First Steps for Aspiring Interior Designers

I am taking a course on interior design with the hope of becoming a design consultant as a second job. I don't plan on hiring staff. Would I just need to set up an LLC and obtain the appropriate tax certificates, or do I need to actually become a licensed interior designer? I split my time between New York, New Jersey, and Florida. —M.E., New York City

Over the past couple of decades, decorators have morphed from pillow fluffers to certified professionals. Many states now put interior design consultants in the same category as architects, requiring educational training, work experience, national examinations, and continuing education credits, says Alexis Fermanis, communications manager for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Her organization, which administers a certification exam recognized in 26 states, attributes the increased scrutiny to more complex residential and business zoning and code enforcement for both interior and exterior building and remodeling.

But the certification process can be onerous—and expensive—for entrepreneurs who want to set up side businesses simply helping design-challenged homeowners pick out paint colors and upholstery. On the other hand, "the legal problems for practicing without [completing proper requirements] can often far exceed the fees expended at the outset," says Bob Schroeder, a CPA based in Palm Coast, Fla.

Local LawsIt turns out that certification requirements vary from state to state. In some states, it is illegal to operate any interior design business without certification. In others, it's fine as long as you never represent yourself as a "certified interior designer"—if you are not actually certified.

The NCIDQ Web site has a list of state regulatory agencies where you can find out what the business and professional regulations are in the states where you plan to work. In any jurisdiction you're likely to need a license, says Steve Berman, an attorney based in Tampa. Even in states that don't require professional certification, "you still have to comply with local license requirements," he says. He also recommends that you set up a legal business entity for tax and liability purposes, even if you'll only be operating the business part-time.

There are also numerous state and national interior design associations and trade groups that you can consult about certification and licensing, including the American Society of Interior Designers, Council for Interior Design Accreditation, Interior Design Society, the Florida chapter of the International Interior Design Association, and the Council for Qualification of Residential Interior Designers. Some associations predominate in certain parts of the country: The CQRID administers a national qualifying exam that is recognized for certification in California, for instance.

The fractured nature of the certification process reflects the fact that interior design is a relatively new professional category, Fermanis says. "A lot of people come into interior design as moonlighters or they're changing careers and have different educational backgrounds," she says.

Experience CountsShe suggests that you work for an established, certified interior designer part-time to get an idea of what's required and how the business model works. At that point, you will be better equipped to decide whether you need or want to pursue full certification.

If you decide not to become certified—and you're in a state where that is legal—it still might hinder your credibility, says small business consultant Robert G. Kramer: "Every college kid that takes one HTML class wants to go into the Web design business. But are they really qualified? You've taken one interior design course—how qualified does that make you?"

Working for an established firm can booster your credentials, as can positive word-of-mouth from early clients. "Even if you do your very first jobs for free, or low-cost, take before and after photos and develop a portfolio with testimonials," Kramer suggests. Another way to get up to speed on the profession and the design industry in general is to attend a trade show. The ASID promotes design and furnishings shows including NeoCon East, to be held in Baltimore late this month, and The NeoCon World's Trade Fair, scheduled for the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in June 2010.

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