When Gary Wheeler was a college student, he went to a conference for no other reason than his favorite professor told him to—and it ended up shaping the direction of his entire career. The gathering, a student meetup for the organization that would eventually become the American Society of Interior Designers, was modest: 28 people attended. But it was the right 28 people. “Since then, every key thing in my career—every job, every major friend in the profession, most of my contacts—has had a direct connection to the ASID,” Wheeler tells Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast.
Now Wheeler is the CEO of the organization at a much different time. Some things are better—hundreds of students attend the conferences—but there are new challenges, as well. Wheeler took over as interim CEO last June, stepping into the role in the thick of the pandemic and during a critical juncture in America’s reckoning on racial inequity. He’s hopeful that the change and upheaval of the moment will be pivotal for the industry.
“Not only has the door been opened, it’s been blown off its hinges. Interior designers deal with the individual, with the human—with their mental health, their wellness, their happiness, their inclusion,” he says. “We make spaces where people want to be, and feel safe and comfortable. This is our opportunity, and if our profession doesn’t leap through this opening and lead coming out of the pandemic, shame on us.”
There are more quotidian concerns, as well. ASID, with roughly 23,000 members spanning both commercial and residential design, is spread out across 46 chapters. It’s a challenge, to say the least, staying abreast of the needs of such a wide-ranging group of professionals with such complex needs. Then there’s the goal of keeping every chapter relevant, when, as Wheeler says, there’s always a danger of each becoming clique-ish, like a fraternity or sorority, as opposed to a dues-paying professional development organization.
That’s inside the organization. It’s also a challenge to continually prove the value of design to the outside world when designers are still frequently called “pillow fluffers,” says Wheeler. But if there’s any moment in history almost tailor-made to drive home the importance of design—especially residential design—it’s now. “Residential is going to be strong for the next two years,” he says. “This is their moment to shine.”
A Call For Peace
One of the issues Wheeler is hoping to address as CEO is the internal strife between residential and commercial designers within the ranks of the ASID. Some of the friction comes from the fact that contract designers generally take the NCIDQ exam, whereas residential designers are less likely to do so. The exam, says Wheeler, is a good fundamental basis of knowledge, and it helps legitimize the profession. But he says that designers using it as a cudgel against each other is counterproductive: “[The test] began drawing lines of, ‘You’re not as good as me.’ This fighting between commercial and residential really needs to go.”
One of the issues the ASID works on at a national level, says Wheeler, is pushing back on efforts to classify the practice of design as a luxury and tax it at a higher rate. “Half the country is trying to deregulate, and when they deregulate, they want to tax. In many states where they’re trying to deregulate interior design, they’re regulating people that give manicures and braid hair and things like that. As if that has health and safety issues—whereas we actually do!” he says. “[If these laws pass], anything you do, your services, your fees, and the products you sell to your clients, they’re gonna tax that. Not just sales tax, [but a] luxury tax.”
A Seat At The Table
The design profession, Wheeler acknowledges, has issues with racial diversity and equity. He’s hopeful that ASID can make progress on that front with programs designed to mentor historically disadvantaged designers and catch kids early. “We should celebrate diversity and take advantage of it. The design professions are abysmal with our diversity—less than 3 percent. We must be much more active. That means getting into schools and explaining what the interior design profession is. Most kids don’t have a clue, except maybe they’ve seen something bad on TV. We need to get into schools and talk to kids long before they get into university,” he says. “We’ve got to move forward. The door’s open. We’ve got to do it.”