History of Interior Design

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As humanity was collectively spending more time inside, interior design and architecture grew in artistic relevance. Sophisticated materials, design elements, and perceptions of space and light became worthwhile as men and women relied less on physical work outside in the fields. Hence it is an art that first emerged in more advanced societies. Furthermore, creative explosions in interior architecture would often coincide with golden ages. In this blog, we will present an overview of interior architecture’s evolution overtime.

Greek and Roman Interiors

The first sophisticated interior designs emerged around the Mediterranean, where Greeks and later Romans invested in interior spaces to display their culture, traditions, and way of life. Romans have left mosaics and frescoes depicting mythological scenes, historic, and family events. The architecture of a Roman citizen’s home is a reflection of the social status he and his family have, but also his rank in the political and tribal hierarchies. In some ways this is still true in today’s society, because trends in design often correlate with how much wealth an individual has.

Gothic and Medieval Designs

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century was a set-back for all arts, including interior design and architecture. We didn’t see very much art until the 8th and 9th century, when Gothic style emerged as a mix between Germanic and Roman influences. The Medieval approach to interior design was heavily oriented towards religion. Indeed, the inside of official buildings representing an institution or a powerful lord’s authority were laid out to remind beholders of God.

Buildings sanctioned by divine authority were designed to provoke spiritual awakening or provide a comfortable environment for meditation or prayer. Patrons sponsored the best masters and craftsmen, who carved out, painted and erected the most elaborate pieces of design in human history. A rich individual would find it advantageous to associate his name and fortune with artworks that magnify human abilities for the glory of God. The ecosystem created between institutions, patrons and artists allowed countries like Italy, France and Spain (under Muslim rule) to become cradles of innovative and breathtaking architectural achievements. Materials used varied, however the proper Western European style was characterized by dark shades with materials like dark wood or stone. Marble is often used, especially for Gothic structures (Cathedral of Koln, Duomo di Milano). The spectrum of used colors varies; the north is characterized by black and white contrasts while the south integrates many secondary colors.

Baroque

When The Renaissance kicked in the near the end of the 14th century, the ecosystem previously described saw an additional source of patrons: rich merchants, soldiers and politicians that derived their power and authority from the world itself rather than divine figures. While the religious angle was preserved and experienced evolution and shifts, renaissance art was characterized by a return to nature. Baroque for example reintegrates natural elements by randomizing structures and design languages.

Baroque comes from the Portuguese word “barocco” which means “irregularly-shaped pearl”. Baroque interiors often play on contrast, overwhelming the beholder with light or darkness, brightness or blurriness. Artists were experimenting with shapes, materials and volumes, coming up with new models of interior layout. The baroque style found its full expression in Mediterranean countries and in the New World; Spanish colonial baroque characterizes the historic settlements in the Americas.

The baroque style has contaminated the neo-classical overtime, especially in Britain. Robert Adam has operated this mix in the mid-18th century. While he was working with neo-classical frameworks and overall design language, his innovative integration of baroque design elements (still life images, ribbons, medallions etc.)

Neo-Classical

The profound shift the industrial revolution brought on the European real estate market shifted interior design priorities. Habitability was increasingly becoming a focus, especially with the second industrial revolution that brought to consumers new inventions (massive electrification). 19th century interior design and architecture is mainly oriented towards neo-classicism (one of the best examples being France and the neo-classical redesign of Paris in the late 19th century). Rich owners often romantically reactivate aristocratic designs, as a clear signal of identification. The materials used are also a display of wealth, as colonial expansion provides consumers with more exotic materials.

The neo-classical approach, while apparent in France and the United Kingdom, does not characterize other countries like Italy. In the industrial north, the emergence of the liberty style is a clear return to the Renaissance spirit. While remaining classical in its structure (notably for its use of horizontal symmetry), the liberty style incorporates baroque elements and the Greco-Roman fascination for floral motives and mythological depictions.

Art Deco, Futurism, and Pop Art

Art deco would later build on this liberty style foundation. In the beginning of 20th century, Italy is experimenting a cultural shift as it is molded for the first time by a centralized national state. Internal migrations contribute to combine regional arts and techniques. Art deco is a natural result of such a phenomenon. Rome features an entire district designed and built by the art deco architect Gino Coppedè. It is the most exhaustive use of art deco design elements in a real urban setting. It is characterized by the use of arabesques (inherited from the Neapolitan neo-bourbon style), curves and shapes that insisted on transmitting an impression of movement and fluidity. It was the artistic representation of humanity’s spirit at the time: fast-paced transformations that shaped the destinies of millions like never before, alongside unprecedented technological progress.

The rise of fascism in the 1920s introduced futurism in Italian and European interior architecture. Futurism was heavily characterized by rigidity. This is apparent when when observing the dynamics of Fascist architecture. Squares and rectangles are at the center of any fascist compositions (cf. The Italian Civilization’s Museum in Rome, the Court of Justice of Milan, etc.)

Both styles did not survive the second world war. Art deco was considered vulgar while futurism was perceived as grim. The discovery of new styles thanks to the increasing European integration and the spread of the American way of life helped shape a new conception of style in Europe. Scandinavian design (with Danish and Swedish design firms gaining worldwide recognition) set the pace for an approach focused on providing an experience, a mood, rather than a simple functionality. With the influence of pop art and the 1970s, designers started to experiment with colors, materials, shapes, volumes, textures and overall structures like never before. Plastic and the advent of consumerism provided opportunities at every level to create art and innovate.

Today the myriad of interior design and architecture schools is so diverse, that willing to identify the main trends would be challenging. However, we can notice that the use of design elements in a certain way contributes to create at least bridges between somewhat similar approaches. Indeed, modern architecture has greatly valorized natural light, functionality, space optimization and connectivity. These are defining features of recently built mega-structures (Sydney opera house, Burj El-Arab, Petronas Towers etc.) and contemporary interior design. The use of glass, aluminum, steel and increasingly carbon fiber has favored this trend, especially with the rising interest for urban solar exposition.

In conclusion, design languages have varied according to the availability of materials, technological capabilities, cultural preferences and geographic necessities. While all these criteria determine how a community will organize its way of living, the social and cultural backgrounds of the elites (who were the ones building the most durable structures) were displayed through interior design and architecture. Not only to give a concrete basis to their abstract ideas (God, nature or ancestry), but also to set the pace of the entire society, as the elites’ artistic, philosophic and ethical frameworks are effectively the entire society’s references.


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