HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: Critical Interior Design Features You Don’t See

various photos of hidden interior design Furniture, accessories, color – these things are typically among the first that come to mind when we think about interior design.  However, these terms relate only to interior decorating rather than the full breadth of interior design.  While interior design does involve these important final touches, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface – hidden in plain sight – that can have a tremendous impact on how a final space feels and functions. We’ve asked a few of our designers about some of those behind-the-scenes interior design features that can easily be overlooked.

various design layouts for a lecture hall, with auditorium and banquet seating options
Interior design for a new auditorium or multi-purpose room requires space planning and review of various layouts, such as this example where we tested capacity for lecture hall, auditorium and banquet seating options.

Space Planning and Layout

Kristin Novak:  Effective space planning requires that we understand the functions occurring within each space and how people will use it.  Interior designers are trained to understand personal ergonomics, body proportions, and scale.  Space planning allows us to think about large scale relationships, such as how a restaurant or bistro functions (spacing of tables, how people will get into/out of chairs, how servers will get to the tables, where food is prepared, how cooking staff operate, where glassware and linens are stored) to the small scale, such as where toilet paper is located in a restroom.

It is also important to think about which spaces must be close to each other and why.  For example, auditorium and meeting spaces, whether in a hotel, school, office or retirement community, are typically located near a public entrance point so that guests can easily locate and access these spaces without wandering through other internal building areas.

While many of these important features are the things we don’t see, they do get noticed if not implemented correctly! 

Matt Barley:  As an interior designer who specializes in adaptive reuse, one of my first steps in space planning is surveying the existing conditions. A survey of existing conditions is one of several methods to gather data and begin the synthesis with the future desired programs.

For an adaptive reuse of a unique, hexagon shaped, mid-century modern elementary school, the existing structure had labyrinth-like corridors with no natural lighting. A critical aspect of the space planning was removing existing walls and adding support columns, where needed, to open the space and allow natural light deep into the spaces. Some of the benefits to the end user are a clarified path of circulation, contemporary spatial configurations and natural light that moves across the corridors from morning to evening – not necessarily features that you would notice individually, but together these changes create a significant impact on the final space. Yet another benefit to the end user was visually connecting the corridors with the adjacent lawn, garden and woodlands—views that likely will be noticed and appreciated more than the functional corridor features providing this visual access.

2 photos - on the left an empty classroom; on the right a senior man opening an oven
When designing for an elementary school, we respect the height limitations of young children. Similarly, when designing for senior living communities we consider body limitations that occur with age. School District of Lancaster, Martin School; Masonic Village Smart Homes; Photo Credits: Nathan Cox Photography

Making Spaces Accessible

Matt: Accessibility affects every space we touch as designers. It provides equal opportunity to safely access all designed spaces.  The codes that direct accessibility are the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines or the ADAAG.  The regulations set forth by the ADAAG address everything from slip resistance in bathroom flooring to head clearances in corridors and halls.

On a recent addition and renovation to a local library, an unplanned duct added to a basement wall made the room smaller by eight inches in length. This change in the overall dimensions of the room affected the book shelving layout where a minimum of 42 inches clear space between parallel edges is required (ADAAG 4.3).  This dimensional size decrease meant that our team had to double check to verify that each shelf still met the clear space requirement.  These unseen code and design processes are often quickly forgotten, but are essential to creating accessible spaces.

When things are hidden in plain sight, it means that the architects and interior designers have done their jobs correctly.

Kristin:  Interior designers follow building codes, accessibility codes, and testing requirements from various governing bodies.  Any codes that architects follow also apply to our work.  In addition to the code documents, we also respect how the body functions and moves.  When designing for an elementary school, we respect the height limitations of young children. Similarly, when designing for senior living communities we consider body limitations that occur with age.  For instance, we place kitchen cabinetry at a lower height to allow easier access, and we utilize lower cabinet drawers rather than doors so that the stored items are more easily at hand.  These are not codes, rather good practices that we have learned over the years. Like, these features are not attention-grabbers, but are definitely noticeable when using the space.

a chef putting cheese on a pizza before putting it into a hearth
Hearth oven in action at Waverly Heights, Gladwyne, PA; Photo Credit: Nathan Cox Photography

Helping Clients Meet Code Requirements for Safety

Liz Koch: When you walk into one of our recent bistro spaces, you are likely to notice the hearth oven for preparing your wood-fired pizza, but what you don’t see are the careful considerations for the surrounding materials based on flammability and other building code requirements.

Kristin:  Everything we specify must be checked for compliance with building code requirements which are defined by a number of factors including the type of building (e.g. public school, assisted living, restaurant, offices), the construction of the building (e.g. wood frame, steel columns), if sprinklers  are used, and where they are used within a building.  The types of finishes allowed in a code-defined exit corridor differ from those in a personal office.  An exit corridor is a protected path that allows many people to safely exit the building in the event of an emergency.  Those finishes have more stringent requirements related to flame spread and smoke development than finishes in a personal office.

floor detail diagrams
Tile floor detail diagrams. Moorings at Arlington Heights, IL

We also review industry standards such as those set by ANSI and specific trade governing bodies such as the Tile Counsel of North America, or TCNA.  One example would be at The Moorings in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  We designed a tile floor area where three buildings came together.  As illustrated above, we developed a compass motif to symbolize the intersection of these different buildings.  In addition to these easily apparent aesthetics we also needed to consider numerous other features including:

  • The contrast between colors to avoid creating a confusing line or the visual suggestion of a step,
  • The size of the tiles available from the manufacturer, as well as custom cut tile pieces,
  • The type of grout, the thickness of grout lines, and the type of mortar needed,
  • Manufacturer tolerances for uniformity between tiles,
  • Type of finish on the tile such as matte, gloss, or semi-gloss,
  • The coefficient of friction and risk for slipping,
  • Tile movement which occurs as the building settles and when sunlight hits the area,
  • Transition from tile to carpet so there is not a tripping hazard.
lobby space with a rug and transition strip
Hopefully what you notice is a beautiful lobby space overlooking a plaza, but one of the first things we see if a tripping hazard with the area rug which we eliminated by installing a transition strip around the perimeter. Willow Valley Communities, Lancaster, PA; Photo Credit Nathan Cox Photography

Providing Lasting Value

Liz:  Durability, functionality and performance are probably not the first words that come to mind when thinking about interior design, but these consideration are critical to what we do every day.  In many cases, we incorporate design strategies so you won’t notice certain functional features of a space like mechanical equipment, outlets, switches and vents.  We coordinate closely with the engineers to try to avoid aesthetic conflicts with these functional, but not-so-attractive elements.  For example, identifying the locations of return air vents helps to avoid conflicts with decorative moldings.

Matt:  When things are hidden in plain sight, this means that the architects and interior designers have done their jobs correctly. As a building ages, some of these features become visible in plain sight, and, if not handled properly will reveal unconsidered, value engineered or rejected design solutions.  A minor example of this is when a designer specifies chair rail in a room. The chair rail gracefully conceals the realities of day-to-day use such as chairs bumping against the wall on a regular basis. What is hidden in plain sight is the potential for the chair to scratch the painted surface, damaging the gypsum wall board or worse punching a hole in the wall.   The principle can be extended to other functional features such as baseboards, kitchen back and side splashes, and glides on the bottoms of dining chairs.

So while the interior decorating features are important, the interior design considerations, many of which take place behind-the-scenes are critical. As the Council for Interior Design Qualification puts it, interior designers apply creative and technical solutions within a structure that are functional, attractive and beneficial to the occupants’ quality of life and culture.

Kristin Novak earned a Bachelor of Arts, Studio Arts and History of Art & Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA and a Master of Fine Arts, Interior Design from The George Washington University; Washington, DC. A member of the International Interior Design Association, she earned National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) certification and is also a LEED Green Associate.

Matt Barley earned a Master of Design, (MDes) Interior Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.  He has 12 years of design experience and is himself a craftsman and artist.  Matt is an Associate Member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and a Board Member for the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County.

Liz Koch earned a Bachelor of Science, Interior Design from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. She has five years of experience and is studying for the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) certification exam.

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP