Why People Don’t Understand What Interior Designers Do (Part 1)

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.

Just a quick look at the breadth and depth of the programs at Interiors ‘04 reinforces my belief about you: you are a deeply humanist profession. You are searching for ways to connect with the people whose lives you touch: indeed, you touch people’s lives at every age and at every stage, witnessing and accommodating every ability and disability. Because you are so deeply involved in our private lives—be these lived at work, at home, or at play—you could, rightfully, think that interior design is getting the respect that any essential profession in our society deserves.

Here you are in a constant search to understand the great movements and concerns of our times, be they the complexities of security, technology, environmentalism, or access for all. You are at the forefront of studying how to make healthcare work for everyone—from the patient to the family to all caregivers. You know of the crucial nursing shortages that are paralyzing some healthcare institutions, and you are working to understand how the organization of the physical environment will help alleviate the pressure. You are in the workplace, in schools, in entertainment, in lodging, at home, and everyplace else we live.

More from Metropolis

Knowing this about you—and having known it since I started my design journalism career at Interiors magazine more than 30 years ago—I am deeply disturbed by what I am seeing. In 2004, after a steady struggle of more than 70 years for respect, you are dropping off the radar screen. Let me tell you how I came by this notion.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Toronto Interior Design Show, attending a ceremony for designer of the year. And the award went to an architecture firm. Granted, the firm does excellent, multi-disciplinary work—it makes buildings and designs their interiors, and also designs furnishing products for production. Though the spaces the firm creates are glorious, the furnishings, finishes, and colors within these spaces are rather astringent. I keep wondering what a really good interior designer—one who is a true peer to these architects—could do for the people who live in these lovely houses.

The Toronto experience came right on the heels of the 25th annual Interiors Awards in New York City, held inside one of our most glorious Romanesque Revival rooms at a former bank, now a restaurant. As the dozen or so awards were being announced, I kept muttering to the nice man next to me: “architect,” “architect,” “architect,” in more than half the cases. He finally said—this supplier of carpet fibers—“What’s wrong with that?”

I was agitated, but it’s not good form to start screaming when people are receiving recognition for good work (and good work it was). Instead, I calmed my voice and I simply said, “This is an interiors award, designed to recognize the good work, talent, and contribution to the profession and society by specialists in interior design.”

I recalled that the award was put in place to mark the milestones of a growing profession. But this year, the profession seemed to be undercover, in hibernation. I was still muttering to myself in the cab back to the office as I recalled who the judges were of the 25th annual Interiors Awards. Three out of five were architects. This is the profession that goes into cardiac arrest when they see expressive pattern mixes, traditional details, or adventurous uses of color.

Perhaps reflecting the aesthetic bias of the jury, or perhaps because of its current state of crisis, no award was given in the healthcare category for the second year in a row. That might have been remarked on as a growing need in this area, but interior design awards never offer critical analyses of what such glaring—and apparently chronic—lack in areas like healthcare design might portend. On to the next award…

That’s the infuriating—and dangerous—segregation of “green” design. As if you could, in good conscience, do any job today in education, retail, entertainment, or any category, that willfully, cavalierly ignores the environmental impact you are making. We know too much about how harmful most of our practices and procedures are to earth, sea, sky, and us. Make no mistake about it: global warming is a reality, even the Pentagon recognizes it now, only the current occupant of the White House doesn’t. We are just starting to learn the complexities of this new reality, so separating green out as a category might be the only way we can recognize it now. But I really don’t believe that.

I do believe that from now on, sustainability should be a criterion for every design entry and competition. Let each entrant define the concept for him or herself and make sure there’s at least one person on the jury who is an expert in green design. Let the jury’s comments be published, too, and made part of the current dialogue.

This sustainability thing is too big and complex—and we’re like the blind man and the elephant, we can only know small details of the humongous corpus of knowledge that is now developing in this area. But we have to start learning these details and sharing our discoveries with others. In the 21st century, every designer in every specialty is a forensics expert. Each and every one of you detect and discover something about a material, or a process that—in the aggregate—could serve as the foundation for your newly vitalized and socially relevant professions.

I went through a whole bunch of other interior design awards in my search to find the reason for your current low profile. I’ll just mention two more; then I will have made public all the points on this subject that I have been mulling privately for the past year or so. Your magazine of record, Interior Design, says its Hall of Famers are nominated by their peers. The 19th annual Hall of Fame ceremony is the fancy shindig to go to if you’re an interior designer or supplier to the trade; this year 1,200 of us celebrated at the Waldorf-Astoria. And the awards went to: a minimalist architect, an architectural photographer, an interior design partner in a huge, multi-national planning/architecture firm, and a society decorator.

As the doyenne of the evening, the editor in chief of Interior Design noted that the recipients of fellowships “are exemplars of the current zeitgeist.” For the non-German speakers among us, zeitgeist means “spirit of the times.” No pretensions in this zeitgeist to being green or accessible!

This is the danger with design awards and design publishing that focus solely on aesthetics. The two leave out a whole raft of issues that people—your clients, as well as the end-users—deal with every day. Now don’t misunderstand me: I want beauty to be part of every design expression. But famously, it’s only skin deep, and you know how to dig deeper. That knowledge should be recognized and built on, rather than systematically ignored in awards programs and publications to your trade.

Last in my awards tirade is probably the most disturbing one because it comes from your sister organization. The IIDA’s Best of Design in 2003 went to an architecture/planning firm that specializes in space reclamation. It’s a great job, to be sure, timely and important—but not great interior design. And couldn’t an interior design association find an interior design firm to honor?

A couple of days ago, I took the Acela down to Washington, D.C. to attend one of those Capitol lunches. The occasion was the American Architecture Foundation’s announcement of a new initiative “aimed at transforming the way America’s public schools are planned and designed.” It’s called the Great Schools by Design program; at the core of it is a multi-disciplinary study group made up of architects, planners, school board members, superintendents, students, parents, civic leaders, and other stakeholders who will create a national dialogue about our schools and their design. You notice who is missing from that national dialogue?

This exclusion could cost you a lot of work: 6,000 new schools will be built nationwide in the next decade. But I’m as worried about the kids and teachers in those schools as you might be worried about the jobs you’re losing. Those kids need your expertise in planning, space making, ergonomics, color, and light. They spend most of their time inside; after all, there can only be so many field hockey events in busy daily schedules. Inside the classroom, these kids have tools that none of us here could have imagined even a few years ago: they use their computers in socially inventive, personal, and communal ways. What kinds of spaces and amenities will they need for this evolving way of learning? A study without any interior designer input is about to determine the new function of schools’ needs.

As the AAF luncheon progressed inside a luminous room of the cavernous Ronald Regan Building, I began to piece together some clues to your current—and, I hope, temporary—exclusion from the table. Much was said about the new visibility of architecture post 9/11. Bob Ivy, yesterday’s kind and gentle keynote speaker, called this “an extraordinary time in the life of [architecture] in America.” Post 9/11, architecture is seen as “vital, an answer that has leaped into the national dialogue,” and “architects are seizing the moment.”

While this new importance of architects makes me very happy, I’m skeptical about the quality of that national dialogue about architecture, as I am skeptical about public dialogue about any area of design. In New York, we knew more about Daniel Libeskind’s chic glasses and cowboy boots, and about the squabbles between him and the developer’s architect, David Childs, than we learned about architecture. The esteemed critic of our newspaper of record wrote lengthy articles filled with arcane pop and historic references—everything from Ricky Martin to the pyramids—but offered very little to our understanding of architecture. The flawed and incomplete program to rebuild Ground Zero did have a green component, but the concepts of green design the architects proposed were naïve at best. But this was rarely, if ever, pointed out in the voluminous coverage of the rebuilding efforts.

The winning Libeskind plan, for instance, had a garden in the sky. How much energy and effort it would take to make a garden above the 55th floor—and to maintain it over time—was anyone’s guess. Then there was that bogus, but poetic, gesture of the shaft of light that would miraculously animate the potentially overbuilt cityscape at Ground Zero, every year, at exactly the times when the two planes hit. This was poetry, it was provocative, but it showed no understanding of nature; and in a dense city, the most precious aspects of nature are sunlight and clean air.

In spite of all this silly or irrelevant information about architecture and city planning, it is true that the word “architect” had been in the news in America more than possibly ever before. This visibility reminds me of your abiding problem with recognition. Think about this image, for instance: on 9/11, the Twin Towers collapsed in a dramatic, unforgettable moment. Their gleaming forms, then the clouds of dust that followed, are seared into our memories forever. But the interiors of the Towers, like the people who perished there, went down in that cloud of dust, unseen.

Recent Projects