An interior designer’s vision to professionalise the interior design industry

Dr Vanessa Brady OBE

Founder & CEO of Society of British and International Interior Design (SBID)


Vanessa finally shares the real story behind her glamorous career in interior design and the challenges she faced to pursue her vision for bettering the interior design profession. It drove to the birth of SBID and the development of key initiatives across interior design accreditation, education and Intellectual Property Protection.

What is your background in interior design?

My design work came from government departments mainly, but not as you would think. Ken Wharfe was Princess Diana’s personal protection officer and Head of Royal Security. Rob Jobson was the Royal Editor for the Evening Standard newspaper, with others who worked in government departments of protection. Dave Clark was a Special Branch Detective, and I looked after properties for several high-security personnel at high risk from the public in various fields and locations. My construction and fit-out team provided additional turnkey security and privacy. There were several high-level security categories of people I consulted with on occasions but never met. I couldn’t tell you what they looked like, but it all worked. When my husband and colleagues started retiring, I also realised my work would come to an end. Due to the work I had completed, I didn’t have a professional profile and was deliberately unknown in interior design!

Why did you start the SBID?

I’m often asked this question and have never really been able to give the full response, but as the non-disclosed period has now expired – here it is in full, warts-n-all!

I’m a designer. I had a construction company (a fit-out company actually), with many staff. There wasn’t an exit route for interior design by the sale of interior design practice – with or without a fit-out company – as other industries had. The industry generally regarded the individual designer as the only USP – but I disagreed. Fashion designers were able to scale and retain brand value, even after their death. Other designers are hired under a fashion house to add their stamp in the ‘style of’ and it worked for Versace, Chanel and Dior etc. So, I continued to investigate how I could transcend that value in the interior design sector too.

I decided to make my practice a profit-share for my construction team, so they kept their employment and I had the freedom to go and do other things. I had regularly been invited to join an industry organisation to help [their] business development but had declined. I finally accepted the role of Finance Director in 2007. I was elected to become the first President a few months later to take over in 2008. I decided to set standards for membership in education, as the organisation had no connection, nor had any other industry body for the interior design sector with any universities. Without testing, measuring and setting required industry training criteria, there is no barrier to entry of an unregulated industry – and that is still the problem. If you paid your fees, you were in! The group of fellow Directors around the table rejected my idea and removed my remit as a Director to prevent me from implementing my ideas. Unfortunately, but not until I had spent a year – by request and approval – doing research as a volunteer director and submitting my ideas in a report before doing so! They still didn’t understand it, so I was invited again to do a second, more explanatory presentation which I did, and was asked to hand a copy over for perusal – I did. Some internal footwork to push me out occurred so, I let them have it. Four months later I launched an organisation SBID – just because they didn’t like my ideas, didn’t mean I was wrong. And if I were wrong, I would fail.

I launched SBID in April 2009, and it has grown from strength to strength. Now in its eleventh year, with a team of 14, we are still growing, even though the challenges of Covid-19. I am shocked at continued growth throughout this difficult term, as I prepared for at least a 30% decline. Luckily, that hasn’t occurred in the interior design (ID) sector. I have had weekly update meetings with various government departments on Microsoft TEAMS and calls. ID is a booming sector of the creative industries, according to all reports.

Did you have any moments of doubt for SBID’s success?

Whenever you put your head above a parapet, you’ll get a percentage of people aiming at you. I remember being told by a man I admired for his discretion, ‘Vanessa, my dear, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette’, and that’s true. Along the way, you may get a little cracked and damaged, but the result should be worth it. Of course, I got used to this throughout life as I cannot stand injustice and will always fight back, and I never fight until I can win. The worst instance came after I created my proposal for the organisation to adopt education to create a career in interior design.

As I had already spent a year researching to present a proposal to become an Institute (which was also rejected), I decided to act on the ideas I truly believed in to set up my own body and develop the industry in the way I envisioned. I applied to Companies House to register as an Institute. The same body that rejected my proposal had used my presentation and my research without consent to apply for institute status three months later. They had relabelled my work as their own. Amazing! I decided to let them have the title and see what they could do with it. After all, I have a recipe for apple pie, but I can’t make one! Even with my formula and my business model, I decided to let them get on with it while focusing on building SBID.

To cover their actions, they created a smear campaign against even my family and me. I learned from that. Whatever I presented after that has been copyright protected. I do not permit duplication, use or replication (cloning) of my format or structure, my design process or my intellectual property without written authority to do so ever. I have royalty agreements in place for all of my commercial work and IP. After that experience, I will never let anyone steal from me – because that is what it is – it is my work. I can give, but I never allow anyone to ‘take’ without consent.

How did you overcome Intellectual Property theft?

I was shunned by many and had to work much harder to retain my reputation. But I looked at the people that did it, and in my opinion, it was jealousy of the worst kind. My colleagues each suffered similar issues in their sectors, so we took this negative and benefited from it. In a dirty world of secret politics, it wasn’t dissimilar to interior design. So five of us decided to set up our own private security company providing the services we were all known for as a commercial entity. We launched Diplomatic Security Services as a platform and traded independently by discipline. Ken Wharfe, Princess Diana’s protection officer and Head of Royal Security, evaluated personal and property security. Rob Jobson, the Royal Editor of the Evening Standard, ensured both promotion and privacy in the national press. Dewi Jones, a senior officer with Special Branch specialising in disseminating digital data, was a great asset. Dave Clark, a former Special Branch detective, looked after personal security. My husband dealt with organisational and training development, as well as sourcing clients. I addressed all interior fit-out of the properties where clients lived or stayed. My construction and fit-out company provided 360degree turnkey security for special residents. We were a great team, but it is difficult to be public doing things in relative secrecy.

As with many things, there’s a straw that breaks the camels back, and for me, it was the inability to speak out when my work was stolen, then used as a weapon against me. My silence fuelled the whisper campaign against me and SBID. It was such an injustice I could not ‘go quietly’ as Princess Diana once said. There’s nothing like an injustice to keep you fired up. An injustice or inequality drives me. So, to answer your first question fully, four months after being effectively removed as the VP and a smear against me began, I retaliated by setting up a platform that addressed the industry issues I had personally witnessed as a designer when I started. That is, if your profile appeared not to fit into a ‘clique’ in the snooty interior design world, you would not survive in London as an interior designer. Continuing with my ambition to address these issues also addressed my visibility, and so it began. Many others like me who previously were ‘unrecognised’ now had a platform to promote their talent, not just the top end, but SBID created support through the entire journey of a designers career.

SBID is a global success, why did you make SBID International?

My design work has always been international, so the logistics to expand seemed natural. It was also unique. No existing interior design organisations at that time connected international business with national business. Britain is the head of the Commonwealth, representing 54 countries and being a member of Europe. I had a relationship with our national counterpart in the USA, The Society of American Interior Design (ASID) and Interior Design Canada (IDC), as well as our families personal friendship with Cheryl Durst of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). It seemed a natural fit for SBID to launch as a British and international organisation. The more I researched design within the UK, the more I realised that the market opportunity was global, and it helped me build a platform representing the UK overseas. At the same time, competitors acted on my business plan in competition to me at home.

It’s a big enough world for everyone, so I decided to fish in different waters. SBID made friends worldwide (which generated envy and hostility in equal measure), but our reputation began to grow. I don’t look over my shoulder at what was behind me; my focus was always on the route ahead; it keeps SBID in front. Our core business is representing interior design. We do that by representing interior designers, quality products and materials for global projects where British fit-out specialists install some, so together, we all create beautiful interiors. It just keeps growing.

What’s the next step for SBID?

We are a British company trading globally; it makes sense to utilise the UK’s new opportunities post-Brexit. Lord Grimstone, Minister of Business and International Trade, wrote to me and invited me to work with him. I have accepted that invitation and will now seek to negotiate business worldwide to improve services and sales to and from the UK.

There are huge opportunities for SBID members, and I’m excited about the future! I’m not saying there won’t be teething problems, as a post-pandemic world has to adjust; Brexit has ‘moved the goalposts’, opening the world to a new era of global trade. Any business expansion scheme has to ‘trial and error’ change into a new management programme. Whatever changes the UK builds, I’m sure it’s taking SBID with it – which can only be a good thing for our members and clients.

As a pro-European, I’m pro-global; I’m very excited and confident about the future in or out of the EU. It’s exciting times if we all tread with a certain amount of trepidation and caution and boundless energy to ‘seize the day’. The opportunities are plentiful!