If you have an eye for design and are thinking about what it might take to make it your profession, you also might be wondering — do you need an interior design degree to become an interior designer?
While passion is a huge part of it, there is a certain skill set needed as well. And, depending on your interior design interests, the answer is not so cut and dry.
The Argument for Getting an Interior Degree
To start, there’s an important distinction to be made between an interior designer and an interior decorator. Anyone who enjoys putting together furniture, accessories, fabrics, and paint to create beautiful rooms can become an interior decorator with just some experience in doing so. An interior designer, on the other hand, focuses on the whole space and how the occupants reside safely in it. So, part of the consideration is, where do you want to focus your personal expertise, and how will you obtain that knowledge? If you don’t have it inherently, you may need to get it through the studies that would get you a degree.
“In interior design curriculum, we focus on the health, safety and welfare of occupants,” says Stephanie Sickler, assistant professor and foundations coordinator in the Department of Interior Architecture and Design at Florida State University. “This doesn’t mean that in school we teach the aesthetics out of it, or that there’s not room for creating beautiful spaces, but there are so many codes and laws that we have to follow and those are the things that teach someone how to design for public spaces.”
Beyond the component of optimizing health, safety and welfare, another element Sickler says that professional flexibility is another advantage of obtaining a degree.
“To make the distinction between decorator and designer doesn’t diminish talent, or the beautiful spaces someone can create, but the educational background gives somebody the ability to very easily transition into design practice wherein they’re able to work in commercial/public spaces,” she says.
Another factor to consider in making this choice is where you will work, because different states have different regulations. Some states require that interior designers meet certain minimum standards to be a residential interior designer, a commercial interior designer, or both. On the other hand, some states have no certification requirements at all, so you could call yourself whatever you’d like and practice however you wish. States that do have such requirements may demand you have an associate’s degree, at the minimum, plus at least two years of work experience, and in many cases, certification through the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ). You may live and work in a state with no requirements, but what if, in a few years, you move to another that does have such regulations? Having your degree would give you the flexibility to do that and not miss a beat running your business.
The Argument for Not Getting an Interior Design Degree
Despite the obvious benefits of earning an interior design degree, it is possible to successfully work in residential interiors without one. Just ask Vicente Wolfe, an award-winning New York City-based interior designer and head of Vicente Wolfe Associates. As a refugee from Cuba, he moved to New York and began his career in the late ‘70s, working in various showrooms and then with a few designers. He has no formal education beyond high school and no formal training as a designer, but that didn’t stop him from making his mark, working with clients such as Julianna Margulies, Twyla Tharp, Prince and Princess von Furstenberg, and Clive Davis.
“The biggest advantage to being self-taught is not having to play by the rules that most designers learn in school, which in my opinion, does not always lead to a cohesive personal style,” Wolfe says. “I think that allowing myself to train my eye and my style allowed my work to have a better sense of individuality and spontaneity that had a large appeal. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to be as bold if I knew better.”
The biggest disadvantage of no formal training however, Wolfe says, is having to validate himself — especially in his early years. But nowadays, as he acknowledges, things are much different than when he started.
“The skills that are required to be successful in this industry are more technical, and don’t only depend upon one’s taste,” he explains. “Running a successful design practice requires being a professional businessperson, requiring much more than picking just the right fabric.”
And those are skills that anyone with the grit and determination can learn in the process of starting their own interior design business.
How Can You Decide?
If you’re interested in interior design, what should your next steps be?
Take an intro interior design class at a local college, suggests Sickler. That way you can dip your toes into the academic side without making a full commitment to pursuing a degree.
“So many students have no idea what they’re coming into when they take their first design class,” she says. “It’s not at all what HGTV portrays. Some students think it’s amazing, some decide it’s not for them.”
Wolfe also recommends working for other designers to see how they do things — both good and bad. Also, go soak in some culture.
“Going to museums taught me what appealed to my style, and traveling taught me how to evolve my taste,” he says.
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