Differentiation between Interior Designer and Decorator: Decorator Versus Interior Design

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Written By Jim J Neal

Trevor Tondro/OTTO Penthouse apartment in New York City designed and built by Mario Buatta, an American decorator.
What do you call an interiors expert who redesigns, updates, or just refreshes rooms in your house? It might not be as simple as you think.
“I prefer decorator” says Miles Redd. “The term is a little faded, but my alignment with Syrie Maugham and John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster doesn’t mean that any of them are interior designers, which for me- and I hope I don’t offend anyone I admire–feels just a tiny bit pretentious.”
Keep that in mind.
Ghislaine Vinas, designer: “If someone calls me a decorator it is even more irritating.” It’s a outdated term that conjures up the image of a woman who shops, chooses trim and zhuzhes. Because we go to school for many years, it doesn’t have the same clout as interior designers.

Miles Redd designed this vibrant yellow vignette. He prefers to use the term decorator because it describes his job. Thomas LoofAsk interiors professionals about their opinions on decorating and designing. It can bring back memories of old Miller Lite commercials that featured passionate arguments over which product is better. It’s really about perceptions and usage that have changed in ways that are difficult to grasp for people not in the industry.
“If you don’t have the eye that makes a room sing then it kinda flops.”
Most people in the industry agree that there are important distinctions between interior and decorating design. Designer Dan Fink says that an interior designer looks at the entire idea of a space–its setting and architecture, as well as the furnishings. “Decorating is an integral part of this idea and is essential to achieving the perfect alchemy within a room. It is not just about the furniture, but also the fabrics, art, and art collections.
David Sprouls, president of NYSID, says this: “Talking with people about interior design, I would draw an Venn diagram with two large circles that overlap. One circle represents architecture and the other is decorating. Interior design is where the two intersect.
It’s easy enough, right? It is, at least.

Elsie de Wolfe, considered America’s first interior decorator, designed the rooms of the Frick family’s home in New York City.Courtesy the Frick CollectionTo understand the nuances, it’s helpful to go back to the early 20th century, when the interior design–er, decorating–profession in the United States was in its infancy. The field was known as decorating and was pioneered by Dorothy Draper and Elsie de Wolfe. Although interior design was first popularized in the 1930s by Dorothy Draper and Elsie de Wolfe, it wasn’t widely adopted until after World War II. This shift coincided with the rise of industrial designers, usually men, into interior design, according to Alexis Barr, who teaches design history in NYSID. The NY School of Interior Decorating was founded in 1916, but changed its name to its current form in the early 1950s.
She says, “I see this term as an attempt to separate and elevate itself from decorators. Underscoring the gendere and class dichomies in both fields, she also notes that major figures in the industry, such as Billy Baldwin, rejected the term interior design and continued to use the name decorators.”
“If a decorator could be good enough to Billy Baldwin, it can be good enough for anybody.”
Some decorators today are motivated in part by respect for Baldwin and the traditions they represented. Mitchell Owens, a veteran editor and writer on design, says, “I have always believed decorator was good enough to Billy Baldwin.” He adds that decorator implies untrained and intuitive, perhaps even amateur, to some people.
Owens points out that many of the field’s most eminent individuals were not educated in schools but learned from their natural talents and gained on-the job experience. Russell Lynes, in his 1964 introduction to The Finest rooms by America’s Great Decorators, described decorating as “an exercise of taste, a term and a concept which defies definition.” He concludes that decorating is “a mysterious profession.”
This mystique has remained, but there has been an increase in professionalism through the development of design schools and organizations like the American Society of Interior Designers. While Sister Parish, Mario Buatta and other notables of the past may not have sat down to earn the distinction of decorator/designer, today’s designers are more concerned about labels and qualifications.

A colorful vignette inside Elaine Griffin’s Harlem home. Griffin prefers to be called an interior designerCourtesy Elaine Griffin. Amy Lau pointed out that schooling and credentials are just one part of the complete package. It also requires what Rose Cumming used as a term for flair. Lau states that you can go to school for as long as you like, but if your eye isn’t sharp enough to make a space sing, it’s a flop.
“Hey, man, whatever. You can call yourself whatever you want.”
Elaine Griffin feels similarly. She says that although she is an interior designer, she also answers to the title of decorator.
Alexa Hampton, who took over the illustrious firm of her father Mark in the late 1990s aged 27, made it a point to refer to herself as an interior designer. She says that she is now a decorator because she feels more secure and older, and that her father preferred it. “I understand the value of interior designers claiming to be interior designers in a profession that has been associated with unskilledness and amateurism. It sounds more serious and more permanent,” she says after a short pause. You can call yourself whatever you want.”

This story first appeared in the April 2022 issue ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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