Know your role

What are interior designers actually paid to do?

Martin Wojnowski
Martin Wojnowski

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation. It therefore occurs when there is a need to accommodate new ideas, and it may be necessary for it to develop so that we become open to them.

Because the nature of interior design lies in the constant search for new interpretations, designers seem particularly vulnerable to this peculiar discomfort. Understandably, this might lead to a form of creative block – a reluctance to accept any new trends or even a questioning of the role of interior design. What is a designer really paid for?

My local bookshop on the King’s Road in London used to be open until late. One evening, my contemplative browsing session was interrupted by someone whispering: “Would you be interested in having my signature?” It turned out to be a writer who’d just had his first novel published

'A story of love and murder' is how he summed it up. Although I politely declined his offer he pushed a signed book under my arm. “I hope you’ll enjoy it,” he concluded in a conspiratory manner. Even though on my way out I noticed abandoned copies of this novel dispersed all over the shop, I decided to pay for mine. I spent money on something I didn’t need and didn’t want. The book turned out to be as bad as it seemed from author’s own description.

Years later I became friends with a soldier who sustained horrific injuries in a conflict zone. He told me that throughout his convalescence he was actually reading and re-reading one book that he received as a gift from his girlfriend. He said the author must be "some really clever geezer". He showed me a copy and to my surprise it was the book written by that sad guy I had bumped into in the bookshop.

The question is this: Is everything relative? I believe that commercial interior design cannot be judged in the same way as novels. It is objective, rather than subjective. There is this joke: Email from developer to interior designer: Send plans. If good, I will send cheque. Response from designer: Send cheque. If good, I will send plans.

Cognitive dissonance and relativism still seem to be the plague of our industry. But let’s make it clear – the commercial interior designer is appointed to make the investor rich. And it would be extremely beneficial for designers to learn about the environment they are about to design by working in it, by feeling it from the inside. Such experience would eliminate relativism and increase designers’ confidence. Let the designer immerse himself or herself in the environment they wish to design.

It would work wonders if a retail designer actually experienced working in a shop stacking shelves, feeling how deep and high the shelves in a fashion outlet should be. Before even thinking about designing a restaurant, a consultant should learn how an F&B outlet operates. What is the purpose of the waiter station, how many waiters can cover a specific space, how much space should one allow between dining tables and how big should the kitchen be? What can we do to make service more efficient but at the same time try not to compromise the comfort of guests?

In the late eighties and early nineties I had a chance to work for different hotels and resorts. I experienced the front office, housekeeping and F&B outlets. I didn’t suspect back then that this hands-on experience would prove so useful in my professional life as a hotel designer. Running furniture and kitchen showrooms added to my commercial sense. After all, real life experience is valued above any academic course.

A book with a weak storyline helped an injured soldier because he identified with the protagonist. The quality of the story itself didn’t really matter as the book appealed to the emotional intelligence of the reader. But bad design does physically affect people working in and using shops, hotels or restaurants. A waiter curses designers for bad restaurant layout. Hotel guests hate designers for impractical lighting layouts or boring, ordinary-looking furniture.

Hotel owners and operators have other issues with the unsuccessful interior designer. After all, 50% of a hotel’s success depends on the quality of service and location. 10% is to do with the general manager’s final touches.
But a staggering 40% contribution towards hotel profitability comes from interior design.

Martin Wojnowski is design principal at the Dubai-based firm, Design Work Portfolio (dwp).

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