Why People Don’t Understand What Interior Designers Do (Part 2)

An outsider’s view of how interior design is perceived, practiced, and preached.

Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy delivered the following keynote speech at Interiors ‘04: The American Society of Interior Designers’s National Conference, held March 4-7 in Savannah, Georgia.

Interior work by nature is private, even when it’s public. Only a limited number of people see it, and they usually don’t notice it when it works. We don’t—yet—have the visual and conceptual education that makes us aware of and appreciate the relative beauty or ugliness of our built environment. But what works in your favor is our curiosity about the private: just think of all those house tours, tours of famous interiors from Ronchamp to the Gropius house to the United Nations.

What is not in your favor are the ways interior design is discussed in the media. You either have the happy talk of consumerism, or the bare bones facts of a project in trade language. There is no criticism. And without tough, but fair and constructive, criticism, a profession cannot grow. For criticism to occur, you have to open yourselves to the possibility of being hurt. That’s easier said than done, but it has to get done. Protecting your clients and yourself does not lead to the full disclosure that valid criticism thrives on. I have no answer to this problem, but we have got to talk about it and figure out how to create a body of solid interior design criticism, for the good of your profession.

Perhaps the breakthrough comes in the higher standards set for reporting on interior projects. Now we only know about their beauty—from the seductive pictures—and what the problem was and how it got solved. This approach, however, could be the basis of a new, more in-depth study and understanding of interiors. Those of us who report on design, including the editors who produce ICON, your association’s magazine, must learn how to do really good case studies. That means showing plans for adjacencies and flow and sections and details for how it’s put together. Present an open discussion of how access to users with various abilities is accommodated. And for every project, discuss its sustainable and technical features; show and assess the materials used; and make sure there’s an understanding of the collaborations that produced the project by reporting on the triumphs and failures of the collaborative teams.

What I’m proposing—what we’re trying to figure out—is extremely difficult. But it has to get done.

The schools can play a major role in this evolution of how we assess interior design work. Assignments made and project descriptions written up can upgrade the case study that is recorded, its findings shared electronically with others. Graduate programs are poised for this kind of research study. We have the tools to do this; we now must find the will and the courage to use them.

In a world looking for answers to the complex issue of sustainability, every profession and person must do his or her part. The design professions—all areas of design, but especially interiors and architecture—hold an enormous power tool in their hands: purchasing power.

Let me just give you the proportions of this power as it relates to your profession. In 2003, Gensler, the No. 1 ranking Interior Design Giant for the past 20 years, reported revenues around $112 million. An American household that reports revenue of $112,000 a year is considered to be in good shape. Now think about the purchasing power of the two entities: the $112 million design firm and the $112,000 household.

If you haven’t begun to feel your power yet, consider the 2004 projections put out by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), which represents 250 companies that produce more than 80 percent of North America’s office furniture. For 2004, BIFMA expects shipments of office furniture to top $10.5 billion: that’s tens of millions of office chairs alone.

By buying at this kind of volume, your profession has enormous power. But this power comes with an environmental and social responsibility. You are responsible through your purchases for putting deadly toxins into our air and water supplies, and guzzling our decreasing energy supply. You know this, of course, and now you’re developing the tools to do something about it.

Let me tell you what you could do now—on Monday—when you get back to work. As you source that big office job, or any other job, ask each contending manufacturer about its stance on sustainability. Is the chair designed for disassembly? Which of its parts are made of recycled materials? How many different countries does it take to produce all of its parts, which by inference tells you how much fossil fuel energy was spent in shipping parts from around the world. Does the manufacturer have a reclamation policy? I guarantee that if you engage your suppliers with these and other developing questions and concerns, they will respond. They want your order, they thrive on your orders!

But you must be relentless and tough; we are talking about professional ethics here, as Ray Anderson pointed out yesterday. You cannot let Lear jet flights and fancy dinners given by manufacturers who are courting your business distract you from finding and keeping your power as an ethical, expert design professional.

The more informed challenges you offer your suppliers, the more they will learn to respect you and stop thinking of you as part of their sales force. You will become a true consultant to them, bringing your knowledge and concerns about the environmental impacts you are making together. When it gets out into the public consciousness that your profession is prepared and willing to make a positive impact on our environment’s degradation, the public will pay attention to you and be grateful to you.

Keep your eyes on the GDP: my version of the GDP, the Gross Designed Product. Make a small calculation in your heads. Think about the aggregate materials and processes the American design community puts in motion every day: paper and ink by graphic designers; furnishings and finishes by interior designers; building products by architects—you get the picture. This is the Gross Designed Product. Now think about non-toxic inks and unbleached paper; chemically benign and biodegradable furnishings materials; low-energy and high-performance building products. This is the goal.

We—you and I and the whole design community—are drawing up the map on how to get there. It is a long trip we are embarking on. Green is not a fad or a marketing ploy: it’s a new way of understanding our world. The design schools have an enormous role to play in this new understanding. But these schools always reflect the concerns of the professions. If curriculum developers know that you are searching for employees skilled at understanding the complex topics of sustainability, technology, security, and access, they will educate accordingly.

There’s a lot of talk about integrating theory into interior design education. That’s a good thing. But be careful about the types of theory you choose to integrate—and always remember the damage done to the architecture profession by the post-structuralism advocated by Derrida and Eisenman. That theory resulted in an obscure, impossible-to-penetrate language that removed architects from their innately humanist concerns and threw them into intellectual and academic discussions that never reached the public.

Of course it’s essential to have those high-level, intellectual discussions in any profession. But like lawyers, architects are learning that the language of academia is different from the language of people. I am convinced this is what got Daniel Libeskind the job as the master architect for rebuilding Ground Zero. While he’s known as a rigorous theorist, he is able to speak in a poetic, appealing language in public forums— which, as we’ve heard before, are growing in this country around architecture.

In the other design professions there are a growing number of Masters and Doctoral degrees: these add to the research base of architecture and industrial design today. Interior design—this complex and humanist profession—deserves and needs its own scholars, many of them, who work on advanced degrees to advance the field’s knowledge base.

Now for the association that brought you here. The ASID will be 30 years old next year, and it has come a long way. This organization has one of the most culturally engaged and personally engaging leaderships—and a membership that’s poised to engage in constructive dialogue with them.

I’ve been reading here and there that thought is being given to merging with your sister interior design association, the IIDA. I used to think that such a coming together is the only way to go for a unified voice for the profession. But then I re-read the history of how the design associations were formed and re-formed, beginning in 1931, with the American Institute of Interior Decorators (AID), and the subsequent tension between decorating and design.

This might be the time—with a looming environmental crisis that needs everyone’s collective wisdom and understanding—to make peace and work together. Let us admit and rejoice in your human diversity: some people are great decorators, some are amazing colorists, others are adroit space makers, and some can do all of it really well. There is room for all talents, and we need every one of them.

Let us remember your foremothers and forefathers, both in decorating and design, who created your wonderful and varied profession. To name a few of my heroes: in decorating there’s Wharton and Codman, and Elsie de Wolfe. You have your own heroes, I’m sure. The designer who defined the modern interiors profession for many of us is Florence Knoll, with her innovations in planning, her bold use of color, and patronage of modern design through buying, commissioning, and manufacturing the furniture of such modern icons as Mies, Bertoia, and Saarinen. I’m forever grateful to Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen for my Womb Chair.

The interiors profession has a group of heroes that no other profession has—again testifying to your joyful diversity of expression. These are your suppliers with legendary names. Who could forget the feisty Selena Brunschwig and the elegant Vesta V’Soske? If you have forgotten them, make sure you look them up—and make sure their history is recorded. This is a long way of saying that you need to consider all your existing assets before your associations do any more merging.

What if each design association, in conversation with others, chose a focus of concentration? Gathering a useful body of knowledge in sustainable design alone is an enormous job when you consider the materials you deal with every day. What if each organization defined its own area of concentrated knowledge and shared this understanding with others?

This is not a far-fetched thought. The leaders in all design associations are looking for ways to work together. Maybe, eventually, there will be a powerful coalition of design associations called something like the American Design Alliance or Federation. Just remember: it takes five talented Queer Guys from five different design disciplines to put together one hopelessly messy Straight Guy. This is a marvelous example of designers collaborating for the greater good!

And while we’re on the subject of collaboration, the time has come to induce the Next Generation into your membership—full force. Not just as student members, but as your consultants. The twentysomethings know more about sustainability and technology than the more mature members of this and other associations. Use their enthusiasm and willingness to deal with the difficult issues of our times—it’s their future that’s being endangered—and turn this energy to the advantage of the profession.

We, the public, are looking to you for guidance in creating the environments we live in. Very few of us today belong to that clueless tribe that the decorator Everett Brown told me about some three decades ago. Mr. Brown observed that after finishing a job, he fanned out some decorating magazines on the coffee table. When he went back six months later, the same magazines, in the same fan formation, occupied the same space—exactly as he left it. Today we would at least have re-grouped a new set of magazines, if not moved that table, to better suit how we live.

We have come a long way, indeed, and much of it due to your profession’s ability to change with the times. Now a new and serious challenge faces you: how to make design sustainable. When you figure out that, our respect will be yours. And you will have the power a humanist profession deserves.

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