Defining success is elusive—a shape-shifting ideal that reinvents itself generation to generation. But knowing where we come from, and what we’re dreaming of, can speak volumes about where the industry is headed.
When I was 13, my dream job was to create special effects for sci-fi movies. Twenty-seven years later, I have never created a special effect, and never worked on a movie. I’m not mad about it. In retrospect, that particular dream didn’t have all that much to do with me and everything to do with how well CGI-heavy movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were marketed to bowl cut–sporting teenage boys in the early 1990s.
Dream jobs are like that. They say a little bit about the dreamer, and a lot about the culture that surrounds them. A recent study of American children revealed that far more kids today want to be YouTube influencers than astronauts—that says something (even if we don’t like it).
With that in mind, I researched what the ideal interior design gig is today—the ultimate pie-in-sky, moonshot dream job. As soon as I started asking around, I realized that anyone who loves creating beautiful spaces and gets to do it for a living has already achieved a kind of dream. Insights shared by a range of designers—from seasoned veterans to mid-career pros to recent design school graduates—varied, but not quite as much as you might think. An obvious but important throughline: No one’s dream of a career in interior design begins with money. This is a business, and it can be a lucrative one. But no one falls in love with it because they want to get rich.
On the contrary, collecting the earliest stirrings of enthusiasm from designers is more of a poetic exercise than a business survey. For some, the spark was a mother obsessed with estate sales and dusty antiques shops. For others, it was glossy copies of House Beautiful on an aunt’s coffee table. The fun of choosing bedding with a college roommate. Opening weekend at the redesigned Greenbrier Hotel. Or my personal favorite: Driving down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and being intrigued by the shining golden sphere on top of Kelly Wearstler’s shop—but more on her later.
People come into this line of work because they’re imaginative, industrious and drawn to beauty. Whatever the dream career is, it’s always been a creative one. A little more stable than performance art, maybe, but still a passion. That basic draw of the profession hasn’t changed much over time. But the sense of what’s possible has.
To be incredibly simplistic, you can sort the history of interior design into three eras. The first starts with Elsie de Wolfe in the early 1900s and ends with the ascendance of Paige Rense to the head of Architectural Digest in the mid-1970s. It doesn’t have a name, but if you had to give it one, you could call it the Society Era—a time when residential interior designers (called “decorators” then, of course) operated and were known primarily within the small circle of the extremely affluent and influential.
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to know exactly what a designer working in 1940 saw as the dream career, but you can make a few educated guesses. Though “shelter” magazines existed, they looked nothing like they do today, and individual designers themselves were rarely elevated in the mainstream media for their creative talent.
That’s not to say there were no famous designers. De Wolfe herself was the quintessential design celebrity, a charismatic figure celebrated in the press and even in popular music (she’s name-checked in songs by both Cole Porter and Irving Berlin). But she was something of a rarity, and in general the designers that we look back on today as the “greats” mostly existed within the cloistered world of high society. Knowing what a decorator was, what they did, and rising in the ranks of the profession involved proximity to extreme wealth—the dream career was defined almost solely by securing a job at a prominent firm and working for elite clients, often very privately.
Now-iconic designer Bunny Williams began her career in the 1960s working for the legendary firm Parish-Hadley, which was deeply rooted in that clandestine way of working. “We were all excited to be working there because they had the top clients ... you were working for the Paleys, Mrs. Astor, the Whitneys—you were seeing the top clientele that any firm could have,” she recalls. “That was inspiring. It was exposure that very few people got.”
Though Sister Parish, who co-founded the firm with Albert Hadley, was a kind of celebrity—she worked on the White House—that fame was a by-product, not the point. (Parish and Hadley would have hated Instagram with a passion, jokes Williams.) “It’s a generational thing,” she says. “In my day, you were never supposed to get your name in print unless you got married or died. Now publicity is everything.”
Tellingly, though Williams herself fell in love with the idea of decorating and design at a young age, the idea that there could be such a thing as a “celebrity” designer wasn’t on her radar. Even her own awareness of Sister Parish came not through the media but from a personal connection—friends of her parents, who had hired Parish to design their home. In those days, the design world was deep but narrow.
The idea that success in design entails navigating the world of the affluent is not new. But the fact that it involves working with famous people—and that designers themselves could be famous, too—is. That evolution didn’t happen overnight, but the appointment of Rense as editor in chief of Architectural Digest in 1975 was a tipping point.
In short order, Rense transformed the magazine from a sleepy Southern California trade paper to a vehicle for glamour of all kinds, from the celebrities whose homes filled its pages to the spotlight on the designers who did the work. In doing so, Rense redefined the parameters of a shelter magazine—in AD’s wake came a slew of new design magazines and reinvented legacy titles that helped broaden the reach of interior design as both an aspirational service and a desirable profession.
Not long after came Martha Stewart, whose eponymous magazine launched in 1992, and HGTV, which hit airwaves in 1994. Interior design went from an ultra-niche vocation to a subject covered avidly by mass media. As a result, the ideals of the profession shifted, subtly but undeniably. The days of exclusive firms that quietly catered to elite families were fading away, and individual designers were on the rise. Williams noticed it at the time. “In the beginning, there were these large firms and you were happy to be a part of that. But later, we saw that people could go out and make a name for themselves,” she says.
For designers who began their careers in the final decades of the 20th century, it wasn’t so much that the role of the interior designer was radically redefined; it was just more visible. Houston-based designer Suzanne Duin got started in the industry as a salesperson for Maharam in the 1980s and later transitioned to design. She recalls obsessing over copies of AD and the now-defunct Southern Accents, admiring the work of designers published there. “I loved Mario Buatta. And though it was a little more pattern than I could handle, I wanted to sit down and have a glass of wine in those rooms,” she says. “I thought his aesthetic was so elegant but approachable—that was what I wanted to do.”
The substance of the dream career—beautiful work for fabulous people—wasn’t radically different than it had been 50 years prior. But many more people knew it existed. That meant they could start dreaming about it.
The design industry’s most recent phase began on Wednesday, October 6, 2010—the day Instagram launched on the App Store.
It’s impossible to overstate Instagram’s effect on the industry. Over the course of a decade and change, the app has become design’s marketplace, town square and runway, all in one. Just as mass media brought the concept of interior design to tens of thousands of new fans, social media brought it to millions. It also introduced hard metrics—public markers of success like likes and follows—into the equation. Before, you knew a designer was a big deal because they were featured in a magazine. Now you can get a precise sense of their clout with a quick glance at their follower count.
Instagram has also opened up a variety of new commercial opportunities for interior designers, and as a result, the language and values of entrepreneurship have become intertwined with the trade. Though the idea of marketing partnerships is not exactly new (Mario Buatta had an Absolut ad!), Instagram has given rise to a much broader range of possibilities. Today, a successful interior designer can not only expect to work with local clients but to sell through affiliate links, and maybe have a sponsored partner or two. Beyond that, a range of licensing deals await, not only in the confines of the trade but with consumer brands as well. Today’s dream design career is nothing if not well monetized.
Another profound impact Instagram has had on the industry is to make it exponentially easier for people without traditional credentials to break through. On one hand, that’s led to the rise of multi-hyphenate creatives who don’t rely on traditional design projects for clients as their main source of income—Justina Blakeney, Athena Calderone, Dabito and the like. On the other, it’s given more straight-ahead designers like Amber Lewis, Bria Hammel and Shea McGee a far larger audience than they might have had in the pre–social media era. While mass media like shelter magazines and HGTV made it easier for more people to dream about a career in design, Instagram has allowed them to actually make it happen.
But even if Instagram has undoubtedly changed the design industry, has it changed the dream? Maybe. Given the runaway success of Insta-natives like McGee (with 3.5 million followers, she’s the design queen of the platform), it’s impossible to imagine that there aren’t swarms of would-be designers who see a career like hers as the model. Interestingly, I had a hard time finding them. And surely, some designers building out their e-commerce offerings have looked to the McGee formula, but only Kaki Smith, of Dallas and New York–based firm Hellquist Interiors, mentioned in an offhand way that it might be nice to have “a brand empire” the way someone like McGee does.
I have a few theories as to why. Insta-famous designers have mass appeal but probably less cache among full-time professionals immersed in the daily grind. The other is simply that cultural ideals are slow to change. Instagram’s domination of the design industry has only really happened over the past five or six years, and it will take time for neophyte designers raised on the ’gram to start setting the tone of the industry. In five years, this article might have very different conclusions.
Even so, I was struck by how warily young designers regarded Instagram—most of them were either indifferent or skeptical about social media clout and influencer status. None of them said that a massive following was part of their dream career. On the contrary, from recent graduates to designers in their 30s, most viewed Instagram as a means to an end. “I recognize that it’s been an incredible tool for me, and it will continue to be, but my goals are not tied to follower size,” says Nashville designer Tori Alexander, echoing a common sentiment. Alexander started her firm in 2013 and says the platform was instrumental in helping her learn the profession and attract a clientele; she now has just over 24,000 followers and gets 90 percent of her leads through Instagram. But for her, it’s a marketing tool, not a way of life. “I have zero interest in being an Instagram celebrity—even where I am now makes me a hair uncomfortable,” she says.
There was, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that young designers do have someone in mind when they think of a dream career—and that someone is Kelly Wearstler. Again and again, her name was first on their list when designers were asked who represented success in the industry. At first glance, it’s not hard to see why: Wearstler’s work has been featured in magazines for two decades, she has designed well-known hotels and popular furniture collections alike and she has amassed 1.9 million followers on Instagram. But while there are other high-achieving designers, none of them have become as emblematic as Wearstler. Why?
Ellen Fisher, Dean of the New York School of Interior Design, says that Wearstler has represented students’ ideal for quite some time. It’s her work itself, Fisher surmises, but also the impression of design as more than just a career, but a glamorous way of life. “[Wearstler] is based in Los Angeles, and is associated with that hip, laid-back lifestyle,” she says. “Her clientele seems very glamorous, but she does too! If you had to live vicariously, wouldn’t that be a great lifestyle?”
Wearstler neatly embodies the ideals of past eras without falling into any of their pitfalls. She’s a craftsperson with an elite clientele, but her work isn’t stuffy or inaccessible. She’s a celebrity, but she’s not overexposed. She’s an entrepreneur, a CEO and her Instagram grid is gorgeous. Though I’m sure it feels more complicated to Wearstler herself, you couldn’t craft a more ideal modern design career in a lab.
You can roughly chart the evolution of the design profession from a niche craft practiced among the elite to work performed—and monetized—very much in public. What’s next? In speaking with young designers, one thing that kept coming up was the notion of interior design as a multifaceted career. The idea that creating beautiful homes would lead to other pursuits was a common refrain. “The dream career for me actually transcends interior design itself. It’s about creating a multi-disciplinary brand, something with its hands in interiors, fashion and art,” says Ryan Lacy, a recent graduate of NYSID who works for the New York firm Arthur Dunnam for Jed Johnson Studio. “For direction, I look to those who have mastered the art of crafting a brand.” Tomorrow’s ideal design career is probably not confined to creating homes for the well-to-do, but something freer and more shapeshifting.
It’s also potentially going to be, well, cooler. Interior design has always been glamorous, but it’s never quite intersected with youth and popular culture the way it does now, with celebrities like Kanye West proudly proclaiming their love of Axel Vervoordt. “Interior design is definitely cool now, everybody cares about it,” says Eilyn Jimenez of Miami-based firm Sire Design. “It used to be seen as a hobby—something that moms did on the side. Design today has a soul of its own and is respected as an industry.”
“Being involved with interior design is a flex now,” agrees Kristina Khersonsky of Los Angeles–based firm Studio Keeta, who credits the design world’s growing accessibility. “Fashion was always in that bucket, but over the past few years, design has been added too. It’s almost synonymous with being an artist—it’s not just a rich-person thing anymore.” Design is also, much like the broader culture, shifting its focus toward sustainability and social impact. Fisher sees evidence of that among the students who are coming through NYSID today. “Young people absolutely see design as a force for social good now, more than they used to,” she says. “They’re very aware that their work will have an impact, not only on their clients but beyond that as well. They want to make a positive impact in an earnest, real way.”
For those who fear the design profession is slowly shifting toward a soulless landscape of clout-obsessed influencers, take heart. In 10 years, the ideal design career will likely involve doing good as much as doing well. Or at least, that’s the dream.
Homepage image: Tori Alexander enlivens a graceful dining room with subtle hues | Courtesy of Mary Craven