Why is architecture taken so seriously, while interior design is dismissed as a fluffy, frivolous activity involving fabrics, scatter cushions and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen? Callum Lumsden sets the record straight about this much-belittled profession
There may be a chip on my shoulder about this, albeit a marble one, but I’ll give those of you who might be interested in the topic I am going to sound off about a small test. When you ask someone about what they do for a living and they say ‘architecture’, what comes to mind? My guess would be glass office blocks, Norman Foster, intellectual theory, Olympic stadiums, interesting spectacles, ‘they build buildings’. OK, try the same scenario when the response is ‘interior design’. I will bet a year’s subscription to Wallpaper Weekly that the answer will be scatter cushions, fabrics books, carpet samples, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, interesting cardigans and fabulous paint finishes. Why is it that interior design is, at best, misunderstood and, at worst, perceived mainly to be about cosmetic decoration?
The profession that is usually referred to by the catch-all phrase ‘interior design’ covers such a wide spectrum of activity that it deserves a great deal of serious consideration. Think of how that spectrum affects so many aspects of our lives. Space planning and design for airports, museums, hospitals, shops, offices, restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, spas, fitness clubs and exhibitions. I could go on, but I want to maintain your attention so I will complete the list with the following activities to make my point.
Building conversion, architectural conservation and spatial alteration. What’s that got to do with interior design? That’s what architects do, you may say. The fact is that intellectual scrutiny concerning the modelling of architectural space is not the sole remit of architects. An exemplary amount of this vitally influential activity is performed by what I will call ‘art school designers’.
It was Fred Scott’s excellent book On Altering Architecture which got me thinking about the status of my profession. Scott, visiting professor of interior architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, has written an exemplary study of how important interventionism and alteration is in buildings. He explores how architecture fulfils a function when newly built, but then he goes on to analyse how buildings have to evolve and change during their lifetime. It is the first book I can recall that analyses in depth – and with forensic historical reference – the role of interior design and the seminal part it plays in society.
What he is talking about is what I do for a living and what matters here is not me, but the surprisingly large number of unrecognised designers who strive passionately for excellence when commissioned to transform architectural space into something special.
A few years back, the chief executive of a major financial institution approached me to propose a new brand strategy. When I approached a top 20 branding group in the UK to discuss potential collaboration, someone came out with the classic line, ‘Why would this guy want to talk brand strategy with someone who knows mainly about MDF?’
The evolution of interior design as a legitimate professional activity needs to be considered from a historic perspective. Substantive interior design has always been attributed to, or at least steered, by architects. But as architecture has become loftier in its stance and more reliant on specialist consultants, interior designers have stepped into the role, which the architectural world has distanced itself from.
John Stefanides, who should be widely recognised as one of the founding fathers of contemporary interior design, said in a recent interview that his job is to surprise and delight his clients. I agree, and it galls me that the practice of designing space is universally perceived as icing on the cake. I would also go as far as to say that architects know how to engineer buildings, designers know how to understand human behaviour.
I’m not bitter – well, not that much anyway. My humble plea isn’t for plaudits, it is for legitimate recognition.
Callum Lumsden is creative director of Lumsden at Small Back Room