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      House & Garden
      Designers – the reality of their job

      Three interior designers on the reality of their job (because it’s not all plumping cushions)

      We only see their finished projects, so behind the scenes, what does an interior designer actually do? We’ve got insight from Emma Burns, Susie Atkinson and Sarah Brown


      For interior designers, it has to be frustrating when people see photographs of a home that you’ve completed and assume you ‘just’ choose paint colours and shop for furniture all day. The role of a designer is so much more complex than that and depending on their level of seniority and even the size of the studio, preconceptions of karate-chopping cushions and scrolling the internet in the name of research couldn’t be further from the truth.

      It’s a dream job on paper and for many, it’s a dream job in reality, but if you’re considering interior design as a career based only on what you see in magazines and on Instagram, do you really know what you’re signing up for? Spoiler alert: it’s likely to be a lot of budgeting, chasing things up, crisis management, stumbling across building sites and counselling clients who occasionally forget that you’re not their therapist, mind reader or life coach.

      Since you’re reading this, we’ll safely assume you’re curious about the role of an interior designer and the behind-the-scenes reality of the months before install day. We’ve asked three designers in Director roles at practices of varying sizes – Susie Atkinson, Emma Burns and Sarah Brown – to summarise how they spend most of their time at work and whether that might differ from what people expect…


      The dining room at Beaverbrook by Susie Atkinson
      Simon Brown
      Susie Atkinson, Creative Director at?Susie Atkinson Design

      I think the thing I love most about my job is that no two days are ever the same For example, I might be on-site with a hard hat on, discussing plans with an architect, or visiting a supplier who is busy making upholstery or curtains for me. Alternatively, I could be sourcing at an early-morning antique market or looking for fabrics. I also enjoy finding new makers and artisans to work with, so I spend a lot of my time researching and meeting with people.

      Of course, I’m in the studio with my team a lot too – working on schemes, designing furniture, buying from online auctions. Clients often come into the studio, so we like to set things out and show them what we’ve been planning. Diverse and fun is the name of the game!

      Someone considering a career as an interior designer should note that it’s very much a ‘people person’ job. And by that, I mean it’s really important to be able to communicate effectively and build relationships with lots of different people who all have different roles to play. You’ll regularly present and speak to clients (getting into their mindset and understanding their expectations), co-ordinate with architects, deal with all the tradespeople on-site – from mechanical and electrical specialists to joiners, tilers, carpet fitters – and also manage your regular suppliers and their lead times. Being interested, approachable, patient and understanding of all tradespeoples’ work is so important. A happy and aligned wider team is absolutely essential for the smooth running of any project.

      Besides the obvious aspects of the role that I’d anticipated before I started (such as site visits, room layouts, working on schemes with fabrics and lighting, etc), experience has taught me that the job can be whatever you want to make of it. For example, I’m passionate about craftsmanship and having things made as locally to a project as possible, so finding the right artisans, makers and craftspeople has grown to become an important part of the way I work. Designing furniture is also something that I’ve enjoyed doing but developing a piece from scratch, having a prototype made and seeing the finished article is not something I ever imagined doing when I first began in the industry.

      It’s important to me that people in my team feel they can progress and this happens when someone is dedicated, enthusiastic, keen to learn and has a good sense of style, but being organised, a strong communicator and technical ability with programs such as AutoCAD and SketchUp are just as key. A great designer isn’t merely creative, they’ll anticipate what’s happening next on a project and they pre-empt it.


      The sitting room of?Emma Burns’ London flat
      Simon Brown

      Emma Burns, Senior Design Director at?Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

      On average, I’d say 90% of my time at work is spent on ‘production’ and 10% is creative (if I’m lucky). The huge amount of admin, double-checking, planning and chasing-up can be an extremely time-consuming aspect of an interior designer’s job, but it’s also unavoidable if the projects are to run smoothly. My weeks are a mixture of building site visits – such as last Friday’s clambering up ladders to inspect roof timbers and the setting out of a dormer window in lashing rain – to trips to curtain makers and upholsterers whilst simultaneously fielding calls from clients who need suggestions for presents for their husband or wife, or would it be possible for Felicity to come and intern for you… It’s fair to say that juggling is a useful side hustle!

      Until you’ve worked as a decorator or designer, it’s hard to imagine some of the complex tasks that might come along and be unexpectedly challenging. For example, pre-planning the picture hanging in an exhibition space before the room had even been built, to ensure the battens were in the right place for the picture lights when we didn’t yet know the exact sizes of the paintings. It was a sort of mental three-dimensional game of noughts and crosses.

      A fly on the wall would see the immense hard work, the incredible detail, and the huge amount of information needed for even the smallest project. Drawings produced on CAD are just as time-consuming as those drawn by hand in the past. Meanwhile, emails flood in, as do WhatsApps, texts and even Instagram DMs (as opposed to the letters and telephone calls of previous years). These distractions only add to the amount of time needed, so it would be helpful sometimes if the days could be longer.

      One important thing to know for anyone hoping to become an interior designer is whether you’re the newest person on the team or the one in charge – the job is totally about communication. You have got to be able to paint a picture with words to ‘sell’ your concept for a design just as effectively as you can charm the person in the paint shop to mix your samples when it’s five minutes to closing time.

      An interior by Sarah Brown

      Sarah Brown, Director at?Sarah Brown Interiors

      No matter what stage a project is at, it’s essential to check on its progress every day to ensure we don’t miss a thing. A large proportion of the day as an interior designer is spent working with software that helps us to do that. We use EstiMac, which keeps track of every little detail of a project, from invoicing to placing orders. We also use InDesign and Photoshop to create visuals for our clients and AutoCad for updating floorplans and elevations, so the role can be quite tech-heavy and there’s a lot of software to know. We also spend time doing site visits, keeping up to date with new product launches and meeting potential clients.

      I think the job of an interior designer is sometimes seen as quite glamorous, but you do have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and there will be days moving heavy furniture around on photo shoots or installations. It’s not just about picking fabrics and paint colours, you also need to have a good understanding of the order in which things happen on-site and at what stage the key decisions need to be made to avoid delays. Also, our clients are welcoming us into their homes – which are their most personal spaces – so a good working relationship between client and designer is crucial.

      As you progress through the ranks in a design practice, you’ll usually be given more responsibility and the chance to put forward your own creative ideas, so your day-to-day will change with experience. As a Senior Designer, you might find you’re running your own projects rather than assisting someone else, but it takes time and hard work to get there. The size of the studio will likely determine what your role looks like – in a larger practice you may have more specific responsibilities, whereas, in a small team, you can get involved in various aspects of the job.

      Having an eye for design is a key part of the job but it’s equally as important to be able to get along with a variety of people and to manage difficult situations. We spend a lot of time developing and nurturing relationships with our clients and suppliers to make sure our projects run smoothly. It might come as a surprise to some that designing and scheming is only a small aspect of what an interior designer does; you’re more likely to find us out on building sites and managing logistical elements of a project.


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