Interior designer: interior architecture

May 19, 2015

With the advent of reality TV, where choosing a sofa qualifies anyone as an interior designer, the struggle for industry recognition has been dealt a blow.

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Image left, Arent & Pyke interior, The Pavillion House, photo by Anson Smart.

Words: (inside) co-editor Gillian Serisier

With the advent of reality decorator TV, where choosing a sofa qualifies anyone as an interior designer, the struggle for industry recognition has been dealt a blow. The counter argument claims that, rather than devaluing the term interior designer, by allowing anyone to use this moniker, talent will rise to the top. Nice in theory, but too often it’s a disaster that devalues the whole profession in reality.

In 2003, the New South Wales Architect Legislation gave ownership of the term architect to be governed by the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). Effectively it’s an act of parliament describing who and what an architect is, including the requirement of being registered as an architect as well as having a degree. As such, while a degree in interior architecture exists, graduates cannot call themselves interior architects.


Mim Design interior, photography by Peter Clarke


To do so, the course would need to be accredited through the board of registration, whereby the AIA would control edicts as to how the degree would look in terms of what is taught and course structure. Bruce Watson, director of Interior Architecture, UNSW (University of New South Wales) does not believe this model would work, citing differences in architectural outcome between the two disciplines as requisite of quite different models. Rather, he believes ‘designer’ should be given the weight it deserves and be applied as a term limited to those with a degree in this field.

“Design should be regulated or accredited. Those with a degree should be recognised as having that substantive training and skill,” he says. Mim Fanning, director of Mim Design, is in accord: “The interior design community needs to become regulated. There needs to be control exercised over who can call themselves an interior designer and what their expertise signifies as an industry standard.” The Design Institute of Australia’s summary presents the discipline of interior architecture as a qualifier for the title interior designer.

“Interior design is also referred to as interior architecture, because interior designers are trained to consider the modification of the interior structure of the building rather than just refinishing and furnishing existing spaces.” And while it is a nice piece of wordsmithing that winks at the disparity between terms, it fails to address the lack of a qualifier governing who calls themself an interior designer. For example, someone who may be very good at specifying furniture, may also be wholly out of their depth and untrained “to consider the modification of the interior structure”.

At a consumer level the confusion equates to clients being unsure of who provides what. On the one hand, clients expect their architect to fulfil the role of interior designer. Conversely, the client may understand the need for both architect and interior designer, but brings the interior designer into the project at the second phase. To a lesser extent, the interior designer is not engaged until the decoration phase. That said, decoration is bread and butter to many interior designers and is not to be dismissed out of hand.


Amber Road Cronualla Residence, image by Prue Roscoe


Under the umbrella title ‘The Facts’, Melbourne interior designer Chelsea Hing has included ‘Who Do You Call: Architect, Designer or Decorator?’ What follows is a breakdown of the various roles well-suited to a consumer clientele. Moreover, in being clear in what they do deliver, this gives clients’ expectations a solid foundation: “We interior designers, however, bridge that gap, bringing the skills of design and decoration together. Designing from inside out, we have the technical know-how to take a project from major renovation right through to furnishing and styling.”

Large practices working in commercial sectors, such as Geyer and Carr, short- circuit this disconnection by providing both architectural and interior design services. Effectively, the dual disciplines are working concurrently from inception. Mid-sized practices such as Smart Design Studio (SDS) also provide dedicated teams for each aspect. SDS associate Victoria Judge elaborates: “Obviously there are distinctions in the capabilities and focus of each team, but the aim is to draw simultaneously on skills, one filling in where the other leaves off. We have worked out a strategy for the division of responsibility, but often logistics and roles cross over between disciplines: interiors may be called on to massage the structure, while the architects detail the joinery.”

When the office is smaller, the onus is placed on the practice to support the client through collaboration. Arent&Pyke, for example, has an ongoing and highly successful collaborative relationship with Tom Ferguson’s architectural practice TFAD. Effectively this allows Ferguson and Arent&Pyke to apply all aspects of their expertise to a project simultaneously.

Transparent process documents are also easing confusion. Traditionally they were delivered by request, but now there is an increase in full process disclosure. Amber Road, for example, provides a step-by-step process breakdown in its ‘About Us’ section.

Arguably what is driving the need for overt clarification is the proliferation of opinion-based information, much of it wrong or obfuscated. This is compounded by the plethora of courses available for interior design. As these range from university degrees in interior architecture to online offerings attainable in a few weeks, there remains no specificity of title or practice ability. And while it is deemed that interior designers are not interior architects, there needs to be a term distinguishing those with a level of skill commensurate with the title.

Article by co-editor Gillian Serisier for (inside) Interior Design Review.

  • Leonie May 20th, 2015 5:59 pm

    This debate has been going for 25 years- with all states with different registrations practices by building license agencies and the unwillingness of federal government to increase registration of professions – interior design needs to be advocated by the DIA for license to use term designer. With a proliferation of dodgy courses out there and tv shows showing particpants doing trade work ( not legal in qld commercially if unlicensed in the trade) then the issue is a minefield. The first step is to fix the private Training provider mess and ensure quality technical outcomes, construction knowledge and a more robust technical National training package for the diploma course level and ensure students exit with sound structural documentation skills – you can not design if you can not document and manage for buildings. In Qld you can not provide advise for building work without a qbcc license or architecture registration but it is happening often.

  • Adrian July 6th, 2015 5:54 pm

    Yes this debate has been going on for a long time. I think all proponents need to admit that the splintering of traditional and very old professions such as architecture into sub-set specialist professions such as interior design or “interior architecture” is part of the ongoing problem.

    I’m all for further accreditation and professional registration but we need to be careful about just how much we dissemble the core building and design professions before we start complaining about how they are devalued by popular culture.

    We can’t have it both ways.

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