How the Office became what it is today

In commercial environments we often grapple with tough questions regarding productivity, technological integration, and (now more than ever) employee satisfaction and well being. Due to the speed of ever-changing technology, the shape of workplace environments are in a constant state of flux. The days of cookie-cutter office solutions are over if they ever really existed.

At a time where there is a constant need to move forward, we do occasionally need to look back on where we came from to get here. Not only are office changing now; but they have been doing so for the past century.

This Stylepark article provides a nice overview of commercial space history and some of the factors, individuals, and technologies that have driven the change in commercial environments.

Professional Accountability

My office had the pleasure recently of completing a project in Maryland with my colleague signing and sealing our construction documents for a code impacted project.

A quick digression: for Interior Designers, the ability to sign and seal the construction documents, the legal document from which the construction team will read what is to be done and how it is to be put together and with what materials, is a hotly contested state by state issue. About half of states do not yet recognize interior designers as a profession that requires licensing (and therefore accountability for their work) and even fewer states give their designers the privilege to sign & seal on work in code impacted spaces. It’s a complicated issue that architects, interior designer, decorators and other rated trades all get caught up in.

I consider this a question of responsibility and accountability when talking about code impacted spaces. Who do you want responsible for the work: the person who did the work, or a outsider who came in at the end to review it and put their name on it? Right now the latter is what happens in many small firms such as ours. In states where interior designers don’t have the ability to sign & seal, a small interiors firm will hire an architect to review the drawings and then sign and seal them.

This means in the (knock on wood) case of a later legal dispute over the work that the architect who signed and sealed the drawings is liable for the work, not the person or company who did it. I personally don’t think that’s right and why I support licensing; it will lead to interior designers having the right and responsibility for their life’s work. It will lead to greater accountability and professionalism. It sets a bar of minimum competency that is required for certain kinds of design work. I think we should all be accountable for our work and that’s why I think this is an important issue.

Bold Never Goes out of Style

As a designer, I have had a lot of time to look at products, trends, colors. It means that I have long since lost any attachment to say dark wood over light wood. I like both in the right context. Same with the sterility of the International Style or the more lavish Federalist. Both have a time and a place and both can be an equally inspiring basis for the style of a law office.

Yet I need to choose my words very carefully when describing styles or colors with a client. The word trend is a particularly dangerous thing to put out and I’d like to explain why I think that is, even through a trend is nothing to fear.  It’s just a currently popular idea. There’s a delicate balance in every job to provide both freshness and longevity. Clients are usually coming in having lived with a space for years and part of my job besides function is to provide a facelift. Yes, creating the functional conference room that the team desperately needs is important and rebalanced the lights and HVAC after those walls go up is necessary, but part of the appeal of an interior designer is that you expect us to leave the place looking better than when we were hired, not just functioning better. (Like the roof replacement my husband and I did last year; it needed doing, but we didn’t “feel” or “see” the investment except by the absence of rain in our kitchen) But you, as a client, know you’ll be staring at the inside of those conference room walls for years. And that chair you’ll be sitting through all those meetings in needs to be comfortable and preferably nice to look at. Thus as much as designers plan to  walk the balance between choosing something exciting and new, but not something that will get old. Trends get old eventually. Having a color or style become dated far beyond the end of the useful life of the product can lead to frustrations later on. It’s still in good shape, but if you’ve stopped enjoying the color, texture or pattern it gets old. This is true of any job, commercial or residential.

We live in a world where the word trend, is more related to clothing than furniture, however, and it seems many people are intimidated by the Speed of Fashion and consider that speed when they start to consider furniture and color choices. I often feel the concern about living with a color or other bold choice. But the Speed of Furniture is slower than the Speed of Fashion. While what teenage girls wore 5 years ago is completely out of style, the couch I bought at the same time doesn’t look dated. Shapes take time to go in and out. Color is more tricky, but we live in an age where I find the buzz-phase or trend of contemporary design color is what I call Neutral Plus Pop. I love this concept and employ it all the time. It allows me to be bold and energetic without fear that a client (or me) will outgrown the design decisions we made too fast. I just tend not to point out that this sensible way of thinking is also a current design trend.

Colors (the particular hues in vogue, although there are classic shades and tints that always have appeal) shift more quickly than neutrals (which do shift as well; think about the espresso wood tone that’s popular the last few years whereas medium oak or white laminate is my memory of the 80’s). So you play to your strengths. Long-lasting items that also tend to be more investment are done in neutrals. This includes built-ins, casework, countertops  and the partners’ desk in colors and styles you love and know will never get old for you. Take, not risks, but have fun with with paint colors, task chairs, and the items that will wear out. Paint is not an expensive proposition and all the HGTV bloggers will tell you the same.

To me, Wow factor and boldness never go out of style. A rich, deep hue will always have wow because of it’s depth. Something unique and distinguishing will, while it may become humdrum to you on a daily basis, still impress newcomers to your space. Boldness creates variety and adds interest. It might be a leap of faith to try something different, but if done in the right materials it doesn’t have to be frightening but will make a lasting impression and wow you and your visitors for a long time.

Health Safety and Welfare

One of the greatest challenges of Interior Designer is the innate misunderstanding regarding what we do. The result is a misunderstanding as to why regulation of the term “Interior Designer” or more commonly “Registered Interior Designer” is important.

The most common response I get when I tell people I’m an interior designer is: “Oh, that sounds like fun and I could really use your help picking paint colors for X room in my house!” I usually smile and tell them I will be happy to help, but I’m actually a commercial designer. When all I’m doing is picking paint, you wouldn’t care whether or not your interior designer has a license.

Paint is the tip of a very large iceberg. The deep, submerged parts of the iceberg include a well of technical knowledge regarding fire codes, building codes, general knowledge of construction techniques and materials, ADA Guidelines, sustainable building, and building signage.  There is the ability to transfer this knowledge to contract documentation for a contractor to build, and specialized product knowledge for specialized applications. A hospital needs hypoallergenic and antimicrobial materials like floors and curtains that would probably not show up in your home. Our work touches that of all other building trades including and at times crossing over the responsibilities of architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, IT technicians, and general contracting.

I’ve completed entire projects where my job is to create construction documents and paint is not a consideration at all. Conversely, I’ve done projects where we don’t move a single wall but help only with the selection of furniture, fabrics and paints. That’s a large area of general and specialized knowledge.

When the iceberg goes so deep into the parameters that affect building safety,  (like where to locate your exit signs and fire extinguishers, yes we do that too!) you get into an area where legal responsibility for the correctness of the work IS an issue. That is why the development of legislation is important. If your interior designer is helping your office to add that vacant tenant unit next door to your space and expand that little kitchenette into a full break room then you (or your boss) will want to know that anyone who works on that project has been vetted and know their stuff.

Regulation over the terminology like “Registered Interior Designer” is a state-to-state issue with roughly half of our state governments (and all Federal government work) requiring licensing and registration to prove minimum competency. Just like your CPA and CFA, and just like your Architect.

See a little more here regarding Health Safety and Welfare as an issue that affects interior design legislation.