An article in last Sunday's Business section a new District law that requires licensing of interior designers incorrectly characterized the law's impact on architects. It specifically exempts architects, who are regulated by another statute. (Published 9/3/87)

The decision by the District last year to license interior designers has Washington's architects and office-space planners tilting at each other with T-squares over some of the city's most lucrative turf.

At stake in implementation of the nation's first interior designer licensing law is the job of turning Washington's new buildings into finished offices -- covering the raw concrete floors and unfinished ceilings and partitioning off the acres of emptiness into paneled executive suites, palatial board rooms, Star Wars computer centers and clerical cubicles.

The District government's decisions in the next few months could determine whether architects or interior designers get those jobs.

And the District's experience could influence what happens in 23 other states where interior designers are defying the deregulation movement and demanding to be licensed. Nationwide, about $37.5 billion a year is spent on renovating and decorating the interiors of offices and homes.

Opponents say licensing is little more than government-sponsored window dressing for interior decorators to elevate their status to help them compete with architects, who can hang out their shingles only after completing five or six years of formal training, a three-year apprenticeship and a four-day examination.

The D.C. designer law sets a qualifying examination -- but no educational requirements -- for anyone doing business as an "interior designer." People who call themselves "interior decorators" aren't covered, though that phrase is out of favor with designers who deride it as applying only to "housewives in floppy hats."

The law was passed in October after heavy lobbying by designers who said it would raise the standards of their profession, and over last-minute objections from architects and considerable opposition from some city officials.

Deputy Mayor Carol B. Thompson, then director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, told the council that licensing designers was unnecessary and redundant. "This industry does not provide services ... essential to the well-being of the residents of the District of Columbia," she testified, noting that other consumer protection laws regulate the conduct of designers.

Valerie Barry, head of the Occupational and Professional Licensure Administration, also opposed the measure as "unnecessary government intervention." The Licensure Administration already licenses 26 professions, including doctors, engineers and barbers.

Interior designers argue that uncertified interior decorators offer poor service and are not qualified to perform services like planning office space. Licensing sets minimum standards and promotes professionalism, they say. According to Sandra L. Ragan, head of the Friday Design Group Inc. and past president of the Institute of Business Designers, some 5,000 interior designers are eligible for licensing.

Heavy lobbying efforts by national and local design groups have so far persuaded three states -- Alabama, Connecticut and Louisiana -- and the District to license designers. The three states restrict use of the description "interior designer" to those who pass a qualifying test.

Architects are exempt from the D.C. law and can practice interior design without taking the test. But to use the title of "interior designer," they must pass the test. Architects object that the D.C. Council's definition of interior designer overlaps the statutory definition of architect in ways that allow designers to legally perform services for which most are not trained. Architects plan to reopen the debate in the council this fall.

Critics of the D.C. law express concern about its liberal grandfather clause as well. Anyone doing business as an interior designer in the past three years can get a license without taking the test.

"Interior decorators are grandfathered in. The city council didn't want to put anybody out of business," said Jerri Kress, an architect and officer of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Kress said that since those calling themselves designers will be licensed without an examination, any credibility that licensing would bring to the design profession is lost.

Architects -- who, like the yellow pages, lump interior designers and decorators together -- charge that nonarchitects can easily exploit the confusion over job titles and misrepresent their capabilities to unwitting consumers.

Harry G. Robinson III, dean of Howard University's School of Architecture and Planning, objects to licensing interior designers. "I grant that they're qualified to pick color and fabrics and furniture and make some judgments about partitions."

Robinson said that, unlike lawyers and architects, who charge a fee for a service, decorators and designers make money off commissions on furnishings. He believes this should disqualify them from professional status. "In the main, they are still decorators and they have a decorator's mentality," he said.

Martha Cathcart, appointed by the mayor to chair the D.C. licensing board and president of Cathcart-Bonda, a local interior design and space planning firm, said architects "are trying to make it as if we've only been decorating living rooms and now we're going to plan major developments."

The arguments that interior designers perform functions for which they are not qualified and make money by commission are a smokescreen for the architects' real agenda, said Cathcart. "It's really about competition," she said.

The D.C. Council staffer who drafted the bill agreed. "Everybody here knew it was just the architects worried about their turf," said Toni Perry, legislative assistant to Councilman John Wilson (D-Ward 2), referring to testimony presented against licensing.

Architects' groups complain they were unprepared to fight the bill when it was being considered last fall. Two earlier drafts of the measure would have forced registered architects to take the interior designer test before practicing interior design in the District.

Architects were able to convince the council to exempt them from the practice law, and are still trying to change the definition of designer. Said Mary Wells Vickery, executive director of the AIA's D.C. chapter: "We want the definition to truly reflect what interior designers do."

The Washington-based AIA announced its opposition to licensing in a white paper published last March, in which it "concluded that only architects and engineers undergo the rigorous course of education, training and examination necessary to determine their competence to make the judgments required for safe construction and the proper installation of building systems and components."

But Cathcart, who lobbied for the licensing act for the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), said architects should be more accepting of designers. "They want control over what interior designers can do. It's like a doctor-nurse situation. They think the nurse shouldn't have powers of her own," she said.

Designers see licensing as a way to improve their profession by weeding out less qualified practitioners and deny charges that they are using licensing to unfairly limit competition. Licensing "doesn't keep people from calling themselves interior decorators. It doesn't really limit {their} practice," Ragan.

Decorators "will continue as before. ... They'll be the people who go into people's homes and choose fabrics and furnishings," said Beverly Russell, editor in chief of Interiors magazine and an outspoken supporter of licensing.

Architects dismiss charges that they oppose licensing for interior designers to limit competition, though some admit to jealously. "A client may go to an interior designer because of the title, rather than an architect because, oh, an architect, he just does buildings. They {interior designers} are stealing business," said architect Dale G. Ciapetti, senior associate at Burt, Hill, Stinson and Capelli.

Like many of his colleagues, Ciapetti contends that licensing legitimizes the less comprehensive training received by interior designers. "If you give them a license, the guy on the street is going to think they're a profession like doctors and lawyers and architects. It's bad enough people don't know what architects do," said Ciapetti.

Vickery, the architects' chief lobbyist at the licensure hearings last year, contends that even the D.C. Council, during a heated and highly political debate on the bill, demonstrated a severe lack of understanding of the professions. "They were screaming at each other in that room. None of them knew what architects or interior designers or engineers do."

The D.C. law will go into effect when a five-member board -- including four interior designers -- agrees on a qualification test to administer. Designers can already attain professional certification by passing a two-day test from the National Council for Interior Design Qualification.

The NCIDQ exam, which Cathcart said the D.C. board may adopt, tests planning and communication skills, knowledge of materials, business and professional practices and design theory. The test includes a 10-hour project judged for design concept statement, space planning, furniture selection and arrangement, interior surfaces, interior systems and presentation skills.

Architects interpret the licensing law as defining skills beyond the scope of the test. Designers say that like any professional, they know when to consult another professional. "Part of being trained is knowing what you don't know. When an architecture problem comes up, I go to an architect," said Cathcart.

Ironically, many interior design firms employ architects, and most architecture firms practicing interior design have interior designers on staff. That hasn't cooled the debate, however, at least in part because architects don't like working under designers.

AIA's Vickery said that while many designers act very professionally and work only within their abilities, not all do. "If people only did what they were qualified to do we wouldn't need to license any professionals," she said.

Architect Kress said, "While they are professionals, I don't think the law should leave it up to them when to decide they're in over their heads."

Designer Cathcart replies that, "interior designers have already been doing things that architects wish they weren't for years and years and years. Some architects also think they're the only one who should pick the paint color. It depends on the architect."

But designers disparage decorators in much the same terms as architects put down designers.

"So many people get bilked every year by people who don't know what they're doing. I know places in New York that have literally fallen down because some decorator knocked down walls they shouldn't have touched," said Mario Buatta, a New York designer working on the renovation of Blair House, the Washington guest house for presidential visitors.

One independent designer, Doug Bailey, said he was recently hired for a project after three others calling themselves designers proved unqualified to perform the necessary work. "The people I'm working with are afraid of me because the decorators before me screwed up so badly. ... People who aren't degreed or schooled in any way have embarrassed those who have gone to school," he said.

According to editor Russell, architects have numerous shortcomings. "They don't know a thing about lighting, they don't know a thing about ergonomics and seating. ... The education of architects is not known for its practicality."