- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Not all interior designers want to trade places with the designer-decorators featured on the popular TV show “Trading Spaces,” in spite of the publicity the exposure would bring.

However, while openly critical of many of the tricks and techniques used in the series, many designers at least admit to a grudging respect for this and other domestic makeover series.

The format of “Trading Spaces,” which appears locally several times a week on cable’s Learning Channel (TLC), was first dreamed up by England’s BBC under the title “Changing Rooms.”

It features two pairs of neighbors helping paid professionals make over a room in the other’s home, all within 48 hours on a $1,000 budget. Results of both efforts are revealed in an emotionally charged scene at the end of each segment when homeowners are left to decide whether they can live with the changes and what to do if they don’t.

“On the plus side, it brings us business,” says Phyllis Lustig of Lustig Interiors in Vienna. “The more exposure that people have to design and change and trends the better. I look at it not as competition, but as a way of opening people’s eyes to what is out there.”

Interior designers such as Kerry Touchette of 1730 Corcoran St. NW are impressed by the phenomenon of seeing many of these makeover shows on television lately. He thinks they provoke interest in the profession and in the services he and others provide.

“Overall, it is a good thing because it makes people think,” he says. “The shows are imaginative and entertaining and give permission to alter or use space in different ways.”

Telling people about various products and their uses is a point in the show’s favor, notes Robin Wagner, a Marymount University assistant professor who also practices interior design out of her Virginia home in Clifton.

Rebecca Hubler of Designed Interiors in Annandale has seen enrollment increase for a makeover session she teaches at the Corcoran. She praises the way some of the shows integrate craft-like accessories into a room. “Taking ordinary things and being clever with them,” she explains.

Designer caveats, however, outnumber words of praise for the shows.

One of them is the matter of the correct definition of designer versus decorator. “Trading Spaces” blithely opts for using the two interchangeably. Given the show’s overt aim of providing entertainment rather than step-by-step decorating and remodeling lessons, this might be considered a fairly trivial matter.

Trivial or not, the American Society of Interior Designers prepared a statement members could use to educate the public on the difference and help counter any illusion that such shows mirror reality.

“‘Trading Spaces’ creates awareness but doesn’t communicate what design really is,” says ASID spokeswoman Michelle Snyder. “It is a double-edged sword affecting our profession. It can create some barriers. Particularly where a room is done over for less than $1,000. That is now what clients expect.”

The society’s educational materials state that designers are trained in space planning, where decorators are concerned primarily with surface decoration. “Decorators do not have to be licensed to practice,” the materials state, in italics for emphasis.

“Trading Spaces” spokesman Don Halcombe is upbeat when he asserts that part of the show’s message is illustrating that design is for everybody.

“These shows have traditionally been ‘how-to,’ and that is not what we do,” he explains. “We are a mix of entertaining and lifestyle factors. I think the idea is that people get inspiration.”

The 15 paid professionals on “Trading Spaces” are a rotating team that includes some with more experience in graphics and fashion than interior design. Only two among the current team have passed the qualifying exam required in some states to permit practitioners to be licensed as interior designers. Only one of the team is a member of ASID.

ASID has several levels of membership, but using the ASID designation after a member’s name requires, among other things, passing an exam administered by a separate organization called the National Council for Interior Design Qualification.

Rules vary in each state about whether the word designer can be applied to someone who has not taken the profession’s qualifying exam. The District makes the exam mandatory in order to get a license, while Virginia and Maryland are less stringent.

Mrs. Hubler says outright that many of the shows seem to violate the best principles of design, which she defines as a balance between harmony and unity. She also objects to the show using a full-time carpenter, whose costs are not included in each project’s budget.

Miss Wagner says her Marymount students will talk about the shows in class but don’t take them seriously. “You have to take it as entertainment [because] it is nothing like the profession itself,” she says. She criticizes the “Trading Spaces” budget, pointing to slipcovers she says can’t be done in such a short time so they will last.

She has liked some of the work done by Vern Yip — an architect who is one of the primary on-show designers — because, she observes, the measurements on his drawings are believable.

“The problem is that it looks like magic. We have to bring [our clients] down to earth,” Mrs. Lustig says. “Some of these ideas that look so bright and beautiful on TV, like a big orange wall, well, you wonder where they come from. It is sensationalizing — like going to a fashion show.”

“No one calculates the cost of labor,” says Sarah Jenkins of Sarah P. Jenkins & Associates in Chevy Chase, “They are showing people how to do things they should not be doing — like pasting flowers on shower curtains when you know the glue will disintegrate.”

Mr. Touchette takes issue with the presumption on the part of some viewers that a show like “Trading Spaces” is educational.

“The show doesn’t tell the consumer how to ask questions because all the work is done behind their backs,” he says. He objects to several choices he has seen, such as choosing what he calls an inappropriate grade of fabrics and a heavy reliance on candles in certain of the programs. “It’s dangerous,” he says.

“[The paid professionals on ‘Trading Spaces’] make no pretensions about their judgments in that area,” he says. “At least with the show ‘Designers Challenge,’ you see the designer going back to the office.”

The biggest thing, he notes, is a lack of disclosure about designer fees. “We never see money change hands. That is what professionals all are asking. They would like to help educate the public on what this kind of advice costs a person.”

Professional interior designers arrange for payment in any number of ways, explains Mrs. Lustig. An hourly charge can be from $75 to $100 or higher, depending on the arrangement with the client. “It’s cheaper than a lawyer and makes you a whole lot happier in the long run,” she laughs.

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