2014-10-13 16.29.45

We are talking a lot of about diversity and equity within the Architectural profession right now.  How we relate to and work with each other within our profession is just as important, in my opinion, as how we do so with our peers throughout the construction industry.

I’ve always believed that Architects are equal partners in the design and construction of buildings, that we can’t possibly know and do everything on our own and need the expertise of other disciplines to complete our own work.  The word “collaboration” has real meaning to me.  I strive to do that every day in my own firm.  And I’ve learned over 24 years of practice that this philosophy makes me something of an anomaly.

This is why I was so disappointed to learn about an AIA slideshow espousing the superiority of Architects over Interior Designers.  Disappointed is an understatement: to be honest, it really ticked me off.

A friend and classmate from Architecture school who has been teaching Interior Designers for years brought this presentation to my attention this week.  You can find it here, and the accompanying script is here.  It’s part of the Issues and Advocacy section of the AIA website where you can find a similar presentation called “What Architects Do” (which does not specifically mention Interior Design).  These are tools intended for State chapters to promote the practice of Architecture and to better inform the public about what we actually do.

While I agree wholeheartedly that this effort is desperately needed, the Interior Design/Interior Architecture piece misses the mark.

My friend expressed her anger on Facebook over how Interior Designers were portrayed in the presentation’s slick graphics.  The imagery reinforces the idea that Designers know less, take fewer exams, work less, and are therefore less qualified than Architects to design the interiors of buildings.

Illustrating these points are such images as an empty head (the Designer) with a question mark looking across at a rather full head (the Architect).  And on another slide there is a large (clearly male) shoe complete with pinstripe pants facing a tiny figure who is obviously not capable of ‘filling the shoes’ of an Architect.


I’ve now looked at this about half a dozen times and read the script along with it.  What I think this presentation is trying to communicate – though poorly executed – is that not all design professionals are created equal.  Of course we aren’t.  We are complementary professions with some overlap in skillsets and scope of work but with different talents and expertise.  As Professor John Weigand wrote in his 2013 article for Design Intelligence, “architecture and interior design are both distinct and connected”.

But the choice of imagery implies something else as well.  Knowing that women make up the majority of Interior Designers and the minority of Architects, there is an inherent sexism in using pinstripe pants and men’s shoes to graphically represent the Architect in this scenario.  And don’t get me started on the empty head image….   There must be a better way for us to protect our own profession without demeaning another one in the process.

My experience

It was an Interior Designer who hired me in 1998 when I could not get a job with an Architectural firm.  My CAD skills were lacking because the first firm I worked for had an obscure program that only 3 people were allowed to use.  I couldn’t even get an interview with an Architect because of that.  I walked into an Interior Design firm, resume in hand, and I was hired that day to manage a large hospitality project.

Architects are generally not trained in the specifics of Interior Design.  I certainly wasn’t, but I learned more from two years of working with those outstanding Designers than I have in any other office.  They understood how to build custom millwork so it was always very clearly detailed.  I still benefit from that knowledge today.  They understood how to use lighting and colour, and how to produce clear and concise construction documents.  And they treated me as an equal.

It was a very sad day when I had to leave that firm.  I had exceeded the maximum number of hours for “allied professions” in my IDP logbook, and had to go work under an Architect if I wanted to get licensed.  That experience redirected my career path and shaped the Architect that I have become.  I have since mentored and taught young Interior Designers as well as Architects.  I have attended the IIDEX NeoCon Canada show for most of the past 20 years.  I think of myself as an Architect who designs from the inside out, and much of my work experience after that has touched on Interior Design.

That is why I found this AIA document to be so insulting, both to my own professional experience and to the Interior Designers that I’ve had the absolute privilege of working with and learning from.

Real equity

We are very focused right now on equity within Architecture, as we need to be.  My own experiences with that could fill several posts.  But we are not thinking so much about the equity of Architects within the greater construction industry.

I don’t think that I am superior (or inferior) to the Interior Designers, Lighting Designers, Mechanical Engineers, and Landscape Architects with whom I work.  My approach is always that we are all working collaboratively towards our shared goal of creating an outstanding project for our client.  Of course, that idea isn’t shared by everyone in our industry.  Architects often deal with negative attitudes coming from Contractors, Construction Managers, Engineers, etc.

I have also been the recipient of snide remarks and nastiness from other Architects who thought I was an Interior Designer (because that apparently makes it okay).  On a recent project, I was called a “squawking Interior Designer” because I pointed out ADA violations on the Architect’s drawings.  The attitude usually goes away after they find out that I am “one of them”.  That makes me even more angry.

This is why I am an advocate for the licensing of Interior Designers, a position that puts me at odds with the AIA and a number of my fellow Architects.  I also know – from real project experience – that there are significant differences between Designers and Decorators.  If you don’t know the difference, look it up.

I know Architects who do Interior projects but who can’t put together a furniture spec or a legible finish schedule.  I have worked with Architects who do space planning without adding furniture to their drawings.  They end up with spaces that cannot be furnished or effectively used by their occupants (true story – I got lectured on two projects for pointing that out to the Architects responsible).  The AIA presentation doesn’t mention those particular skills, but they are essential to designing interior spaces.

There are also Architects who understand how to use colour, materials, texture, light, and proportion, and who do it very well.  We get that the design of an interior space is integral to the design of the architecture that encompasses it.  Whether both are designed by the same person or by a collaboration between an Architect and a Designer is irrelevant to me – both approaches work.  But what doesn’t work is actively belittling other design professionals.  That does not make our own profession stronger.  It only reinforces a deep divide that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

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