License to frill

The practice of interior design—including kitchen and bath design services—is under attack by a powerful faction of licensed interior designers intent on erecting barriers to competition So says the Lumber Association of California and Nevada, the National Kitchen & Bath Association, the Institute for Justice and News week columnist George Will, an unlikely band of allies in a battle being fought in state legislatures across the country.

Interior Design legislation, as it is called, comes in two varieties: “title acts,” which have now been passed in 22 states, regulate who can call themselves a “registered” or “certified” interior designer. “Practice” acts require individuals to become licensed, usually by a government agency, after a minimum amount of education, experience and examination. Three states require licensing for interior design work—Nevada, Florida and Louisiana.

Kitchen and bath retailers generally oppose both types of legislation, as do lumberyard owners like Ruth Cross, owner of Truckee Tahoe Lumber, a two-unit prodealer in Northern California. Cross, who operates a large kitchen and bath design center at her Truckee location, testified at an April hearing on SB 1312, a California bill that would have regulated both the title and the practice of interior design. She was accompanied by members of both the lumber trade group and the kitchen and bath association.

“I don’t think you should put so much power into the hands of a private entity like the ASID,” said Cross, referring to the American Society of Interior Designers. “We only have two ASID-certified designers in our community. The legislation, as it was originally designed, would have shut down my business because I could not provide design services.”

To become a member of ASID, individuals must pass a two-day accreditation examination administered by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification Many ASID members also attend accredited design schools. Opponents of interior design legislation claim that the ASID is pushing these bills forward as barriers to competitors who can’t meet these onerous requirements.

Deanna Waldron, director of government and public affairs for the ASID, disagrees. She said her organization is “not trying to restrict anyone’s ability to offer decorative services.” Many of the states with interior designer legislation make exemptions for residential work (as opposed to commercial) or for design services provided “in the furtherance of a retail sale,” she noted.

“Everybody has a view of what they think interior design is,” Waldron said. The ASID only wants to regulate design services that involve building codes; these are the places where issues like fire codes, egress, access for the disabled and ergonomics come into play.

Ken Dunham, executive director of the Lumber Association of California and Nevada, scoffed at the notion that untrained interior designers threaten the public’s health and safety. “Bad design is not going to kill you,” he said. The language in SB 1312 was unclear when it came to exemptions for retailers, in Dunham’s opinion.

A closer look at SB 1312 shows that it does not apply to a retail employee providing decorative advice in the sale of wallpaper, paint, flooring, lighting or plumbing fixtures. But the plumbing cannot be part of a structure, and no exemptions are made for windows, doors, cabinets and counters.

SB 1312 made it to the California Senate, but it received a tepid response. The bill’s author withdrew it on May 30. Ed Nagorsky, general counsel for the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), packed up his briefcase and got ready for the next battle. Over the past few months, Nagorsky has helped defeat similar legislation in Washington State, Minnesota, South Carolina and Tennessee. This past March, the NKBA board allocated $750,000 for fiscal year 2008 to oppose interior design legislation of any kind, both practice and title.

“A title act is just a marketing tool, and the state should not be involved in helping businesses market themselves,” said Nagorsky. “And once they get a title act in place, then they go for a practice act. That’s the ultimate goal.”

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Arlington, Va., has also entered the fray. Citing a lack of evidence of safety or code violations—and a suspicion of anti-competitive forces at work—the libertarian lawyers challenged interior design legislation in federal court in both Texas and New Mexico.

New Mexico amended its law last year, dropping the requirements for the use of the title “interior designer.” The Texas case is pending.

The Alabama State Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision last October, struck down the state’s interior design practice law, declaring it unconstitutional. Other bills are pending in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Massachusetts.

Even George Will weighed in on the issue last year. The bowtied columnist for Newsweek seemed particularly irked that Las Vegas, “where almost nothing is illegal,” would license interior designers.