Interior Designer vs. General Contractor

Sometimes it is hard to know whether an interior designer or a contractor is the best fit for your project. The advice I am going to give in the following post is specific to Washington State, so please check regulations for licensing, testing, etc. in your own state before following this as a guideline.

I want to start very basic because I honestly believe that simplicity is EVERYTHING.


The designer will develop ideas for your space that consider the adjacent spaces, the views, light levels, and more all using design principles and elements to provide cohesion and consistency throughout your space. The designer will select the appropriate finishes and fixtures, and essentially develop the guidebook for installing your space.

unless specified otherwise, the designer does not provide finishes and fixtures, nor do we install them or provide the installers. This is the job of the contractor or general contractor.

On a large project, a general contractor will plan and coordinate the installation, hiring all the subcontractors needed to complete the job. On a smaller project, the owner may be working directly with one or two subcontractors. Now, this is important, are you paying attention?


I’m also going to be perfectly honest in that most interior designers have done this in the past. In fact, up until a few months ago, I thought this was all good and fine to do, after clearing it with my window treatment workroom who stated that all designers did this! But, it is illegal to do this without the proper insurance, and unless someone is a licensed and bonded contractor, they are not properly insured to secure anything to your home. As in, we can’t hang a picture because that nail goes into the wall. Even more extreme, we cannot provide less than three referrals without holding liability for their work. So, if you’re looking for a painter, I’ll give you three I know of, then you’re on your own.

Now, along those same lines, general contractors do not typically have the training nor do they have errors and omissions insurance that is required to provide design work. So, those floor plans and elevations they are doing to get the job moving along… I just advise being careful with that.

Okay, so now we understand whose job is whose, but the wrong size cabinet was delivered, the paint doesn’t match the sample the designer showed me, and my bathroom floors are dangerously slick! Who is to blame??!!

Eep, what a mess, and yes, these are all possibilities. Knowing who does what is a part of the problem, but it is also important to know what expectations should be had from each service provider.

 This note graces every page of the contract documents provided by Waldron Designs.

This note graces every page of the contract documents provided by Waldron Designs.

In the goal of keeping this uncomplicated, the contractor is responsible for verifying field measurements… even if the designer’s measurements are wrong. You see, the designer takes measurements for design purposes- to convey a vision. The contractor is the one who needs to ensure that it can be built, order the proper parts and pieces, then install it properly. So, in the above example- the wrong size cabinet would be a contractor liability.

The contractor is also responsible for providing finish samples and mock ups as-needed to fully understand and see the exact item going into the home. In our example above, the contractor should have provided a paint swatch for approval before moving forward. That swatch may be submitted to the owner or the designer for approval. This is an important piece of the Construction Administration phase that ensures that the installation matches the design. Back to our example above, the contractor is again liable for this error.

Now for a twist… the finishes selected by a designer is where the designer becomes liable. If a large scale, glossy, ceramic tile is specified for a bathroom floor, we are likely going to run into some serious problems when the owner slips and falls. A properly trained designer will verify that the tile is floor-rated and appropriate for the space (slip-rated and with appropriate water absorption rates). The slippery floor above is a designer liability.

A designer is also responsible (but not liable) for meeting building codes, such as egress, ADA in commercial spaces, and health and safety precautions. Liability in these cases comes down to the owner. Waldron Designs takes our ethical responsibility very seriously and always draws to code unless specifically requested by the owner. If this is the case, we alert them as to the liabilities and possible fines incurred.

Rachel WaldronComment