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They Want to Be Seen as More Than Just Window Dressing

Real estate: Interior designers face opposition of architects as they press for state licensing.

May 09, 2000|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a decade-long truce, interior design and architecture groups are lobbying legislators and mobilizing their members in a nationwide duel of the designers.

The dispute stems from ongoing efforts by interior designers to raise the standards and credibility of their profession by seeking state-authorized registration or licensing. But architects, who have long been licensed, say interior designers lack the training for such status and are not capable of enforcing professional standards.

The feud has become a rallying cause for interior designers, who have struggled for decades to shed the "interior decorator" label and build the credibility and public recognition long enjoyed by architects.

The public "thinks we do nothing but pick colors and fluff pillows," said Doug Stead, executive vice president of the California Council for Interior Design Certification. "They don't understand that when they walk into a restaurant or a hotel, it has been designed by an interior designer. It's not only comfortable but it's a safe environment."

Licensed architects are permitted to design building interiors, exteriors and structural elements. Licensed interior designers are usually limited to building nonstructural interior elements, such as the layout of office cubicles, wall finishes and other interior elements.

In California, legislation that would create a class of registered interior designers has passed the Assembly and is headed to the Senate. Despite opposition from architectural organizations, AB 1096 has gone further in the Legislature than any other previous interior design registration bill.

The state has about 27,000 licensed architects and 10,000 interior designers, one-third of whom are certified by the California Council for Interior Design. Both sides claim that the main issue is the protection of consumers and public safety. But critics of both groups say it has more to do with protecting turf and economic self-interest.

"It's really just raw politics to protect your own income," said Harry Snyder, Consumers Union senior West Coast advocate. "This [issue] does not rise to the level of great importance in the consumer's life."

The drive for licensing and registration began in the 1970s, when throngs of interior designers, once primarily employed by wealthy homeowners, entered the commercial realm. They began designing the interiors of giant new office buildings and public facilities, previously the province of architects. The growing ranks of interior designers and the field's increased specialization into such categories as airport and hotel design have led to the creation of college programs that raised industry standards and expectations.

But the push for professionalism also triggered friction with architects, who have been criticized for trying to monopolize the design portion of the building business. Many in the female-dominated interior design field also resent what they consider the condescending attitude they encounter in the male-dominated world of architecture.

"This is as much a male-female issue . . . as it is the recognition of a newer profession," said Los Angeles interior designer Janice Stevenor Dale.

Many interior designers also consider a state-issued license as validation that their profession is on par with that of architects.

"There is a lot of prestige and sort of self-fulfillment by having a state license," Stead said. "The architects recognize that and they protect [their licenses] very fiercely."

Many architects say state licensing and regulation of interior designers is not needed since they are not involved with the structural elements of buildings. "Does the public or our governing bodies really need [to require] licensing for that?" said Los Angeles architect Richard Keating.

The long-standing professional tensions flared up last year after the American Society of Interior Designers declared it would no longer recognize the 10-year-old agreement that had established professional peace with the American Institute of Architects. The deal called for the interior design group to stop lobbying states to permit only licensed individuals to practice interior design. Instead, interior designers, with the support of architects, would lobby for less restrictive state registration that is not mandatory.

Each group blames the other for failing to support what the industry calls the "1989 Accord."

"We are not trying to do architecture. We are only trying to do what we have been trained for," said interior designer Rosalyn A. Cama at a recent industry trade show in downtown Los Angeles. "We are not trying to make it adversarial. Unfortunately, there are a lot of emotions."

The AIA has said that the licensing of interior designers might open the door for them to get involved in other facets of building design and architecture in which they have no training.

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