SIDA: advocate and caretaker for a new profession

The Society of Interior Designers of Australia (SIDA) and its role as a professional body. The Society of Interior Designers of Australian (SIDA) was a local expression of an international movement. The label ‘designer’ rather than decorator was used by a professional body as early as 1936 and SIDA saw itself as advancing the new profession.

As such, their activities and the issues that occupied them are indicative of their influence on how the interior design profession was shaped in Australia in the 20th century. Each decade’s activities reflected the organization’s changing priorities, while their core values remained consistent: to influence the professional status of interior designers and uphold the standards of its members.

Although SIDA was sometimes perceived by later members and some current designers as a social networking group, evidence tells us this was not the case. When founded in 1951 SIDA was concerned with mutual support in a small industry. As such, communicating to the general public the advantage of using a skilled design professional was paramount. Less than a year after foundation, SIDA instigated a Good Design Award to help consumers identify quality locally designed products. This was the first of several SIDA-branded award schemes which associated the group with local ingenuity and professionalism. Since their small membership had strong skills in exhibition design, a show of display rooms to present members’ work to the public was their second undertaking and met with immediate success, assisted by newspaper reviews and reports in the social pages. The catalogue emphasised members’ qualifications and answered hypothetical questions from consumers reassuring the public of the practicality and reliability of engaging a SIDA designer.

The speed at which recognition of SIDA grew in Sydney in the 1950s meant the society succeeded from inception in playing an important role in educating the consumer and enhancing the prestige of the new profession. After incorporation in 1964, SIDA’s administration addressed a lack of accepted accreditation and industry regulation by focusing on three key areas: eligibility, standards and education were the issues of highest priority, which SIDA energetically advanced in the 1960s and 70s.

Barry Little’s call to arms in a 1969 SIDA Newsletter is indicative of the context of the times:

Unlike barbers, decorators still need not go to school. Unlike theatrical costume designers, decorators still need to pass no exam. Unlike dogs, decorators still need to have no license. Without professional status, we operate from a valley of weakness, not from a tower of strength.

Although many members had general design training, SIDA believed that without degree qualifications like those of architects, the profession’s credibility was weak. The Society felt a responsibility to combat this using a variety of methods. This belief was fundamental to their activities in the 1960s and 70s.

More than any other group or course, it was SIDA that determined the defining qualifications of an interior designer in the 20th century and determined eligibility for inclusion - who could join and who could not. The application process was thorough and became even more rigorous in the late 1960s. Mary White, one SIDA’s inaugural members, developed a structure in which prospective members attested to their training and experience and were interviewed in person to explain the gravity of the ethical commitment. Admission was successful for those whose work reflected breadth of experience. The Executive often debated whether an applicant fulfilled the criteria; many were turned down, usually because their practice was in a single area of design rather than the planning and advisory for whole interiors. Others were refused admission if negative reports were received from employers or affiliates. Without any other official form of recognition, SIDA felt a responsibility to provide the benchmark for professional standards and did not refrain from exercising selectivity.

Membership of SIDA was not universal and some prominent designers never joined. Melbourne’s Noel Coulson, with his qualifications in architecture and long list of powerful clients, simply never saw the need; in Sydney Tom Gillies, with the patronage of charity doyenne Mrs Marcel Dekyvere, operated successfully outside of SIDA, though executive politics ran high on this issue on several occasions.

Once admitted to membership, of which there were a variety of grades to accommodate students, tradespeople, retailers and professionals, the designer’s new status “MSIDA” was regarded as a valuable asset for those entitled to use the letters. The Executive devoted considerable energy to the development of an emblem for society members as a sign to the public of a trained, vetted and experienced designer. A Code of Ethics, years in development and refinement, was published in 1969. Like membership eligibility and grades, the code was later reviewed and updated to align with changes in the profession. SIDA’s commitment to refining and improving its codes and rules was a hallmark of the society.

Maintenance of high ethical standards was considered to be a cornerstone of the elevation of designers from Little’s ‘valley of weakness’. Members were actively held to the Code of Ethics. Compliance with rules as to how designers operated, charged fees, behaved towards clients and represented the profession was essential to retain the SIDA stamp of approval and - in the absence of degree qualifications – much was at stake. Bound by their own code, the activities of one member could reflect poorly on the whole profession. Members who deviated from the Code of Ethics were reprimanded and occasionally expelled. In this way, SIDA had a powerful influence on defining what constituted an interior designer and determined public expectations of their range of skills and professional standards.

From the start SIDA encouraged student and young graduate participation; they qualified as Junior members and exhibited drawings and models in exhibitions. SIDA was itself a conduit between students and industry, enabling internships and graduate job placements through advertisements in the SIDA newsletter or personal connections at their professional and social gatherings. In the 1960s private courses in interior design gained popularity, but SIDA, always careful to maintain independence and exercise a high professional standard, avoided endorsement of any particular interior design school, preferring to concentrate its efforts on steering course content at public tertiary institutions. Members Phyllis Shilitto, Margaret Lord, Mary White and Don Johnston had been involved in design education in Sydney for decades. The Leslie Walford Archive documents SIDA’s advisory role in the development of the diploma course offered at Randwick Tech from 1975 and the MA in Interior Design at Sydney College of the Arts from 1980. Further support of students in the 1980s and 90s came through scholarships, prizes and work placements.

Years of diligence on SIDA’s part resulted in the Society actively shaping tertiary course content to industry requirements, thus removing one of the main obstacles to professional status Barry Little had identified in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s SIDA also invested in a range of activities to address issues of professional practice and development. Trade discounts, wholesale relationships, mutually beneficial connections, insurance, liability, employment, rates of charge and methods of calculating fees were all canvased at meetings. Leslie Walford in particular initiated many training sessions to advance members’ professional development on these issues. He also arranged educational lectures, engaged expert speakers and panels and organised site visits to important buildings under construction in Sydney. The development of a SIDA source or trade book was mooted many times, though probably never eventuated. The Executive were entirely voluntary and spent many hours free of charge on SIDA business. The only fees paid, and those sporadically, were for secretarial support and event based publicity. Communication within the Society was much improved when Barry Little introduced the first newsletter, published in February 1969.

Concerns about public perception of the purpose of an interior designer remained constant and led to a variety of activities run by the publicity and exhibition sub-committees. At various times media professionals were engaged to steer SIDA’s public relations, particularly for major events such as exhibition rooms, always with the goal of improving public understanding and enhancing the reputation of the profession. Crucially, several prominent members including Mary White, Margaret Lord and Leslie Walford had regular newspaper columns, radio and television spots.

SIDA had always enjoyed positive, if superficial, coverage in home maker magazines and the social and women’s pages of newspapers, but the emergence of several cutting and critical articles in the late 1960s meant the Executive tackled scepticism head on with renewed purpose.

The two articles that incited SIDA’s anger were published in The Bulletin1 and the new Vogue’s Guide to Living; essentially they questioned the business morals and commercial and creative integrity of decorators, who were painted as exploitative, manipulative and untrained. The problem was complex: SIDA had lost control of its professional image in the media and individual members were naively exposed in interviews which strayed from the SIDA party line. Above all, there was a sense of frustration that influential magazines had taken a provocative line to sell copies, rather than present the serious message of professional skill, which had been SIDA’s industry brand since 1951. The crisis resulted in many letters to both journals. SIDA cut its advertising with Vogue and instructed members to follow suit. The Code of Ethics, which had been discussed for some years, was promptly finalized and published. In any case, the articles concerned were probably the last gasp of condescension to interior designers, whose status rose in the 1970s.

  • 1. Charles Higham, 'The "Inside" story: ins and outs of the interior decorators', The Bulletin, 16 December 1967, pp.26-28.

By the late 1970s tertiary courses were well established; the profession had matured and the need to promote understanding of the function of a designer became redundant. As a result, SIDA was able to prioritize other long term goals. Offices in Edgecliff were opened in the late 1970s and a national headquarters purchased by the Society in 1977 operated in Paddington for ten years. Interstate branches were initiated and expanded to include all states, where local leaders were absorbed into the national executive. Weekend seminars were run in Brisbane and Melbourne as SIDA looked to improve members’ knowledge of each other’s work and to strengthen connections in the cities. They reflected, too, on their own history, marking the 20th and 25th anniversaries of foundation in 1971 and 1976 with ambitious exhibition rooms; the popular format continued well into the 1980s. SIDA began to look outwards, forming links with other cultural institutions and overseas design bodies. They established affiliations with the International Federation of Interior Designers (IFI) and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) in the mid-1970s and these connections were cemented by several overseas tours to Europe, the USA and Asia, led by Walford and Little, where members attended conferences and viewed the latest products and commissions.

In the mid-1990s, SIDA looked to alliances with larger design organizations in Australia to ensure their strength and influence. Presidents Geoffrey Stewardson and Meryl Hare guided the organization through a process of review as part of the Australian Design Professionals Project, resulting in SIDA’s eventually merger with the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) in 1998. A legacy of assisting design students continued through the work of the SIDA Foundation until 2017.


1. Charles Higham, 'The "Inside" story: ins and outs of the interior decorators', The Bulletin, 16 December 1967, pp.26-28.

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Finding aid: SIDA collection

The Society of Interior Designers of Australia (SIDA) was a professional body, founded in 1951, to represent the interests of interior designers in Australia. It promoted interior design to the general public and also set standards of practice for the profession

A room for Miss Merle Oberon

SIDA exhibitions: a full listing of designers and their display rooms

Between 1953 and 1986, the Society of Interior Designers of Australia (SIDA) staged nine exhibitions of model rooms, each room designed by an interior designer.


Rooms on view: SIDA’s exhibitions, 1953-1986

From its inception, the Society of Interior Designers of Australia (SIDA) used exhibition rooms as an effective marketing and education tool. The ‘rooms’ were each designed by an individual SIDA member as an idealised space often for a named personality.

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Catriona Quinn

Catriona Quinn

Design historian

Catriona Quinn is a design historian and curator, formerly at Sydney Living Museums, currently a PhD candidate and scholarship recipient at UNSW Sydney - her thesis is on the role of the client in Australian post war interior design history. Catriona is a frequent public lecturer on a range of aspects of interior design history, including for Sydney Living Museums, the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas, the ACT Heritage Festival, Canberra Modern and at international conferences. Amongst many publications, Catriona was a contributing author to The Other Moderns. Sydney's forgotten European design legacy (New South 2017).