mind your language

Designers: Mind Your Language

As interior designers strive for the professional recognition merited by our training and expertise, we constantly come up against those who seek to diminish the role of designers — often without even realizing that is what’s happening. The surprising thing is, those who perpetuate this are all-too-likely to be designers themselves!
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal published William L. Hamilton’s lighthearted piece on new year’s resolutions, “Designers Say: More Chintz, Less Cool,” a piece exploring “what arbiters of décor are looking forward to using and losing this year.” Unfortunately, while perpetuating the characterization of interior designers as intellectual lightweights, the author gets ample help from the very design professionals he interviews and quotes.
The focus of the piece is on color, emphasizing for the reader the erroneous concept that interior design is all about cosmetics. While one designer states that he is “using black where it’s not supposed to be,” another uses black to balance brighter colors, but offers subtle distinctions by calling it “graphite,” “black diamond” and onyx.” The reader is prompted to think of black ceilings, moldings and floors s/he has encountered, and to wonder if the semantic riff on “black” is expected to project a more professional impression.
In a seeming clarification for the reader that design is a matter of opinion, the author quotes another designer intent on using white in the coming year, cautioning that “you wouldn’t think it would make a person nervous.” The author explains that the designer has recently painted his own walls white and “he’s still breathing hard.” With this too-lighthearted tone, the real joke is made at the expense of those interior designers who are concerned about more important issues than the distinction between black and onyx.
Continuing the intentionally silly faux-controversial tone of the article, the author proclaims that “this year … could become historic for the fact that [designers are] discovering and reintroducing chintz.” The author explains that chintz exemplifies pattern, something designers are taking “in a new direction.” To verify the importance of this trend, another designer is quoted: “I’m shocked how much I’m loving it.”
The stereotypical portrait of the dizzy interior designer presented in the article is painted with time-honored words that communicate lack of substance. As is typical in magazine articles, this one focuses on the personal preferences of individual designers, with designers talking about themselves and not about their profession. They discuss a particular “look” or the “feel” evoked by something or other, and comment approvingly that something is “fresh,” for example. They “play with” instead of work, and reliably tell the interviewer that they “love” whatever it is they’re talking about.
Although this article is much more about decorating than interior design, the word “designer” is used twice as frequently as “decorator.” If the readership of the Wall Street Journal is to be made aware of the true nature of interior design, those of us who value our profession have our work cut out for us.
To learn more about using the “right” design vocabulary, read “The Two Voices of Interior Design” in the Winter 2012 issue of ASID ICON.
Since 1995, design educator Ted Drab, ASID, has tracked the language used in magazines, and by interior designers, as part of his research. An endowed professor at Oklahoma State University and coordinator of the school’s interior design program, Drab is also an ASID Distinguished Speaker. He can be reached at theo.drab@okstate.edu.


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