The political divide between interior designers Kelley Barnett and Shea Pumarejo is as vast as their home state of Texas. But they’re together on this: The Lone Star State’s occupational registration laws for their profession, which relies on creativity and knowledge, are bad for business. And they’re not alone.
Today, a two-tiered system of professional interior designers exists in Texas, giving those who are “registered interior designers” a distinct advantage, and those who are not, a significant barrier to competing for business reinforced by inaccurately assuming registered designers are qualified or more qualified than non-registrants. Complicating things further, those practicing interior design prior to 1993 were grandfathered in and given the title of “registered interior designer” regardless of whether they possessed any qualifications.
As a result, those “registered interior designers” ended up under the same state regulatory umbrella as professional architects and landscape architects, with no distinction between those who make solely creative or aesthetic decisions and those in the same category whose work carries a life-safety component. Interior designers who make decisions about, for example, existing living room spaces and kitchens, are regulated in the same group as those responsible for ensuring an office building’s compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Texas rule is but one example among a litany of occupational licensing regulations—from African-style hair braiding to dog walking in New York City—drawing opposition as unnecessary from both sides of the political aisle and business leaders, such as Koch Industries.
“Overall, more than a thousand professions are licensed in one or more jurisdictions across the nation, creating barriers for individuals seeking to enter the profession,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s senior vice president and top lawyer. “For many of these occupations, a certification process, which is less onerous and less expensive, could ensure public safety, health and quality in a more efficient manner than requiring occupational licensing or registration.”
Barnett and Pumarejo met four years ago at an industry event in San Antonio ready to do battle with one another. Barnett was the immediate past president of The American Society of Interior Designers Texas chapter, earned a four-year accredited design degree, passed the national qualifying NCIDQ (the national qualifying exam), and had 27 years of experience under her belt as an interior designer. Pumarejo viewed her as the epitome of the registered crowd. By contrast, Pumarejo, a single mom from San Antonio, started her own interior design business as a second career, not even considering becoming registered.
“She was ready to stand her ground,” Barnett recalled Pumarejo saying. But when Barnett stood up at the microphone to oppose registration, Pumarejo instead expressed gratitude, saying she couldn’t “believe that you care about the little guys like me.”
“We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum,” Barnett said, “but on this subject, we wholeheartedly agree.”
The pair’s unlikely allegiance symbolizes the common ground that can be found on an issue like occupational licensing and registration, as a barrier to entry for people seeking to improve their lives.
“It’s the haves versus the have-nots,” said J.D. Rimann, a research analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who has studied the occupational licensing and registration issue. “And if you can frame it right, you can really get it as conservatives and liberals, you know, Republicans and Democrats, coming together to stand up for the little guy—even if the little guy doesn’t always know they’re being trampled down.”
With the share of workers licensed at the state level increasing fivefold since the 1950s, keeping track of all these regulations is its own job. Supported by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Center for the Study of Occupational Licensing at Saint Francis University recently launched a national database documenting registration and occupational license requirements across thousands of professions.
Koch Industries has worked with some unlikely allies as well on the issue—including the Obama administration. The company is battling arduous occupational licensing regulations far removed from its roots, from the supermarket florist to the corner bartender. Rather than discouraging potential new designers from pursuing their dreams with mountains of educational debt and hours of training, Holden says states should encourage entrepreneurship by letting consumers, not governments, decide who is qualified for the job.
“It’s government overreach at its worst, restricting the ability of people to improve their lives and prosper,” Holden said.
Barnett, a political conservative and Southern Baptist, graduated from a four-year institution, passed the national qualifications exam and spent thousands of dollars and countless hours maintaining her registration for 17 years. But by 2010, Barnett had had enough and discontinued her occupational registration.
“Basically, they (state regulatory boards) spank you,” Barnett said. “I take twice as many classes as the state requires because I want to be the best designer and I want to offer that to my clients. I don’t take it because I have the state breathing down my neck.”
Pumarejo, a self-described “raging liberal,” says she is the only one in her immediate family who is not conservative. Born in Dallas and having attended more than a dozen schools thanks to what she calls her father’s “serial entrepreneurship,” Pumarejo chalks up her political philosophy to an independent streak. After attending college for a business degree, Pumarejo switched careers and subsequently began working in the interior design field in the early 1990s, after Texas instituted registration.
Both women have pressed the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners (TBAE)—the state’s regulatory board— for more transparency with the public as to occupational registration qualifications or lack of, in the designer roster. They have testified in opposition to bills, in support of other bills, attended regulatory board meetings, met with legislators, blogged, and gathered grassroots support for the cause. In 2013, Texas passed a bill treating all regulated professions equally by requiring that grandfathered designers pass the NCIDQ. They were given four years to do so. However, the state legislature this year extended the grandfather provision without the examination requirement until 2027, a full decade after it was supposed to expire. The result: More than half of the 4,000 current registered interior designers in Texas would not be able to become registered today. Critics and free market supporters, like Barnett and Pumarejo, claim such actions by the state expose how arbitrary, prejudicial, and unnecessary the rules for interior design are.Even without a design degree, Pumarejo still takes a steady load of continuing education coursework every year, and she has won two prestigious National Kitchen and Bath Association design awards, to boot.
“I just get really offended when people tell me that they’re better than me because they’re registered,” Pumarejo said, rattling off the names of Kelly Wearstler and Nate Berkus, two well-known designers who also lacked degrees. “I’m fine with people that are registered, that have degrees. Fine, go tell everybody, ‘Hey, I have a four-year degree from an accredited school, and I took this big, hairy test and it was hard to take, and I passed it.’ Good for you. Tell ‘em that, but take away the registration, because it’s confusing for clients and they think that it means that I’m not qualified to do my job.”
The state regulatory body champions its cause by promoting the “health, safety and welfare” of the public. While such concerns are relevant to architects, engineers and those dealing with structural integrity and building safety, they do not hold true when furnishing interior residences, for example. Even the Texas Association for Interior Design cannot provide any examples of safety issues created by unregulated designers. To date, there are no proven cases of harm done by unregistered designers. Furthermore, interior designers are not permitted by law to provide architectural, engineering, structural, plumbing, or HVAC services.
Meanwhile, Barnett and Pumarejo have lost business because they lack the occupational registration, although it’s impossible to determine the exact financial loss. “Because the state refuses to publish the true qualifications of its registered designers, we are in competitive situations against RIDs who are much less qualified than we are,” Barnett said.
Unregistered interior designers may also risk criminal and administrative penalties from TBAE if they portray themselves as registered, even accidentally. Barnett herself was threatened with criminal prosecution after she mistakenly published the wrong dates on her website for her registration. The new website had only been live for a few days, so she is convinced “someone was watching” and waiting for her to make even the slightest mistake. “First, it scared me to death,” Barnett said. “Then it made me really angry to think that something as silly as that incurs the wrath of this Texas regulatory body who’s ready to pounce on me with thousands of dollars in fines.”
Moments like these have kept both women united around the occupational licensing and registration cause, political differences and all. And while taking time away from their own businesses hurts their bottom line in the short run, both plan to keep up the fight in the years to come. They both will continue to volunteer for professional associations that support everyone’s right to practice interior design freely and without regulation.
“Kelley and I, I think, get it and we understand that it is now or never. And when that bill comes up, you have to drop everything and go,” Pumarejo said. “Because if we’re not, if she and I are not there to fight it, then nobody else will be. And so, we’ve kind of taken it on.”
Read more about why Koch Industries believes in advocating for the principles of a free and open society here.
1. Occupational Licensing, The Reason Foundation, 2007.
2. The Hamilton Project, The Brookings Institution, 2015.
3. License to Work, Institute for Justice, 2017.