Interior Designers: Your Image Isn’t Working for You

This keynote address was delivered by Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis, at the International Interior Designers Association’s (IIDA’s) 3rd annual conference, held Oct. 9-11, 2003, in Mexico City.On June 18, 2001—in those more innocent days before 9/11—I addressed the IIDA College of Fellows. I started that talk with a look at the […]

This keynote address was delivered by Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis, at the International Interior Designers Association’s (IIDA’s) 3rd annual conference, held Oct. 9-11, 2003, in Mexico City.

On June 18, 2001—in those more innocent days before 9/11—I addressed the IIDA College of Fellows. I started that talk with a look at the publications that served or are focused on the profession and reported on the many new consumer titles and TV shows that dealt with home design and decoration. By looking through all these outlets of interior design information, I was trying to find the public image of the profession—and maybe more important—the profession’s image of itself. I was trying to see how you talk about your processes, the products you spec, your struggles, your issues, your ideals, your idols, your shamans, and your devils.

But first let me tell you why I have this abiding interest in you. I learned to be a design journalist on Interiors magazine first by covering the market—going to showrooms and trade shows—to discover new products. For instance, I would collect samples of the most important and innovative fabrics, bring them back to the office, iron them, and then photograph them for extensive reports. I wanted to break news, not just repeat press releases and use PR shots of products.

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Later I graduated to features on maintenance, fiber content, manufacturing and such—all stories that I found by locating experts, listening to designers’ concerns, and trying to figure out how to provide useful information to the field’s practitioners. As I got to know more and more interior designers, I found them inspiring, personally and professionally. Interiors, particularly my editor in chief Olga Gueft, taught me about the cultural and economic necessity of interior design.

I learned that this complex and necessary business was about process, product, invention, psychology, and materials: but most of all, that it was a profession that had immediate and direct impact on people’s lives. I noticed that there were some interior designers who shined when it came to color and light. Others had an uncanny sense of space and were able to create a memorable sense of place.

My own idols were the ones who could do all of these things beautifully. But whatever their skills, the interior designers I got to know all had a generous curiosity about the world. They knew art and told me about artists I should know. They loved architecture and told me of their visits to the great and powerful places of our rich world. They knew everything about objects—who made them, what they signified, what historic period they represented, and why this was important to know for a rich and rewarding life.

My interior designers discovered great books and we would pour over beautiful photos together. They loved film and knew the best set designs; they examined theater sets for their light, space, and drama. They traveled extensively and purposefully and always knew about an exquisite small hotel, a restaurant whose décor was as delicious as the food, or a street of small and beautiful shops.

I felt that such people needed solid information they could use. Of course it had to be accompanied by beauty, but that could not be all there was. When you wrote for such perceptive people, you had to describe qualities that were only possible to describe if you had been there.

You all know the theory that we learn more and understand places, ideas, and people much more deeply through our whole physical being rather than just through one of our senses. This is called body memory. So writing about design requires the writer to have occupied the space, touched the shiny and textured surfaces, dimmed and blasted the lights, and watched how the sunlight travels through the space through time.

Writing, like designing and living, is an incredibly rich human experience. Anything that is less than this is an insult to the human condition.

So, once again, as I did two years ago, I decided to look at the magazines that serve or represent interior designers. What I found was very pretty, but also terribly depressing. Let me go with you through a recent issue of several magazines that concentrate on interior design. I leave Metropolis out because we cover all of design in a cultural context; we believe in interdisciplinary design and cover interiors as part of the larger designed environment.

In Architecture Digest, modern houses—the kind of houses that brim with design ideas about making great spaces—are mostly marginalized. They’re presented in the front of the book, between the ads, on single pages showing rather small pictures, so as not to compete with the ads. For instance, there’s architect Tom Wiscombe’s concept house, which is brimming with ideas about generous spaces, depicted through small and darkish computer renderings.

The big splash pictures and spreads are spent on the familiar, on styles and approaches that every good interior designer has already learned in school.

There is the obligatory rough, country-mansion look (the one I looked at belonged to the actor Dennis Quaid). There’s the decorator modern look, showcasing pricey art collections in beige rooms with overstuffed couches. There’s the manorial Chippendale townhouse, and at least one overstuffed seaside estate for one princess or another. There’s a sprawling New York apartment the size of Versailles, in a city where respected professionals live in 400 square foot studios; this New York sprawl belongs to TV celebrity Starr Jones—at least we get the rare African-American user of interior design services.

Not one, single floor plan anywhere. What’s next to what, how you get from one room to the next, and how you capitalize on views and de-emphasize bad features are all left out in these fests of material acquisition.

This is interior design to a large group of readers aspiring to wealth and fame. You hire an interior designer/decorator to help you purchase the goods, then use him or her to push these goods around to make pleasing vignettes you can show off in a glossy magazine. This is not home. This is decorator show-house design.

I go on to Elle Décor. There’s at least some affordable consumption here, but readers whose median income is $125,000 can hardly afford that $20,000 antique mahogany dining table and equally pricey silk wall covering. No matter: let these readers dream of things of high monetary value!

As we leaf through the front of Elle Décor, we find out “What’s Hot.” That means you covet the Armani Casa tea set in this issue, but it will have cooled down considerably by the next issue, where you will see—and covet—the newest, hot tea set. This drive to acquire, this insistence on maintaining your display shelf’s “hot” status, may be the reason for all those sheetrock and vinyl McMansions sprouting all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, and points between. You have to have room for the stuff that’s no longer hot, for that stuff that you’ve really grown to love but don’t want your friends to know you’re hanging onto, as the objects are so hopelessly passé.

The one honest thing about Elle Décor is that it shows social acceptance: gay men now regularly appear in the homes they have designed for themselves. One small step for mankind. But those McMansion owners by the millions, those aspiring homemakers: are they encouraged to work with interior designers, beyond consulting with them on what to buy? I haven’t found such advice in these magazines.

Now for your professional bible, Interior Design. Much energy, time, and money are spent on setting up knock-out, fantasy product shots. These photos certainly teach manufacturers about romancing the chair, the table, and the lamp. But manufacturers know better: most ads are clear, good, simple product shots that show you a reasonable facsimile of what you’ll specify. This confusion of the active professional interior designer with a bored fashion magazine reader is offensive to me.

Now don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: I love those backlit, theatrical, mysterious club chairs that look as if they were just off the runway and landed in Vogue, and that you must have NOW! But you’re probably buying 200 of them for a healthcare facility and you want to know how they’re made, how well they can be maintained, how well they support debilitated patients, and how well they comfort emotionally-wrought families. Fashion is the last thing on your mind. So why does your professional magazine think it is?

I look for floor plans to understand how all those gorgeous rooms work and relate to one another. In the last issue of Interior Design, I find exactly two. But one is the size of a pair of postage stamps stuck together, with no furniture placement shown; the other is somewhat larger, but not large enough to study how the space really works.

Now the interior designers I know can tell more about a room from a good floor plan than from a hundred glamour shots; in fact, they always go for the plan if they want to explain the space. Hasn’t anyone on the staff of your über-professional publication talked to you about this? How do they know what story to tell if they don’t understand the backbone of your work?

I wrote down some words from Interior Design that tell me about how they understand your work, your influence, and the job that you do. These words are luxury, art, riches, style, and chic. There is no mention of words like sustainability, green design, technology, ergonomics, universal design, security, health, safety, and welfare—the stuff you struggle with all day.

After this realization, I stopped looking at how magazines report on interior design. I could not face more of your humiliation. Then I remembered a recent incident that brought me to an epiphany about interior designers’ horribly mistaken public image, which, unfortunately, also has some truth attached to it.

On a gorgeous Sunday in early September, a group of New York IIDA members went out to visit [textile designer and decorator] Jack Lenor Larsen at his LongHouse on Long Island. I was there because Hilda Lonchenotti asked me to do an after-lunch conversation with Jack, who, by the way, is one of the most knowledgeable, artistic, globe-traveling icons of American modern design that we have. I prepared for the conversation by reading Jack’s books and inquiring about his most recent interests (gardening and theater); I came armed to interview him with a set of hard-nosed questions and a game of name associations.

After a tour of the magnificent gardens, which are accented by all kinds of progressive artwork and designs, including a real Bucky Fuller dome, we had one of those elegantly casual meals that only a person with Jack’s sophistication can serve up. Then he gave a gracious tour of LongHouse, explaining its Japanese temple antecedents, his favorite Wharton Esherick furniture, and his new fabrics, which covered the sliding doors between the kitchen and breakfast area.

Then we gathered in the great, sunlit room for our conversation. Many of the interior designers were hanging on every word Jack said; he told — and tells—wonderful, human stories about people, places, and being a designer.

When he wanted to end our talk, we went downstairs. I spied in the shade a group sitting around a linen covered table with glasses of wine, talking loudly about some adventure or another. They did not bother to hear what Jack—who can explain the American century through design—had to say. They came, they ate, they drank, they gawked—and they learned very little (or at least it seemed to me).

I know, I know: they’ve heard Jack before. But maybe not this Jack. And anyway, how do you ignore such an opportunity?

So what do we do about interior designers’ rotten image? You can’t blame it all on the slackers, society decorators, and status hounds. You have to do something about it NOW! Here’s what I suggest we—all of us — think about.

1) Let’s identify the heroes of the interior design profession: the American and Mexican men and women who paved the way for you. Let’s establish scholarships in their names, fund university seats in their memory, and finance fellowships and necessary research projects in their honor.

I have my own candidates for the heroes of interior design, which should not be some phony Hall of Fame judged from dead pictures and reinforced by the profession as a bunch of superficial party givers. I nominate Olga Gueft as my hero, my mentor on Interiors, and the person who was there at the founding of today’s profession and professional organizations.

Who are your heroes? Let’s figure out how to make Ken Burns-ian films about them and let’s enlist schools in this endeavor, as there’s so much talent in film, graphics, and design history to document, record, analyze, present, and publicize these magnificent founders of your profession. We all need heroes.

2) Let’s emphasize scholarship in space-making (which is an incredibly important skill usually misunderstood as mere furniture placement).

For materials research, let’s set up a collaboration between schools, each of which could undertake a specified part of a larger materials research project. Each school could find materials that could sustain its particular region’s growth and reflect its unique aesthetic conditions.

3) As professional organizations, let’s support academia’s psycho-social research about our technologically harassed society. So what really is our relationship with technology: not the hype, but the real relationship?

4) Existing research that is embedded in large firms must be shared with up-and-coming companies. If you are a giant, admit to the status and take the responsibility to share your information with the next generation of practitioners. How will you do that? If you are already doing it, tell us about it.

5) Let’s stop the squabbling between architects and interior designers, and between different design associations. There’s so much to learn and so little time to waste on non-productive arguments of who’s better than whom. Everyone is a potential contributor. What can each organization contribute to better the human condition?

6) Let’s figure out, once and for all, a positive and productive relationship between interior designers and their suppliers. You are not salespeople of their products, no matter how many Lear jets you take to their corporate headquarters. You contribute to the discipline’s knowledge with the knowledge you gather every day in the field.

Manufacturers need this detailed understanding, rather than just your consulting advice on how to make a work table an inch deeper or shallower. You are the one who knows what, for instance, workers think about their spaces, how they use them, and what they love and hate about them.

Use your enormous purchasing power to push your suppliers to create a better, safer, more useful, more relevant, and more sustainable product. When you spec 1,000 ergonomic chairs, you must ask if they’re designed for disassembly. The makers want your orders; they’ll live up to your high standards if you choose to press them on it. And you must choose to press your suppliers to make better products—the safety of our water and air supplies depend on this.

I guarantee that if you behave like knowledgeable, responsible professionals who have solid scholarship, your image will follow your great profession. You will be proud to be called an interior designer, and you will get respect.

After all, how can you get respect when you put your flaws out for all the public to see? Here’s just one example of how you lose respect every day. It’s a small detail, but it’s emblematic of your current status as a profession.

That detail is the Braille sign on every new hotel door. The sign is a pure and simple compliance to the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. This 1991 civil rights legislation is about inclusion, about making sure that the 40 million Americans who are physically challenged can go about their lives as the rest of us do.

But how useful does a blind person find that potentially helpful Braille signage? I know, installing the signage is the law, but you must do much more than comply with the law. Getting a blind person from the front door of the hotel to her room is a complex design challenge, one that you are highly qualified to resolve. Tactile and audio cues embedded in surfaces could make the passage from front door to room interesting for all users. This needs to be figured out. Your profession—in tandem with industrial designers, engineers, and sound designers, and with advice from disabled people—can do it.

Furthermore, the current confusion between public and private space is an interior design problem. I’m talking about the most dramatic change: the unintended consequences of cell phones, which are leading to the erosion of privacy in public spaces.

Aside from creating etiquette for cell phone use, there’s a space issue here. Just as there are quiet cars on the new Acela trains (designed after the introduction of cell phones), there is a need for spaces in airports, hotel lobbies, and parks that separate cell phone users from those who don’t want to hear about some stranger’s personal life.

I arrive here from the heartland of America, where some hopeful changes for the future of all design professions are taking place. Iowa State University’s Design School is instituting new programs that go to the very foundations of design education. From now on, all students entering the school—whether they end up as architects, interior designers, or graphic designers—are taking the same, enriched foundation course. Liberal arts, culture, and science—all disciplines that help us understand the world better—are taught to all students of design. Leave it to solid Midwesterners to figure out the solid foundations for the 21st century design education.

While visiting Iowa, I took part in a new architecture graduate program. Students there come from all disciplines—art history, computer design, and landscape design, to name a few—to learn about architecture in a holistic way. At the time of my visit, the students were working on public baths, covering in depth the history, culture, biology, engineering, physics, social behaviors, materials, and structure; in short, they were looking for a deeper understanding, rather than just expressive form-making.

This approach is worth studying for interior designers, too. You contribute a huge portion to what I like to call the GDP: the Gross Designed Product. You must start learning about the health and environmental effects of the materials you specify. When you understand the properties and provenance of your materials, you have the potential to change the marketplace with your high-volume purchases. You have the power and the duty; all you need is the will to support positive change for a sustainable designed environment.

I know you can do this, because you asked me here to talk about what’s wrong with the profession. You should know that of all the design professions Metropolis covers, interior designers are the first ones to ask me to talk about the field’s shortcomings. And as you may know, architects are just as much in a crisis mode today as interior designers are.

Fixing your public image is an inside job. You must put your own house in order before you can do it for others. You are the most skilled problem solvers I know.

In everything you do, remember that “international”—one of the key words in your organization—now has a new meaning. It’s no longer about International Design and creating sameness everywhere; it’s about learning from your international sources who they are, what they do, and how they do it. By doing this, you can do your beautiful and useful work here, in this magical place where the early morning light is truly heavenly.

Local is no longer provincial. Local is real, it’s rich, it’s useful—and it’s beautiful. Discover it anew, and make the rest of the world want to come into a place that cannot be found anywhere else. Remember what your countrywoman Frida Kahlo said: the intensely local is universal.

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