Interior Designer, Interior Decorator: What’s the Difference?

Published: January 29, 2024

Interior Designer, Interior Decorator: What’s the Difference?

“When we’re building new houses, we want to make sure we’ve been intentionally thoughtful about how people actually live in them. From the furniture to the fixtures, how people work in a kitchen or relax in a living room is important. We want that feedback on functional design and we want it to be a priority.”

Red Tree Builders owner Brandon Bryant has been working in Western North Carolina for nearly two decades, creating homes that are aesthetically pleasing and environmentally conscious, while focusing on craftsmanship and the relationship with clients. A few years ago, that focus led the company to expand and bring an interior design team inhouse. RT Design was developed as a bridge between clients and building teams, streamlining the construction process while ensuring a positive experience for everyone involved.

Interior designers delve deep into the functionality, layout and optimization of spaces, considering aspects like traffic flow, ergonomics and structural elements. Interior decorators focus on embellishing spaces with furniture, color schemes, and accessories to create a specific atmosphere or look. Both are crucial in their own right, but the distinction lies in their core focuses and skill sets.

Interior designers take a more comprehensive approach, often involving the structural elements of a space. They’re involved in planning layouts, understanding building codes and regulations, and creating detailed construction documents. Their focus is on the functionality, safety and aesthetics of an interior space. On the other hand, interior decorators focus more on the visual aspects and aesthetics of a space. They work with furniture, color schemes, fabrics, and other elements to enhance the look and feel of an already constructed space. Their expertise lies in creating cohesive and visually pleasing environments.

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“Previously, we’d hired third-party interior design firms. However, as a project evolved, it was clear that we’d technically hired interior decorators, not designers,” said Bryant. Both professions require skill and creativity but have different scopes and levels of involvement in the design process.

“From my perspective as a builder, the difference is an interior designer is going to focus, number one, on space planning, function, flow, how that house lives, how it functions. Where a decorator is really going to focus on how it looks, how pretty it is and probably not focus on those other things, or it won’t be a priority,” said Bryant. “Something that looks pretty in a space might actually not physically be able to live in that space. Changes in the plans can be made early on to ensure the client is getting what they want, but, in our experience, the decorators just weren’t actually looking at the plans or understanding them.”

The educational and professional requirements for interior designers versus decorators often form a crucial distinction between the two roles. Interior designers typically undergo comprehensive formal education that covers various facets, including design principles, technical knowledge, safety regulations and environmental sustainability.

By advocating for both clients and builders, the designers at RT Design create smoother communication channels, reducing the overwhelming feeling of decision-making for clients. This approach allows the team to focus on the practical aspects, ensuring the project’s logistics and building capabilities align with the clients’ expectations. They prioritize not only the end result but also the journey toward it, aiming for a harmonious and efficient construction process.

Bryant said, “When the client knows what they’re getting and knows what it costs, they’ve got some ability to make some pivots or changes as they want to, in a less stressful environment.”

—By Kristy Kepley-Steward of Red Tree Builders in Asheville, N.C.

Photo credit: Tim Burleson

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