Goodbye to broad-based skills of designers

After creating a floor plan for this log house kitchen, designer Mary Knackstedt brought in specialists who suggested improvements.
After creating a floor plan for this log house kitchen, designer Mary Knackstedt brought in specialists who suggested improvements.
Posted: July 07, 2012

They can discern pin-drop palette differences, transform a living room with the subtle shift of an armchair, and exhibit a sense of scale that rivals a tape measure.

Perhaps at one time, this was the definition of all interior designers. But a new face is coming into focus.

Goodbye to the broad-based aesthetic skills that used to feed a designer's career. The yo-yo economy and the ever-expanding knowledge requirements in so many areas — think appliances, lighting, WiFi, acoustics — are giving designers reasons to reinvent themselves.

Some, such as Carol Elia of Newtown Square, have focused on one field. In her case, senior housing in a community setting, such as assisted living.

Kat Robbins, who owns Kat Robbins Interiors in Wayne, is dedicated to sustainable design; all of her projects include environmentally conscious elements. She is also developing a niche market helping divorced men. Robbins, in business since 1998, estimates the latter now comprise 20 percent of her work.

Others, such as Rocco Marianni, prefer being generalists, but gather specialists for individual projects, playing the role of orchestra leader. For instance, if he were designing a home theater, Marianni would determine the overall aesthetic and planning of the room.

"But once I get that accomplished ... then you get down to the nitty-gritty." And what is that? Determining the distance from the seating to the screen, constructing the wet bar, designing the electrical installations, figuring out the acoustics. "It's all the detail. You have to rely on the people who are the experts," said Marianni, president of Rocco Marianni & Associates Interior Design Inc. in Haddonfield.

Interior designers who don't want to be "orchestra leaders," who want to do more than decorate, have to go "much deeper," said Michael Berens, director of research for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

If you're working on a hospital, prepare to know how to install and care for products, such as tile, which has to resist mold. If you're designing in a building whose owner wants to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, you have to learn, among other things, to talk to product manufacturers about sustainability products, how they are shipped. It all requires continuing-education classes, which among the several hundred offered include learning to design rooms for children with cognitive disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome.

"The environment has an enormous ability affecting how they function. It takes a lot of learning, research, trial and error," Berens said.

Stories of how interior designers find themselves a niche market are as individual as the individuals themselves. The Great Recession squeezed some designers, Berens said, so they went into staging homes for sale, one of the few areas of available work at one time. Others drifted into product design. In Chester County, Jean Treadwell, owner of JKT Designs, became interested in eclectism after moving around the country, collecting various types of furniture — including Asian, Southwest, and Danish. Eclectism, defined as mixing various styles, is "more and more being recognized," she said. "It makes the house flow."

It was Robbins' single-mother status that prompted her to put together a design package for divorced men. When it comes to a potential new relationship, she said, women are interested in whether a man can take care of himself. "No woman wants to fix a guy," she said.

What prompts her clients to call? "Someone else is saying, ‘You need help.' … Who wants to date a guy with his bike against a wall and just a futon? They are aware they can't bring a lady back to [that]."

Robin Black of M. Robbins Black in San Antonio, Texas, focuses on keeping the elderly in their existing homes, or building new housing that accommodates their needs. She turned to so-called aging-in-place in 2005 after she had attended a conference and heard the speaker talk about how he could not afford to keep his mother in a $5,000-per-month nursing home. Black and her husband sold their house and bought a single-story home, retrofitting it in anticipation of the future.

"Interior designers have had to reinvent themselves," she said. "People will pay you for your expertise."

As for Elia, seniors, and their issues, have always interested her. "I didn't have a lot of elders in my family, I missed that," she said. Currently, Elia said, she is witnessing more positive, homelike trends in elder-community design, such as coffee shops and booths in dining areas, and the switch from semiprivate to private rooms. "I think it's the best thing to give elders who can't live at home, to [give them] the best experience" in a community setting.

There are still many interior designers who consider themselves generalists, according to several recent surveys of ASID members, despite the wave of new specialists.

Big mistake, said Mary Knackstedt.

A veteran in the field and the author of numerous books, Knackstedt herself is a specialist in proxemics — the study of spatial requirements of humans and animals — so she is called on to design overall spaces, such as resorts, college campuses, and places for the hearing impaired. In her experience, she said, interior design is far too complex an industry to do it all, and considers more than 150 fields — including lighting, flooring, cabinets — as specialties.

How, for instance, does a kitchen designer keep up with the advancements in appliances, asked Knackstedt. She decided she needed specialists more than 30 years ago when she arrived in Harrisburg to work and realized the city didn't have the talent needed for what she had been hired to do.

So she assembled talent teams. Nowadays, the teams don't even have to be in one place. "I like software. I have Skype. I can bring the details to my specialist, who might be in London."

The client benefits because when everyone is an expert, money isn't spent on time getting up to speed in unfamiliar areas, Knackstedt said. "It's better quality work ... and there is the assurance of bringing in people who have done it many times."

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