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Understanding the Differences Between an Interior Designer, Decorator or Architect in Washington DC

Modern contemporary dining and lounge space.

While searching for an interior designer to work with in Washington, D.C., you may be wondering how such an individual can help you bring your dreams for your home to life. Below, we’ll explain the key roles and responsibilities interior designers hold, and touch on distinctions between architects and decorators so that you can best determine who to hire for your upcoming home project. 

What Does an Interior Designer Do? 

We thought long and hard about how to concisely convey what it is that we do as interior designers before landing on our current tagline: “Creating spaces for who we are and how we live.” Understanding our clients, their values, and how they use their space is at the heart of our profession. Whether you are a local Washington, D.C. Interior designer, or based somewhere abroad, all interior designers focus on the human first, and the space second. Together with our clients, we develop spaces that serve people’s individual and collective needs, making their lives easier. 

Whether we are designing a retail space, office, or someone’s home, the spaces we design have a meaningful impact on how one thinks, feels, and lives. Interior design is directly linked to our well-being, and this is especially true of the areas where we spend the majority of our time, such as our offices and homes.

Some interior designers specialize in niche areas such as kitchen design and bathroom design or accessibility. It is also common to find firms, such as ours, that love working on full renovations and remodels, regardless of the specifics. For instance, we love working on residential and hospitality renovations.

Characteristics of Interior Designers 

Interior designers are creative, empathetic, curious, intentional, detail-oriented, hard working, and oftentimes people-pleasers. Many have very little business training (if any), and work hard throughout their careers to fill in the gaps between design and business, taking business classes, working with business coaches and participating in online courses. We are creative problem solvers, and have the ability to visualize how a material or color choice will make a space feel. There is an element of artistry in what we do, as the success of a space has subjective elements to it. We work with our clients to realize their vision for the space - not the other way around. We often improve upon the initial vision a client has for the space, but a good interior designer’s projects are client led. 

Key Qualities That Help Interior Designers Succeed 

To be a successful interior designer, and to run a thriving interior design business, you must be an excellent project manager. Interior designers work tirelessly to keep projects on time and within budget. We manage trades, and ensure the vision is realized in the space. We often navigate complicated relationships working with all sorts of clients, such as a married couple who might not agree on what they want for their home, or a small business with three owners, all with a slightly different idea for how their brand should be articulated in the space. As an interior designer running a small business, It is not uncommon to spend 80% of your time managing people and fulfilling business responsibilities, and the remaining 20% of your time actually designing. 

Similarities and Difference Between Interior Designers, Architects, and Decorators in Washington, D.C. 

Interior designers, architects, and decorators in Washington, D.C., share a few commonalities. Interior designers and architects both combine hard technical skills with a creative eye and sharp aesthetic. However, unlike most architects, not all interior designers have a degree in the field. Many do, though, and seeking out a designer with a degree is one way to differentiate between an interior designer and a decorator. These interior designers have an educational background that teaches spatial awareness and technical skills, like drawing and drafting, training in color theory, how to specify plumbing fixtures and building materials, and experience in creating drawing sets needed for construction. A decorator may be able to visualize and brainstorm the desired outcome for a given space, but their work is not rooted in technical skills. Additionally, interior designers work alongside architects, contractors and trades to develop the bones of the space, while decorators often come in later to help finish a space, adding the soft touches and final details. Interior designers are often responsible for these finishing touches, and enjoying doing this as part of their service. At Lorla Studio we love doing as much as possible and want to be involved in a project as early as possible, so that we can help design everything from the spatial layout and interior architecture, down to the last throw pillow.

How Interior Designers Work with Others 

Interior designers have a lot of technical skills, but almost all projects take a team to successfully complete. Interior Designers in Washington, DC often collaborate skillfully with other professionals to execute their vision, such as millworkers, architects, trades and more. Experienced Interior designers know when to rely on outside expertise for help, including architects, and engineers. For instance, an interior designer will be aware of local building codes, but it is typically the architect and contractor who ensure that all plumbing and electrical is to code. Interior designers know how to create a reflected ceiling plan, but might bring in a lighting consultant (a designer who has thorough knowledge and a singular focus on lighting design) for a project that has extensive and complicated needs (think: a music or event space where lights play a significant role in the user experience). Interior designers have the knowledge and capability to move interior walls, install windows, and relocate doors and plumbing without the assistance of an architect. It is common for interior designers to move walls, and we do so by working with trusted, licensed contractors. Interior designers will be the first one to tell you when an architect or engineer is needed and will not take on work that is outside of their expertise. 

Other Responsibilities of Interior Designers

Interior designers in Washington, D.C, and beyond also tackle what most people envision as the basics of interior design: Sourcing furniture, rugs, lighting, and more. Interior designers source and manage specialty trades all of the time, whether designing a custom piece of furniture or cabinet fronts or working with a specialty finisher to install a plaster finish on the walls.

Interior designers create full drawing sets that are used to guide construction. Often their drawings are incorporated into a full construction set, with drawings from the architect and engineers. Interior designers are highly skilled and efficient at creating their drawings, which are a critical part of ensuring the design will turn out according to a client’s vision, and avoids costly mistakes. 

What Interior Designers Do Not Do

Note that interior designers’s limitations can vary by state. In most states, designers cannot submit drawings for permit approval or hire contractors on behalf of their clients. They can hire some trades (such as millwork and upholstery to name a few), but typically a client needs to directly hire the general contractor, who will supply many of the trades involved on the project.

The level and extent of drawings depends on the interior designer’s experience. Some prefer the architect to provide all drawings, while others (like us at Lorla Studio) want to handle the interior drawings as part of our scope. Interior designers are not handymen, movers or receivers. Legally, and according to each interior designer’s insurance parameters, it is not wise for them to install any lighting, building materials and even furniture. This is all work that should be performed by the appropriate trades. 

flatlay of textiles and prints used by lorla studio interior designer

Booking Your Interior Designer

If you’re eager to get started on your own design project now that you have a better understanding of an interior designer’s roles and responsibilities, we encourage you to take a look at our services in Washington, D.C., Chevy Chase, Kensington, and Bethesda. At Lorla Studio we look forward to the possibility of working together to bring your dream home to life! 


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