine whether or not it will work, before you have it delivered. We know our resources for every component of your home, which means you don’t have to do the research. We also have access to resources that are not available to the public.

Interior designers are trained to think differently, and will make your home distinctive from the masses. We see the overall picture in a fresh way you may not, particularly if you‘ve been living there for years. Your home should be a unique reflection of you, and an interior designer can guide you through the (fun!) process of making it as personal as it is functional and beautiful.

What do you love about your job?

Interior design stimulates both sides of the brain, and requires lots of different types of thinking. I get to be mathematical, intuitive, creative and so much more. I enjoy solving problems. I don’t just mean that in the sense of “something went wrong on the job site, how do we fix it”- I mean looking at each and every component of the project as a puzzle that wants to be resolved. There are so many facets of this business, I think there is room for people of all types and talents. You really have the flexibility to identify what you’re good at, what you’re not, what you enjoy, what you can’t be paid enough to ever do, and to create your own job description, or find a place that supports your unique fit. For some, working for a large company as a drafter is fulfilling. For me, it’s the client interaction. Figuring out what motivates and excites people. The gratitude I get from my clients over what feels like the simplest thing- picking the right wall color for their bedroom when they’ve been struggling with it for months- is incredible. At the end of the day, I just love making people happy!

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