What’s the Difference Between an ‘Interior Design Style’ and a ‘Decorating Style’?

architectural photography of three pink blue and yellow buildings

Hello and welcome.

Did you know, that contrary to what we learn from watching channels like HGTV, many professional interior designers are not concerned with sticking to established styles like ‘modern farmhouse’ and ‘urban modern’?

In fact, a good interior designer might not even know what modern farmhouse style is, and that wouldn’t make them any less of a designer.


In this article we are going to examine the difference between a ‘design style’ and a ‘decorating style’. For more about the difference between the terms ‘design’ and ‘style’, please go here.


Introduction

What we’ll cover:

  1. 1. We’ll look at what ‘style‘ in interior design is, and how the idea of ‘using a design style‘ actually differs from the type of style which is the result of a completed design.

2. We’ll further explore why style is the end result for interior designers and not a starting point, as it might be for decorators.

3. We’ll touch on the idea of typology in architecture and how it relates to styles in interior design. We’ll also consider how interior design styles might be classified when learning about them.


If you ever wanted to be able to definitively explain the differences between what designers and decorators do (and what it has to do with style), you’ll want to keep reading!


1. Style in Interior Design

Style Beginner Tip: Make a Useful Distinction Between Interior Design Style (the stylistic result of a design) and “Styles” (the decorating manner)

black and white and copper colours in sitting room arrangement
The result of this finished design which includes both modern and traditional elements is that it is a mixed style. When referring to the design style we might call it eclectic. Some might call it modern classic or Parisian contemporary, and they would be referring to the decorating style.

Style” in interior design is: ‘the way the interior looks visually’ (for example, Vintage or modern), and may include the aesthetics of furniture and decor.

Established interior design “styles” (like Victorian or Colonial), on the other hand, are: ‘an inherited manner’ in which the interior was constructed and may relate more to the architectural and built-in elements.

If you’re not sure what this means, don’t worry. I’ll explain.


Keep in mind that even professionals often use the two terms interchangeably when using them informally.


The Difference Between Designers and Decorators

woman in white shirt and blue denim jeans standing on brown wooden seat
Decorative aspects of home designing include many which are suitable for DIY or do-it-yourself, and do not require a design professional. Nonetheless, many who can afford it might retain the services of a decorator to plan color and decorative elements.

To start, it might help to understand the difference between decorators and designers.

(For those of you interested in studying interior design, you might be interested to know that my education was in both interior design and decoration, and that there is a good distinction between them).

Here’s the difference.


Definition of Decoration vs Design

Decorating is concerned with the more superficial elements, whereas designing is concerned with everything related to the structural, constructed and fitted elements.

Having said that, designers often make decoration a part of their design approach in professional practice. This means that they might be responsible to decorate a space and so decorating becomes part of the design plan.


Example of Design vs Decoration in Full Service Interior Design

When a commercial design client hires an interior design studio to do “full service interior design”, this often includes remodeling, renovation and systems planning as part of the scope of design work.

This type of design project is common in the retail and shopfitting spaces, as well as hospitality and workspace design, healthcare and education design.

It is especially necessary in design for adaptive reuse, an important part of designing sustainably.


Remodeling and Renovation (Design Scope)

unfinished wall

A renovation project in the contract space often includes the removal of old design fittings, the restructuring of internal partition walls, and the installation of all new appliances and even HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning) systems and internal plumbing.

Plans for the design of each of these systems would be drawn up individually, on different construction sheets, as part of a series in the building plan.

To create these plans a professional interior designer would use standard construction design process, especially in drafting of the documents.


As you can see, this part of a professional project has nothing to do with decorating or a particular look or style. What is being done here is mostly related to function and space planning.

Remodeling and renovation direction is the domain of the designer, and is carried out by construction and other industry professionals.


Finishes, Fittings and Fixtures (Design and Decorating Scope)

interior of cozy small shop

Finishes and Fittings

The other later aspects to the design would include things like the planning of finishes to the exterior envelope. These finishes include choices for flooring, tiles, carpeting, and also paint.

Finishes are followed by plans for interior construction, many off which are known as fittings. Here we might also be talking about kitchen and bathroom design. Plans might need to be drafted for millwork, which includes custom cabinetry and built in-furniture.


Fittings and Fixtures

Industry fittings specialists might also fit paneling and architectural mouldings. Sometimes internal staircases, partitions, lofts, ceiling systems and fire safety systems are incorporated, which are considered interior architecture.

Following fitting we move to the installation of fixtures like lighting fixtures, bathroom fixtures and the installation of appliances. Sometimes home systems for sound and media or security are factored in.

For this the designer would use interior construction, systems and furniture design processes.


In this case, some of these elements of design play into the overal aesthetic look of the interior. This makes them ‘decorative design’ elemetns and they can be said to affect the design’s style.


Decorative Elements

For each separate layer to the design (usually in the order in which it needs to be constructed), there are specific requirements and trades people who assist. Each moving part of the total design lends stylistic weight to the final look of the project.

And finally we come to decoration. Basically, anything less fixed and more movable, such as free-standing furniture items, window dressings and treatments, as well as rugs, artwork and decorative items are considered a part of decoration.


2. Why Interior Designers Aren’t Focused on Styles and Decorators Are

Justina Blakeney in a “jungalow” style room showcasing her famous decorating style.
Image from the LA Times

Style Queens vs Design Queens

Some designers, like the popular Justina Blakeney, are known for their decorating style sense. Other designers approach every project on its own merits, and with very different end results, such as the work of Irish designer Clodagh, whose holistic approach to design produces quite different ‘looks’ for different clients, while channeling the same design ethos.

A designer who is known for an easily recognized visual style has usually developed a particular way of decorating. The method results in a certain look, such as the popular “jungalow” style Justine’s case.

For these talented decorators the aesthetic is the point of the design (yes, decorators do plan their decoration).


Comparing Decorating and Design Roles

What we are looking at in the stylistic work of a designer like Justine might be better described as her decorating style, rather than her design style, as it involves transient decorative elements more than fixed design elements.

In the case of Clodagh, she uses eastern design methodology, which is much more focused on the energy, feel and function of a space than the pure aesthetic of how it looks. For Clodagh the livability of the space is the overarching priority.

Commercial and contract interiors, too, must put the workability of the design before the beauty of it. Even so, a talented design professional need not sacrifice one for the other.

Decorating “style” by Clodagh, a designer who focuses on holistic and total design philosophy drawn from eastern design methodology.
Image from Surface Mag.

Decorators Focus on Style, Designers on Function

The designer who isn’t focused on a particular look might still produce work that is recognizable as their own, due to the use of certain materials or a way of working.

For a good designer how the final design will look comes down to many factors, and these factors go beyond the pure aesthetic. On the other hand, decorators are necessarily much more focused on style, because that is their area of specialty.


An Aesthetic Focus vs a Functional Focus

The reason that designers focus on function and decorators focus on style is that decorating is unapolagetically about the aesthetics.

Design is more about spatial and functional problem solving.

It gets more confusing because designers may decorate as part of their job, but not all decorators can “design”.

Coming back to existing interior design styles and their influence, both designers and decorators may use existing ‘styles’ as inspiration for projects. Clients, too, are often interested in knowing what their own “style” is before committing to starting a design project.


3. Style Typologies and How to Categorize Styles

brown cushion armchairs in between brown frame round mirror
This is an example of a contemporary and updated modern classical style.
Using Design Baddie’s Big Five style genre system, it falls into Modern Eclectic.

The Number of Decorating and Design Styles in Common Use

Did you know that there are at least thirty recognized interior decorating and design styles?

We cover this in more depth in our Interior Design Styles Mega List 30 and Do You Know the Major Interior Design Styles? articles. If you haven’ t read them, I highly recommend checking them out.


Where do these interior design and decorating styles originate from?


Investigating Decorating and Design Styles

The styles we see in home fashion start life as preferences for certain ways of building and furniture and textile creation and many have cultural roots. There are likely at least one hundred or more possible major styles globally; however, this is an estimation.

Studying different interior design styles is how a lot of people first come to learn about interior design. Even if this focus is on looks and ignores many other important aspects of design, it is fun to look at styles and it is fun to discuss them.


a family having a conversation in front of an agent
Will you work with your home’s existing style quirks or will you change them? You don’t have to be stuck with your design style, but it’s easiest ot change your decorating style.

The Combination of Design and Decorating Elements Give Us Style

Interior design and decorating “styles” are basically compositions of elements which together give us a particular “look” or vibe. As such, they are made up of a lot of different things which together achieve a certain aesthetic, known as style.

It’s interesting to note that in n architecture the style of a house or building is known as its “typology”. In America common home typologies include, “Colonial”, “Georgian”, “Modern” and “Contemporary”.


Interior Design Style ‘Typologies’

You could say we have typology in interior design too, even if it is only a bleed-over from architecture. It is true that there are a lot of blurred lines between architecture and interior design and I think this is one thing we interior designers should borrow from architecture when explaining style.

While many interior design typologies are well-represented around the world, there are also plenty of “rogue (flash in the pan) styles” in between.

Some well recognized interior design styles include “Classical”, “Transitional”, “Mid Century Modern”, “Urban Modern”, “Industrial” and “Mediterranean”. The typology of the home the interior design is applied to also makes a difference in the final success of the style’s execution.


When Interior Design Styles Defy Classification

wood blur mailbox business

Just as in architecture, there are plenty of real-world styles which exist in interiors around the world which can’t be perfectly defined.

The reason for this is that the individual people who created this designs and styles were drawing on a lot of personal influences in their creative process, or lacked a clear influence.

If you’re looking for a better way to group styles, check out our “Big Five” style system here on Design Baddie or take the quiz!


Remember, a creative person with style may or may not end up with what can be described as an easily identified “style“, but it might still be incredibly stylish.

Sometimes we might just have to shrug and admit that these have “a style all of their own“.

For more on finding your own personal interior design style, read these articles:

How to Get a personal Interior Design Style

Five Steps to Finding Your Interior Design Style Yourself


Fun fact: Falling “between styles” is often called an “Eclectic” style and it exists in architecture as well as interior design.


In Conclusion

I hope you are now clearer on the difference between interior decorating and interior design styles and how interior designers as well as decorators use and prioritize interior aesthetic styles in their work.

Next on our style series it will be time to look at where our home’s exterior and interior design styles come from and their legacy.

Do you consider yourself more of a decorator or more of a designer or somewhere in the middle? Don’t be shy and drop a line with your questions and thoughts.

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Happy styling!

vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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