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Who Does What? De-mystifying Design Professional Roles

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Design by Sabrina Alfin Interiors.  Photo courtesy of Dean J. Birinyi, all rights reserved.

Architect.  Interior Designer.  Interior Decorator.  There are important distinctions between these different design professionals and you should know what they are before you embark upon your next big addition, remodel, or design project.  Lucky for you, I'm here to de-mystify the definitions and their roles to save you some time and research.

So what really is the difference between an architect and an interior designer?
The best way to think about the differences between these two categories of design professionals is their knowledge of structural/engineering integrity and mechanical systems in the built environment. An architect must be able to certify any building s/he designs will be structurally sound, not just aesthetically pleasing.  And this knowledge is backed up by a considerable amount of schooling by accedited institutions, practical experience in the field, and licensing exams before someone can call themselves an architect.  An interior designer also has applicable education credits and state certification exams, but by law they cannot "sign off" on their own construction drawings for permitting if the design includes changes to structural components of the work in question.  Those drawings would need the sign-off of either an architect or a structural engineer, inclusive of more specific structural plans and load calculations for permitting.

Very often times, an architect will be hired to create "the building envelope" (also sometimes called the building shell), i.e. the plan, foundation, exteriors, roofing, and mechanical systems of a new home, while an interior designer is simultaneously hired to go into much greater detail on finishes, decorative lighting, equipment specifications, space planning, and furniture layouts/procurement.  Sometimes architects have interior designers on staff, but not always.  Sometimes interior designers have architects on staff, but not always.  How you decide what you need often depends on the extent of the remodeling in question.  If you're building a new home from scratch or an addition, you're going to need an architect.  But if you're just moving one load bearing wall in the context of an interior remodel, for example, you can hire an interior designer, knowing it will require structural sign-off.  

  Architect section plan courtesy of Shim-Sutcliffe architects.

Architect section plan courtesy of Shim-Sutcliffe architects.

OK, then how is an interior designer different than a decorator?
Glad you asked.  A decorator has little or no professional education credits in the field of interior design.  Designers understand building codes, can put together construction documents, and understand sustainability and environmental health practices. Theoretically, anyone could call themselves a decorator even if they've never set foot in a design classroom or taken an exam certifying their expertise.  They tend to focus on filling the spaces rather than creating the spaces.  A designer can do both.

A designer can do this...

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and this...

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while a decorator can only do the latter.

Still confused? We can help.  Call us to discuss your project and we can let you know if we're a good fit.