Interior designers do more than just furnish homes - they create functional and beautiful spaces for people to live in. Interior design is a career built around creativity, design, and functionality. If you’re someone who has an eye for design, but can also identify and understand the purpose of spaces, an interior design career might be right for you. Let’s take a look.
At Tuft + Paw, we work closely with some very well known and talented Interior Designers. We wanted to shed some light on the career by digging into some of the biggest questions people have about it. Here's what we're going to learn in this guide:
- What is interior design, how it began, and why it's important
- Notable and famous interior designers
- What does a career in interior design look like
- Best interior design schools
- How to build a proper interior design portfolio
- Average salaries for interior designers
Have you ever walked into an impeccably designed space? Maybe the space was visually interesting in such a way your eyes couldn’t help wander around the room. Or perhaps it was a cozy and welcoming living room that invited you to sink into a couch with good company. Whenever a room makes you feel a distinct emotion, that room has probably been designed well.
Interior designers may work for a larger design firm, or they may have their own design business. Some designers work solo and others work in a team. One thing is for certain though, interior designers know how to create a beautiful and functional space.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the interior design field and find out exactly what it is and if this career path is right for you.
What is Interior Design?
Interior design is the practice of making an aesthetically pleasing, functional, and safe interior space for clients.
Interior design isn’t all about fabric swatches and paint samples, though it certainly includes that. It’s also about understanding functionality, building codes, accessibility and history. Interior designers don’t just decorate, but create rooms up to standard building codes while satisfying the needs of the client.
Of course, interior designers must also be knowledgeable about history, schools of design, documented aesthetics, and new trends and materials. They’re also technologically savvy, utilizing the latest design technology to create mock-ups and design boards for clients. Interior designers are also notorious people persons, who love communicating and sharing ideas with others. They must be communication driven and organized.
How Interior Design Began
The truth is, people have been decorating interiors for an incredibly long time. If you look at the Greeks, you’ll see their homes contained artwork, statues, and mosaics. Think of the beautifully decorated homes of the French monarchs, such as Marie Antoinette, and the marble staircases, drapes, and gilded archways. Some of the wealthy decorated themselves, and others had consults to help them design and decorate a room. In the end, the design often matched the aesthetic of the time-period.
However, when we talk about interior design as an industry and a career, we must look farther ahead. In fact, interior design is a relatively new term in modern vocabulary. In the early 1900s the word “interior decorator” began being tossed around in America. These decorators had no special education, but had shown good taste and talent. These decorators were then commissioned to decorate and design spaces. Two of the first interior decorators were Elsie de Wolfe (1913) and Dorothy Draper (1923).
In the 1920s, America was experiencing a boom in material mass production, advancements in technology, and a burst of energy and wealth. This brought interior design more towards the masses. In 1931 the American Institute for Decorators was formed when a group of interior decorators sought to establish a professional organization for their field. In 1936 AID changed its name to the American Institute of Interior Designers and the profession was established for good.
As more organizations were formed, more standards for professional interior design were created. The industry sought education and examinations to create a trustworthy interior designers who were knowledgeable as well as of a higher standard than the average “tastemaker.”
In 1982, the first United States legislation supporting the profession was passed in Alabama, establishing standards for interior designers. Today, interior design is much more than decorating for the wealthy, but rather building environments that are functional and safe for others.
Why Interior Design is Important
People think of interior designers as strictly home designers, but that’s no longer true. The field is much more diverse than what many people view on HGTV, for example. Interior designers are often essential in creating the everyday spaces that we work and live in.
The importance of interior design stretches across several fields. Industrial designers work in historical restoration, healthcare, commercial design, and in accessibility. Designers not only are knowledgeable about safety codes and federal laws that affect design, but also of new technology that can aid them in their design process.
There are four big ways interior design is important: safety, accessibility, healthcare, and restoration. These are four ideas that are often not associated the the interior design profession, but are in fact, speciality areas of interior design.
Interior designers create with safety in mind. Though your fancy aunt with great taste might be good at picking out the perfect couch, or shopping for a bargain rug, the average person doesn’t know the special needs that a client may have. That could be allergies, creating accessible exits, avoiding cords that may endanger children, or even knowing the building code. The fact is interior designers know their stuff.
Most residential and commercial buildings have safety codes that are legally required. Interior designers should know these codes and regulations like the back of their hand when they design for a client. Interior designers are essential to creating a functional and safe space.
Did you know interior designers sometimes design for nursing homes or create accessible living spaces for those with disabilities? With the passing of the ADA, accessibility in public buildings is legally required. That means having windows and doors of a certain height or function, having visible flashing lights as alarms for deaf individuals, and minimizing thresholds for wheelchair users among other requirements.
Everyone deserves to live in a safe and functional environment. Interior designers who truly understand the importance of accessibility are extremely important in the design field. With an accessibility aware designer, clients can have their needs met easily.
Some interior designers even design for hospitals and other healthcare locations. These interior designers often believe there is a social responsibility in creating healthcare spaces that are safe and functional for clients. The right interior design can promote wellness, increase morale, and even give patients comfort during difficult times.
On a more practical level, these designers know the healthcare industry enough to use safe and practical materials in their design concept. That sometimes means surfaces that are non-porous, or easily sanitized. Creating a healthier environment for healthcare locations.
Preserving history is a big task in aging locations and homes. Some homes are labeled as historical and are therefore given a strict set of restoration guidelines to inform designers and other restoration groups. These homes offer a glimpse into our past and are important to preserve for future generations.
Restoration interior designers are often experts in history and design styles. They know which materials and designs were popular in a given time period and can restore a room to its former glory.
Notable Interior Designers (historic and current)
Elsie de Wolfe
Author of The House in Good Taste, Elsie de Wolfe is largely considered to be the inventor of interior design in America. Working in New York, Paris, and London in the 1930s, Wolfe was one of the most sought after interior designers.
Among her clients were Amy Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick. Basically, the highest class of individuals from New York and beyond. Rebelling against Victorian decor, dark and heavy, Wolfe insisted on pastels and light fabrics.
Frank began his career in 1920s Paris. He adopted a minimalist design and worked with students known as the Parsons Paris School of Art and Designs. During the 1930s he designed for Nelson Rockefeller in New York.
Frank was known for his minimalist housewares and design. He worked mainly in France, Argentina, and in New York. In 1941 Frank committed suicide in New York City.
Hadley worked in a variety of styles, including modern, Victorian and Georgian. His clients included Albert Gore, Oscar de la Renta, Diane Sawyer and the Astor family. Hadley was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of fame in 1986.
Hadley’s long-time design partner was Sister Parish. He formed Parish-Hadley Associates with her and won numerous international awards for his designs.
Parish opened up her decorating business in 1933 at the age of 23. She was completely untrained and had never read a book about decorating; however, she had created her own style in her own home. Parish’s most known client was the Kennedy’s. She decorated their Georgetown house and later on the White House.
Parish was partners with Albert Hadley. Both worked in the Civil Rights Movement “The Freedom Quilting Bee” in Selma, Alabama. Quilting was important to Parish’s style. She is widely considered to have created American country style, using quilts and other needlework. She contrasted prints and fabrics to avoid matching.
Along with Elsie de Wolfe, Draper is probably the most well-known and important interior designer in history. While Wolfe worked mainly in residential commissions, Draper adored the public space. She designed hotels in Manhattan, Chicago, Brazil and elsewhere. She had a maximalist style of decoration, loving large prints and bright colors. Her design style includes Hollywood Regency Style and New Baroque.
Dorothy Draper and Company (1925) was arguably the first interior design business in America. It continues to this day.
Urquiola developed furniture of Italian furniture designers Cappellini and Cassina. Her known furniture creations are the Step Sofa and her Fjord armchair, which is part of MOMA’s permanent collection.
Based in Vancouver, Bailey is known for his west coast design style. He favors natural materials and bright, light spaces. With wood floors, wood panels, and large windows, Bailey seeks to bring the natural outdoors, in. He also emphasizes quality craftsmanship in the homes he designs.
In addition to residential design, Bailey has also designed commercial spaces. His most famous design was of the Opus Hotel in Vancouver.
The New Yorker called Wearstler “the presiding grande dame of West Coast interior design.” Wearstler made her career designing luxury homes and boutique hotels in California and beyond. Her clients have included Gwen Stefani, Cameron Diaz, and Stacey Snider. She has also participated in reality shows, as well as developed product lines in fashion and home goods.
Wearstler’s designs are described as playful and luxurious. She believes in maximalism and using graphic patterning, as well as bold contrasting textures. Her often over-the-top designs are a nod to the Hollywood Regency Designs of Dorothy Draper, but with a modern twist.
Berkus has become a recognizable household name for many Americans. After all, he has designed a large amount of home good product lines for Target. Before that, though, Berkus was writing books about interior design for the average home decorator. He also was a regular guest on Oprah, offering design advice to her viewers.
His book The Things that Matter was named one of the best interior design books of the year by the Washington Post. Besides his home collection for consumers, Berkus has hosted and created various design shows for TLC and NBC.
David Nightingale Hicks
Hicks was an English interior designer known for his bold colors and eclectic design. He often mixed old furnishing with new, mixing styles and eras for a unique look. His career was launched in 1954 when the magazine House & Garden featured a London home he had decorated for his mother and himself.
Hicks designed several restaurants and apartments in Chelsea and Soho. His clients included Buckingham Palace as well as Windsor Castle. He often created his own bold textiles when he couldn’t find any suitable enough.
What is a Career in Interior Design?
As noted, interior designers can have career tracks outside of home design. Some interior designers work in more commercial areas and some even work in staging, furniture design, and textile design. For the most part though, an interior designer’s job is to bring aesthetic beauty to a room while meeting the clients’ needs.
A career in interior design requires creativity and ingenuity. An interior designer will be someone who is highly organized and a good listener. They can assess and deliver what the client wants, while also maintaining their unique aesthetic.
Interior designers spend their days advising clients, creating budgets for clients, working with contractors and architects, creating design plans, and researching new trends in the industry. An interior designer must be good at working with others as well as communicating with others. They are often the point person between many other workers on behalf of the client.
Bachelor’s degrees are common for an interior designers. A licence is required to practice interior design in some states. There is a National Council for Interior Design Qualification Exam. Interior designers must have knowledge of building codes, building systems, construction standards and more in order to pass the exam. To qualify for the exam, designers must also have completed six years of combined education and work experience at an accredited design program.
How to Start Your Career in Interior Design
Starting your career in interior design begins with choosing an accredited school, as well as knowing how to present yourself to a client or a design firm. We’ll take a look at the steps taken in order to enter into the field of interior design.
Best Interior Design Schools
In no order, here are the 10 best interior design schools in the country. Some offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, some only offer one. It’s important for prospective interior designers to choose a school with a program that most aligns with their goals.
“The SCAD interior design department exists to guide students to become innovative interior designers capable of critical thinking, effective communication, and collaborative teamwork, emphasizing professional ethics and values within the context of social, environmental, and global design practice.”
“The interior design program is an architecturally oriented program with emphasis on spatial design as well as surface embellishment. All aspects of space—scale, proportion, configuration, and light source, as well as textures, materials, and color—are studied in relation to their effect on the human spirit.”
“Our guiding principle is that the successful design of an interior space improves human welfare, and that the interior design profession assumes an important role in ensuring that spaces are beautiful, functional, healthy, safe, and built in a socially and environmentally conscientious way.”
“Interior Studies majors - as the undergraduate program is known - choose among three specializations or "pathways" through advanced design studios, focusing on design for the theater, exhibition design or retail design.”
“Modern American interior design was both invented at Parsons in the early 20th century and redefined as a social engaged practice at the end of the last century. Today this research-based, design-intensive major gives you a solid foundation for careers in which you create comfortable, imaginative, and intelligently designed interiors.”
“FIT's Interior Design program has been preparing students for success for more than 50 years. This rigorous, multidisciplinary program combines the academic study of the history and theory of interior design with practical, hands-on projects. You'll collaborate with leading practitioners in New York City, the design capital of the world.”
“Strengths of the program include studio-based training in creative process and innovation, research-based training for understanding human-centered design and university foundation courses for intellectual breadth to inform design process, thinking and decision-making.”
“Through an academic program balanced between comprehensive courses, studios, and cooperative education experiences, students are taught to understand a client's interactions within society and be capable of translating this understanding into appropriate and inspiring design for interior environments.”
“Our curriculum, studio pedagogy, and student projects support a multidisciplinary philosophy that fosters the design of humane and sustainable environments for people. Visual communication, conceptual development, and technical skills provide a basis for the education of designers who will become creative problem-solvers and leaders in the various fields that intersect with the built environment.”
“The undergraduate interior design program explores the behavioral, technological, environmental and aesthetic aspects of interior design within the context of increasingly more complex design projects. Combined with art and art history and general education requirements, a core of interior design courses creates a unique education at the forefront of design.”
Interior Design Portfolios:
Besides a degree in design, interior designers will also need a great portfolio for applications and to showcase to potential clients. An interior design portfolio should highlight the designer’s best work and showcase the process of creating for a client such as sketching, notes, and final design photos. Here's an example of an interior design portfolio we like on Behance. Let’s look at five tips for a great interior design portfolio.
1. Introduce Your Skills
Be sure to incorporate projects that show your wide range of skills. Particularly good at spatial design? Choose photos that highlight that. Do you like designing textiles? Add fabric swatches of textiles you’ve created yourself for a client. Try to include your unique specialties to help you stand out.
2. Show Your Best Work
Some of your school projects may not be your best work ever. Don’t try and cram in everything you’ve ever done into your portfolio. Instead, pick you best work and include that. Clients would rather see five really good design projects, than ten designs that are just okay.
3. Find a Format That Works
These days, there are different ways to showcase your portfolio. Pick a style that fits you and your needs. That may mean picking a portfolio bound together using spiral wires, or it could be the creation of an online portfolio. In some cases, you may want both.
4. Include Contact Information
This may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes people forget! Be sure to add your contact information inside your portfolio or on your website. Make sure it is easy to find and read. For a physical portfolio, you may include business cards with your contact information to hand out at the end of a pitch or interview.
5. Showcase Your Style
Lastly, showcase the designs that you’d like to do again. Showcase the styles that you love and that match your aesthetic. The fact is clients want to have an accurate representation of the interior designer they hope to hire, and the designer is much happier working on projects that come natural to their sense of style.
Interior Design Salaries
Interior designers earn a median salary of 45k per year. Lower salaries are closer to 34k, with the higher average being 64k. Of course, salaries depend on location, skills, “fame”, and career level. Below, we’ll look closer at how your salary may change by skill level.
Job Growth in Interior Design
The field of interior design is predicted to grow 4% in the next decade. This is slightly lower than the average growth rate in the United States. There are currently close to 66k interior design jobs. That means an average of 2,900 jobs are predicted to be added in the next decade.
Interior Designers are are always ready to create beautiful and functional living spaces. They aren’t afraid to push boundaries and elevate a simple space into something extraordinary. If you have a knack for creative design, then interior design might be the perfect career for you. Ready to join the ranks of the greats? The time to start is now.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments. Make sure to check out our guide on becoming an industrial designer if you're still looking for career ideas.