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Defining Differences: Decorators, Designers, Contractors, and Architects

As an interior designer, I am frequently asked about the defining differences between an interior decorator and an interior designer, a contractor and an architect.  It is an insightful question because while the distinctions may seem subtle, they are actually rather radical, and can make all the difference between the intended and finished project.

The Role of the Interior Decorator

Typically, a decorator works only with surface decoration such as paint, fabrics, furnishings, decorative lighting, and materials.  Decorators also design drapery treatments, specify carpeting and rugs, wallpapers, accessories, and other “soft” items.

Decorators do not always have a formal design education.  While they do deal with tradesmen such as painters and wallpaper hangers, their responsibility is limited to the degree to which they can read, interpret, or create drawings.  They do not move walls, lower ceilings, or add any structural enhancements to the space.  If you want to refurbish your home but like the existing plan and feel of the space, and have no desire to make any structural changes, then the services of a decorator should suffice.

The Role of the Interior Designer

Interior designers deal with form and function, space and aesthetics.  In addition to performing all the services of a decorator, they are professionally trained—typically through the NDICQ qualifying exam—to create pleasing environments through interior space manipulation and planning.  An interior designer typically has the following expertise:

- Allocate, organize, and arrange a given space to suit its function

- Identify, research, and creatively resolve design issues

- Design and specify the type of lighting (such as cove lighting, down lights, etc.) and/or the design of light fixtures

- Monitor and manage construction and installation of the design

- Select and specify plumbing fixtures, furnishings, products, materials, hardware, and colors

- Design and supervise fabrication of custom furnishings

- Develop documents and specifications relative to interior spaces (manuals and schedules delineating the plumbing, finish, hardware, paint, lighting schedules)

- Help establish project goals and objectives

The Role of the Contractor

Contractors implement the design drawings, taking direction from the aesthetic directives of the decorator, designer, or architect. Caveat Emptor: Contractors do not design; they build.  His (or her) expertise is in the implementation of a design, not in its creation.  Contractors do not choose colors, fabrics, or finishes. They do not design kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, etc.  The homeowner that chooses a contractor in place of an interior designer or architect cuts out the most vital step of the design process: the vision, the creation, the style, the good taste.

In addition, when a contractor performs an architect’s job, he removes a checks and balances system vital to the consumer.  There is no one to oversee the contractor’s precision or attention to detail. A good contractor is vital to the success of the project, but he is there as the facilitator of the design, not as the creator of it.



The Role of the Architect

Like the interior designer, architects mold and manipulate space to create aesthetically pleasing and well functioning homes or offices for the client.  Architects are knowledgeable about the mechanics of finishes and materials; “structures,” or the how and why things work the way they do; and the surrounding environment’s relationship to their creation. The major differences between an interior designer and an architect are the architect’s education, training, and experience and their ability to create new structures from the ground up.  They are typically not trained in, and customarily not interested in, the finishing of a space, that is, its decoration. I say typically because until the latter part of the 20th century, most architects focused on buildings and houses.  More recently, however, they have extended their domain to include interior renovations, encroaching somewhat into the designer’s territory.

The residential architect can be masterful in creating a satisfactory built environment, inside and out.  But this is more the domain of the “design architect,” one whose interests veer towards combining great design with great structure.  They are interested in the implementation of a master plan and the outfitting of its interiors.

The best projects combine the skills and abilities of the architect, the interior designer, and the decorator.  It is rare, however, to find a firm or individual who can successfully bring all three skill sets into play.  Josef Hoffman, Charles Rene Mackintosh, Robert Adam, William Morris, Rossetti, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier are among those icons who have done such, designing beautiful environments inside and out. More common is the confrontation among the three professions, rather than their seamless integration. When the designer or decorator places furniture incongruous to the structure, or when the architect designs space without consideration for how the furnishings will be laid out, then the client suffers. Happily, more and more design professionals are teaming up, creating comprehensive design networks to better serve the end product and their clients.


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12 Responses to “Defining Differences: Decorators, Designers, Contractors, and Architects”

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    Thank you so much for this post! I am recent graduate for interior design, and I did not know how to relay this information to people that consistently ask the same question.

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