Business & Technology: Sunday, July 11, 2004

Job Market
TV shows are boosting interest in interior-design careers

By Levi J. Long
Seattle Times staff reporter

Jonathan Mathews, left, an interior designer and owner of Kwanchai in Seattle, explains to client Greg Massey the layout of the tech monorail lighting he's chosen for Massey's condo.
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Sharon Pang is getting rid of her 1980s furniture.

"I picked them myself, when my taste was underdeveloped," says Pang of her sky-blue sectional sofa and whitewashed dining-room set, both circa 1989.

"I'm not embarrassed. I'm just glad they all matched," she says, laughing. "Unfortunately they just didn't pass the test of time."

Pang is remodeling her family room and wants to buy new furniture. This time she's getting help from interior designer Jonathan Mathews, 32, who recently opened his own design center, Kwanchai.

"He has a great eye for steering me in the right direction," Pang says.

In other words, away from trendy furniture that might not work in the future. The two envision a cross between a French country chateau and a California beach house.

"Comfortable elegance. That's what she's going for," Mathews says.

Designing a career

Salary: $45,990 was the median salary in 2002, but it can range as high as $120,000 if you work for top clients. Seattle and Bellevue rank in the Top 10 cities for earnings. Most designers charge an hourly fee.

Education: An associate's degree or a graduate degree at a design school. Must pass a national qualification exam; applicants need at least six years of combined experience and education, including two years at post-secondary level. How many: About 60,000 in the U.S.

Outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment will increase by 10 to 20 percent through 2012; a rapidly growing elderly population will create a need for health-care facility and residential design. Demand is rising, too, for design of offices, restaurants and retailers, reports the American Society of Interior Designers.

Employers: Besides design firms, architectural and engineering firms, furniture companies, home-furnishing stores and building materials and supply dealers.

As the economy improves, more people are turning to interior designers to help turn their living areas from drab to fab.

The increased demand � along with reality television shows like those on Home and Garden Television and the popular TLC show "Trading Spaces" � are inspiring more people to turn to careers as interior designers.

"We've gotten a lot of response since those shows came out," says Angela Hildre, an interior designer and instructor at Bellevue Community College's interior-design program.

In 1999, the school had 359 students enrolled. In 2003, there were more than 568 during the first quarter.

Reality bites

However, Mathews and Hildre caution potential students their jobs won't mimic those of TV designers, and aren't all about redecorating.

"Those shows don't show the reality of the work," Hildre says. "They're great for entertainment value. But most of the hard work is done behind the scenes, where designers probably spent weeks coming up with a design, instead of the 48 hours [shown on "Trading Spaces"] that is seen on the air."

Mia Marshall, president of the Northern Pacific Chapter of the International Interior Design Association, says designers have long been misunderstood as only decorators.

"The term 'interior decorator' is very taboo. People relate that to housewives who fix up their homes on the side and pick out drapes for their neighbors," Marshall says. "But designers are degreed professionals ... we do so much more than pick out rugs and furniture."

Enhancing the function, safety and quality of interior spaces of homes, public buildings and businesses is a designer's responsibility, she says.

Designers must meet fire and zoning laws, building codes and accessibility standards for the disabled and the elderly.

Often working with architects and contractors, they must work out lighting and architectural details.

And even when it comes to picking out carpet samples and paint colors, safety and environmental issues figure in.

For example, for clients concerned with the air quality of their space, the designer might recommend flooring or a carpet that creates less indoor air pollution.

Locally, demand for designers has started to pick up over the past six months, as more design firms have been hired, particularly for major office buildings.

"Everyone has been slammed," Marshall says. "Business is definitely growing."

While the job outlook for designers appears healthy, Marshall says they can develop a niche that will help them even if hard economic times should come.

"Green design" is one such niche.

This concept, which began in the Northwest and has caught on around the country, uses the environmentally friendly mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle. More builders and clients want building materials and design products that won't hurt the environment, Marshall says.

"It's extremely popular here in the Northwest. Design firms from here have been leaders," Marshall says.

Designers often tell clients to consider using carpets or flooring that have been made from recycled materials.

"There is so much fabric out there, we're trying to keep it out of landfills," Marshall says.

Designing an education

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Design schools offer a three-year associate's degree, as well as bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

Most students opt for a bachelor's degree, Hildre says, unless they already have a degree or don't have time for a four-year program.

Most design firms these days expect a bachelor's degree.

Hildre says some architects will get a master's in interior design to round out their education. "That's a powerful combination."

Washington State University, the Art Institute of Seattle and Cornish College of the Arts offer a bachelor's degree while Bellevue Community College offers an associate's degree.

Like other schools, BCC's program includes design theory and furniture design; students spend many hours in art studios and/or computer-aided drafting classes.

People with academic backgrounds other than design come to the school.

Hildre says students who want to combine an artistic flair with a practical slant could consider a job as a designer.

"It's a business that combines a lot of creativity, a lot of networking and sometimes a little bit of serendipity."

For Mathews, the back-and-forth banter of design ideas between a client and designer is the best part of the job.

"We're trying to find an agreement, a sort of shared vision," he says. "We try to narrow the options down, instead of having hundreds of options. That can overwhelm anyone."

After he got his associate's degree in design at BCC, Mathews worked at the design firm Second Creek Studio on Queen Anne for four years until last month, when he opened up Kwanchai. The name means "first born" in Thai.

"It's something personal to me and tells where I'm from," he says.

When he moved into his workspace, the loft had rough concrete floors, partially completed walls and electrical wires dangling from the ceiling.

"This place was a raw, empty shell," he said. "But you could say that within this empty and unfinished space, I saw something ... my vision has finally been created here."

Now a frosted-glass door greets visitors as they enter a sitting area. A Thai tapestry of golden beads depicting flying angels is in the open and airy loft.

Mathews says he gets a lot of design influence from his Thai background and his youth.

"Being new [to the business] I'm influenced by modern design, without being bound to traditional ideas," he says. "With this space, I could visualize what the final result would be; that's what clients are looking for. The end result."

Levi J. Long: 206-464-2061 or [email protected]

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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