What's the Difference Between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator?

(Seattle Interior Designer/Seattle Interior Designer: Part 1 of our 2 part perspective)

It seems that people tend to use these words interchangeably, but let’s entirely dismiss the myth that these two are the same thing. I can’t tell you how much it makes my blood boil when someone calls me a “Decorator” when I have spent most of my life studying and training to be a Designer, but I digress. So, in the interest of my own personal health being spared, please allow me to show you the differences between the two.

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First things first, we can see an obvious differentiation between the meaning of the words themselves. One means “a person who decorates” and the other is “a person who plans the form, look, or workings of something before its being made or built, typically by drawing it in detail.” Now, I can see how one could find some crossover in this regard, but let me define where that crossover lies. A Designer can be a decorator, but a decorator is not necessarily a designer. What I mean by that is that, often times, the decorator is only concerned about the finished look of the space and how those materials will work with one another. No doubt that this takes talent and a creativity that others do not have, but it is not a foreign concept to designers. Designers are familiar with more than just the finish of the product, but also how that product will function within the form of the house – sound absorption, required maintenance, durability, product longevity, etc.

Typically, this is where the designer might have a leg up on the decorator as the designer is often formally educated. When it comes to the availability of secondary education and programs, we see there is a much higher rate of Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s in Interior Design degrees than there are for interior decorating. And that is because decorating doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of certain types of materials and their functions, but rather rests on someone’s innate ability to coordinate finishes. Also, when it comes to schooling, designers are taught a great deal of knowledge that a decorator doesn’t need to have, including design theory, architectural history, furniture design, space planning, as well as familiarization with how to utilize AutoCAD, 3D rendering software(s), & Adobe products in your interior projects. These are great tools to use as a designer as they allow for accurate space planning and visualization purposes, but they also serve as a standard in the design industry for how designs are conveyed. Most projects will have to run through one of these programs that were taught during design schooling, so naturally, you have an advantage in being able to convey a design vision, whether its decorating finishes or not, a lot clearer than a decorator might to a potential general contractor. Depending upon the type of education and the accreditation of that university or schooling agency, some will find that their degree is either in the Arts or the Sciences. In my schooling back at Indiana University, the program was housed in the intermediate college of “Art & Sciences” so not only were our technical abilities graded, but our aesthetics were graded as well.

Another difference between a designer and a decorator are the people they end up working for and communicating with. Most of the time, decorators will work solely with the home owner(s) to spruce up an existing space, mainly because their work doesn’t include any structural redesign. Decorators may establish relationships with furniture designers, upholsterers, tile showrooms, custom steel workers, and material specific industry partners. A designer is taught how to communicate visually with contractors, architects, and other industry professionals through blue prints and construction documents. Interior Designers can find their projects allow for more freedom to mess with the structural integrity of the house, as their education and training has prepared them for knowing how to handle these design obstacles. A designer will establish relationships with contractors, architects, plumbers, as well as those that a decorator might have.

I’m sure you’ll remember from high school geometry that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. So say this with me…. A Designer can be a decorator, but a decorator is not necessarily a designer.

A designer is all encompassing when it comes to tying aesthetics with form & function. Does that mean that the designer has the aesthetic eye you are looking for? No, it does not. I have met plenty of designers who just have completely different style interests, and that is okay because someone in this world is going to need their specific design expertise one day. Trust that your designer has some aesthetic sense to their designs, and if not, trust in your decorator. But at least you know now that the two are not the same profession, and that they can bring to the design table.

By: Jake Neidlinger

Image 1 - Vintage Kitchen by Ethan via creative commons