Interior Designers: Where Are They?

“Interior designers have business acumen as well as creativity,” said Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. IIDA, LEED-AP, executive vice president/CEO of International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Chicago. “They use both the left brain and the right brain. That’s an incredibly valuable skill.”

Using their full brain, interior designers are a valuable asset in creating inviting spaces on college and university campuses, focusing on balancing social trends with the cost of education.

No doubt, interior designers have been on staff with architectural firms for ages, providing design expertise on new construction, addition, and renovation projects. Where they haven’t been for ages is widely employed in-house on campuses. Until now. “Ten years ago, you hardly ever met an interior designer as part of the university team,” said Linda Kress, ASID, director of Interior Design for Tulsa-based KSQ Architects. “More and more, I see universities with designers on staff.”

A Trendy Explanation
A number of factors play into the trend toward in-house interior designers and how design happens. For example, campus design is influenced by marketing to students, who demand much, like apartment-style residence halls. Also, college and university administrators are marketing to parents, who they consider to be consumers.

Another factor is the steady influx of foreign students — who often are older than the traditional 18-to-22-year-old student — and who bring their spouses. This has created a boon in married student housing

“Our demographics are shifting, too,” said Durst. For example, large numbers of students are going into graduate school right after completing undergraduate school. They’re getting married young and also bringing their spouses with them.

The increase in technology is yet another factor influencing the use of in-house interior designers. It has forced us to seek human contact, so campuses are creating more human spaces where people can connect. “Libraries have become the student unions of the past,” Durst pointed out. “It has caused interesting dynamics on campus.”

The Benefits Abound
Colleges and universities make the decision to have an in-house interior design staff based on their size, budget, and priorities. Durst sees a number of IIDA members being employed in college and university facility departments. For the institutions, there are a number of benefits to having in-house staff.

An in-house interior designer is well-rounded because she is touching all aspects of design, such as medical when working on health centers, fitness when working on recreation centers, foodservice when working on dining venues, and residential when working on residence halls. The list goes on to every conceivable space a campus has. “They’re incredibly well-rounded experts,” said Durst.

“From where I sit,” Durst continued, “I don’t know that there are pros or cons to in-house versus outsourced interior designers. Campus administrators make the decision based on the scope of the project, economies of scale, and budget.

“However, I believe an ideal situation is an in-house studio with a consultancy with a larger design firm, based on the diversity of design that needs to happen on a campus,” described Durst. “The outside collaboration would be rich in context so the in-house designer wouldn’t be designing in a vacuum.”

Turns out, that’s pretty much how it works when a campus chooses to have in-house staff.

The Same, Yet Different
In 50 years, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), located in the second fastest-growing state, has blossomed from a small branch college to an urban research university boasting 28,000 students, 350 acres, and more than 70 facilities. Almost three years ago, interior designer Cheryl Gearhart was hired in the university’s Planning and Construction Department — the first interior designer in about five years.

Gearhart provides design expertise and assistance on small projects where it is not practical to hire an interior design consultant. Specifically, her tasks range from selecting interior finishes and furnishings, to preparing interior space planning studies. Gearhart’s expertise benefits UNLV “because she understands the university standards with respect to furnishings and finishes such as durability and maintenance requirements,” said Susan Hobbes, AIA, UNLV’s director of Planning and Construction. “She also has an understanding of the university's space standards and functional requirements with respect to space planning.”

Gearhart also oversees interior design consultants that are hired for large projects. Specifically, she reviews their work to make sure their selections and specifications are appropriate for the application.

Complementing in-house work, consultants make sure there’s good teamwork between the in-house interior designer and the architect’s interior design staff. “We work as closely as possible with them and are very courteous in our approach,” explained Kress, who has 20 years experience and is president-elect (for the 2008-2009 term) of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), “because they’re paid by their college to have an opinion and usually are sitting on a committee that’s been assigned the task of getting through the process of designing a new building.”

In doing so, KSQ, which specializes in campus residence and dining halls, usually presents an idea with alternatives, to which the in-house interior designer offers her input and experience. For example, she may note certain floor coverings that work well on the campus.

“The in-house interior designer is relied upon by the university as a strong part of the team,” pointed out Kress, “I’ll contact her and ask if there are certain carpet companies the university prefers. Otherwise, it wastes time to push ahead and then find out there are firms they don’t like to work with.”

KSQ touches base with the in-house interior designer early and keeps in touch often, asking questions as they try to make decisions. “It’s important for us — the interior design members of the architectural team — to develop a good working relationship with the university designer because she has a responsibility to make sure the project turns out well, even though she’s not actually designing it,” said Kress.

“I think it’s great that the universities are adding designers on staff,” summed Kress. “You can tell when you walk into campus buildings that they’ve had an interior design staff for that last five years because things make sense and have a wonderful look that they should have.”

And the trend is likely to continue, noted Hobbes. “As the specification of interior finishes and furnishings becomes more specialized and complex with adherence to building codes and the desire to meet sustainability standards, in-house interior designers may become more prevalent on college campuses.”