Indiana interior designers wrangle over wording

Indiana interior designers wrangle over wording

Susan Colvin is no longer just an interior designer. The 11-time Super Service Award winner is now a "registered interior designer" thanks to a new Indiana law that gives her the right to use that title.

But what does it mean?

For Colvin, she says it helps clients identify trained designers. "An interior design education is everything from drawing and drafting and layouts to art history and studying furniture and the history of furniture," she says. "The education was my base, my foundation for building a business."

While she says some customers won't require that depth of knowledge, the new registration process will help them make an informed hiring decision. "Ultimately, it will be up to the people who are hiring whether [registration] is important to them."

Edward Stephenson moved to Indianapolis 18 months ago and says if he wasn't an Angie's List member, he'd give more consideration to a registered versus unregistered designer. "It probably would make a difference if I didn't have any idea or any recommendations," he says. "I think it would indicate they have a little more experience."

Anyone can practice interior design in Indiana. The law, passed last year, stipulates only that they can't use the title "registered interior designer" unless they meet the requirements. Designers qualify if they have 15 years of experience and no training, or 10 years of experience and two years of interior design training, and pay the $100 fee.

The law does not specify what training is required. The interior design curriculum at Indiana University-Bloomington includes classes in art, design and technical drawing as well as the history of design and technical aspects of lighting and ergonomics.

The registry — vetoed in 2007 by Gov. Mitch Daniels over cost concerns — is not managed by the state but by the volunteer Indiana Interior Design Coalition. It relies on the honor system and the threat of perjury charges if applicants are caught lying about their qualifications. The state, which hosts the online registration site, would become involved if charges needed to be filed.

The registration program costs the state nothing, says IDO Inc. owner Jill Mendoza, who serves as president of the coalition. The $100 registration fee goes to the state general fund, and is not used by the coalition.

That the law is not more restrictive is due in part to a six-year political battle with some of the biggest players in the home improvement industry, including the American Institute of Architects, the National Kitchen and Bath Association, and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. The groups fought Indiana designers' efforts and continue to fight similar efforts nationwide.

"It's basically an attempt by the interior design profession to limit the use of the words 'interior design' to those who they deem qualified," says Larry Dorfman, president of highly rated Dorfman Design Builders in Indianapolis and executive director of the Central Indiana chapter of NARI. "To me, that's a red flag in terms of restraint of trade."

Edward Nagorsky, general counsel and director of legislative affairs for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, says the registry needlessly involves the government and doesn't help consumers.

"There is nothing to say that an interior designer who went to school and passed an exam is any better than the contractor's wife who has a great eye for design," Nagorsky says.

An AIA spokesman says it opens the door to an expanded role for interior designers, one that eventually could overlap what architects and engineers do now, including the authority to "stamp" design plans to show they meet applicable building codes.

"If the issue kind of stops where it is in Indiana, that's fine. We are comfortable with that," says Jason Shelley, executive director of AIA-Indiana. "They will want more. If you want to have those stamping privileges, then go get an engineering degree or go get your architecture degree."

As for concerns that this opens the door to an expanded role for interior designers, Mendoza says those fears are groundless. The group first sought stamping privileges six years ago on the advice of a national consultant, not because local designers wanted it.

She says registration helps clients understand that interior design is a broad field with many levels of training. A homeowner may not need a college-trained designer well-versed in air quality and fire safety issues posed by modern materials, whereas a corporation might.

"There is not any intention of saying there is a better class of interior designers," Mendoza says. "There is just a different class."

For Angie's List member Nancy Snively, talent trumps training. In hiring Colvin, she just happened to get both. "She's got an eye for color and an eye for design," Snively says.

"Certainly you could go to school and learn that, but I still think you have to have an eye for it and a natural ability. You can take a painting class but that doesn't mean you are going to be a good painter."

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