Interview: Jeff Smoler, Interior Designer


The United States Department of Labor describes interior designers as those who plan, design and furnish the interiors of private homes, public buildings, and commercial establishments such as offices, restaurants, hospitals, hotels, and theaters, either as new constructions or doing renovation. With a client's tastes, needs, and budget in mind, interior designers develop designs and prepare working drawings and specifications for interior construction, furnishings, lighting, and finishes. 

Interior designers must design space in accordance with Federal, State, and local laws, including building codes. They also plan spaces that meet accessibility standards for the disabled and elderly. 

Interior designers generally work under deadlines and often work overtime to finish a job. As essentially independent consultants, they are paid by the assignment and are under pressure to please existing clients and find new ones to maintain their incomes. 

Interior designers often work for design or architectural firms, department stores and home furnishing stores, or hotel and restaurant chains. 

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Interview: Jeff Smoler

Jeff Smoler, ASID, ASFD, is the founder of J.E.S. Designs in Northbrook, Ill. His work focuses on interior design for commercial and health care facilities, and he designs and manufactures his own line of furniture as well. His clients include nursing homes, real estate companies, law firms and physicians. 

Mr. Smoler got into interior design because he's "always been fascinated by my environment." In college, he began as a business major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but transferred to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He stayed there for more than five years as he earned his Associates, Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Interior Design, with a business minor. During school he also worked at the retail furniture chain Room Service, for which he became a buyer after graduation. 

When Room Service closed in 1983, Mr. Smoler started his own business as an interior designer. Soon he hired cabinet makers to begin creating his own furniture, which he includes in his design projects and sells to others as well.

Mr. Smoler works long days. Each morning, he is at his desk by 6:30 to answer email and prepare for a 7 a.m. staff meeting. He teaches classes at several area colleges, which begin at 8:30. Starting at 12:30 he meets with clients or works on designs, then sees clients again in the evening. Usually, he finishes work around 10 p.m., although sometimes his workload can require him to work even later. He prides himself on always meeting his deadlines. "That's the most important thing we can do," he says. "Missing our deadlines can impact clients' moves, leases, and any number of other issues."

While Mr. Smoler thrives on his work, he says interior design does have it frustrations. "Clients can have a hard time visualizing things," he explains. "We need to use tools to help them. These might be models or 3-D renderings." In addition, he notes that businesses often reach decisions by committee. On the other hand, he says, "It's great when (clients) say 'This is just how we pictured this.'"

"Listening is very important," he says. "Often a client's real meaning is between the lines. You need to understand what clients need whether they say it or not. If the client's not happy, it's a bad job." He also says "covering the detail is vital." He insists that each detail of his projects be measured in the field - by hand - at least three times, and that all components be assembled in his shop before they are shipped to a project site.

To Mr. Smoler, the best part of his work and the most difficult part are one and the same: problem solving. "We never get the easy jobs," he says. "We only get the hard jobs. They can't do it themselves - that's why the call a designer." He notes that today's clients expect him to meet tighter and tighter deadlines, thereby increasing the pressure on him and his staff. "It used to be you had six months - now it's 45 days. This is where the stress comes in," he says.

Looking back, Mr. Smoler wishes he'd learned more about photography while in school. "This is a visual business," he says, "and I always wish I could get better photos for my portfolio." Photography, he believes, should be a pary of the regular interior-design college curriculum.

To aspiring interior designers, Mr. Smoler advises: "Look around. Look at shelter magazines such as Progressive Architecture, Interior Designer, and Interiors. Call the American Society of Interior Designers and try to find a mentor." Both the ASID and the American Society of Furniture Designers are important organizations for students to get involved with. "It'll look good on your resume," he says, "because it will show you did more than simply go to school."

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Course Work

Interior designers must be creative, imaginative, persistent, and able to communicate their ideas both visually and verbally. Because tastes in style and fashion can change quickly, designers need to be open to new ideas and influences. Problem-solving skills and the ability to work independently are important traits. You'll need self-discipline to start projects on your own, budget your time, and meet deadlines and production schedules. Business sense and sales ability are important you want to freelance or run your own business.

Interior designers generally need a college education, preferably a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree. Few clients - especially commercial clients - are willing to entrust responsibility for designing living and working space to a designer with no formal credentials. Interior designers must also be knowledgeable about Federal, state, and local codes, and toxicity and flammability standards for furniture and furnishings. 

A liberal arts education, with courses in merchandising, business administration, marketing, and psychology, along with training in art, can be a good background for a career in interior design. Persons with training or experience in architecture can also qualify for positions in interior design. 

Computer-aided design (CAD) courses are very useful. Many employers expect new designers to be familiar with the use of the computer as a design tool. Interior designers use computers to create numerous versions of space designs. Images can be inserted, edited, or replaced - making it possible for a client to see and choose among several designs. In furniture design, a chair's basic shape and structure may be duplicated and updated by applying new upholstery styles and fabrics with the use of computers. 

The Council for Interior Design Accredation accredits interior design programs and schools. Currently, there are over 100 accredited programs in the United States and Canada located in schools of art, architecture, and home economics. 

Interior Design is subject to government regulation: The District of Columbia licenses interior designers, and 16 states regulate use of the title. Since licensing is not mandatory in all states, membership in a professional association is universally recognized as a mark of achievement for designers. Professional membership usually requires the completion of three or four years of post-secondary education in design, at least two years of practical experience in the field, and completion of the National Council for Interior Design qualification examination. 

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Career Outlook

Many talented individuals are attracted to interior design, so you can expect to face competition throughout your career. Individuals with little or no formal education in design, and without the necessary personal traits - particularly creativity and perseverance - may find it difficult to establish and maintain their career. 

Employment in design occupations in general is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Increasing demand for professional design of private homes, office space, restaurants and other retail establishments, as well as institutions that care for the elderly should spur employment growth among interior designers. In addition to employment growth, many job openings will result from the need to replace designers who leave the field. 

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And The Pay...

Median weekly earnings of experienced full-time professionals in all fields of design were about $590 in 1994, according to the Department of Labor. The middle 50 percent earned between $380 and $840 a week. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $330, while the top 10 percent earned over $1,100. Note these figures include design fields in addition to interior design alone.

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Photos in the Interior Design photos are courtesy J.E.S. Designs.