Interior Design: A history

Interior design has become one of those ‘buzz words’. We talk about it a lot, we all want a home that has wonderful interior design and we have all seen the numerous interior design daytime television programmes that seem to be on every channel.

But when did our interest in interior design start? Where did it all come from and just what does ‘interior design’ actually mean?!


In fact, it all began with early man in the prehistoric period, before the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans started a trend for religious artefacts as decoration. The Industrial Revolution meant that the middle classes were able to afford the trappings of wealth and interior design before it became affordable enough for everyone in the late 19th century onwards.

There’s a lot to take in but we try to get to the bottom of it all in this blog!

What is interior design?

Interior design is (according to Wikipedia):

“a group of various yet related projects that involve turning an interior space into an “effective setting for the range of human activities” that are to take place there”

Throughout history, interiors were put together as an instinctive process during construction. Interior design as we know it has come about through society’s development and the increase and advances of technology which have added to our architecture.

Interior design as we know it today – ‘use of space’, ‘ambience’, ‘functionality’ and ‘user well being’ – has come from interior design as a profession, and marketing buzz words that are used to sell it as a product.

However, interior design as a human concept has been around for centuries – although we seriously doubt that the earliest adopters would have known what they were doing would become the industry that interior design is today!

In the beginning

It is a lot earlier than you would think that we first saw evidence of interior design.

In prehistoric times, early man began to build their own communities – they started to settle and live in caves, the earliest form of shelter / homes in evidence.

The caves were obviously very functional, however cave paintings have been found on the walls, dating back many thousands of years. As the SBID (Society of British Interior Design) point out on their blog this:

“…could lead us to believe that interior design and looking after our homes is actually a primal instinct as well as a sign of our intelligence.”

Over time, dwellings moved away from caves and became free standing shelters, similar to those that are still built and lived in by many tribes today. These basic huts were purely functional in design and build. They were / are normally constructed from materials that were easily found at the time – mud, animal skins, branches. The outside of the huts today are commonly decorated with tribal symbols and art. We have no way of knowing if ancient tribes did the same thing to decorate their shelters but if we take cave paintings as evidence it can probably be assumed that they did.

The Ancient influence

We know that Ancient Egyptians covered the walls of pyramids with intricate designs and hieroglyphics. They also adorned the insides of the pyramids with statues and ancient religious icons – with that in mind they could very well be some of the world’s earliest interior designers!

Interior design in Ancient Egypt was a way of both signifying wealth and pleasing their gods. They started the trend for ornate and beautiful interior design to signify / honour religion – something which played a huge role in interior design history and that still plays a part in today’s society.

Even less wealthy Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes to an extent using animal skins and painted vases.

Greeks and Romans

The Ancient Greeks and Romans invaded (and ‘won’) Egypt. They began to drastically change the architecture of the country’s cities to reflect their own tastes.

The slightly more civilised way of life under the Greeks and Romans meant that people were more willing (and less scared!) to show their tastes off through interior design. The Ancient Greeks loved showing off their huge, ornate and pillared buildings. They used beautiful vases, mosaic and fine artwork and paintings in their homes.

The Greek and Roman design styles led the way for the Byzantine era. Still very much religious in style, this period was noted for its lavish decorations.

Europe, the Renaissance and the Gothic era.

Distinctive and contrasting design styles began to appear all over Europe. The opulent beauty of the Italian Renaissance (tapestries, velvet and ornately carved furniture) sat alongside the figurative decoration and murals of the opposing Gothic architecture and design.

The interior decoration of many buildings, particularly large and important ones, was based around religion. Carvings and tapestries became popular and religious murals were painted onto walls. Beauty was combined with function.

It was around this time (the 1500s) that one of the most famous interior decoration jobs in the world was started…and completed four years later! Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The grandeur of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries

Prior to this period, artistic and lavish interior design had been the realm of the wealthy and religious. The popular Baroque styles were exaggerated and dramatic, making use of chandeliers, and grand mirrors. The Regency period was an interpretation of Ancient Greek styles, emphasising classical design. Red was a hugely popular colour.

Interior design by outside companies began as well. An upholsterer or craftsman, employed by the wealthier upper classes would advise homeowners on the artistic style of their interior space. During the construction of buildings architects began to employ artisans to work on the interior design for their work.

The Industrial Revolution, however, brought about many changes in the interior design world. The middle classes began to prosper – with their new riches came new desire for the trappings of wealth, they wanted to show off their status.  Interior design was just one way they began to do this – it opened up to ‘the common people’.

Fashion magazines became readily available and, with the increasing accessibility of travel, interior design became influenced by a huge mixture of styles from all around the world.

With the growing popularity large furniture firms began to offer house furnishings in an array of styles. Upholsterers began to adapt their businesses and advertised their increasingly artistic furnishings to the general public.

Interior design work became more popular within the workplace. Upholsterers and furniture firms grew steadily in size, employing builders, plasterers, textile and furniture designers and artists to work on projects for hotels, public buildings and places of work.

These (now) large firms began to advertise, attracting the attention of the middle classes. They created and circulated catalogues and brochures, advertising the array of, often lavish, styles they offered.

The business model did extremely well from the middle of the century until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Independent (and amateur) designers began to offer their own services. The early interior designers, paved the way for the era of the professional interior designer from the middle of the 20th century.

Large department stores began to spring up throughout the 19th century. Their increase in both number, size and popularity meant that shops began to vye for customers. One method to attract them was to furnish the spaces within the shop in different styles – a trick that modern department and furniture stores still use to great effect today.

Traditional furniture firms began to set up model rooms at national exhibitions for the public to look around. The higher quality companies began to take on a new role, advising the wealthy middle classes on interior styling. They even took on contracts to design, style and furnish the interiors of important British buildings.

Today’s craze for interior design

Slowly but surely designers began to come to the forefront, rather than being a ‘behind the scenes’ worker for a furniture or upholstery firm popular designers became famous faces in their own right.

As the world began to recover from the two great wars of the early twentieth century there became an increased need for ‘nice’, ‘pretty’ things and beauty as people began to return to prosperity.

After the First World War came the art deco, stylised patterns of the 1930s and during and, after the Second World War, suburban sprawl and increasing economy meant that more and more people had their homes, which they could decorate themselves. Post modernism, linked to fantasy and freedom, became popular and a revival of the more traditional designs came about, with modern twists on classical design trends.

Interior design became escapism and with that a new kind of television show hit the airwaves…

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TV and celebrities

The home makeover show became one of the most popular daytime television genres, starting with the broadcast of Changing Rooms in 1996. This led to a whole host of other programmes being commissioned – 60 Minute Makeover, DIY SOS, Extreme Makeover, The Great Interior Design Challenge and many more.

From the 1990s, interior design had became a hugely popular concept all over Britain, regardless of wealth. The makeover shows were aimed at getting people to ‘do it themselves’ and on a budget. Books and designer lines were released and interior design (and probably MDF sales) reached its peak. Along with the rise in popularity of the home makeover show, interior designers started to gain celebrity status.

Designers like Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, Linda Barker, Kelly Hoppen and Rachel Ashworth have become household names because of the public’s popularity and interest in interior design and home decor.

Due to their fame all of these interior designers have been able to pioneer popular trends and styles.

“My philosophy has always remained the same, it’s about creating calm, balanced environments based on Eastern cultures…”

Kelly Hoppen

Kelly Hoppen is well known for her love of neutral colour palettes in interior design as well as her appearances as a Dragon on Dragon’s Den. Interior designer to the stars – Madonna and Jennifer Lopez to name a few – Rachel Ashworth, made the mainsteam ‘shabby chic’ look as famous as it is today.

Since Changing Rooms and numerous other television appearances Laurence Llewelyn Bowen has become one of the most well known interior designers in the UK. He has made significant contribution to famous design projects around Britain, including at the Royal Albert Hall and inside Buckingham Palace. He has also written many best selling books about interior design.

The world of interior design today

We’re an eclectic bunch when it comes to interior design today. Old vintage styles are hugely popular but they are teamed with modern, minimalist features.

People aren’t afraid to experiment, to try mixing styles together from all the eras of the past in order to decorate their homes.

Bright, bold colours are teamed with neutral lines and the ever popular minimalistic look to create vibrant designs. Household furniture and design stores – ranging from Ikea to John Lewis and Selfridges – are still increasing in popularity and interior design has become something that everyone can take part in. Thanks to the wide variety of household decorations on offer – catering to all budgets – it’s no longer the sole realm of the wealthy upper classes.

The world of interior design is fast paced and ever changing. Trends are adapting both seasonally and annually now rather than over longer periods of time. This is due in no small part to the media and internet. Everything in the world – design ideas, cultures and innovations – is accessible to almost everyone now and that is playing a huge role in interior design influences and trends. Add to that the ‘cult of celebrity’ and the glossy magazine market which invites people into celebrity homes and it’s no wonder that everyone aspires to have the very best designs within their homes – whether they buy them or try to create them themselves.

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What do you think? Are you inspired by any historical periods in your interior design choices or do you prefer the more modern, minimalistic look?


Let us know in the comments!