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Difference Between Decorator and Interior Designer


A penthouse apartment in New York designed by the late American decorator Mario Buatta.

What do you call the interior specialist who designs, revamps or simply refreshes the rooms in your home? The answer may not be as simple as you think.

“I prefer decorator,says Miles Redd. “The word is a bit faded, but I align myself with Syria Maugham, John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster, and I don’t think any of them call themselves interior designers, which for me – and I hope I don’t offend people I admire – feels the least bit pretentious.

Hold that thought.

“If someone calls me decorator, nothing is more boring,” says designer Ghislaine Viñas. “It’s a dated term that conjures up this image of a woman shopping with people, choosing trims and zhuzhes things. It does not have the influence of an interior designer, because we go to school for years.

A vibrant yellow vignette designed by Miles Redd, who prefers the term decorator to describe his profession.

Thomas Leaf

Ask interior professionals to discuss their feelings about decoration against design and it may recall those old Miller Lite commercials with the arguments about “good taste” and “less filling”. Yet, despite some impassioned stances, it’s not really a debate. Ultimately, it’s about differences in perception and use, which have evolved in ways that people outside the design world don’t always understand.

“If you don’t have the eye to make a piece sing, then it’s a bit of a flop.”

Today, most industry players would agree, there are distinctions to be made between decorating and interior design, even though they are closely related. “An interior designer looks at the whole idea of ​​a place – its setting, the architecture, the furnishings,” says designer Dan Fink. “Decoration, which is more specific to furniture, fabrics, art collections, is an essential part of this idea and achieving the perfect chemistry in a room.”

The president of the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), David Sprouls, puts it this way: “As I talk to people about what interior design is, I draw a Venn diagram, with two large circles that overlap. One of the circles is architecture, and the other circle is decoration. And where the two overlap is interior design.

Simple enough, right? Well, sort of.

interior designer or decorator


Elsie de Wolfe, considered the first American interior designer, designed the rooms for the Frick family home in New York.

Courtesy of The Frick Collection

To understand the nuances, it’s helpful to go back to the early 20th century, when the interior decorating profession in the United States was in its infancy. Started by legends like Elsie de Wolfe and Dorothy Draper, the estate was definitively known as decoration, and it was dominated by women. The term interior design first appeared in the 1930s, although it only gained popularity after World War II, a change that coincided with the expansion of industrial designers – usually men – into interiors, explains Alexis Barr, who teaches design history at NYSID (founded in 1916 as the New York School of Interior Decorating, it took on its current name in the early 1950s).

“I see the term as an attempt by the field of industrial design to separate and elevate itself from decorators, emphasizing the gender and class dichotomies in the two fields.” At the same time, she notes, “major industry figures like Billy Baldwin have rejected the term interior decorator and continued to call themselves decorators.

“If the decorator was good enough for Billy Baldwin, he’s good enough for anyone.”

It is partly out of respect for revered figures like Baldwin and the traditions he represented that some are inspired to embrace the decorator label today. “I’ve always believed that if decorating was good enough for Billy Baldwin, it’s good enough for anyone,” says veteran writer and editor Mitchell Owens. But, he adds,decorator suggests untrained and intuitive – perhaps, unfortunately, even amateurish – to some people.

As Owens points out, many of the eminences of the field were not trained in the classroom, but relied on their innate talents and experience gained on the field. In his introduction to the 1964 book The most beautiful rooms of the great American decorators, Russell Lynes described decoration in almost esoteric terms, as “an exercise in taste, a word and a concept that defies definition”. Decorating, he concludes, is “a mysterious profession.

This mystique persisted, but the expansion of rigorous design school programs and groups like the American Society of Interior Designers led to greater professionalism. So while Sister Parish, Mario Buatta and other big names of the past may not have transpired the decorator/designer distinction, for today’s generation, labels and credentials matter.

interior designer or decorator

A colorful vignette inside Elaine Griffin’s home in Harlem. Griffin prefers the term interior decorator.

Courtesy of Elaine Griffin

Of course, as Amy Lau points out, schooling and degrees are only part of a whole package that also requires what decorators like Rose Cumming called flair. “You can go to school that long,” Lau says, “but if you don’t have the eye to make a play sing, then it’s a bit of a flop.” For her part, Lau prefers to be called an interior designer but won’t correct anyone who says otherwise.

“Hey, man, whatever. Call yourself what you want.

Elaine Griffin feels the same. “I am an interior designer, she says, but I also respond to decorator, because responding to both is leaving your ego at the door. Still, she draws a sharp distinction between the type of work she does and that of “those fabulous influencers on Instagram with 42,000 followers,” adding, “anyone with an eye can put in pictures and call themselves a decorator. “.

When Alexa Hampton took over the illustrious firm of her father Mark in the late 1990s, at the age of 27, she insisted on designating herself as an interior designer. “Now
that I am older and more sure of my professional status, I became a decorator again,” she says, noting that it was her father’s preference. “In a career long associated with amateurism and lack of seriousness, I understand the value of people who call themselves interior designers. It seems more serious, more permanent. After a brief pause, she adds, “Hey, man, whatever. Call yourself what you want.

april 2022 cover elle decor

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