This is a question that many clients ask me right after asking “What is the difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator?” I can’t answer their first question prior to answering the second.
Interior Designers may be graduates of an Associates or Bachelor of Arts program from an accredited school studying architectural concepts and finish materials or they may be trained in a furniture store or hardware store selling kitchen and bath cabinets, counter tops, and flooring materials (or any combination in between). With some exceptions (check with your state), like Interior Decorators, there are no state licensing or educational/experience requirements to use this title.
Like Professional Building Designers, Interior Designers may obtain validation through certificate programs having some educational and/or experience requirements. California is the only jurisdiction with a self-certification law defining the use of the title “Certified Interior Designer”, but this should not be confused as state licensing. Certifications are obtained after passing industry accepted testing through non-profit professional organizations, not organized testing administered by a state agency. To obtain the right to use the title “Certified Interior Designer” (CID), most candidates take an exam called the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ exam). In California the California Council for Interior Design Certification (CCIDC) exam can be taken.
Interior Designers generally have limited experience in interpreting the State Building Codes so they tend to work closely with other Design Professionals on anything involving structural modifications to a building. Many large Architectural firms also have Certified Interior Designers on staff that work primarily with commercial clients assisting in the selection of interior finish materials, cabinetry, colors, fabrics, lighting, and furniture. Most new residential homes, remodels, and additions do not require services from Interior Designers unless clients require assistance in selecting finish materials, colors, window coverings, cabinetry, and furniture.
The “Interior Decorator” designation is an older and possibly antiquated title popular in use through the 1970’s and is rarely used today; the preference being Interior Designer or Interior Design Associate. However, there may be subtle differences. Interior Designers and Interior Decorators both work on commercial and residential projects beautifying, furnishing and adorning interior spaces. Interior Design goes a bit further in that it includes the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to help create or modify functional spaces within the interior of a building, sometimes requiring the removal or relocation of interior partitions. Interior Decorators still may be found in furniture stores and home accessory stores.
Unlike Architectural and Building Design firms which generally invoice strictly on an hourly billing rate as defined by a contractual agreement prior to commencement; although still required to operate under contract, Interior Designers may often add a commission to the cost of goods purchased to their hourly rate charged. This type of agreement can make them one of the highest paid of the construction consultants. Review the contract closely before signing. You can negotiate a fixed price for services, an hourly time and material rate similar to that of most other construction consultants, or a straight percentage of construction cost (or any combination of the aforementioned). It is my belief that in almost all instances it is in the client’s best interest to work strictly on a “not to exceed” time and materials basis without paying any commission on goods purchased since that inherently encourages the use of higher priced but not necessarily superior components.