Designer vs Decorator?Is there a difference between a designer and a decorator, and do you need both?

De-sign-er, noun (di-|z|-n|r): one who creates and often executes plans for a project or structure.

Dec-o-ra-tor, noun (de-k|-|r|-t|r): one that decorates; especially one that designs or executes interiors and their furnishings.

Taken at face value, those two dictionary definitions are practically interchangeable. They both involve executing something, after all. But in the reality that is home interiors, they are very different beasts. Despite the differences, most consumers use the terms interchangeably and without much consideration for the finer points of the jobs. If you’re re-doing your home — and in saying re-do, that leaves the full scope of the endeavour undetermined — which do you need? How do you tell the difference? It may seem like an easy distinction, particularly if you’ve gone through the home renovation ordeal, but it’s a surprisingly common mistake that’s just as easy to clarify. “I would call a decorator an interior stylist,” says Clifton Leung, founder of the Clifton Leung Design Workshop. “Designers are more about rearranging the space: opening up the kitchen, moving the bathroom… basically knocking everything down and re-doing it to match the lifestyle … It’s a major, major job, a lot bigger than what a stylist does.”

“It is an easy mistake to make,” agrees designer Jo Gray of Grovens Living, reiterating Leung’s separation of structural work versus the cosmetic. “Interior design also involves architecture and engineering (redesigning a layout of a space, reworking the wiring, addressing plumbing and piping issues and so on) as well as addressing the ‘look’ of the interior space in terms of colours, textures, fabrics, furnishings, drapery and so on.” Monique McLintock Interiors’ McLintock echoes Gray and is happy to haul out building code regulation manuals that rival any country’s tax code as far as size goes. “Most people think they are the same thing. One of the main differences is that interior designers deal with construction drawings and construction materials. As interior designers we need to know about plumbing, electricity, building materials such as sink, taps, wood flooring, tiles etc. Interior decorators don’t need to know anything construction related. They are mainly about the soft furnishings such as furniture, curtains, cushions, vases and pillows.”

The 20-year old Hong Kong Interior Design Association is the de facto voice of the industry, with a mandate to, “[create] mutual benefits to both industry professionals and the general public. We promote interior design at the community level and raise the public’s awareness to interior design. We encourage the enhancement of design and construction so as to improve the well-being of society,” as stated on the HKIDA website. Not surprisingly, if you Google “Hong Kong interior decorators” the same website comes up. No wonder there’s confusion in the market.

Confusion also stems from the fact that designers can be used to decorate as well. Consumers often opt for one-stop shopping when dealing with a new home. If one contractor can be hired to fundamentally remodel the layout of a flat, why not just get the same supplier to choose a wall colour? Additionally it can be argued that the designer’s intimate knowledge of the space and of the client makes them the best choice for decorating too. But, “There area a lot of great decorators in Hong Kong who are more knowledgeable about lamps, decorative items, blankets and picture frames than us designers, as they spend most of their days in the shops and we spend them on construction sites,” McLintock sums up. Leung is more succinct. “Yes, designers can ‘decorate’ … but usually they don’t.”

Decorators are best called upon when a home doesn’t require foundational work — possibly in a new, efficiently developed flat or in a home owned for many years by an end-user — or in cases where owners would simply prefer only their own imprint on the space. “Some people just don’t want other people rearranging their stuff,” theorises Leung. “A stylist is about tidying up the place by using the owner’s own stuff and make it more appealing.”

“There is room in the market for both,” Gray notes. “Some clients do only want someone to help them with the aesthetics of their space, while others will want walls demolished and things moved around as well.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Europe and North America are dominated by decorators at the consumer level, the belief being that spaces are better planned to start with, leaving residents the difficult task of deciding which way to turn the sofa, and what kind of art would work in the dining room.

So the most basic rule to keep in mind is: Are you tearing down walls? If so, you need a designer. Designers move bathrooms, switch up room sizes, recommend brushed concrete or timber flooring, decide on sliding doors, maximise space and so on. “An interior decorator will not deal with any of that. Instead [they] will tell you if you need an L-shape or two-person sofa, if you should add some colour with cushions, how big of a rug you need, where to put decorative vases,” McLintock emphasises. “In practice, interior designers may also decorate, but interior decorators do not design.”

So when it comes times to rework the living room, look at your space as if it were a movie star. A young, budding starlet needs a stylist to suggest the right Vera Wang gown for the Oscars, but an aging thespian who’s on the red carpet for sheer talent may need a plastic surgeon in order to keep working. It’s all about how much of an overhaul you’re looking for.