Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Interior Designers Push for Licensure, Right to Seal Own Designs

TRAVERSE CITY – Open the phone book to "Interior Designers," and you'll find more than 30 to choose from for your next remodeling project. Begin researching their credentials and backgrounds, however, and you'll discover everything from stay-at-home moms offering modest design services to large-scale firms specializing in multi-million-dollar residential and commercial projects.

The discrepancy is the result of unusual legislation in Michigan entitled PA 250, which was passed in 1998 and allows designers to become "credentialized"-but not registered or licensed-to practice their profession in the state. The legislation is a departure from the model adopted by the majority of other states, which have strict criteria in place for practicing interior design ranging from education and training to passing the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam.

"Anyone can call themselves an interior designer in Michigan," explains Shane Inman, president and founder of The Inman Company in Traverse City. "But the majority of those doing so are actually just decorators. They haven't gone to college or passed the NCIDQ. It's scary, because most decorators could not do what an interior designer does. It's not as simple as picking out furniture. We focus on health, safety and welfare, looking at the whole infrastructure of the home."

Linda Thomas, president of the Coalition for Interior Design Registration (CIDR), says the lack of licensing guidelines not only punishes designers who have gone through tough educational and certification programs to earn the title of interior designer but also constitutes a restraint of trade against small and single-practitioner firms. Without licensure, interior designers cannot be considered "registered design professionals" under the law, a title that applies to architects, engineers and other licensed construction workers in the building industry. Only registered design professionals may submit construction and design documents to building officials for approval, meaning interior designers must have an architect or other registered design professional sign off on their designs before they can be submitted-an added (and unnecessary, Thomas argues) expense typically passed on to the client.

"Our entire profession is impacted by this process," Thomas says. "You would think with the way the business climate is here in Michigan, the state would want to encourage as many professionals as possible to stay here. But we are losing entrepreneurs, graduates and designers because the climate is so adverse to them having a career in Michigan."

Further complicating matters is Senate Bill 1515, a bill passed in 2008 that makes it a criminal offense to practice a profession for which one is not licensed or registered. Though a clause in the bill provides an exemption for interior designers, Thomas points out that, "as written, it does not prevent interior designers from actually being prosecuted." Theoretically, then, it is possible for an interior designer to be sued or prosecuted for attempting to practice a profession for which she/he is not licensed-even though it is not possible for the designer to obtain a license in the first place.

For Thomas and other interior designers, there may still be hope on the horizon. In 2007, Democrat State Representative Andy Meisner and Republican State Representative Bill Huizenga sponsored three bills-HB4770, HB4771 and HB4772-which would help establish a legal definition of "interior designer," outline the scope of services a designer could provide, and allow designers to become licensed in the state. The bills were supported by the CIDR, and in an unexpected turn of events, by the Michigan Association of Home Builders and the Michigan chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, both of whom broke rank with their national parent organizations to support the legislation. The bills passed in the House and were referred to the Senate; however, they ultimately languished in the Senate's Committee on Commerce and Tourism, chaired by Sen. Jason Allen.

Nonetheless, Thomas is hopeful that the legislation will still one day pass.

"Our goal is to get legislation reintroduced within the next month," she says. "We will have until the end of 2010 this time to get it passed, and we will start with the Senate rather than the House, because that's where it's been stymied in the past."

Inman is also optimistic. Though he concurs the right to become licensed has been "a battle" for designers, the end result, he says, will be well worth it.

"This is my livelihood," Inman says. "I've earned the right to be called an interior designer. Others should be able to do the same." BN