How to become an interior designer
It’s never too late – or too early – to think of a career in interior design. Just be prepared to work hard and for little or no reward until you become established
Griffith College interior design students Hannah Guriby and Rosario Estevez in class with tutor John McDonald. Photograph: Johnny Savage
Sara Cosgrove: ‘A huge part of what you do as an interior designer comes down to really listening to your client’
Interior designer Arlene McIntyre of Ventura Design: ‘If I were looking to hire an interior designer, I’d look for experience, experience, experience’
Lucina Lennon outside Galerie Lisette, the shop in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, that she runs with her mother, Aida Lennon
Sara Cosgrove knows exactly when she decided to become an interior designer. It was just as she was about to become a fashion designer. “I had studied fashion at the Grafton Academy and was interning with John Rocha, who was getting ready for London Fashion Week at the time. I spent the whole summer crocheting shoes for the show. They were on the catwalk for 15 minutes and that was it, all that work and it was over. It was a shock,” says Cosgrove, who is from Mayo.
After that she developed an interest in the work Rocha’s interior design team was undertaking at the Morrison Hotel. “It struck me that interiors offered more longevity for your creative work,” she says.
Cosgrove enrolled at the KLC School of Design in London and, over the past 12 years, developed her own interior design practice, with offices in Dublin and London.
For her the key to success is as much the ear as the eye. “A huge part of what you do as an interior designer comes down to really listening to your client. Those who don’t make a success in this business, in my experience, are those who don’t listen,” she says.
“There’s a huge amount of psychology involved. No two clients are the same and not all of them are able to articulate what they want, so you have to help tease that out. At other times you have to know when to step in and say ‘trust me’, because they are hiring you to do something they can’t.”
Her advice to those looking to break into the field is straightforward. “Be willing to work for free or very little in the beginning. Make the tea, photocopy the documents, update the pressbook, listen and learn,” she says.
“Being keen, curious and hardworking served me immensely when there was so much competition for junior roles. You can get all the training you want but the best designers are the ones who have experience, and lots of it.”
Decorative techniquesFor Lucina Lennon, interior design provided the perfect synthesis of her love for architecture and for art. Indeed, she was working as an architect in Chicago in the early 1990s when she enrolled at a local institute of art part-time. There she became attracted to decorative techniques such as marbling and stencilling.
In 2009 the two opened an art and interiors shop, Galerie Lisette, in Enniskerry. As well as providing interior design services Lennon also specialises in colour consultancy and has just launched her own furniture paint range, The Paintmaker’s House.
“What I love most about interior design is the makeover element, the transformation of a battered and unloved space into a place that’s life enhancing,” she says.
Don’t make the mistake of confusing your personal aesthetic with your client’s however. Your job is to “channel” your client’s taste, she warns. Drawing up a clear design brief at the start is the best way to establish this.
“The brief is the most important part of that, it’s your read of the situation taking into account what they do and don’t like, and interpreting their needs,” says Lennon. “If the client is not visual that can be challenging but getting them to put together a little mood board over time, simple clippings from magazines, will help show you, and them, what it is they like.”
Philippa Buckley trained as a silversmith before moving into business management. But the world of design always “niggled in the back of my mind,” she says.
Wide-ranging interests in architecture, art, furniture, lighting and fashion were brought into focus through interior design, which she studied at the Dublin Institute of Design. Her practice, Studio 44 Design, specialises in the residential market and offers architectural and interior design services, as well as a bespoke furniture design service.
When the recession hit here, she focused increasingly on London, leveraging a longstanding membership of the British Institute of Interior Design to develop contacts and build relationships there.
Today her days are a mix of various projects, at various stages of development, in both countries, from concept to planning and design, through to site meetings, client meetings. sourcing of goods, liaising with her joiner and with trades people, and ensuring everything is up to date.
For graduates, internships represent the best route into the field. “Show dedication and passion. Be skilled with the latest design tools necessary to be of assistance in a busy firm and, above all, demonstrate a willingness to learn,” says Buckley. “Be prepared for long hours. It’s not a 9 to 5 career.”
There are a number of formal study options available, including both online and class-based learning at the Interior Design Academy of Ireland (IDAI). Established in 2004, it currently holds classes in Merrion Square but is moving to UCD in September. Courses are part- and full-time, with 70 per cent of its students based outside Ireland.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have is to think that they have to be able to draw. That’s not the case at all as much of our course work is devoted to learning how to use Autocad design software,” says Mary Boland, course director at the IDAI.
3D visualisationThe career options are diverse too. “There are so many directions people can take, from colour consultant to 3D visualisation expert, to working somewhere like Brown Thomas’s homewares department, to having their own design practice or working for a big design company,” says Boland.
There are also opportunities to specialise in the residential, commercial or retail markets.
“The recession was tricky but people got through it and rates [of pay] are now back up to where they were prior to it,” says John McDonald, interior design course director at Griffith College Dublin, which offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses.
“Commercial design in particular has been busy. Any commercial establishment needs a refit after five years due to wear and tear alone. From 2007 to 2014 not a lot of that work was done, so it all kicked off again in 2014,” he says.
While regular residential interiors work slowed during the downturn, “high-end” residential work continued apace. “It’s just that a lot of that kind of work never sees the light of day because people won’t publicise it,” he says. For McDonald, the key to a successful career is to build up your client relationships, ideally with people who have a diverse portfolio of properties. “You want to connect with the kind of people who are going to keep you employed, such as property developers, so that you don’t have to keep going in cold every time. In residential work, you build your business through word of mouth, people recommending you.”
While Griffith College’s daytime interiors courses are populated primarily by school leavers, the part-time courses have a greater mix. “These are very often made up of people who have been in alternative careers and who always wanted to do this but, for whatever reason, couldn’t. Now they are making that transition,” he says.
Typically mature candidates have a passion for their subject, informed by real life experience, that makes for a great learning atmosphere. “Most of them have a real yearning to do this, which is lovely,” says McDonald, who is an interior designer.
Passion and creativity will only get you so far however. “We tell all our students that 50 per cent of the discipline is about being creative. But 50 per cent is about being organised – about your research, about your management of people, about your business.”
Experience, experienceAnd while studying equips you for the market, when it comes to winning jobs there is no substitute for experience. “If I were a client looking to hire an interior designer, that’s what I’d look for: experience, experience, experience,” says Arlene McIntyre of Ventura Interior Design.
The Californian-born designer employs 10 staff, plus three interns, at her corporate HQ in Ballycoolin as well as at her shopin Santry. A second shop, in Deansgrange, is due to open in November.
One of the country’s best-known practices, she set up Ventura 18 years ago, having worked “in all sectors of the industry beforehand, on both sides of the counter – selling product and buying product,” says McIntyre.
Today half her work is residential and the other half made up of commercial projects such as hotels. In an increasingly professionalised world, interiors is a field where it is still possible to rise to the top without formal qualification, as long as you have what it takes.
“It starts with a love of designing spaces,” says McIntyre. “But having fabulous ideas is just one thing. How you execute them matters. You could be the most creative person in the world with the most fabulous ideas but that’s not enough. You have to be able to deliver them too.”