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Caveat Designer: A Few Words to the Wise
by Shaye Eller

It's a strange life, being an interior designer. Don't get me wrong. Working in the interior design field is incredibly rewarding. Design is never boring, it's fast-paced, and incredibly varied. It is an aesthetic, intellectual, and often a scientific challenge. Interior design has a direct and tangible output - in other words, you can see the results of your work. This is a world where drawing, shopping, conferencing and art converge. Wonders are constructed out of thin air at your behest. Then there is the tactile side of design, with wood, concrete, wool, silk, vellum paper, polished chrome all being just part of the job. Design is wonderful, and it will probably take over your life.

On the other hand, it will probably take over your life.

I was not prepared for my transformation into Interior Design Geek once I entered school. It was a bit strange, and a lot confusing. I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be this way. Well, I'm here to assure you that the way your life changes as an interior designer is completely normal, and that you're not alone.

Television- and film-viewing will be forever changed once you take up interior design. I can't count the number of times I've been watching one of my favorite television shows and lost track of the storyline because of the production design. A fight takes place onscreen, and rather than rooting for one side or the other, I'm sitting in my living room whimpering at the couch shot full of bullets holes and shouting, 'Not the sofa!' On one of my favorite science fiction programs, the hero was captured by the villain and held prisoner in a room with modified Gothic detailing. Rather than being engrossed by the tense psychological situation, I'm marveling at the clever overlapping of pointed arches and trying to remember the correct word for quadrefoil.

Your personal relationships will probably be affected as well. Your friends will eventually get used to your odd behavior. They won't all think it's strange if you walk into their house and immediately start rearranging their furniture because you suddenly realized what's wrong with their living room's space planning. If you're lucky, they'll regard you with amusement when you start trying to give away their old, ugly recliner. However, complete strangers may not be quite so tolerant. Pointing out the quoining on an old building downtown will most likely be seen as a bit strange by people who have no idea what you're talking about, nor are they likely to care. The more you learn about interior design, the more frequently these things will happen. Of course, at that point you probably won't mind. You'll be too busy thinking about design.

The way others treat you may also change once you begin your interior design education. Inevitably, roughly one quarter of the people who discover that you are a designer will squeal with delight and say something along the lines of, "You can come do my house!" These are generally not serious job offers, but rather people who assume you'd be delighted to "practice" on their homes for free. Sometimes they're sincere; sometimes it merely seems the polite thing to say. The way I always handled this was to smile and answer, "You have no idea how many people say that to me." You're bound to find your own way of dealing with these potential freeloaders, but don't completely discount them. If someone really wants you to give them some advice, a little pro bono work never hurt anyone's portfolio.

If you do choose to give someone a little free design time in exchange for a little free exposure, make sure to finish the job. My mother still complains about the half-papered spare bathroom I never finished. Of course, I use the excuse that I didn't know the sheetrock hadn't been properly sealed when I started tearing off the old wallpaper, and that it was no use to finish papering the walls once my sister got hair dye all over the new stuff I'd just put up. I recommended that she have the walls retaped, sealed, and textured, and then to just paint, but as of now, the spare bathroom at my parents' house remains a tribute to deconstructionist art. I generally choose to leave out that little detail when I'm talking to clients.

I think my mother got back at me by assuming that I do this as a hobby. At the beginning of my last year of design school, my mother told my kindergarten teacher that I would come up and give them a color consultation on their kitchen. When asked how much I'd charge, she insisted that I'd never think of charging them! I'm still wondering where she got that idea. Dutifully, I took my color deck, gave some sage advice, and told them not to worry about it when they asked about paying me. The truth was, I'd have felt bad about taking money after they were told that I wouldn't. However, the next time my mom tried to give my expertise away for free, we had to have a talk. Thinking back, it probably would have been a good idea to have that serious talk as a kind of preemptive strike. Some parents, of course, won't have these tendencies, but if you think there's the remotest possibility that one of your relatives will try to give your work away for free, sit them down and explain that this is what you do (or will do) for a living, and that very expensive education of yours shouldn't go to waste.

Another pitfall you might experience is probably a matter of pride. If a quarter of the people who find out you're a designer try to get something for free, half of them fall into one of three categories. They'll either mention Frank Lloyd Wright (a bit of a sore spot for me), reference that man who wears dresses and makes canopy beds with sticks and a hot glue gun on cable tv, or they'll refer to you as a "decorator." You'd think more people would mention "Designing Women" or "Will & Grace," but so far that hasn't come up much. I've spent many hours trying to pull my hair out as a result of these misconceptions, but in the end, it's not worth it. The public doesn't care about the difference between a decorator and a designer, nor that you can read blueprints and recognize code violations in addition to picking out paint colors. Save your energy for something more important.

Speaking of code violations, depending on how much you hate memorizing codes, you might turn into something of a vigilante inspector. This is another area where the people around you will generally look at you funny: pointing out means of egress and other code violations. I always hated memorizing codes, and even I complain about flights of stairs that violate standard 7-11 ratios. "These stairs are definitely not code!" actually feels pretty good to say while trudging up a too-steep flight, whether anyone else cares or not. There's always the silent implication that you, as an infinitely superior designer, would never have designed something so difficult to use.

Not to say that all of the changes you experience will be so fraught with complications. The other one quarter of the people who discover you're an interior designer will view this as unspeakably urbane, sophisticated, and cool. Don't think too hard about this, even if your job is frustrating you at the time (as all jobs inevitably will on occasion). Just bask in the glow of someone else's admiration.

One last word to the wise: if your doctor, after discussing your career, ever tells you that s/he really wanted to be an interior designer, but, you know, "I'd already done through med school..." do not hesitate. Run. Find another doctor. He or she will probably spend more time redecorating the lobby of their office than paying attention to their patients. And yes, I speak from experience in this as well.

What it all comes down to, I suppose, is that the phrase "I'm an interior designer" is quite an effective ice breaker. Unfortunately, you never know which way the glacier's going to float.

Shaye Eller

More Go To School Articles: So You Want To Go To Design School But How Do You Choose One?
Frank Lloyd Wrong: How to Be an Opinionated Student and Get Away With It | Caveat Designer: A Few Words to the Wise
Giving The Final Presentation | Presenting Your Work Professionally: Construction

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