Have you ever walked into a room and instantly felt at ease?
Maybe it was the sun streaming through perfectly placed windows, the buttery yellow walls embracing you like a warm hug, or the vintage armchair beckoning you in for a cozy read?
If so, then the magic of interior design has touched you, and maybe, just maybe, it’s ignited a spark within you.
But how do you turn that spark into a full-fledged career in interior design?
I’m Sandra Hinton, owner of Studio Hinton in Zürich. I’m often asked how to get into the profession and, as I’ve worked in both Europe and North America, I understand some of the similarities and differences between the major markets.
Whether you’re dreaming of transforming spaces across the Atlantic or within your own backyard, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and tips on the journey for an aspiring interior designer.
Starting with my educational background, I took my first degree in hospitality management at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland. Some good job opportunities took me first to Monaco then Singapore, before I completed my second degree in interior design at Parsons School of Design in New York.
After graduating, I stayed and worked in New York for a few years before returning to Europe to work at a top firm in London. I then relocated to Los Angeles for a few years, where I started my own business and eventually the road brought me back to Zürich.
1. Want to become an interior designer? Things to know before you start.
Before you plunge down this career path consider your motivation and talents. To make it happen you are going to need three very strong skills in equal balance: artistic and creative skills; architectural design skills; and project management.
You might already be strong in some of these disciplines, but you will need to master all three to make a professional career in interior architecture. If you’re thinking of running your own business, you’ll need to add customer communication, marketing, procurement, business management and more. It won’t take long before you realize there’s a lot more to it than you see on a TV makeover show – you can thank me when you’re calculating sales tax returns at 3am!
If you’re motivated by the glamor of fashion – think again. You won’t feel very glamorous after carrying a marble slab up two flights of stairs, with hair full of brick dust in the blazing summer heat. As much as the design process holds the appeal in this job, it’s as much about problem solving as creativity, and that means a mucky working environment most days! If it’s fame and recognition that drives you – forget it. This industry is about creating beautiful spaces for other people interpreted from their wants and needs; it’s not about what you want, it’s totally about the client.
Having done my best to dissuade you, I will say this profession is massively rewarding when you take a client’s ideas, build them into something greater, and deliver a result that exceeds expectations – on budget, on time, on point!
It’s an exciting industry, with fashions and trends that are constantly changing and morphing – there’s always something new – and you’ll meet some incredibly inspiring and talented people along the way. The best days are when you arrive in a stunning hotel lobby, or are sat at a dinner party, and can think to yourself, “I did this”.
2. Building your foundations in interior design
Firstly, you’re going to need some education to acquire interior design skills. How much or how little you need is going to depend on where in the world you’re located and how it adds to what you’ve already got. In some countries it’s obligatory to have interior design qualifications, in others there are no constraints whatsoever.
Wherever you are in the world there will be a plethora of educational options. Before you jump to enroll on a course, check the standard in your country – a good way to do this is to look at job vacancy adverts and see what minimum qualifications they seek. There is also likely to be a trade association in operation; have a look at their website to see what qualifications they consider worthy.
In the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree in interior design is the standard, though associate degrees and online programs are also available. Most states require a National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam before you can get a licence to practise. European designers tend to be classically trained with degrees in art or design before adding a shorter, more intensive interior design course from specialized design schools and universities, often delivered with a greater focus on the history and theory of design.
It’s important to get the right qualification as you don’t want to waste your time or money studying something that turns out to be unrecognized in the general market. Be wary of short courses that appear to offer quick solutions; if it looks too good to be true, then it usually is. In Europe there’s no universal licensing requirement, but individual countries may have specific regulations – so make sure you know what these are. Membership in professional organizations like the European Council of Interior Architects (ECIA) is highly valued.
Once you have achieved the right qualifications, you might want to try an internship or apprenticeship to gain professional work experience with a design company (even better if you can work alongside your study). Gaining real-world experience is crucial as you’ll get to see all the different aspects of interior design, warts and all. Whether it’s shadowing seasoned designers, assisting on live projects, or volunteering at design firms, full time or part time, it’s good to get your hands dirty and learn from the pros as much as you can. It will all add to your credibility later.
From the beginning, start building your portfolio of design projects. Showcase your unique vision! Build a powerful portfolio that reflects your style, skills, and understanding of design and architectural principles. Collate everything you do; you can always delete it later if you supersede it with something better. This will help you get jobs and employers/clients will expect to see a good portfolio, especially when you are starting out. Remember, it’s your visual résumé, so make it shine!
3. Interior design: Differences and similarities around the world
My experience is largely in the US and Europe, but I’m sure many of these points apply in other countries around the world. Make sure you research your own local market and remember, these are generalizations; each client is going to have different ideas and their personal taste is by far the most important as they’re paying, and they must love the results!
There are some exciting differences between the US and European design worlds worth delving into. American interiors tend to be bolder, embracing eclecticism and comfort. Open floor plans, statement pieces, and a mix of textures are prevalent. Think cozy farmhouse collides with modern minimalism. An American client is far more likely to appreciate opening a door to the totally unexpected, whereas European design tends to lean towards the timeless and elegant, frequently led by what is “in-keeping” with the building.
In Germany, for example, it is usually the architect who leads the design for an interior to reflect their work on the building, whereas in the United Kingdom the building architect mostly has no input on the interior beyond structural advice. Europeans will talk about respecting the heritage of classical influences, with handcrafted details, and a curated mix of antiques and contemporary pieces creating sophisticated spaces. Picture Parisian chic alongside Scandinavian simplicity.
The US market is more project-based, with designers often working on individual homes or commercial spaces to overhaul a finished building or room. The focus is on delivering a complete vision within a specific budget. European designers, however, will often work with clients on a long-term basis, advising on everything from furniture selection to renovations over many years. The emphasis is on building relationships and creating spaces that evolve with the clients’ lives.
4. Design Dialogues: Unveiling the Crucial Role of Communication in Interior Mastery
Only speaking English is fine in the US or UK, and will get you through most European projects, yet it’s handy if you are fluent in other languages when working in Europe. You’ll want to get the closest understanding of your client’s needs and be able to properly communicate with tradespeople. Remember even simple words like canapé, divan or Stuhl can easily get lost in translation and result in expensive mistakes!
Whilst we’re on the subject of tradespeople, start building relationships and keeping a log of trusted tradespeople from the start of your career. Top quality builders, suppliers, plumbers, electricians, joiners, craftspeople, decorators, et al, are essential to the success of each project. It’s not possible to understate the value they will bring to the finished design standards and the problems they can solve along the way.
Wherever you set up business, being a professional interior designer is all about listening to the clients’ brief and exceeding their expectations to produce something they will be proud of for many years. It’s sometimes hard to keep your own opinions and preferences in check, but your job is to make the client so happy that they recommend you to others. A lot of good quality future business will come from personal recommendation – so always be brilliant!
5. So, is becoming an interior designer right for you?
Ultimately, the choice is yours. Consider your personal style, career goals, and desired lifestyle. The US market offers faster-paced projects and potentially higher incomes, while Europe provides a chance to immerse yourself in rich design history and work on long-term partnerships. But, of course, you probably haven’t got the luxury of choosing where to work, so learn your local market and start there.
Remember, wherever you choose to embark on your interior design journey, the core principles remain the same: passion, creativity, and a dedication to creating spaces that inspire and delight. So, grab your sketchpad, unleash your inner color wizard, and start painting your path to interior design success!
This blog is just a starting point. As you delve deeper, you’ll discover new trends, techniques, and challenges, all shaping your unique design voice. So, don’t be afraid to experiment, explore, and let your passion guide you. The world of interior design awaits, and it’s ready to be transformed by your visions.
“An interior should be informed by the life that is lived in it.”
– Sandra Hinton, Founder –