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Interior design concerns itself with more than just the visual or ambient enhancement of an interior space; it seeks to optimize and harmonize the uses to which the built environment will be put. Thus, in the words of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is “practical, aesthetic, and conducive to intended purposes, such as raising productivity, selling merchandise, or improving life style.” Interior design is a practice that responds to changes in the economy, organization, technology, demographics, and business goals of an organization.

As a human activity, interior design is centuries old. As a coherent profession identified by the label “interior designer,” it is relatively recent. Many experts trace its beginnings to the early 20th century and the rise of interior decoration as a career separate from architecture. In the early decades, this practice focused largely on the residential arena. By the 1940s, the terms “interior design” and “interior designer” were used primarily by those individuals providing services to a small but growing number of business clients. After World War II, nonresidential design—offices, hotels, retail establishments, and schools—grew in importance as the country rebounded economically. Interior design is generally divided into two categories, residential and contract or commercial. Today, interior design is becoming increasingly specialized as buildings and materials get more complex technologically and regulations and standards more demanding.

The first national professional organization for interior designers, The American Institute of Interior Decorators (later, the American Institute of Interior Designers), was founded in 1931, and a second, the National Society of Interior Designers, in 1957. But it was not until the 1960s and 70s that independent organizations were established to assess qualifications for designers and design programs, thereby putting in place the cornerstones of the profession; standards for education, experience, and examination. These are the Interior Design Educators Council, the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research, and the National Council for Interior Design Qualification. In 1975, AID and NSID merged to form the American Society of Interior Designers. The International Interior Design Association was founded in 1994.

Efforts to bring about statutory licensing of interior designers, variously through title or practice acts, also began in the 1960s. In 1982, Alabama became the first state to enact legislation for the regulation of interior design. Today, 25 states and jurisdictions have adopted some form of regulation for interior design. A current list of interior design laws by state can be found on the ASID website.