How the National Society of Interior Designers Was Born

A breakaway chapter of the American Institute of Decorators decided to popularize and define the new role of “Interior Designer.”

Olga Gueft NSID founding
For the October 1959 Interiors, Olga Gueft celebrated the second anniversary of the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID) with a profile of the quickly growing professional organization. The autumn leaf representing both the season and a metaphor for the changing industry. Artwork by Lou Klein

This is the fourth in a series of articles (firstsecond, and third installments) on Interiors magazine editor Olga Gueft (1915 – 2015), a pioneering champion in the history of the interior design profession. 

The 1950s was a momentous decade for the interior design industry. Designers gained recognition as important participants in building the new and prosperous America in the post-war years. For a quarter of a century, the American Institute of Decorators (AID) had been the largest and most important organization representing interior designers. But as the industry rose in prominence, divisive issues threatened the status quo amongst its members.

Olga Gueft discussed these topics in Interiors frequently as issues that affected the entire industry, ensuring that her readers became informed about each new development. Still, the events surrounding the founding of the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID) were, at best, confusing. It’s worth our time to discuss them here. In hindsight, it looks to me that some kind of coup took place when the NSID was established. I admit that I enjoy finding little dramas in my research.

On July 26, 1957, the New York Chapter of the AID corporation changed its name, officially becoming known as the National Society of Interior Designers. I found a puzzling note about a change in the AID incorporation in the August 1957 Interiors but nothing about the new organization. Perhaps this was an openly planned and orderly way to create a new rival professional organization. Perhaps all of the AID New York Chapter members were informed about what was about to happen. But I don’t think so. The establishment of the NSID in this way seems more like a secession or a coup (I’m imagining secret meetings, trench coats, and additional political intrigue). In any case, the fallout of this dramatic rift included many former AID New York Chapter members becoming allied with NSID. Prominent designers and active participants, including Melanie Kahane and William Pahlmann, remained faithful to AID. Other key designers and former AID officers who took leadership positions in the new NSID included Yale R. Burge, Michael Greer, Dora Brahms (of Nancy McClelland) and Patricia Harvey.

While the sudden change, which seems tantamount to a hijacking of the AID New York Chapter’s corporation, seems quite melodramatic, the motivation for the new organization is very clear. The NSID soon began publishing monthly ads in Interiors which laid out their mission, numerous membership tiers, and professional membership guidelines. There were several key issues that caused the split including:

  1. “Interior Designer” rather than “Decorator”: The AID had long debated changing its name from “Decorators” to “Interior Designers” but kept the former as it was a term known and understood by the general public. The NSID seems to have been more progressive and, in choosing the term “Interior Designers,” also pledged to educate the public on the meaning.
  2. Professional Membership: The NSID professional membership was open to all qualified practitioners who worked in the interior design field. The NSID invited “to professional membership not only interior designers but also ‘industrial designers, architects, scenic designers, educators’” and eventually “museum heads, lighting engineers, color and design consultants, and landscape architects.” AID rules had excluded many designers who were also attached to a separate field, most commonly, architects and industrial designers. This meant that even prominent architects like Philip Johnson and well known industrial designers like Raymond Loewy who often designed interiors were not eligible for AID membership. (Both promptly became NSID members.)
  3. Licensing: The NSID took the more progressive stance in making the licensing of practitioners a goal of the organization. While the AID also seemed to believe that some kind of licensing or qualifying examination for the industry was important, there was significant debate about how to best accomplish this.

As always, Olga was sympathetic to both sides of the feuding industry and continued to publish all relevant news which now included programs, events, and the works of the members of two professional industry organizations. In fact, Olga also published a full transcript of a speech given by Melanie Kahane, a high-ranking officer of the AID, in early 1958. The speech called for changes in the AID membership rules in line with the NSID’s view, specifically to allow practitioners of interior design who worked at architectural or industrial design firms or office and store planning organizations to join. This speech and its publishing was likely an attempt to heal the divide by both Ms. Kahane and our tireless Olga. And although many interior designers remained members of both organizations, including Michael Greer, Chairman of the Board of NSID, the rift would not fully be erased until the founding of the ASID, a merger of the AID and the NSID in 1975.

Sylvia Sirabella is a graduate student at the New York School of Interior Design and an Interiors Intern at HOK.  She has been reading the Interiors archive for the years during Olga’s editorship to establish her contributions to the history of the interior design profession. Before becoming a designer, Sylvia was a full-time mother and a credit specialist and vice president at Citigroup’s Private Bank. She can be contacted at sylviasirabella[at]gmail.com. This research was funded by a grant from the ASID Foundation.

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