I have a super-successful older brother who gets a kick out of discrediting my profession. He has a party trick that starts out with him saying, “Hey, wanna see what my overrated, interior-decorator brother considers a “skill”?” Then he picks up a pillow from his own sofa, moves it three inches to the right, hands someone a faux-invoice and says, “I just placed a pillow….so now I’m a designer! That will be one hundred fifty dollars, please.”
As I visualize clocking him in the face with a Christmas ham, I can’t help but think, “Are decorators really perceived as people who simply shop for pillows and paint walls?”
Technically, I’m considered the four-syllable D-word since (a) I’m self-taught, (b) I care more about tailoring, upholstery and objects than repositioning doors and windows and (c) I possess the drawing skills of a kindergartner. But I fully embrace it, reserving “designer” for those who are formally-trained, with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to prove it. Sure, I conceptualize most of my furniture, sketch it for my fabricator, then see it through to completion. But still, I’m totally cool with being labeled a decorator. In fact, prefer it.
I decided to ask 10 colleagues their opinion on the D-words. A few interviews later, I’d apparently created a Name-Calling Monster. Every design-type I reached out to had more to say about this subject than I could possibly jot down. I think you’ll be interested in the Three-Ring Decorator vs. Designer Circus. Consider me the sideshow.
Michael Habachy, Interior Designer, Atlanta, Miami & Buenos Aires
BPF: Creatively, what’s the difference between a ME (decorator) and a YOU (designer)?
MH: None! Some designers really suck creatively but have more technical skills than they know what to do with. Many of the most creatively chic spaces I’ve ever seen were, in fact, created by decorators.
BPF: True or false: All designers can decorate, but not all decorators can design?
MH: False! Decorating is a talent — either you have it or you don’t. Design is a skill that can be learned.
BPF: Just like Kelly Wearstler, you’re known for designing almost every object in each of your spaces from scratch, from light fixtures and furniture to accessories and wallcoverings. That being said, do you get offended when someone refers to you as a decorator?
MH: Nope, not at all. I believe that decorating is a word that means to create beautiful things and spaces; therefore decorating is an enormous aspect of what I do.
Ronda Carman, Blogger, All the Best
BPF: You’re probably the most passionate person I’ve ever met when it comes to discussing decorating, design and lifestyle. What sets a designer apart from a decorator?
RC: An interesting question, especially since I am neither. I think the lines have blurred. I would guess that most people associate designers with formal training and a degree. However, in my opinion, nothing beats learning by doing. Bottom line — you either have it, or you don’t. Some things you can’t learn in school; style is one of them.
BPF: Although you’re from the United States, you currently live and work in Glasgow. Do the two terms translate differently in Scotland than they do in the States?
RC: In Scotland, a decorator is someone who paints and hangs wallpaper. Until I figured that out, I was shocked that everyone I met seemed to have decorators coming and going. Actually, I was a little disappointed to learn that only their loo was being repainted!
BPF: Based on your own needs for putting your new office together, would you be more inclined to hire a decorator over a designer?
RC: I could not care less about their title, as long as I love their work. And, if I hired a decorator, I would want to make certain that they weren’t coming over just to paint.
Betsy Burnham, Interior Designer, Los Angeles
BPF: How do you differentiate designer from decorator?
BB: To me, a decorator is someone who furnishes a house and a designer is someone who provides interior architectural details, as well as furnishings.
BPF: Are you insulted when someone refers to you as a decorator?
BB: Absolutely not! I am not a design snob; I’ve got an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth in Fine Art, but, as far as interior design goes, I’m basically self-taught. Sticklers in the design field would surely call me a decorator, but, at Burnham Design, we’re known for putting together seriously thorough spec books, and we rarely even pick an end table without drawing it into plan first to be sure the scale is right.
BPF: What are we seeing in the two spaces above?
BB: The first space was more of a decorating project since I chose color, furnishings and window treatments, but I did nothing to alter or enhance the architecture. The second space is best described as fully designed. I selected the windows and walnut flooring, designed baseboards and casings, and I even designed a custom wall treatment. Once the house was remodeled, I did all the furnishings as well.
Barry Dixon, Interior Designer, Virginia
BPF: What sets apart someone who decorates from someone who designs?
BD: Decorating does not always require the training and technical aptitude that designing does. Designing often infers an understanding and command of certain basics, like the history of ornamentation or the laws of proportion and scale. Basically, the sorts of things you would study in the pursuit of a degree. That said, there are many talented people who can decorate circles around some educated designers. This may be because they possess an innate gift that can’t be learned. They simply have “it” — that magic mojo that allows them to see and create in a special, intuitive way.
BPF: Do you think there’s any truth in stating that designers can both design and decorate, but decorators cannot both decorate and design?
BD: Technically, that may be so. A designer may bake the cake, and decorate it too, while a decorator might just ice the cake. I don’t care what clients call me, as long as they call me.
Erica Reitman, Blogger, DesignBlahg, New York
BPF: First of all, you are brutally honest and deliciously snarky. I like it. I like it A LOT. Fill in the blank, a designer is _______________.
ER: Someone who guides others towards their own styles using a combination of creativity, innovation, color theory, architecture and psychology. Reed and Delphine Krakoff’s New York Home featured in Vogue is the perfect example of a designer room.
BPF: Stereotypically, the term decorator makes me think of _________________.
ER: The difference between a nurse and a doctor. Nurses work super-duper hard, can take pulses, wrap patients up in bandages and assist; however, doctors are authorized to fully operate. I see designers more like the doctors of interiors and nurses similar to decorators.
BPF: Best design talent on HGTV?
ER: Emily Henderson.
Phoebe Howard, Decorator & Entrepreneur, Jacksonville, FL & Atlanta, GA
BPF: The first time I met you in Miami, you politely corrected me when I referred to you as an interior designer. Do you remember that, and, if so, is there a reason you very clearly state that you are a decorator rather than a designer?
PH: Yes, for many reasons. First, the profession of decorator has been around for hundreds of years and has a definite cache. What I do every day requires a natural skill for putting together all of the elements to beautifully furnish a home. Florida, where my company is based, closely regulates the profession of interior design and requires licensing to use the title of interior designer, but interior decoration requires no testing or license. The real intent of the law is to focus on commercial design, which I am not interested in.
BPF: If someone were to argue that a decorator simply has pillows made and picks colors, you would strongly disagree?
PH: Absolutely! I am 50% creative and 50% business-minded. In addition to decorating, I own and operate five residential showrooms throughout the South. It is unlikely that I would still be in business if I were just picking colors and pillows. Decoration is the comprehensive and conclusive finishing of a home. It is about arranging furnishings in ways that are both pragmatic and beautiful. My expertise was formed after years of creating beautiful rooms in my stores. I purchase furniture from all over the world, design and make much of what we offer in the stores, make selections that will embellish and decorate more than 90 room settings in our stores every day. Picking colors and making pillows is about 5% of the story.
Nicole Cohen, Blogger, Sketch42Blog, New York
BPF: After completing the interiors of your Manhattan home on your own, you came across a Chicago space that made the cover of Elle Decor with a similar look and feel–I’m sure that built confidence! What do you consider the main difference between designers and decorators?
NC: My personal opinion on designer versus decorator: You can learn how to draft, you can learn how to plan a room, you can learn a heck of a lot from design school, but you sure CANNOT learn taste.
BPF: Is there a cache attached to one title versus the other?
NC: I was at an Elle Decor event last year called Women in Design. Margaret Russell asked Kelly Wearstler, Charlotte Moss, Holly Hunt and Michelle Nussbaumer if they prefer to be regarded as designers or decorators, and none of them seemed to care. I guess when you are on top, you don’t have to be insecure about what people call you.
BPF: Your reaction to this statement: “Decorators just play with fabrics and choose paint. Designers actually make stuff from scratch.”
NC: That seems to be the common belief; however, I am neither a decorator nor a designer, and I have had tons of custom furniture made to my specifications, not to mention all types of window treatments, mirrors, wall treatments, etc. I don’t really even think that it’s possible to create a home without designing SOMETHING from scratch. I totally disagree with that statement!
Erika Ward, Designer & Blogger, BluLabelBungalow, Atlanta, GA
BPF: Do you consider yourself an interior designer or a decorator?
EW: I often refer to myself simply as a “designer.” While I do not have the interior designer designation, I have the professional and educational experience to perform the job as a project manager and decorator. As a PM, I
employ subcontractors to execute the foundation of my design plan then complete the job alone in decorating the space.
BPF: Is it safe to say that all designers can decorate; however, not all decorators can design?
EW: I think it’s safe to say that ANYONE can decorate in some sense of the word. Decoration is relative and judged by individual preferences. Its emphasis is placed on adornment and creating beauty in a space. However, I believe that not all decorators can design. Design, in this case, considers more than just aesthetics. It also considers function, safety and even psychology. Some decorators consider such, but most focus on primping the space.
Annette Joseph, Producer, Photostylist & Decorator, Atlanta, GA
BPF: You’re pretty much a Renaissance woman when it comes to interiors. Which title fits you best, decorator or designer?
AJ: I would choose both! I’m technically a photostylist/producer for shelter publications. When I work on interiors for magazines, I’m really designing and conceptualizing the overall intended look. But then I end up getting in there and decorating the space for the photographer to capture the perfect image. I really think of myself as a stylist.
BPF: In addition to magazine editors, decorators and designers also hire you to style their PR images. That being said, what’s the main thing that sets your decorator clients apart from your designer clients?
AJ: Most of my designer clients have seen a raw space through to completion, whereas the decorators have taken an existing space and made it more beautiful by adding the right furniture and home accessories.
BPF: Any truth in the misconception that designers move walls and decorators just fluff pillows?
AJ: I would say that we all fluff pillows and pick fabrics in the end. If you’re into design, you’re into it all. Whatever you call us, designers, decorators or stylists, we’re all preoccupied with beauty, style and elevating our lifestyle by how we live. In my world, we all get along beautifully, since we all bring something to the table that, in the end, collaboratively creates a beautiful space.
Nick Olsen, Decorator, Blogger, NickOlsenStyle
NO: To my understanding, calling oneself an interior designer requires a degree in the field, a professional certification, accreditation and so on. I think the biggest difference between designers and decorators is that the former literally moves walls and other structural elements of a given space, while the latter decorates the box.
BPF: Since you’re in New York and see it all first-hand, why do you think many designers wanna stab themselves in the ear when referred to as decorators?
NO: I think some designers scoff at the term “decorator” because it does have a more frivolous connotation — simply picking out paint colors and fabric swatches — but it’s one I’m perfectly comfortable with. I have no formal training in decorating, but perhaps if I completed a four-year program in interior design, I’d fight for the distinction too.
BPF: You have a master’s degree in architecture, yet you are a decorator. ‘Splain please.
NO: I gained so much from my undergrad (Bachelor of Arts) degree in architecture, but I quickly realized that I have the patience of a five-year-old and can’t bear all the minutiae architects must master: electrical outlets, building codes, etc. So I didn’t pursue the necessary master’s degree needed to practice. By comparison, decorating offers instant gratification…having a room repainted or a chair reupholstered takes only a few days, and the makeover factor is one of the most satisfying parts of my job.
BPF: If you were working with a client that was adamant you design a room around a velvet print of dogs playing poker, how would you handle it?
NO: I’m not in the business of making clients feel ashamed of what they love (even if it makes my eyes spurt blood), so if the room had a clubby, library feeling, and the dog painting had EXTREME sentimental value, I could make it work.