How to Become an Interior Decorator

Tips for Entering the Wonderful World of Design

Interior designer selecting color swatches
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A successful decorator does much more than pick out pretty fabrics and rearrange furniture. In a typical day, an interior decorator may deal with cabinet spacing, steer a homeowner away from a budget-blowing item, track down a missing tile installer, work on a seasonal installation for a business storefront, make a presentation in front of an architectural review board… and the list goes on.

This is a small sampling of a decorator’s daily duties. As you can see, he or she needs vast knowledge to perform the various skills required, and lots of experience doesn’t hurt either!

But how does a decorator or a person get to this point, and what does it take to become an interior decorator?

(Note that an interior decorator is not an interior designer. These are two different fields requiring different degrees and certification. For further clarification, see our article.)

If you think you are interested in becoming an interior decorator, the information below will help you understand how to become a decorator and what it takes to be a successful one. However, good decorators know that decorating is a wonderful journey of a lifelong pursuit of knowledge!

Is there a way to tell if I will enjoy decorating or be a good decorator before I begin?

Sure! When you walk into a home or a business, do you often visualize or imagine what would make the space better? Do you have a good eye for color and/or strong color memory? Do you like working with people? Have you extensively decorated your own home or have had other hands-on experience… and enjoyed it? These are just a few of the questions that you will need to ask yourself. Our article can help you further evaluate your personal talents and desires to see if they line up with a career in interior decorating.

Do I need a degree?

Technically, no. But again, knowledge never hurt anyone. Plus, clients and firms are usually more receptive to hiring someone who has taken the time to secure a degree. Degrees are available at various levels, and some certification programs take little time. If you are interested in or able to pursue an education, look for programs that have been accredited by the CID and/or the IDS.

Do I need to be artistic?

Again, it’s not necessary but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Drawing skills are typically more advantageous for interior designers than decorators but are useful in both fields. Great computer skills are almost necessary, as they are for almost any field in this day and age. Many clients aren’t great at visualizing, so it’s important to be able to show your clients a potential floor plan or room colors in 3D – whether in a drawing or on a computer – before you begin the actual work.

What professional organizations are available, and should I join?

The two main organizations for decorators are the IDS, or Interior Design Society, and the CID, or Certified Interior Decorators. Joining is not mandatory, but these societies offer great ways to keep a finger on the pulse of the design industry, plus they offer opportunities for further education, networking and more. Should you join? These organizations provide a service – at a cost – so it is up to you to decide if either (or both) of these programs would be beneficial to you.

What kind of jobs can I do in the field of decorating?

Most decorators are residential designers, but many work in the commercial field, such as the hotel or restaurant industry. If you would like to specialize in these industries, additional education or experience may be required.

However, the decorating field goes beyond being a designer. Many decorators enter the retail industry or work in sales. Furniture stores, home stores, fabric stores, window/blind stores and home supply centers are only a few examples of industries that often employ decorators.

There is also a growing field of crossover careers. For example, my field requires me to be a writer, editor, and designer and is fast becoming known as "interior design journalism." Many decorators also work in the specialized service industry and become decorative painters, window covering designers and more. As one can see, there is a wide range of career opportunities in the design field.

So how do I get started?

This is a big question and has lots of answers. My best advice to you is to start slow and be patient. The tips below may help you to get going in the field of decorating and open up jobs and opportunities to you. Always remember, you and your work are your best tools of advertising. And best wishes!

  • Begin with who you know and where you are. Network with your friends, relatives, neighbors, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, your church, or other local businesses and organizations. Local trade shows can be wonderful ways to meet people in the industry. Word of mouth is a huge tool in the life of a decorator.
  • Reach out to other decorators, designers and contractors. This is a competitive field, but I have rarely met another designer who wasn’t willing to share information, advice, and tools of the trade. Most of us are a friendly bunch and want to help others in the field as much as possible. Of course, always be willing to pay forward or back any kindness shown to you.
  • Get out and meet your local suppliers such as carriers and manufacturers of furniture, wall coverings, tile, flooring, fabrics, etc, as well as contractors and subcontractors who build or do painting, brickwork, electrical, plumbing, etc.
  • Get lots of practice, even if it pays nothing. Retail home stores are great places to hold a day job until you build up your clientele but don’t discount the general laborers. You may learn more and meet more potential clients by working for a local painter than you ever will by clocking time at Pottery Barn.
  • A business card is great; a website is a huge bonus. But an absolute must is a portfolio. Your website can be your portfolio – and if you have a website, it probably should be – but people want to see your work, even if it is limited. If you haven’t had much hands-on experience, start with your own home or family members. Most people will be happy to chip in some money for supplies if you are willing to redo a room for free.
  • To get started, consider sales. Decorators often work in the interior sales industry, touting wares to local home stores for a commission. More experienced sales people often garner a salary also. If you would rather work from home and set your own hours, consider starting a home-based home decor business. This can also be a great way to network!
  • Get (and stay) up-to-date with interior trends and what is going on in the trade. If you enjoy decorating, this will be easy and fun for you. Follow color trends, read trade magazines and attend market and home shows. After all, learning never stops!