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Interior Designers vs Interior Decorators

Mayfair London Design

A question people often ask me is: “What’s the difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator?” I love it when people ask this, as it means they’ve started thinking beyond the ordinary and usually have ideas about what they like, but aren’t sure of the best way to create it. 

Here are a few tips to explain the differences and help you decide who you need for your project.

What an interior decorator does

An interior decorator does what you might see on a TV makeover show – they take a living space and refurbish it to make it look special. They usually begin by finding out what you love and hate, create a mood-board of ideas, agree a theme, color scheme, style and budget, sometimes they’ll take you shopping before setting to work. Most decorators have a signature-style that pervades their work, so expect to view an extensive portfolio before deciding who to use for your project. 

What an interior designer does

Interior designers include everything a decorator does when it comes to decorating and furnishing, but before getting to the fun stuff we start the project at a deeper level by analysing the science of how a space is used and how it connects to the rest of the building. Expect your designer to begin the process by asking how you plan to use the space, and what’s essential in that room. A professional designer will incorporate existing architecture into their scheme or might work alongside a builder or architect to alter a wall, doorway or window if that’s what’s needed.

Having analysed the flow and drawn plans for the layout, a designer will look at the lighting (both natural and artificial) to see how that affects the mood of a room at different times. Lighting is a critical part of any room, not only because it changes colors and textures but also because it can set the whole feeling of a space. Don’t expect to necessarily see signature-styles with an interior designer, our role is to produce results that you love, unique to that room. Sure, interior designers have extensive portfolios of previous designs, but these are used to show the quality of our work, rather than suggested designs for your individual space.

As well as extensive knowledge in the science of color, fashion and lighting, an interior designer will often design or commission bespoke joinery, furniture, flooring, tiling and sanitaryware for your project. Established interior designers frequently own their own companies to get access to international wholesale suppliers of unique products yet, same as an interior decorator, you’re just as likely to find them in the corner with a paintbrush when needed! 

Qualifications for an interior designer

You should expect an interior designer to hold certified qualifications in art, design or architecture as well as additional formal training in interior design. In much of North America it’s mandatory to have precise qualifications and memberships before you can style yourself as an interior designer. In Europe it isn’t mandatory, but you would expect similar accredited academic training from a good college. There are many disciplines in interior design, including knowledge of building codes and computer-aided design (CAD); don’t be afraid to ask about certifications, a good designer will be proud to show you.

There is no expectation for interior decorators to hold qualifications. Many will have learned their craft from a natural flair or crossed-over from another design industry. They maybe studying towards interior design accreditation, but it’s not a requirement and it doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do.

Do I need an interior decorator or interior designer?

If you have an existing interior space that just needs a makeover to liven it up, there are plenty of excellent decorators out there with great ideas. However, if you have several rooms or spaces, or a room that simply doesn’t work as it could, it’s worth considering getting an interior designer to cast fresh eyes over everything and figure out how the space can be reinvigorated or reconnected with the rest of the house. If you are looking at a new build, empty shell, or full refurbishment, then it’s undoubtedly better to use an interior designer who can put together a full plan liaising with builders, architects, and landscapers.

Ultimately what you need depends on whether you are decorating to freshen-up or maybe sell-on a property, or creating a place to live, enjoy and relax for yourself or your family. I’ve worked with some amazingly talented decorators over the years and with some great designers.