Legislation Should Be a Last Resort

While the rest of the world is doing its spring cleaning, I am standing in line at the service center to drop off my vacuum cleaner. Again.

It’s barely a year and a half old, but it’s already logged nearly enough “frequent driver miles” to the service center to earn a free trip to the Bahamas, and I’m getting fed up. My pets are in prime shedding season, and I need a vacuum that works, not one that sputters out every time I’m expecting guests.

Particularly aggravating is the company’s insistence on repeatedly “fixing” it, instead of replacing what is clearly a defective product. The service tech – owner of two collies and sympathetic to my “a vacuum is a necessity, not a luxury” situation – says she wants to help, but the “lemon law” will not allow the store to replace it unless it’s been dropped off three times in the same calendar year. November, January and March don’t count, she informs me, because November is a different calendar year.

It’s a classic case of laws designed to protect people doing the exact opposite.

Sadly, there’s a similar situation going on in the kitchen and bath industry right now. A host of Title and Practice acts, purportedly created to “protect” consumers, may actually be doing more harm than good – not only to designers themselves, but to consumers, design education programs and, ultimately, the future of our industry (see The Right to Practice).

For several years now, lobbying efforts from organizations outside the kitchen and bath industry have been directed at regulating the activities of residential design professionals and the use of the terms “interior designer” and “registered interior designer.” As a result, some states are considering legislation requiring those who practice interior design of any sort – including kitchen and bath design – to be a graduate of an accredited interior design program, have passed the NCIDQ exam, and have a predetermined level of education and experience.

One has to wonder why certification exams created by the National Kitchen & Bath Association are not considered “good enough” to prove competency in this very complex and specialized field. Or why, for that matter, anyone believes that an interior design association – made up of people who don’t specialize in kitchens and baths, and in many cases don’t even handle these spaces – should be the ultimate authority on who can or can’t legally practice kitchen and bath design.

Maybe the problem is a lack of understanding of – or respect for – what kitchen and bath designers actually do.
Or perhaps it’s just poorly worded legislation that defines “interior design” with such a broad brush, the potential harm done to kitchen and bath designers is merely collateral damage – unintentional, though that’s small comfort to those whose livelihoods are threatened by it.

Either way, this legislation presents a very real threat to our industry. In fact, the NKBA believes this to be such a major concern that the association has pledged half a million dollars toward fighting these efforts in 2007.

And the threat extends beyond just individual designers’ right to practice. This legislation has the potential to create a scarcity of designers, unnaturally driving up prices – certainly not in the best interest of consumers. It could mean staff shortages in kitchen and bath dealerships that could, long term, cause quality control issues and lengthy delays for consumers looking to remodel. It could also homogenize the educational offerings of design curricula, restricting specializations and creating a generation of cookie cutter designers who lack the diversity of knowledge to satisfy an ever-broadening client base with a wide array of style preferences, needs and desires.

None of this, of course, benefits kitchen and bath designers or their clients.

The American Society of Interior Designers argues that most (though not all) practice legislation includes residential exemptions, and that this legislation is not about taking people out of the market, but rather protecting the public from those who are not competent to practice. And this may well be the intent.

However I can’t help but feel it’s a bit like my vacuum cleaner problem. Before these laws came along to “protect” me, I could actually get some help when a product didn’t work. Now I just get form A352664X to fill out and a phone number for a place where the closest thing I can get to a human being is a voice saying “press one now.”

The best “protection,” I’m convinced, comes not from laws written by people who don’t even know an industry, but from well-thought-out efforts that incorporate input – and buy in – from all affected parties. When it comes to public safety and consumer protection, the design community needs to work together, leaving legislation as a last resort.