History of Interior Design

What is Interior Design?

Technically, interior design is the process or art of designing the interior and frequently the exterior of a room or building. In a more subjective sense, it is about how we experience spaces.

Interior design is an essential part of everyday life and it affects how we live, work, play, and heal. When we observe and experience comfortable homes, functional attractive workplaces, and even beautiful public spaces, we are seeing interior design at work.

Interior designers are able to create spaces and forms that anticipate our needs and appeal to our emotions. They are able to shape the experience of interior space through the manipulation of space and surface treatment. Interior design is a multifaceted profession that includes the development of a

concept and the management and execution of a design through communication with the stakeholders of a project. It is distinct from the role of interior decorator which is a commonly used term in the U.S.

An interior designer or team of designers can coordinate and manage projects. They work with architects, engineers, contractors, craftsmen, furniture dealers, and business and homeowners.

To become successful in the profession, exceptional communication and organization skills. You also need a well-rounded education and the skill set to engage with many disciplines including architecture, graphic design, decorative arts, and furniture, textile, and lighting design.

An interior designer needs to have a working knowledge of:

  • Structural requirements, health, and safety issues, and building codes.
  • Textiles, materials, color, space planning, and sustainability.
  • Software applications for 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM).


Owen Jones

Interior Design

No description of 19th-century interior design could have any validity without referencing Owen Jones. Owen Jones was one of the most influential design theorists and practitioners of the 19th century.
Beginning as an architect, he became a significant figure in popularizing and making accessible interior design theories to the middle class.

His theories on flat patterning and ornament continue to resonate two hundred years after his birth.

His innovative theories on the use of color, abstraction, and geometry became the basis of his seminal publication, “The Grammar of Ornament”, a design sourcebook that formulated 37 key principles of interior design and decoration—and which was still in print 150 years later.

Prior to Jones, England was dominated by historic styles such as Gothic Revival and Neo-classicism. Eschewing those conventions, Jones searched for a modern style and sought to recognize the common tenets behind the best examples of historical ornament. An internationalist, he looked for inspiration in the Islamic world. At the age of 23, he embarked on a grand tour which included Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt before arriving in Spain to study the magnificent Alhambra Palace.

The publication of those studies established architectural polychromy as a topic for discussion. Jones reached another milestone in 1851 when he decorated and arranged he exhibits for the immense Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition. Using only the basic colors of red, yellow, and blue for the interior ironwork, Jones generated significant criticism and debate.

However, the building was unveiled by Queen Victoria to great acclaim and ended up receiving six million visitors. He chose objects from the Great Exhibition to be included in the first School of Design which was founded in 1837. Later, Jones was by Henry Cole, a prominent figure in design reform, to design a series of galleries known as the “Oriental Courts” which was made up of two galleries: a Chinese and Japanese Court and an Indian Court. Click here for pictures of Owen Jones’s works.

Mid-to-late 19th Century

From the middle-to-late 19th century, interior design services expanded in the industrial economies of the West. As the middle-class in Europe and America expanded in size and prosperity, they began to want the domestic symbols of wealth to showcase their new status.

Large furniture firms began to evolve into general interior design and management, offering full house furnishings in a variety of styles. English feminist author Mary Haweis wrote a series of popular essays in the 1880s in which she criticized the enthusiasm with which aspiring middle-class people furnished their houses according to the rigid models offered to them by the retailers. She preferred the individual adoption of a particular style, customized to the individual needs and preferences of the customer.

In the 1850s and 1860s, upholsterers began to expand their businesses. They presented their business more broadly and in more artistic terms and began to advertise their products. To satisfy the growing demand for contract interior work on projects such as hotels, offices, and public buildings, these organizations became large and complex. In order to service their expanding clientele, they began to employ furniture and textile designers, builders, joiners, plasterers, and artists, as well as technicians and engineers to execute the job requirements.

Companies started publishing and circulatingcatalogs with prints for different extravagant styles to attract the attention of expanding middle classes. Agnes and Rhoda Garrett were the first women to train professionally as home decorators in 1874. In 1876, their work, “Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture”, promulgated their ideas on artistic interior design to a wide middle-class audience. In 1882, the London Directory of the Post Office listed 80 interior decorators. By 1899 with the founding of the Institute of the British Directory, there were almost 200 decorators throughout the country.

Interior Design

Independent Designers Take Over in 1914

By 1914, general interior design and management firms began to be usurped by independent, often amateur, designers. This paved the way for the emergence of professional interior design following World War II. Beginning in the 1950s, spending on the home increased. Formal interior design courses were set up which required the publication of textbooks and reference sources. The historical accounts of interior designers, separate from the decorative arts specialists, were made available. Organizations to regulate standards and practices, qualifications, and education were established for the new profession.

Since interior design has many ties to other design practitioners which involved the work of industrial designers, architects, builders and craftsmen, and engineers, the regulation of interior design standards and qualifications was assimilated into other professional organizations which involved design. Organizations such as the American Designers Institute, founded in 1938, and the Chartered Society of Designers, established in the UK in 1986, oversaw different areas of design parameters.

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