Aisling Healy, Ellen Bishop, Emma Stinson, Janvi Gaur, Pallavi Dean, Robert Reid

Busting the myths

Is it true interior design is seen as a glamorous profession, meaning students have a misconceived perception of the industry?

Many students entering an interior design degree are unclear on the demands of the discipline, not realising the difference between interior design and interior decorating, according to Robert Reid, assistant professor, College of Architecture, Art and Design, American University of Sharjah.

He believes magazines and TV shows promote the stereotype of interior design as a glamorous industry comprised of well-dressed people creating “fabulous” environments — encouraging the uninformed to judge what they see on the surface.

“What students don’t realise until they are well into their studies is the demands of a studio-based education, the un-glamorous expectations of a professional practice including long hours, low budgets and demanding clients, and the challenge to ensure a project gets built as designed,” he said.

“I am confident however, as students progress through school becoming more knowledgeable of quality, their expectations change and they become more demanding about workmanship, attention to detail and materiality — ultimately permeating all areas of their life.”

Aisling Healy, interior designer, Stickman, agrees claiming the profession is misunderstood.

“It’s understandable in a way, as people are misinformed with the likes of daytime TV programmes where designers have 24 hours to re-invent a home with paint cans, accessories, and soft furnishings, with a finale of re-arranging the furniture,” she added.

Healy believes most interior designers cringe when people ask the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’, because the reaction is usually ‘Oh how fun’ or ‘I’d love to take that up sometime’.

“It is assumed that the interior design industry is one to make spaces look pretty. In reality it is a problem-solving profession aimed at creating spaces where people work, live, entertain and exist. Strong considerations challenge designers to reach best solutions. It is, essentially, the architecture of interiors where one can influence people’s behaviour in day to day life,” she added.

Talking about hospitality design, she explained people generally see a glamorous end product but the months and years of ‘donkey work’ are forgotten where hours of travelling, working from site office mobile cabins with no natural light and ventilation are mandatory.

“Many people make the mistake of calling themselves interior designers, when they complete a short term course on the subject. But, a professional qualification is more comprehensive,” said Healy.

“A lot of this is down to short-term private courses on offer to anyone who wants to learn the decorating trade. Some of these courses market themselves as an interior design course where an academic consideration is void. The course requirement is solely down to self-funding.

“Due to this, I believe many students have a misconceived perception of the industry before they research and sign up to a professional course. However, reality soon reveals itself and only the committed students will withstand a four year bachelor’s degree where creative expression comes hand-in-hand with hours of structural and mechanical systems, construction documents and long hours of studio time.”

Emma Stinson, owner, Studio Em, attributes the notion of ‘glamour’ to the rise of media interest in the profession, throughout the late 90s and 2000.

“There was a spate of television shows that cheapened our industry and implied we had unlimited budgets, managed full makeovers in anything from 60 minutes to a week and had a team of builders and experts at our beck and call,” she said.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence it was also around this time there was a surge in universities offering interior architecture and design as degree courses and a surge in Technical and Community Colleges offering interior design diplomas in as little as six weeks. I can recall a time when my aunty called my mum to say that I was wasting four years of my life doing a degree course in interior design just to decorate houses when her friend’s daughter learned how to do it in six weeks at night college. You can imagine how offended and frustrated I was at hearing this accusation.”

Pallavi Dean, freelance interior designer, former associate GAJ, added that to get where big name professionals like Kelly Hoppen and Philippe Starck are today involves endless hours of distinctly unglamorous work early in their careers, detailing handrails and laying out washrooms.

“From my perspective of working in Dubai and London, there are plenty of glamorous projects – hotels, yachts, swanky offices – to keep even the most ambitious interior designer at the top of their game; you just have to build your core experience first,” she said.

Healy added: “Late nights in a cramped studio will somewhat prepare students for what lies ahead as it is not a 9am–5pm career. The love and passion for design does not switch off at the end of the day.”

Janvi Gaur, owner, Blissland Interiors, states that to be successful in any profession there is always consistent hard work and slog required.

“Having said that, it is a fantastic creative outlet that channels your ideas and innovations so that in itself can take you into a glamorous lifestyle, meeting and consulting with high society as and when you get more recognised,” she said.

“The only thing that is glamorous is the opening party of a restaurant or store we have created and even those parties are few and far between,” added Stinson.

“As far as I am concerned, being an interior designer is one of the best jobs in the world, I love it but I would never ever tell anyone especially a student that it is glamorous. It was only due to completing my work placement in my third year of university that I knew interior design was right for me and it was here that I learned the most important lesson of all, that the industry is about “creating” space and not “dressing” it,” she said.

“Now I tell any student to make sure they do a proper placement before applying to university to make sure it is the right career for them. There is little glamour about being on site in 40+ degree heat for three or four hours with no air conditioning doing a survey or working late at night on countless CAD drawings and design variations; these are the things that students don’t realise and are not taught at school.”

According to Ellen Bishop, of Bishop Design Associates, people are often under the misconception the industry only revolves around the application of beautiful colour combinations and materials and selecting high end designer furniture. They do not consider other aspects such as the technical knowledge required to design a successful project.

She added the main factors that contribute to a student’s misconceived perception of the industry include; realising the job is not all about selecting designer furniture from high end shops but requires more technical knowledge and hours of using programmes like AutoCAD, budgeting and preparing specification documents; not realising the challenges in dealing with clients and the psychological understanding required to successfully interpret design briefs.

Less glamorous aspects of the profession include site visits, discussions with contractors, suppliers not delivering as per specs and on time, contractors not hitting deadlines and constant follow up.

“They also don’t know that projects have strict budgets and do not always prioritise esthetics above budget restraint. Many projects do not require the level of design that they are so eager to practice but more practical and technical knowledge and even in some cases to follow design manuals already developed (for example with roll-out restaurants),” she said. “I also believe many students get disappointed in the roles designated to them in various companies when they are fresh from university.

“A lot of companies feel that graduates are not ready and capable to handle ‘real projects’ until a solid learning curve has been completed.

Hence, fresh students get designated roles such as updating and cleaning up the design library, assisting in cutting materials, gluing down material boards etc. Many are also forced to do an internship before they can get a full time job within an organisation. At Bishop Design, we visit universities, such as the American University, to talk to students about the industry and what to expect, which contributes to avoiding misconceived perception and disappointment.

“I think this is a great initiative from universities today.”