There are a lot of things you can do with an Interior Design degree, but normal career websites won't tell you about any of them. The other day I read an article about different career paths for Interior Designers and just rolled my eyes. Among others it included: furniture designer, which is a degree (and entirely different profession) on its own, and set designer, which is great if you're David Rockwell (who is an architect actually), but not so helpful if you live outside of New York City or Los Angeles. I live in Michigan, and surprisingly enough, there isn't much need for set designers here. Shocker!
When I was in school, I assumed all Interior Designers worked at firms or had their own businesses. It's an easy assumption to make, but it couldn't be farther from the truth. There are so many types of companies that employ Interior Designers, and so many avenues that can be taken depending on your interests and strengths. Today I will be sharing ten of the most common routes that people I have worked with, graduated with, or met in the industry have taken, and believe me, it only scratches the surface. The options are limitless. Also, to narrow down the list I will only be representing career paths that include the title "Interior Designer" specifically. I know people who went into to real estate after a few years in the industry, which is always an option, but not super helpful for the purposes of this post.
Here are ten places that employ interior designers:
1. An Architecture Firm
Big, small, residential, commercial you name it. The range of experiences is vast and really depends on how big the firm is. Working at Perkins + Will is quite different than working at a 2 person residential firm. Either way, working in an architecture firm has a lot of benefits. You get to work for a variety of clients and design a variety of projects, it's always new and exciting, and you can use whatever products or finishes you want. The best architecture firms design for the biggest clients and get their work published in magazines. If you're good, you might end up on a panel at Neocon or judging an IIDA competition. In the media, the voices of the industry and notable movers and shakers all work at architecture firms. The big ones like Gensler, Perkins + Will, SOM, and so many more are actively shaping the look of our cities and literally changing the world we live in. It's all very exciting!
The downside of working at a consulting firm is that you are ruthlessly at the mercy of your clients. It's a competitive environment that requires long hours, often with a high turnover rate. You will spend your days trying to guess what the client wants and have to back up every decision you make to a roomful of people who might not understand the difference between a Cappelini chair and an Lazyboy (I'm exaggerating). Every hour you work will be billed to the client and will have a dollar amount assigned to it. If business is good, you might get a bonus, but if your company loses or wraps up a big project, people will probably get laid off. In general they don't pay that well either, so if you're in this business for the money, an architecture firm might not be for you.
2. An Interior Design Firm
The only real difference between an architecture and and interior design firm is that interior design firms can't stamp drawings. They also tend to be waaaaay smaller. I interned at an Interior Design firm after graduation (right after I moved to Detroit) and it basically functioned like an out-of-house interior design department. The client would hire us and an architect independently and we would work together the same way the design department works with the architecture department at my office now. We would just have to call and email instead of getting up and walking over to someone's desk.
3. A Real Estate Developer or Institution (Hotels, Shopping Centers, Universities, Museums, Etc)
Most real estate developers have an in-house design team that works in collaboration with whatever architect was hired for the job. It is their job to make sure the project is on brand and consistent with their other properties around the world. Working for a developer is great because you usually have a pretty big budget to work with, but it does mean that you will be designing the same thing over and over again. For example, if you work for Marriott, you will only design hotels. Also, its pretty safe to say that if you are working for an institution that is big enough to have an in-house design team, you will be making good money and have all the benefits (and downsides) of working for a large corporation. Also, because your projects will be all over the country, travel is a huge part of the job.
4. A Furniture or Finish Manufacturer
Because I live in Michigan, office furniture manufacturers are a big part of the design community. During my senior year of college, I interned at Steelcase, and my two best friends currently work at Haworth and Herman Miller. I worked on the team that designed showrooms, and my best friends work on the teams that design furniture applications. The benefits of working at a furniture manufacturer are pretty similar to working at a retail developer: good money, good benefits, travel, exciting jobs, and big budgets. The downsides are similar too: doing the same thing over and over again, and corporate life (if that's not your thing). It also means that you can only design using one manufacturer's product and are always challenged with the hard task of differentiating one showroom from another while staying "on brand". However, working at a big corporation means that you get to read about your own company in Interior Design and Contract Magazine which is always cool.
Another interesting aspect of this career path is that you are your own client. Sure you have to sell to an executive team, but selling is much easier when you speak the same language and know exactly what the client wants from the get go. I have often heard that being a residential designer requires you to be a mind reader, therapist, and sales person. If that idea makes you want to run in the opposite direction, this path might be for you.
5. A Furniture Dealer
Unless you're Exxon Mobil or GM, purchasing office furniture means buying from a dealer. From the local hospital to the car dealership down the road, most companies purchase their furniture from a smaller, locally owned design company. These companies typically offer expertise, design, procurement, and installation services and work with both clients and architecture firms. For example, when a client hires you directly, you might select finishes, come up with a furniture plan, specify the furniture, and oversee the construction/installation. In another scenario, your company might be hired to provide furniture only. In this case, you will work with the architect AND the client and will most likely have to comply with the architect's vision.
We work with furniture dealers at my architecture firm all the time. For a food court, we will find furniture we like and send rough selections to the dealer of the developer's choice. They look through our specs and either substitute their own product or buy direct from the manufacturers we originally specified. Then, they put together a detailed order, purchase, and oversee all of the billing, shipping, and installation.
I think the nicest thing about working for a dealer is that there are so many of them. While you can obviously find them in big cities, you can usually find them in smaller cities too. They are really accessible and offer the opportunity to be acquainted with the big, fancy manufacturers even if you don't live near the global headquarters. Dealers tend to treat their employees really well (although there are a few bad apples) and because they do local work, travel isn't too common unless you have to go somewhere for training. This is great if you have a family or hate being away from home. There is the downside of only being able to work with a select few manufacturer's product, but if you are a person who would rather be really good at one thing instead of being just okay at a lot of things, this is actually huge benefit.
6. A Custom Kitchen and Bath Showroom/Store
Obviously, this option only applies to residential design, and can be perfect for someone who prefers something a little more specialized. There is probably at least one custom kitchen and bath store in every town in America (I'm not even including Home Depot...though they do offer design services) ranging from low end (Menards, Home Depot, Lowes) to high end (Scavolini). One of the girls I went to school with double majored in Interiors and Furniture Design, and now works at a high end Kitchen and Bath place. The design of custom mill and casework appeals to her furniture background, and allows her to design full spaces that function well for the client.
7. A Furniture Store
Similar to custom kitchen and bath places, there are quite a few high end furniture stores that offer design services to customers who need a little extra help. Obviously, the goal is to sell the product used in the store so being able to close a sale is really important. In my head, working at a furniture store has got to be really challenging. With Target and Home Goods upping their game every day, I can imagine that it isn't easy to convince someone to buy a $10,000 sofa. But the people who do it well certainly get generously compensated for it. To me, the funnest part of this job has got to be redesigning the showroom each season. Budget is no option so you can pick and choose whatever you want from the company offering to create your design. Its like playing Interior Design make believe and getting to do it over and over again when the product changes.
8. A Construction Company
While I'm not the biggest fan of design-build homes, working for a construction company could be a great option for someone who genuinely loves home design, but might not want to deal with clients in the traditional sense. Interior Designers who work for residential construction companies design "house templates" that can be selected and repeated throughout developments. These designs are typically pretty generic, similar to the look of a "staged" home in the real estate world. Something that looks nice, but is simple enough that potential buyers could picture themselves living there.
9. Being a Sales Representative
I'm breaking my own rule here, because technically sales reps do not have the title of "Interior Designer," but so many people in the industry take this path that I thought it was worth mentioning. There are a lot of really great benefits to being a sales rep: the flexibility, the freedom, the chance to always meet new people, etc. But most importantly, sales reps make BANK. If you want to make serious money in this industry, sell really expensive furniture, carpet, or fabric. Also, several reps I know work from home and spend most of their time visiting firms in their region and giving presentations. This is a truly great option for people who cringe at the idea of sitting behind a computer all day. Being a sales job, this career path works really well for extroverted people who are passionate and like to sell (and do it really really well).
10. Working for Yourself/Freelancing
I saved one of the most obvious ones for last. For many Interior Design students, owning their own business is the goal from the very beginning. It is certainly not an easy path, but it affords you the opportunity to be your own boss and everything that goes along with it. You can set your own hours, choose your own clients, and make all design decisions yourself. That is, if business is good. The biggest downside to owning your own business is that there is no safety net, and depending on the boundaries you set for yourself, what was once "setting your own hours" can turn into "working around the clock." When you are alone, there is no one there to pick up the slack, no one there to fill in when you call in sick, and no one to bounce ideas off of.
That being said, the freedom that goes along with being your own boss cannot be understated. One of my best friends is, as we like to say, "allergic to the 8-5." Meaning, that the thought of having to be somewhere, in the same place, every day, at the same time makes her skin crawl. She feels claustrophobic knowing that someone is keeping track of when she clocks in and out every day. So she has her own LLC and does freelance work for about four different sole practitioners. She is a design mercenary if you will. And she loves it. She sets her own hours, sets her own fees, and every day is different. Some weeks she makes $6000 and others she will make $200. It all just depends on what what was on the schedule for that week. It works for her and her lifestyle.
When I told my parents I wanted to go to art school and become a designer, they thought I'd become a starving artist incapable of holding a stable job. As we know now, those worries were unfounded. There are a million options for Interior Design majors, and these options go so far beyond designing homes (though that is certainly a good option). Whether you live in a big city and like to travel, or are a new parent that prefers to stay closer to the nest, there is a place for you in this industry. Whether you are an extrovert who likes to meet new people and has a knack for sales, or an introvert who prefers to work with clients one-on-one, there is a place for you. Whether you thrive in the corporate world, or like the freedom of working for yourself, there is a place for you.
Interior Designers have options. I think a lot of people are intimidated by this profession because they think its only for people who live in big cities. When I tell people what I do for a living, so many people say "I always wanted to do that, but I didn't know if I could get a job." It is my hope that this blog will clear up these misconceptions and prove that Interior Design is not just for people who live in NYC. Its for you, its for me, and its for everyone else who just wants to make a living doing what they love.