Ten Steps to Becoming an Interior Decorator
1. Train Your Eye
If you are thinking about a career as an interior decorator, you may already have a good sense of design style and the ability to single out areas of improvement in any space you see. However, even the most innately talented decorators need to “train their eye” to recognize the tastes of different clients and to keep abreast of changing industry trends. There are many easy and fun ways to do it: flip through the pages of design or architecture magazines; attend open houses in wealthy neighborhoods; hang out in art galleries, historic homes, and furniture galleries; or browse the web sites of interior decorating and design professional associations.
2. Learn the Tools of the Trade
Although interior decorators are not subject to formal education requirements like their peers in interior design, clients and employers expect them to be knowledgeable about decorating fundamentals such as space planning; correct use of color, textures, fabrics, accessories, and lighting; different styles of furniture and decorating (such as Southwestern or green design); and design elements like window treatments and wall coverings. Much of this knowledge can be obtained through self-study; however, the fastest and most comprehensive method is taking an interior design course. In addition, formal training gives you and your future clients more confidence in your abilities.
3. Practice at Home
You know the old saying: Practice makes perfect. It’s important to have some hands-on decorating experience before you start tinkering with other people’s properties. Most interior decorators use their own homes to get this much-needed early experience. Whether you live in a studio apartment or a three-story house, all you need is one room to play around with and try out new styles. See how a new color of paint or just rearranging the furniture creates an entirely new look for your living environment. Even experienced decorators often use their homes as “labs” to test out concepts before suggesting them to clients.
4. Volunteer Your Services to Friends and Family
Another great way to hone your skills is by offering to decorate the homes or offices of your friends and family. Chances are they’re always asking you for advice already. Why not take it to the next level and let them be your first (non-paying!) clients? Go through the whole decorating process like you would with real customers. Have them fill out a decorating questionnaire, present them a proposal, modify your ideas to suit their personal tastes, agree on a schedule and budget, and get to work! It’s excellent practice for dealing with clients, though your clients may not be as forgiving as your loved ones.
5. Prepare a Portfolio
When you start looking for work, the first thing clients and decorating firms will ask for is your portfolio – a collection of samples of your best work, plus any supporting documents that speak of your talent (letters of recommendation, awards, certificates, etc.). In addition to about 15-20 “before and after” photos of interiors you have worked on, you should include “design boards” that display some of your preferred materials like fabrics, flooring, and wallpaper. Even if you have no formal work experience, you can put together a portfolio showing projects you’ve done for yourself or friends or assignments you completed during your training.
6. Get an Industry Job
Even if your ultimate goal is to start an interior decorating business of your own, it’s valuable to begin your career at a company related to the decorating field. In addition to jobs at interior design and decorating firms, you can find decorating positions in a number of different businesses like home builders, furniture and housewares manufacturers, hotel and restaurant chains, home improvement stores, antique dealers, and furniture stores. You’ll continue to gain experience and knowledge while also meeting potential clients and suppliers.
7. Start Your Own Business
Many interior decorators opt for self-employment, giving them more flexibility and control over their work. Being their own boss also gives them the luxury and cost savings of working from home – since decorators travel to the homes or businesses of their clients, there’s no need for a large office space. If you’re interested in starting your own decorating business, the first thing to do is choose a company name and decide whether you want to incorporate. Basic business advice is available free-of-charge from organizations like SCORE and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
8. Establish Relationships with Suppliers and Contractors
Clients often choose decorators not only for their vision, but also for their connections. Professional interior decorators who deal directly with suppliers are entitled to “designer discounts” of up to 50% off the standard retail price. That means big savings on the products needed to make your sketches a reality, such as furniture, wall coverings, flooring, and fabrics. In addition, good relations with contractors (painters, carpenters, and installation professionals) could help you negotiate lower rates for their services.
9. Network and Market Yourself
One of the easiest ways to build your client base is by networking. Joining a professional organization is a great way to hobnob with fellow decorators and potentially find projects. Word of mouth is also highly effective – if you can get home builders and renovators, real estate agents, architects, antique dealers, art dealers, and satisfied customers to tout your designs, you will not only gain a good reputation, but new clients as well. Another effective marketing strategy is to create your own website with photos of your work and to seek publicity in the real estate section of your local newspaper. Remember that there’s a huge pool of potential clients out there, including new home buyers, wealthy homeowners, corporations, boutiques, restaurants, spas, and many other types of businesses.
10. Continue to Grow as a Professional
Design trends and decorating techniques are constantly changing, so it’s important to stay current by attending industry trade shows, reading design magazines and websites, and joining professional organizations. The final step in establishing your career is to become certified as a professional interior decorator. Although certification is optional, it’s sure to impress clients and create new possibilities and opportunities for you.