My son is of the age where we’ve begun to look at colleges together. As we’ve browsed pamphlets, scanned course catalogs, and taken campus tours, I’ve been reminded of my own time in college. I had the privilege of studying at the New York School of Interior Design, which provided the grounding framework I use every day at my own design firm. As is the case with many creative careers, people on the outside tend to view design as a natural talent rather than a learned skill. However, my studies inform an academic approach to interior design more practical than a “natural eye.”
Just as my son and I have conversations about the importance of college and academics, I felt it would be valuable to explain why I take an academic approach to interiors and share lessons from my years of study both in the classroom and on the job.
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In the Designing a Business series, Interior Designer Amity Worrel shares experiences and lessons learned on her path to running a successful interior design firm in Austin, Texas.
My Interior Design Education
The study of interior design is relatively new, especially compared with other disciplines such as philosophy. Since its founding, my alma mater, NYSID, has been at the forefront of design education. Architect Sherrill Whiton founded the school in 1916 as the trade began to take off. Only a decade prior, New York Actress Elsie de Wolfe had technically become the first interior designer when she was commissioned to decorate the Colony Club in 1905. Whiton’s program has remained one of the most innovative. He even wrote the book on interior design, publishing Elements of Interior Decoration in 1937, which is still used in design schools worldwide. When First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy brought interior design to national attention with her White House renovation, the school had already trained four decades’ worth of designers ready to tackle the country’s growing demand for well-appointed interiors.
I didn’t realize how lucky I really was to go to school in NYC in the late 1990s. In addition to my coursework, my extracurriculars included visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick, Bard Graduate Center, and so many other iconic museums and places of learning. This time in my life made me fall in love with interiors and all the layered complexities of designing a space.
My academic experience colored my approach to design. While attending class, I also worked at a design firm. I hold my classroom education in high regard alongside the practical learning I gathered in the field. While job-site education taught me valuable skills, such as how to manage a project timeline, my classroom education provided me with an aspirational vision. I’m grateful for such an incredible education that continues to inform my work.
Interior Design is About More Than “Good Taste”
Many people outside of the interior design industry tend to view the skill as a matter of having “good taste.” Unfortunately, the world of HGTV and DIY has created an unrealistic view of the amount of time, work, and skill that goes into designing a space. I’ve said many times before, “DIY is a lie.” Certainly, interior design has an aspect of taste, or more accurately, a discerning taste. However, the job goes well beyond aesthetics to account for form, psychology, practicality, and execution.
The Interior Design Curriculum
I’m passing out the syllabus. While taste and talent are important prerequisites for interior design, they make up only a fraction of the job. These are some of the main courses that need to be mastered in an academic approach to interior design:
- Design History
- Project Budgeting
- Timeline Building
- Project Management
- Drafting and Floor Plans
- Lighting: Design, Planning, and Fixtures
- Construction Management
- Mechanical Systems: Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC
- Furniture: Style, Planning, and Custom Features
- Textiles and Upholstery
- Window Treatments
- Client Success
I didn’t necessarily learn about all of these things in school. However, without that formal academic education, I wouldn’t have understood what an interior designer really does.
Why I Believe in Taking an Academic Approach to Interior Design
Interior design is a holistic study. While studying for my technical courses in furniture planning at NYSID, I was researching design history at the library and seeking inspiration from art at The Met. While drafting floor plans, I also took classes in hand drawing at the Parsons School of Design with a fashion and product design specialist. The discipline draws from history, art, psychology, and hands-on application.
An academic approach sets my team apart. We work with period homes. Rather than applying a static design aesthetic, we seek to reference the home’s history with a storied direction that reflects the homeowner’s preferences. Our clients don’t want the latest trends slapped on the walls. Instead, they want something rooted in the history of their home that sets the stage for them to add their own story. Above all, they want something that evokes comfort.
Class is Always in Session
Class never stops in the interior design world. There are always product innovations, new trends to adopt (or ignore), things learned on job sites, histories to uncover, and stories to share. I seek to continue my education through blogs like this, covering everything from learning about materials with my staff to researching my favorite design styles.
Never stop learning.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.