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Decorator, Designer, Architect…which one to choose?

interior designer in Medway, MA

With the work of renovating the HALFREY HOME studio behind us, Marc and I have settled into the routine of daily operation.  With that, I am revisiting my past blog posts by updating them with new photos, new insight and our new HALFREY HOME branding.  Now updated, the original post was from July 1, 2016. Enjoy!

So, you have a space in either your home or business and you want to change it.  The project is out of your comfort zone so you have to bring in the design pros, but you don’t know who to call.  This is a common question, especially confusion between interior decorators and interior designers.  I’m here to shed a little light on the topic and assist those seeking the professional design assistance they need.

You start your hunt by perusing websites, social media, and notice some design professionals are called decorators where others are called designers as well as having abbreviations and letters after their last names.  To start by clarifying the difference, interior decorators don’t require any formal training or education.  Anything from selling home decor in a boutique, furniture sales in a showroom, to custom window treatment and wallpaper galleries usually all fall under this domain.  It’s oriented towards aesthetic treatments in homes.  Formal residential interior design education is a 2-4 year college program, issuing either an associate or bachelor’s degree, and work in either residential or light commercial sectors.  Commercial interior designers, in comparison, typically are trained from a 4 year bachelor’s degree accredited program, many carry the NCIDQ certification and work alongside architects in design firms.  Interior designers are qualified to do both decorating of aesthetics and selection of finishes and furniture, as well as drawing up plans for renovations, remodels, additions and new construction.  Architects usually hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited program and carry the NCARB licensed credential by individual states.  They focus on the structure itself; such as load bearing walls, the foundation, roof design, general aesthetic of the exterior as well as fire code requirements for egress and for providing bidding documents and specifications for commercial general contractors.  If you see the initials ASID, IIDA, or AIA, these are professional associations with levels of Professional, Allied, and Associate depicting levels of qualifications.  If you see LEED AP or GA by a person’s name, these letters refer to certified knowledge in sustainable construction methods for building certification by the USGBC.  

Adding to the mix are kitchen and bath designers, showroom associates, and equipment specialists.  These professionals all work in showrooms representing products.  Use caution when working solely with these professionals as they usually work on commission and may not always have your best interest in mind.  Suggestions of custom work, special orders, and tailor-made items can wreak havoc on your project’s budget, extend your timeline and may not even be necessary.  Its best to involve a third-party decorator, designer, or architect not affiliated with a vendor’s showroom and agree to a flat fee or hourly rate instead of sales commission for payment.  It may sound helpful to work with the showroom’s complimentary in-house design team but be on guard.  Not only are they being solely compensated with commission from your choices, but they can also only recommend their products, making your room’s aesthetic essentially a duplicate of their showroom.  For a fuller outcome, its wiser to select furnishings and finishes from multiple vendors.  

Don’t take design advice from someone who will profit when you spend more money with them.  Use third party assistance that can be a helper not a spender. 

Now, with the professions defined, let’s look at some examples of who to call and when:  Do you need help choosing new curtains or carpet?  Call a decorator.  Are you remodeling your kitchen or bathroom?  Call an interior designer.  Do you want to knock out an exterior wall and build an addition?  Call an architect.  Those should be pretty clear, now let’s muddy the waters.  Do you want to open up your kitchen to your living room, replace the fixtures in your bathroom, and add furniture to your remodel project?  How about creating different work zones in your office space, change the visibility through your business lobby, then upgrade your suspended ceiling?  This water is getting murky!  In all examples, you should call an interior designer.  They can handle the kitchen remodel, refer to an architect or even a structural engineer for the living room wall opening if a header is needed by the contractor, work with the plumber to relocate the fixtures in the bathroom, and then assist you in the retail store to help you select your furniture.  They can rearrange your office zones by function, redesign your business lobby and then suggest products for that new suspended ceiling.

paint swatch, interior designer in Medway,MA,

You now know you need an interior designer for you project, however still some uncertainty and doubt may remain.  Will they want to do it?  How will they possibly reinvent this space?  How long will it take?  Is it possible on my budget?  Can I remain in the space while the work is being done?  Can I even afford to hire one?  All of these questions can be answered in an initial project consultation.  Contact the designer, set up a time to meet and discuss your ideas, from there, the designer will give you feedback and draw up a contract including a scope of work summary and preliminary schedule.  State your timeline as early as possible as some items require 2-3 month lead times, holding up the project.  Budget also needs to get discussed from the beginning as an experienced designer can suggest where in the project to splurge or save to be the most effective while still meeting all end goals.

Never let a designer tell you that you need a bigger budget for a better impact.  Creativity and imagination can go a long way for a limited budget.

All design professionals will have a portfolio of past work, ask to see it. The Internet has made this step much easier with Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, blogs and of course websites.  From there you will know whether your selected professional is capable of performing the project.  The designer should be able to draw up plans, show inspirational examples, provide swatches and samples, and guide you through the process to create your dream.   

This is YOUR project; you can succeed in it, but you need help.  Don’t be shy, call an interior designer, call me!  Dream it, discuss it, plan it, review it, watch the work, and love the outcome!

Thanks for reading, please join me again next time!


Sarah Halfrey, NCIDQ

interior design + showroom manager



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