Interior Design Doesn’t Kill, But Regulating It Does

Interior Design Doesn’t Kill, But Regulating It Does

The only thing interior design kills is jobs and economic opportunities—when it’s subject to absurd licensing requirements.
Jared Meyer and Savannah Saunders
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Interior design “sounds like this simple hanging curtains on a wall… [but] it only takes a couple things to go wrong for people to lose their lives.” This warning came from Florida interior designer Michelle Early during a 2011 Florida House hearing. Early also cautioned that improper interior design leads to 88,000 deaths per year.

Early was testifying in support of Florida’s strict regulations on interior design, which, according to many established designers, are essential to protect public safety. Early assumed that interior designers may, at some point, be hired to decorate hospitals. She claimed that if the wrong types of fabrics were selected for curtains and upholstery, bacteria could spread to mattresses, causing staph infections, urinary tract infections, and other life-threatening conditions. Since a report found that 88,000 people die each year from hospital infections, Early argued that removing the possibility of poor hospital carpet choices would completely eliminate the risk of infection.

Even though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guide to preventing healthcare infections mentions nothing about implementing proper interior design, facts did not stop Early from asserting that deregulation would kill.

At best, Early’s assertions seem dramatic. At worst, they are ridiculous. Interior design takes technical skills and an eye for style, but no one has ever died from a room layout with poor feng shui, mismatched drapes, or ugly pillows.

It’s Easier to Become an EMT than Go Into Interior Design

Although claims of health consequences from erroneous interior design are laughable and have been repeatedly disproven, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) continues to push for stricter licensing regulations all over the United States.

The skill sets and levels of risk associated with these two occupations are clearly out of sync with the levels of licensing requirements.

In all the states that license interior designers, it is easier to become a licensed emergency medical technician (EMT), an occupation that requires workers to literally hold lives in their hands. Louisiana, for example, will only grant a license once a prospective designer completes four years of college (with a focus on interior design) and obtains two years of design experience. Additionally, interior designers are required to pass the lengthy NCIDQ exam, which costs $1,200, and pay $150 in licensing fees. In comparison, it only takes three to four months of training to become an EMT in Louisiana. The skill sets and levels of risk associated with these two occupations are clearly out of sync with the levels of licensing requirements.

Louisiana is not alone in its war on what the industry deems to be rogue designers. Nevada, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico all have “practice acts.” These require people wishing to practice interior design to obtain a license before earning a living. Because of work and legal aid from the Institute for Justice and Interior Design Protection Consulting, Florida’s previous practice law has been scaled back to only affect those designing commercial spaces.

Interior Design Isn’t Dangerous, But Regulations Make It Expensive

In these states, it takes an average of six years of training and $364 in licensing fees, along with expensive exams, to practice interior design. These are some of the highest barriers to entry of any low- to moderate-income industry. If ASID has its way, interior design regulation throughout the United States would mirror Louisiana’s harsh practice laws.

The experience of most states shows that the public safety rationale cannot be used for licensing interior designers.

Would anyone in New Hampshire, Oregon, Wisconsin, or any of the 44 other states that do not license interior designers worry for a family member’s safety if they hired an interior designer while renovating their home? The experience of most states shows that the public safety rationale cannot be used for licensing interior designers.

A recently-published report conducted by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors stresses the argument that most occupational licensing protects established practitioners, not public safety. The report recommends reforming occupational licensing laws and instituting a rational, cost-benefit approach to regulation that would “improve economic opportunity and allow American workers to take advantage of new developments in today’s economy.”

Regardless of the White House’s warning, ASID is still lobbying state government across the country for stricter licensing laws. In 2015, ASID spent its highest amount ever on lobbying to uphold existing regulations and develop new laws that serve to limit the number of individuals able to gain entry to the interior-design market. Unsurprisingly, ASID’s board of directors is comprised mainly of designers already well-established within the industry.

New York, Kentucky, and Alabama are among 26 states with other forms of title laws that require people to meet certain education, experience, and exam benchmarks before they can get permission to call themselves certified or registered interior designers. To become a “certified interior designer” in New York, an applicant must pay a $377 fee, be at least 21 years old, have at least seven years of acceptable education and experience credits, pass the NCIDQ, and “be of good moral character.”

It’s Not About Quality, But Control

Title laws in themselves are far less problematic than licensing. However, in many cases, ASID uses title laws as placeholders for future regulation, as it lobbies for greater scope of licensing laws. In Utah, ASID formed an alliance with the Interior Design Education and Legislation for Utah in hopes of expanding the state’s current interior-design regulations to call for strict licensing of designers working on projects over 3,000 square feet.

In states that regulate interior design, reducing competition means a bigger payout for elite groups of licensed designers.

By focusing on restricting the use of certain terms, as opposed to who can practice a certain trade, ASID is ultimately ceding the argument that there is no true safety issue in practicing without certification. As Institute for Justice senior attorney Clark Neily told us, if there were dangers to the public, then the 53 percent of current interior designers in Florida and Texas who never passed the required exam would not have been grandfathered in after the laws were passed.

ASID’s ultimate goal is to establish a complete, nationwide monopoly. Interior design licensing laws limit the supply of service providers. By artificially lowering supply, the price of design services rises. Designers benefit through higher wages, but consumers and young designers who desire to break into the industry pay the price.

In states that regulate interior design, reducing competition means a bigger payout for elite groups of licensed designers. University of Minnesota professor Morris Kleiner found that wages of designers in regulated markets are between 9 percent and 15 percent higher than wages of those in unregulated states. Additionally, an Institute for Justice study concluded that interior design firms in regulated states earn, on average, a total of $7.2 million more (in a city with a population of 1 million people) than do firms in unregulated states. The same study found that number of interior designers in regulated states fell by 1,300 between the years 1990 and 2000. This shows that occupational licensing does have the intent of their proponents in established industries of limiting competition.

Licensing Laws Hurt Minorities and the Poor

Along with raising prices, licensing laws keep jobs away from young people, immigrants, and low-income individuals. These groups are harmed the most by excessive licensing laws, a trend that is emphasized in the new White House report. In Louisiana, low-income people with an eye for design may instead end up working for lower wages in fast food or retail because they cannot afford the schooling and fees to become designers.

If unlicensed interior design is safe enough for the White House and the most heavily-protected man in the world, why is it not for the rest of America?

Florida’s original practice laws serve as prime examples of ASID’s power to limit competition. Florida is home to high-priced real estate projects with property owners who can afford to import the best design talent from all over the country. Florida’s laws were in large measure made to keep popular New York and Los Angeles designers away from the state, ensuring the state’s interior designers home-based jobs.

Juan Montoya, a world-famous New York City designer, was commissioned to complete a project in Florida. After finishing the job, Montoya was fined $10,000 for practicing without a license, because Florida had no reciprocity laws with other states. Again, ASID’s goal is not to promote interior design or protect the public, but to protect its licensed design cartel.

In a congressional hearing, interior designer Patti Morrow testified against expanding occupational licensing laws by calling upon her own experience entering into the design world. She cited statistics on the number of lawsuits against interior designers in the last 100 years—none of which concerned health issues—and referenced President Obama’s very own interior designer.

When we spoke to Morrow, she told us that when President Obama moved into the White House, he employed an unlicensed Californian designer, Michael Smith, to redesign his new home’s interior (even though Washington DC requires a license to legally practice interior design). If unlicensed interior design is safe enough for the White House and the most heavily-protected man in the world, why is it not for the rest of America?

Photo by Syda Productions
Jared Meyer is a fellow at Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the coauthor of Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young (Encounter Books, May 2015). Savannah Saunders is a contributor to Economics21. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredMeyer10 and Savannah at @SavannahRSaunde.
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