The Story of How Interior Design Went Virtual

african american female freelancer using laptop and drinking coffee

20 min read

What you should know about the evolution of the interior design industry and the phenomenal rise of e-design for interiors over the last decade

The story of virtual interior design is a very new one in the scheme of things, but it is a story which we have personally watched unfold. It has some key players and events which we think you will find interesting to know about.

Whether you are yourself a designer, work in the broader construction industry, or are simply interested in how the interior design service industry first started to make the shift to online, this is the story of virtual interior design.

Included in this Post:

A brief history of the interior design profession

What is e Design?

e Design or virtual interior design?

The history of e Design for interiors

Early pioneers and key players in the story of virtual interior design

Discover virtual and eDesign for yourself

The future of interior design is virtual

A Brief History of the Interior Design Profession

In order to understand virtual interior design we have to first understand the industry which gave birth to it: the larger, standard interior design industry. The furniture selection, designing and decorating side of this industry began around 120 years ago, but interior design’s role in interior architecture came about a little later.

It was in the late thirties and early forties that interior design as an industry really started to find its footing. This makes contract interior design roughly eighty years old. In 2020 the global interior design industry was worth 150 billion and the market is set to increase by 7.8% each year at its present rate.

Virtual interior design is the new kid on the block, having just started in the first decade of the new millennium. It is part of a trend toward remote work made possible by recent technology and is also set to continue.

1905 – The First Interior Designer is a Self-Taught Female Entrepreneur

The modern-day interior design profession started in America with a dynamo of a woman named Elsie de Wolf, considered by many to be the first interior designer. She started out, as many decorators and designers have since, by designing several private homes for her high-society friends. She was herself a well-known actress at the time.

Elsie’s first major design project was the total fit-out of a women’s club in New York, which opened to rave reviews in 1907 and put her on the path to running a hugely successful design practice. As if this wasn’t enough, she also wrote the first book on interior design. “The House in Good Taste” was written by Elsie and published in 1923.

This all during the roaring twenties, in the time of the glamorous reigning style of art deco.

1905 – Interior Design Education is Born

Even as Elsie was trailblazing the business of interior design, the first interior design curriculum taught by a school was also offered around this time. Parsons School of Design in New York, which is on par with the UKs legendary Saint Martins (but for interior design instead of fashion), first started teaching interior design as a subject in 1905. Although incidentally around the same time that Elsie was getting her start, she never studied there.

Elsie de Wolf was a self-taught entrepreneur, beginning a pattern which has continued to repeat for many successful designers in the history of the industry.

1931 – The First Professional Interior Design Society is Formed

The first professional interior design organization came along about a quarter century after Elsie’s pioneering effort. The AID (American Institute for Decorators) convened for the first time at a furniture show in 1931. But although the profession was already becoming established by this time, it still had some major milestones to go.

For one thing, even the moniker ‘interior design’ had not been decided on yet. As the work so-called ‘decorators’ were doing shifted from decorating to design and project management, the need for a new and more accurately descriptive name emerged.

Shelter magazines first began using the term ‘interior design’ sometime in the 1930s.

1937 – Interior Decorating and Interior Design Break Up

cozy sofa and table with chairs in contemporary living room

The decorating and interior design professions officially went separate ways in 1937, as highlighted by the AID’s decision to officially change their name to AIID (American Institute for Interior Design).

As design work in the commercial sectors began to require interior architectural knowledge and design to building code standards, new interior designers working in the field were required to meet educational requirements.

Three and four year college degrees or specialized training became standard for those entering the industry in the seventies and eighties.

Since then, there has been some confusion over who can call themselves an interior designer, but generally those who have been educated or trained in the design of the built environment are considered to be interior designers.

Those who deal with the primarily lighter, more decorative and aesthetic details are considered to be interior decorators.

1992 – Universal Accessibility is Enforced in the Public Domain

In the early nineties important legislation which made the American Disabilities Act law came into effect. Building code was revised to ensure that public buildings of the future would be designed with all users in mind, giving rise to the concept of ‘universal design’.

This became a part of design education which designers are required to learn and implement in commercial and retail design work if they expect to pass building code standards.

2000-2010s Interior Designers Achieve Celebrity Status

Image credit: Essential Homes EU

Meanwhile, in the residential, private home market, both decorating and home design have coexisted fairly peacefully with some overlaps.

The residential interior design market is also the sector of the industry which has seen the biggest rise in designer superstars. These include such famous interior designers and decorators as Kelly Wearstler (pictured above), Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Bobby Berkus.

Almost all of the best known design celebrities achieved stardom after successful television shows, or from generating a large cult following after working with a celebrity and taking advantage of social media platforms like Instagram. Martyn Lawrence Bullard famously starred in the “Million Dollar Decorators” series, and Bobby Berkus on “Queer Eye”.

2006 – The First Interior Design Service is Offered Online

The first well-publicized virtual interior design service to be offered by an interior design professional was Windsor Smith’s “Room in a Box”, which was picked up by the media when actress Gwyneth Paltrow used, and also spoke very highly of, her remote design service in 2012. Windsor Smith’s interior design package was made available online and was actually delivered by regular mail. The finished design came in an attractive box which included the rendered design drawings as well as physical samples of products and finishes.

Another website claiming to be the original e design company for interior designs going back as far as 2006 is that of Michelle Ortiz Dunbar, who has been in the industry more than twenty years and has a couple of interior design companies under her name. Dunbar’s online design service is called “Room Design in a Box” as opposed to Windsor Smith’s “Room in a Box“.

Google Trends for Room in a Box

Google trends results show that “room in a box” has been searched for at least 25 times a month, every year since 2004, and it has increased in recent times. This makes it difficult to know exactly how it got started.

What is important is that virtual interior design is no longer confined to a box sent by snail mail. Remote interior designing has evolved a good deal since these early experiments with the concept.

The evolution of the virtual interior design industry began in earnest with the rise of social media and online interior design communities on the heels of one key mood board community, Facebook and Facebook groups. This is the story of virtual interior design that we will cover next.

What is e Design?

E Design is a term that was coined in the late 2000s to describe an interior design service which is done entirely online. Like e-mail, e-magazines and e-cigarettes, the ‘e’ in ‘e design’ is meant to denote the ‘electronic’ version of the product or service, as opposed to it’s physical version. E design started off as kind of joke, in that it was hard to generate interest in the service and it was not accepted by the broader industry for more than a decade after its inception.

Comparison of e Design with Traditional Interior Design Services

The physical version of an interior design service equates to the established and traditional way of doing interior design, as taught by universities and as set by de-facto industry standards. It can be defined in two distinct ways.

First, traditional interior design has always been a service which includes the selection of products through ‘to-the-trade’ sources, thus usually including a commission from mark up on said products.

Second, it’s scope includes full project management of the construction on a project. This includes site visitation and surveillance of a site, the drafting of plans, the bidding out of construction and design installation jobs to subcontractors, and the guarantee of the success of the project.

Additionally – Sometimes traditional design services also include the continued maintenance of the property. This is especially true of designers in the commercial market, who do what is known in the industry as ‘contract design’.

Full Service Interior Design: Residential vs Commercial

Traditional interior design has now come to be known as ‘full-service’ interior design by those who have embraced its newer counterpart, virtual interior design. Remote interior design has primarily been tested in the residential market (where e Design got its start), and it is here that it has been the most successful so far.

Virtual interior designers use the term ‘full service’ to indicate when the design work will not be done remotely, but will be supervised by the design firm or designer, in person.

Full Service Residential

Supervision of interior design projects is most often needed when clients wish to establish a relationship with the design firm, or else when project management requires on-site inspections for safety and quality assurance.

Even as full-service interior design is now almost 100% optional in the case of home designing and decorating and can almost be done away with, full-service is still mostly necessary in large-scale commercial projects.

chairs and tables in hotel

Full Service Contract Interior Design

Commercial interior design projects are large and expensive undertakings, and often happen in a corporate environment. As such, they are subject to more stringent rules. In-person visitation is still standard in contract design work because of human trust concerns and the need for risk management.

What remains to be seen is how much longer it will be this way and how more remote solutions might be explored. The chances that technology and processes will become good enough to make virtual and remote interior design services possible for contract work are actually pretty good. We will be keeping an eye on this topic!

e Design or Virtual Interior Design?

What’s in a name? A lot. Remember how interior decorating changed its official name to interior design in the thirties?

The term ‘e Design’ and ‘virtual interior design’ are interchangeable. The bottom line is that it comes down to personal preference. ‘E Design’ has been used by the entrepreneurs and interior designers who pioneered remote interior design services online. Because it’s been used since the early days of remote and virtual design, the term is in good standing with designers new to the idea.

Having said that, I’d like to make the case for switching the use of the word “e Design” for public outreach to an easier to understand one: ‘virtual interior design’.

The Argument for Using the Term “e-Design”

While I don’t think any virtual interior design or eDesign communities need to change their branding for fellow designers, when it comes to the public, the name e Design runs into some difficulties.

One issue with the term ‘e Design’ is that it is not specific enough to interior design.

While doing research for this article, we found that typing ‘e Design’ into Google search actually turns up a lot more results for ‘e Design’ than for ‘virtual interior design’. In fact, there are about 9,900 searches every month for e Design vs 1,600 for virtual interior design. Case closed, right?

It is the author’s personal view that E design can be somewhat confusing to people outside of the inner circle. Here we see the interest in the term “e design” from 2004 to the present in the category of Home and Garden. Interest is roughly where it was in 2004, despite the pandemic causing interior design to go further online. Could it be that people didn’t really know what to search for?

In this image we can see the interest in the term “e design”, also from 2004 to the present, but this time for the category “online communities”. These are the social media platforms which first attracted the designers interested in offering design services entirely online.

The trouble with the term “e Design” is that Google results include suggestions for jewelry design studios and industrial design manuals, as well as the expected virtual and remote interior design results. Looking at the related topics and queries below confirms this ambiguity.

Related design queries include topics that aren’t related to interior design.

As much as we interior designers like to think of ourselves as “designers”, period, there are many other disciplines which share the handle. Could it be that the ambiguity of the term “e Design” and “e designer” confuses people who are already confused about how it is possible to do home renovations and decorating from a distance?

The Argument for Using the Term Virtual Interior Design

Here we see the interest in the term “virtual interior design”, from 2004 to the present. Although people searched for virtual interior design in greater numbers prior to their being any services offered, you can see that it dropped for a long time before starting to rise again around 2020.

On the other side of the argument virtual interior design has the gaining momentum of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) in its favor. There are few people who don’t know what “virtual” means, nor what “interior design” means. We have a very clearly descriptive name which immediately informs our prospective clients of what exactly we as remote designers do.

We design interiors virtually.

This time you can see that the results for virtual interior design turn up terms much more closely related to interior design, such as architecture, virtual reality, virtual reality interior design, apps and virtual interior design software.

Add to the argument for virtual interior design the fact that many of the big box brands offering interior design services online, like Decorilla, pride themselves in offering VR walkthroughs to their clients. This is the early stage of a trend which is becoming more and more the reality for architecture and real estate, so we have no reason to think that it isn’t the next big thing for interior design, too.

Interior design is only going to become more virtual.

Personally, I’d like to not get stuck with a name which sounds as old as e-mail. “You see, grandpa, it’s like mail, but it’s electronic.” You get the picture. For the record, no offense to the communities who have branded themselves this way, as I’m actually a fan of their invaluable contribution to the industry. This is just my personal opinion and I’d love to hear from others about this.

For my final exhibit I offer this look at the global trend data for VR interior design.

The History of Virtual Design for Interiors

woman in brown long sleeve shirt sitting on chair

Now that we understand the history of the interior design industry, how virtual interior design ties in and also why virtual interior design might be the best moniker for the newest phase of interior design’s evolution, it’s time to look at some of the important players helping to educate designers and provide the tools virtual design entrepreneurs need to run their businesses.

Early Pioneers and Key Players in the Story of Virtual Interior Design

Two of the designers turned virtual interior design entrepreneurs I’d like to highlight are Sheila Mac Sporran, who works in tandem with her software developer husband, Cole, and Jenna Gaidusek.

Having been a part of Sheila Mac Sporran’s original Olioboard community since 2012, I find the story of the company’s evolution since then especially interesting. I’ve more recently gotten to know the eDesign Tribe, and understand more about Jenna’s passion and vision for virtual interior design leadership.

Olioboard and Design Files

In 2012 I made the decision to take a distance degree course from the UK to learn interior design. I was terrified that I might not have access to some of the equipment or resources that I would need, as I live in the Far East where access to English information is challenging. I’d never been more grateful for the internet and the wealth of information online until this experience.

Besides information, I also needed digital tools to help me with my design work on student projects. In particular, one of my first assignments involved creating a mood board. While I did create some physical sample boards and scan them, I also realized that for the more conceptual side of my design work I would be better off with a digital image tool.

The Challenges of Virtual Tools for Online Design Students in 2012

This is about my personal experience with one of those “surprises’ you get as a new interior design student. It’s not only about three dimensional design. You are about to get a crash course in graphic design as well!

My first attempts to find a graphic design tool that would be good for arranging images in 2D were disappointing. There were limits to how many images could be arranged in many programs, the interface was clunky, and the results were very sub par. I opened quite a few accounts that I ended up closing because they had only limited free features. Design students have to save money.

Olioboard and the Rise of Online Interior Design and Decoration Communities

Image credit: Style the Web

Then I heard about Olioboard through some good press that they got in some shelter magazines. I have to admit that once I found Olioboard I was totally hooked. The site offered a beautiful 2D design environment with a library of backgrounds, color palettes from real paint suppliers like Benjamin Moore, and thousands of home products which could be dragged, dropped and arranged at will on the art board.

The community was already growing exponentially by then, and everyone was so enthusiastic. It was a weird mix of amateurs, creatives and real designers. Olioboard ran frequent “design” contests, and featured rooms voted on by the community.

I loved it. I wasted more than a few days playing around with Olioboard, and even taught my daughter how to use the interface to design her own dream bedroom. I won a few design competitions, as well 😉

Using Olioboard Through Design School

Suffice it to say that Olioboard was my jam and a big part of the success of my presentations throughout design school. I always got great marks for my presentation, and while I know I deserved the good marks, I always felt incredibly lucky to have access to such a great tool.

But even as I was getting my degree, the entrepreneurs behind the Olioboard product were struggling to monetize the product, and after offering their free product a full eight years, from 2010 through to 2018, it was no longer viable as a business and was becoming too expensive to keep afloat.

Olioboard Goes Professional and Becomes Design Files

Sheila and Cole made the decision to focus on designers who could use the tools they had developed for businesses which could be run 100% online. Although virtual design seems so obvious now, at the time Olioboard was a library of products and an exceptional mood board creation tool, nothing more.

The husband and wife duo decided to pivot and create an entire online design platform for practicing interior designers. The new portal included a design questionnaire, web image clipper and personal library. The platform gave designers the tools for the first time to run an entire interior design project virtually, from start to finish.

The program was branded “Design Files” and the design community grew from there into a more professionally-focused one.

Embracing my First Professional Virtual Interior Design Community

A look at my personal dashboard on Design Files, filled with projects ranging from interior design to blogging

At the time that the Design Files team launched their professional designer “software as a service” product, I was still finishing school. I had to make the personal decision to pay for the product which I had been using for free up until this time.

To be honest, it was an easy decision to make. Not only did Sheila inspire me with her entrepreneurial story, but I also saw that she was headed in the right direction. Since launching the platform, the team has made numerous revisions and upgrades to the software package, including time tracking, payment portals, 3D designing options and easier client communication.

Sticking with the program helped me finish my degree with flying colors and gave me an easy transition into starting my own online interior design business. I will probably always be a Design Files customer.

Community and Customer Support for Design Files Users

To top it off, Cole and Sheila run an incredibly supportive Facebook community of designers who are subscribed to Design Files and it is the most incredibly supportive community, and probably my favorite of any community I’m part of, hands down.

Cole replies to queries, questions and requests in real time and Design Files continues to improve their product in collaboration with its designers, even as the community has continued to grow.

The community has grown a great deal since its beginning! It is home to 5.6k virtual interior designers as of this writing.

eDesign Tribe

Image credit: eDesign Tribe platform

Even though I’m newer to eDesign Tribe, this community, started by designer Jenna Gaidusek is worth mentioning as well. Jenna was an interior design graduate who like many in the early 2000s -2010s struggled with finding good interior design software tools.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Jenna recalls her early experiences with painstakingly modeling and rendering individual items in SketchUp, and the time it took, as well as the frustration of having to use CDs to store each individual CAD file on at the time, something I can relate to as an early user of SketchUp.

After starting a family, Jenna wanted to work from home, and decided to find online design employment. Overall, the experience was a disappointment, as the “big brand” new virtual interior design companies catching on to the trend of virtual interior design were lowering prices for customers at the expense of their designers. Some companies even require the designers to “compete” for work without any guarantee of pay.

Another Virtual Design Community is Born

Jenna started her own eDesign business from home in 2015, and since then started the eDesign Tribe as a community for interior designers trying to figure out virtual interior design as entrepreneurs. She created her own tools, pioneered solutions for creating beautiful renders, and even opened a professional training course “eDesignU” to help designers new to the virtual environment.

Jenna has also been very outspoken in her criticism of the big virtual brands trying to undercut what designers get paid and is a proponent of a minimum virtual design wage, something she requires with membership to her program. You can read more of Jenna’s story here.

At the time of writing Jenna’s eDesign Tribe has a following of 4.5k members.

How to Discover Virtual and eDesign for Yourself

The Design Files community is open to designers who use the Design Files platform. Find out more here.

eDesign Tribe is open to new virtual designers who have an established website for virtual interior design. There are added benefits to membership. Find out more here.

The Future of Interior Design is Virtual

woman holding black vr headset

I can personally attest to the fact that virtual interior design was slow to catch on. In early 2020, something changed the landscape of interior design permanently. The pandemic suddenly forced designers to work from home.

For many who had never considered virtual interior design or had looked down on it in the past, this left them scrambling to figure out how to do what they hadn’t tried to do before: offer their design services entirely online. Many weren’t even sure it was possible. But the virtual designers and eDesigners knew it was. And in many ways, we had been waiting for this moment.

Industry changes since 2020

There have been a lot of surprises in the industry since that time. From expecting no work to experiencing a boom in requests for online design work, old school designers have been flocking to platforms like Design Files and joining communities like Jenna’s eDesign Tribe. Online furniture sales, which were once thought to have no future, exploded in the months following lockdowns across the world and went up by 300% percent.

Many of the changes that have occurred in the industry will be permanent, and I think they are for the best. There is more acceptance of interior design entrepreneurs and virtual interior design processes. There is more appreciation for the designers and communities teaching and fostering virtual interior design startups.

Looking Ahead at the Future of Virtual Interior Design

photo of boy standing while using vr headset

Most importantly, the last fifteen years has proven that virtual interior design or eDesign is viable, and not only that, but that it is the way of the future. It’s had its bumpy start, and taken time to be accepted by the old guard. I smile when I recall reading about the pushback the introduction of computer aided design got from many architects and designers when I was in school.

Now we can’t imagine a world without CAD.

The good news is that things are only getting better for the industry as more tools come onto the market, and trends look set to keep improving the way we design remotely.

Some big ones to look out for include improvement in cloud rendering, creating, buying and selling 3D models, and the use of VR in real estate, architecture and design. Exciting things are coming and virtual is the future. Get on board with us!

Stay badass, Baddies!


PS: Are you interested in virtual interior design? Read our popular article on how to get started:

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