With tens of thousands of small firms, a dizzying mix of commercial and residential, and a lack of centralized data, it’s hard to think of an industry more fragmented and difficult to unite than interior design. But the American Society of Interior Designers is trying. Founded in 1975, the nonprofit has long sought to be the big-tent professional organization for interior designers of all stripes. Now a new leader, designer and educator, Khoi Vo, will take the helm as CEO, replacing interim chief Gary Wheeler.
Vo, a longtime professor and leader at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), brings to the role both an appreciation for design education and a fluency in the logistics of a big organization. In a conversation with Business of Home that has been edited for length and clarity, he discussed the key problems facing the design industry, the challenges of catering to a complex membership and why mentorship is a key area of focus for the ASID.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I studied architecture and started my design career in small firms in Los Angeles, where I naturally gravitated toward interiors due to my interests in the human scale and the built environment. I was fortunate to be in firms that did a lot of different things. So I worked on high-end residential, then my first big project was the Pasadena Museum of California Art—I also worked retail spaces in Pasadena, some commercial stuff, office spaces as well.
I became an educator while I was in L.A., then eventually moved to Savannah, where I was a professor of interior design, then led the department as chair for many years before moving to Hong Kong and leading the SCAD Hong Kong campus for two years. When I came back to Savannah, I headed two departments: One was the collaborative arm of the university where we worked with industry partners. The other was building the endowment—I did a lot of work with donors and grants and so forth.
As far as ASID, I’ve been a member as an educator and I’ve served on several of their national committees. And then I was lucky enough to serve on the board of directors several years back. It has been a big part of my life in many different ways.
I know it’s day one in this new role, and they’re probably still getting your email set up, but what are the big issues you’re excited to jump right in on?
The great thing—why I fell in love with interior design—is that it’s always evolving. It’s not a set profession. You can see the next evolution coming from conversations about diversity, equity and inclusivity to conversations about sustainability and wellness within design. It’s really important that ASID is the organization that leads these conversations. And when I say, “Lead them,” I mean: Make our memberships and the public aware of the situations that are happening, and make them understand the relevance of why design is addressing these issues.
I’m also focused on supporting our membership. If someone anywhere in the U.S. is thinking about having a career in interior design, no matter what your background is, no matter what your situation is, this is an organization that will partner with you. [That’s true] from the time that you’re in high school thinking about design, to the time you’re in college studying it, to the time that you’re a young professional, making a name for yourself.
ASID seems to have good penetration among well-known commercial designers. On the residential side, it seems like most of the stars in the industry are not members. Is that something you’d like to change—do you want the AD100 to all be ASID?
I think a lot of our designers are stars, right? Maybe not in the categories that you mentioned, but I do think the power of ASID is how inclusive it is, from the fact that we support residential designers to the largest firms in the world. Residential design and its superstars are part of our world, and we want to continue to embrace them, but not necessarily at the expense of focusing on the other other parts of our membership.
Something that has historically been a sticking point within the ASID is the divide between people who have taken the NCIDQ Exam and those who haven’t. Is it essential to have that certification to be considered an interior designer?
It has to do with: What is your trajectory? What is your career goal? There are some who are simply lovers of design, and they want to continue to learn more about this world. Some want to decorate, which is not a bad word, right? Some want to be designers that deal with health and safety and structural systems—and when it comes to that level, they do need to be held accountable, and we need to make sure that they are properly trained. Obviously, education and certification are one of the key ways that we do it now. So yes, to answer your question, the NCIDQ is very important. But it’s one aspect of our membership that it’s relevant to, and there are so many other parts of the interior design world that it doesn’t necessarily apply to.
Speaking of the term “interior designer,” I’ve heard that some people who pass the NCIDQ and are ASID members don’t like that people who are just starting out also call themselves interior designers. Do you have feelings about that language?
I want to be able to be—and I think the ASID wants to be—supportive of everyone. I think when we get to that point in the conversation, it gets tricky, because we have such a diverse membership. It really is about specific scenarios, and I think there’s relevance in looking at each scenario and understanding what’s going on in order to have a viewpoint about it.
I know focusing on state legislation of the interior design profession is a big area of focus for the ASID. What are the key goals there?
I feel we’re leading that conversation. We have a very strong invested interest in that, and we have staff that is solely dedicated to advancing advocacy for interior designers. Every state has a different situation. So it’s about going in and figuring out what’s going on in that state, and advocating for our membership there, and making sure that they’re being represented and that they have access to the opportunities to have a livelihood in this profession and thrive.
As someone who comes from the education world, what are you hoping to work on around education and mentorship at the ASID?
Today, I’m meeting the staff, and we’re getting to know each other, and a lot of the national board members are here. Over and over again, we asked them: “Why are you involved with ASID?” The recurring theme among the answers is that their industry mentors were members. One of our board members talked about meeting his idol and how he was able to connect with this person, and this person was able to help them navigate their career. That’s not an uncommon thing. So for us, mentorship is really important: We want to serve our current membership, but we’re always looking at how to develop the next generation of designers. And not just through curriculum, but by mentoring them professionally, personally, and helping them get to where they want to be in their career. There’s a sense that our membership wants to give back.
What’s the biggest challenge for the design profession right now, and what can the ASID do to help?
[Increasing] the public awareness that design really does impact everyone’s life, from making sure that you can safely get out of a building if there’s a fire, to making sure that building materials aren’t killing you, to fostering productivity in an interior environment. In residential, it’s about making sure that it’s a beautiful place. I think designers sometimes shy away from the idea of beauty, because it’s so hard to qualify, but that’s an important part of our membership. They want to make beautiful environments for their clients and customers. That’s a very important aspect for us, as well, just as important as it is to make sure that we’ve created an office that is efficient, sustainable, and has wellness aspects that serve its occupants—all of it is really important.
The public awareness thing—getting people to understand the value of design—seems like a perennial problem. What do you think really moves the needle on that?
I might be biased, but: education. [This can be done] in many ways, not only formally in school, but also by making sure that our message is getting out to the general public, and finding out where it is that the general public is most receptive to that message. We’re very keen on making strategic partnerships with industry partners to make sure that we’re supporting them through our membership, they’re supporting us, and that we use each other as vehicles to get our messaging across. That’s key. It’s about repeating that message, the clarity of that message, and making sure that we can scale up the messaging to make sure as many people as possible can hear it, because what happens is that you get into the silos, right? You subscribe to one channel that talks about interiors in one way versus another. But once people understand that interior design is such a rich landscape, that part of the conversation disappears. It’s no longer about, “My aspect of interior design is better than yours.” It’s more: “Oh, wow, you do something completely different than what I do. And yet we’re in the same profession in the same discipline. That’s really cool. How do we work together to create community?” The important thing is to continue to message that out and create places for us to have conversations about it.
On a personal note, tell me a little about your taste in design—any favorite projects or pieces?
I was trained into modernism—very clean lines. But as I’ve come to know myself better, I gravitate toward spaces that are comfortable, that facilitate living—spaces in my home that bring my family and friends together the most.
Homepage image: Khoi Vo | Courtesy of ASID