A Brief History Of Interior Design


A Brief History of Interior Design

Here at Landmass we live and breathe interiors. We work in new and exciting spaces for our clients every day, and many of the buildings we work in date back long before our firm was formed. London has many historic structures that tell the story of the city; spaces that would have us look back at the history of our art and the pioneers that lead us to live and breathe the art of interior design that we practice today.

Here, we will take a look back at the history of our profession, the people who made it what it is, and the origins which formed the curation of homes and public spaces into the well-established practice it has become.

Since ancient times, interior design has played an important part in the everyday lives of people all over the world. Though it was not always known or accepted as an art form, significant figures throughout history have successfully highlighted the importance of beautiful interiors and captured the attention of the arts community worldwide.

We hope you enjoy learning about the origins of our job in this brief history of interior design.

Early Interiors

The idea of decorating interiors to be more ergonomic and pleasing to their inhabitants dates back to ancient times. In fact, some of the first recorded art ever made by humans could be classified as interior design – cave paintings, pottery and later furniture and rustic living appliances were cornerstones of early interiors.
Ancient Egyptian mud houses featured clear signs of styling from their creators – patterns were carved into the mud-plaster walls of homes and definite steps were taken to make the interiors more pleasing to inhabit.

Ancient Egyptian interiors

Ancient Greek architects drew inspiration from the Cretans, adopting features such as copper-coated beams in houses. These would be decorated by beating the reverse side of the metal, creating a patterned effect for decorative purposes. Very little from the Greek Classical period survives today, but there is evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks loved to elaborately decorate their furniture and household items purely for aesthetic effect.

File:Inside the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos (1700 BC) - Crete, Greece  - panoramio.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Greek interiors

The First Interior Designers

Although the profession was not formally referred to as ‘interior design’ until the early 19th century, there are instances throughout history of artists taking commissions from wealthy members of society to decorate homes and public spaces.

The art of interior decoration slowly became popularised throughout the early 1800s, and saw a boost in recognition with the founding of the Institute of British Decorators in 1899. With John Crace as its president, the Institute represented more than 200 individual interior designers throughout Britain.

Rhoda and Agnes Garret

The first women to be recognised as professional interior designers were cousins Rhoda and Agnes Garret, who were taught to be ‘home designers’ in 1874. Their style was heavily influenced by the designers William Morris, and their first book Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting was widely applauded by the British middle class who were always looking for fresh design approaches for their various homes and projects.

Rhoda Garrett Agnes and Rhoda Garrett the designers decorators Pinterest
The Garret Cousins
EGA-EGA GALLERY-Photo3-Garrett Corner
Museum Installation showcasing Garretts' own made wallpaper

Elsie De Wolfe

Elsie De Wolfe was born in New York in 1865, later becoming known as ‘the first American decorator’. De Wolfe lived and breathed the decorator lifestyle, impressing potential clients with her impeccable French-inspired personal style. She had a British education but returned to America to become an actor, soon after pursuing interior design as a full time occupation. While she was garnering attention for her taste in the theatre world, Wolfe took up residence with renowned literary agent Elisabeth Marbury, and famously transformed their dingy flat into a beautiful living space during her time there. This ushered in an unprecedented career in interior design.

Elsie De Wolfe: America's First Interior Decorator | AnOther
Elsie De Wolfe
Design Legend Series Part One: Elsie De Wolfe | Gray Walker Interiors
Trellis, leopard, zebra foyer Via Architectural Digest.

Dorothy Draper

American interior designer Dorothy Draper was an American who kick started her career in 1925. The interior design business she founded, Architectural Clearing House, is widely accepted to be the first ever official interior design business.

Draper’s book, Decorating is Fun!, is full of words of encouragement for the aspiring interior designer and is still widely read in the industry today. Avid Draper student and fellow decorator Carleton Varney said that ‘Dorothy Draper was to decorating what Chanel was to fashion’.

Draper was a big advocate for breaking down any elitist mindsets that accompany the field of interior design – she believed anyone could do it, saying ‘Almost everyone believes that there is something deep and mysterious about interior decoration, or that you have to know all sorts of complicated details about periods before you can lift a finger. Well, you don’t. Decorating is just sheer fun: a delight in colour, an awareness of balance, a feeling for lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life, and an amused enjoyment of the smart accessories of the moment’.

Leading Ladies Of Interior Design |
Dorothy Draper

Dorothy Draper's signature black and white floor, shown here at the Greenbrier. All Greenbrier images courtesy of the Greenbrier.
Dorothy Draper's signature black and white floor, shown here at the Greenbrier.

A Growing Industry

Moving into the 20th century, the world began to find itself moving into a new age of mass production and technology. Automation and machine labour were starting to become part of everyday life, and so began to be reflected in the interior design of the time.

The First Time America Freaked Out Over Automation - POLITICO Magazine
The age of automation begins

In 1919, Bauhaus school of art was founded by an architect Walter Gropius in the German city of Weimar. The school became famous for its approach to design, which attempted to unify the principles of mass production with individual artistic vision and strove to combine aesthetics with everyday function. It was grounded in the idea of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk ("comprehensive artwork") in which all the arts would eventually be brought together. The Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential currents in modern design, modernist architecture and art, design, and architectural education. The Bauhaus movement had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography. Staff at the Bauhaus included prominent artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy at various points.

Bauhaus design has a legacy beyond its style — Quartz
Bauhaus school of art

Art Deco interiors had a brief moment in the sun during the 1920s, with new industrial capabilities opening the possibility for excessive and over the top interiors that remain a snapshot of their time to this day. Deco influenced the design of buildings, furniture, jewellery, fashion, cars, movie theatres, trains, ocean liners, and everyday objects such as radios and vacuum cleaners. It took its name, short for Arts Décoratifs, from the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris in 1925. It combined modern styles with fine craftsmanship and rich materials. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.

Photo of the "Mercury" train in Chicago, 1936

The Bauhaus influence grew to become increasingly prevalent throughout World War I and World War II, as much of Europe suffered internal and external trials from the combat and destruction. Post war architecture was at odds with the movement, featuring a utilitarian concrete style which clashed with the ornamental trappings featured in many interiors prior to the growing mechanisation of the world

Styles Throughout History

Throughout the recorded history of interior design, the art form has mirrored architecture in many ways. The two are inherently linked, and thus reflect each other and their influence from the world around them. Baroque interiors, pioneered after the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666, drew on ornamental and decorative interior trappings and was inspired heavily by the arts boom that exploded in Italy at the time. In the early 1700s Georgian interiors were all the rage with a more utilitarian edge, but with flairs of artistic inspiration such as the now iconic sash windows which were popular at the time.

Baroque Style In The Interior Of The Apartment
Baroque living room
Georgian style house interior design | National Trust
Georgian dining room

The Regency period saw the rise of more bold and flamboyant interior design statements, with vertical striped wallpaper being a particular staple in interiors at the time. Ornamental carved furniture was also in vogue, along with several other lavish additions that reflected the economic boom among the upper class. One of the most iconic periods in interior design history was the Victorian era, which saw an influx of new ideas and styles with regard to the use of interior space. Grand spaces, intricate detailing and Christian inspired iconography were lauded as the height of interior fashion, reflecting the grandiose exteriors that accompanied them.

Geffrye Museum - Todott
Regency drawing room
How to recreate a Victorian Christmas in the home, with advice from  Harewood House and Michael Howells - The English Home
Victorian sitting room

The Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII, ushered in an explosion of interior design for the family home. As cities around the western world began to expand into what we now know as suburbs, the art of designing around daily domestic life was the new challenge for interior designers of the day. Functional but aesthetically pleasing interiors were the new normal.

The Edwardian Period Interiors - Comfortable home
Edwardian living room

Leading up to and following the two World Wars in the early 1900s, Europe was struggling to recover from the destruction the wars had caused. As a result, Post War interiors were blocky, simple and fit for purpose. As a result, the Art Deco period that came shortly after with a response that rejected this – lavish designs and a newfound fascination with futurism permeated interiors – every designer was trying to capture the ‘next big thing’.

Image may contain Housing Building Indoors Flooring Loft Staircase Interior Design Living Room Room and Floor
1930's living room in Art Deco style

Modern Day

Styles of modern interior design continue to change and evolve every year, and possibilities continually open up with new technologies and architectural breakthroughs. Remnants of interiors from throughout history remain today as reminders of where the art has come over the decades. Modern interior design, as with many artistic pursuits, tends to look backward as much as it does forward, with hints and splashes of old styles informing the cutting edge trends that emerge every year.

Modern day trends incorporate a bit of everything


We hope you have enjoyed this brief tour through the history of interior design. As designers, it is imperative that we not only look to the future to pursue new and enigmatic future tastes, but also draw inspiration from what has come before us and learn from the triumphs of the past.

Landmass is excited to take on new clients throughout London, and with a proven track record of stunning interiors, we’re confident we’ll impress. Book a consultation with us now via the contact page here on our website.