A Brief History of Interior Design Styles

Table of Contents

A Brief History of Interior Design Styles

When you think of the term “interior design,” it is unlikely that you would associate it with a mud hut. And yet, the roots of interior design have been scholastically attributed to clay-like structures built by the Ancient Egyptians, otherwise known as mud huts.

The Evolution of Interior Design Styles Through History

Ancient Egyptians

To enhance the living spaces, families added functional furniture which they covered in animal skins or other textiles. Over time, versions of pottery such as painted vases, wall murals, and sculptures became popular.

Romans and Greeks

Inspired by Egyptian concepts of décor, both the Roman and Greek civilizations utilized mosaics, wall paintings, and vases. Home interior styles varied, however; the Romans focused on beauty and comfort, as a means to demonstrate wealth and status. They made furniture from a variety of wood, stones, and metals.

Consistent with their emphasis on luxury and aesthetics, furnishings included comfortable and fashionable cushions; while wall coverings displayed decorative designs. In contrast, Greeks focused on the decoration of intricately crafted furniture designs. Precious metals and ivory were used to create elegant furniture. Romans and Greeks also invented doomed-roof buildings.

Europeans: The Sacred & the Profane

Gothic-Styled Design

The High and Late Middle Ages witnessed Romanesque architecture evolve into what was termed Gothic in style. First appearing in the 12th century in France, the design is characterized by ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. Consistent with European countries’ devotion to their religion, the most celebrated examples of the Gothic style are to be found in churches, cathedrals, and abbeys.

Christian worshippers believed their creator judged their faith based on the expanse and grandeur of their religious structures. The taller and more grand the building, the more blessing would be bestowed upon them by the Christian God, here on earth and in the afterlife.

Renaissance-Styled Design

The Renaissance period was known as the sacred “rebirth” of art, architecture, literature, science, music, and interior design. Originating in Tuscany and Florence, Italy, the design influences of the Middle Ages, such as pointed arches and markedly delineated lines in design, were softened into rounded arches and hearty columns. Decoratively the bestial gargoyle was replaced with gentle depictions of European life.

Interestingly, the Renaissance was partly the result of the “profane” political ambitions of kings and rulers in the form of wars raged, as well as artistic pursuits driven by ego. One example of this is the massive influence of Francois I, King of France. François’s appreciation for the arts and ongoing war with Italy served to provide inspiration for a resurgence of creativity within France’s cultural, scientific, intellectual and artistic communities. In Francois’s mind, he was strengthening the crown as well as his political position by bringing Italian masters and their works to France. Most famously his acquisition of the services of Leonardo da Vinci and the painting of the Mona Lisa which he used to decorate the royal hunting lodge, the Château de Chambord.

Baroque-Styled Interiors

The Baroque period emerged in 17th-century Italy and continued to expand north. The term means “irregular,” and was initially a product of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Massive, bold, rich velvet lambrequin, marquetry furniture, and crests characterized the style. Symmetry and precision in intricate depictions of “putti” or young boys and foliage are characteristic of the period. 

As it spread, it was increasingly transformed by secular influences. Powerful monarchies utilized the approach to demonstrate power, pageantry, and strength. The opulent and robust architecture and interior design notably and profoundly affected European countries and cultures.

Neoclassical Style

In the mid-18th century, the cities of Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin, and Genoa rejected Baroque design elements in favor of what would be known as Italian Neoclassical interior design. Based initially on Greek, Roman, and Renaissance architecture – Great Britain and France would become leaders in the development of Neoclassical Art.

Examples of the period can be seen in furniture that resembles the Louis XVI style and exaggerates recessed furniture backs and necks, as well as geometrically shaped Venetian armoires. Italian designers adopted the French-styled secretaire and encoignure cabinet by incorporating intricate signature designs. Gold, precious stones, exotic ornamentation, and jewels served to make the French Louis XVI armchair a uniquely Italian creation.

Interior Design for the Masses

Before the 19th century, art and interior design were enjoyed, commissioned and promulgated only by a country’s powerful, wealthy and influential individuals. However, as feudal and ancestral determinations of societal value were increasingly diminished by socio-technological-economic developments; the importance of the individual citizen became the firstborn and all-important prodigy of modernization.

Art Noveau

Although it only lasted three decades, from 1880-1910 Art Noveau movement was profoundly influential in the history of interior design. Predominantly characterized by geometric shapes, arcs, and symmetrical parabolas; the style led to the creation of Tiffany lamps and the overall adoption of stained glass. The world-famous Eiffel Tower is symbolic of the artistic design of this period.

Art Deco

Emerging after WWI, Art Deco was born into the roar of the 1920s.  Wealth in the U.S. doubled between the years 1920-1929 and brought with it an attitude of new opulence, extravagance, and indulgence. The interior design style of the period was identified by the use of chrome, stainless steel, and geometric and streamlined shapes. With increased urbanization came mass culture and an interior design style that hosted bold shapes, broad curves, black leather, and even a dash of zebra skin.

Interior Design Styles of Today

The good news is that not only does one enjoy a wide range of design styles from which to choose; but one also does not have to decorate solo. In the early 1900s, professional interior design emerged as a career, and never again would an individual, family, or business have to brave the oceans of décor alone.

In fact, in 2016, there were over 53,000 practicing interior designers in the U.S. alone specializing in styles such as Traditional American, Country, Shabby Chic, Scandinavian, Nautical, Hacienda, Minimalist, Industrial, Asian, Bohemian/Morrocan, Eclectic, just to name a few.

In Conclusion

A thorough survey of interior design reveals one obvious fact: the evolution of each style never occurred in a vacuum. Just as river-rock is shaped by variations in the currents of flowing water, each of the unique interior design styles was determined, to a great extent, by what was happening on the exterior.

Politics, war, economics, technology, architecture, education, and climate change have all contributed to designs which have accurately depicted the artistic passions and needs of the prevailing artists, as well as those of the participatory populace.