How to Become an Interior Decorator

Tips for Entering the Wonderful World of Design

Interior designer selecting color swatches
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If you are interested in becoming an interior decorator, it's important to know what the career path entails. You're probably wondering how to get started as well.

A successful decorator does much more than pick out pretty fabrics and rearrange furniture. In a typical day, they 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, they need 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? There are a few key points that can 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 and a lifelong pursuit of knowledge!

First of all, it's good to understand that an interior decorator is not an interior designer. These are two different fields requiring different degrees and certification.

Will You Be a Good Decorator?

If you think you have some design sense, but little experience, you might be wondering if there's a way to tell if you'll be a good interior decorator. The great news is that there is! Just ask yourself a few questions:

  • When you walk into a home or a business, do you visualize or imagine what would make the space better?
  • Do you have a good eye for color and/or a strong color memory?
  • Do you like working with people?
  • Have you decorated your own home extensively or had other hands-on experience? Did you enjoy it?

Education and Degrees

Technically, you do not need a degree to become an interior decorator. However, knowledge never hurt anyone. Plus, clients and firms are usually more receptive to hiring someone who has taken the time to secure a degree.

Interior decorating degrees are available at various levels, and some certification programs take very little time. If you are interested in or able to pursue an education, look for programs that have been accredited by Certified Interior Decorators International (CID) and/or the Interior Design Society (IDS).

Artistic Talent

Many people wonder if they need artistic talent to be a decorator. Again, it’s not necessary but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Many clients aren’t great at visualizing a final outcome. It’s important to be able to show your clients a potential floor plan or room colors in three dimensions—whether in a drawing or on a computer—before you begin the actual work.

  • 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.

Professional Organizations

The two main organizations for decorators are the IDS and the CID. 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.

Types of Jobs

There is a wide range of career opportunities in the design field. The majority of 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 and 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, a number of designers find a voice as a writer and editor, offering advice using their design knowledge. This 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.

How to Get Started

The biggest question you may have is where to start. It's one that comes with lots of answers. The best advice 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 for advertising.

  • 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 it's rare to meet a designer who isn't willing to share information, advice, and tools of the trade. Overall, it's a friendly bunch and people 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. This includes carriers and manufacturers of furniture, wall coverings, tile, flooring, fabrics, etc. Don't forget about 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 portfolio is a must. A business card is great; a website is a huge bonus. But one thing you absolutely need 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 salespeople 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. This industry is constantly changing and you need to know 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!