Brief history of interior design + 3 legendary interior designers you should know
Interior design has a rich history that dates back centuries. Exploring this fascinating journey through time provides us with a deeper understanding of how cultures, traditions, and artistic movements have influenced the way we decorate our homes today.
In this article, we'll take a simple journey through the history of interior design, from way back in the past to today. Along the way, we'll meet some of the people who helped shape interior design into what it is now. Join us as we delve into their stories and discover the enduring legacy of these remarkable individuals, shedding light on the transformative power of design in our lives.
The history of interior design
Interior designer as a profession only developed in the late 19th century, however, interior design has existed since the first cave people inhabited. Cave people decorated their living space with animal skins, sticks, and other objects from nature. That said, the decoration part was minimal (but still evident!) and the emphasis was more on functionality.
After that ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans started to have a specific style that characterized each of their culture. At first home customisation was more focused on wall paintings that often portrayed the life of the family or gods but later on, it expanded to other topics and different objects like vases, sculptures, and even furnishings.
The Dark Ages in interior design was truly dark. The interiors were murky, with no extra decors. Plain, functional, and modest.
When the Renaissance turned around the corner it revived culture and beauty in everyday things. Interior design became a big part of the wealthy people’s lives. Grand paintings, detailed home furnishings, marble surfaces, and exclusive fabrics like silk and velvet were a vehicle for bringing colors, light, and beauty into everyday life.
From there Gothic and Baroque styles built on what started in the Renaissance. The home decor and everyday items became more and more decorated, detailed, and impressive. The Gothic style brought into interior design big windows for brighter homes and open floor plans. Baroque focused on details and evolved sumptuous interior design.
After the 1700s interior design took a turn and the furnishing and decor started to resemble more what we use nowadays to decorate homes. The home interiors became more modest (compared to, for example, baroque) and the items became more functional and less decorated.
The interior designer profession
The very first interior designers were the people who lived in the space themselves. The main goal for them was to give their living space functionality and if the heart desired, add a little bit of decor.
Once house building became more complex and luxurious and the profession of architect developed, the duties of interior designing were handed to the architect. Architects would design the indoor space as part of their vision for the whole house.
Even though architects helped with interior design, people (most often ladies) still kept decorating spaces themselves without any professional help.
Legendary interior designers – pioneers
Interior design has always been influenced by movements and processes in the world. And even though every interior designer has their own style and signature, it is more or less related to the era they live in. However, it is also true that an influential designer can create a new trend and leave a unique mark on the interior design landscape.
Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950)
Elsie de Wolfe has the title of first-ever interior designer. In other words, she is the first person (at least on record) who did interior design on commission.
Elsie was born in the Victorian era. The Victorian design style was heavily decorated and often contained a darker-tone palette. Wood paneling and tapestry was a popular choice. The interior was full of little details, decor objects, and patterns.
However, Elsie leaned more on the French style and got inspiration from the Rococo era. She used lots of beige and cream colors for the walls as well as mirrors that way making rooms brighter and lighter. She also explored the idea of animal prints as interior decor and often paired it with Chinoiserie.
Elsie’s life and career development
Elsie was born in the U.S. and educated in Scotland. After finishing school in Scotland she came back to the U.S. and started a career as an actress. She’s always been fascinated by French and more precisely Paris style that was reflected in her onstage costumes that people really loved and admired.
Her first interior design project was her own home. She was in a “Boston marriage” (two unmarried women living together) with literary agent Elisabeth Marbury and they shared a house. Their house became a popular place for high society parties, and Marbury gladly advertised de Wolfe's interior design work to their guests.
It resulted in success, and de Wolfe got the first interior design job – she was trusted to decorate the Colony Club in New York City. It was the first elite social club for women. From there she got other offers to decorate houses of famous people which led to a career in interior design. Elsie de Wolfe also wrote the first interior design book “The House in Good Taste”.
Jean Michel Frank (1895-1941)
Jean Michel Frank was a French interior designer who designed home interiors in France (mainly in Paris) and the U.S. (mainly in New York). His style was calm, a little bit subdued, and with a feeling of minimalism. However, he was not a minimalist. It’s true, that the interiors he created were not overpacked with furniture and lots of things, however, the elements that were there, were bold, modern, and contemporary.
The interiors Jean Michel Frank created were the perfect background to show off his big client’s art collections – the bold works of Picasso, Leger, and Matise. The paintings and Jean Michel Frank's interiors made a perfect union – they complemented each other and worked together seamlessly.
One of Jean Michel Frank's obsessions was materials and textures. He experimented with mica, obsidian, terracotta, shagreen, plaster, and other materials and created interior design pieces from these materials, for example, tables, lamps, and even panelings. Even today, these decor and furniture pieces are of high value and appreciated by art lovers and enthusiasts.
Some of the biggest Jean Michel Frank’s works include decorating a whole floor on Nelson Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue triplex.
The life of Jean Michel Frank
Jean Michel Frank was born in Paris and was a first cousin to Otto Frank, the father of famous diarist Anne Frank. World War I changed the career plans of Jean Michel – he was planning on going to school to learn the law or banking. Because of the war, he managed to attend school just for a short time.
When he was in his twenties, both of his parents died and left him with an inheritance. He used it to travel around France and Europe, and that’s where Jean Michel met his mentor Eugenia Errázuriz. Eugenia introduced Jean Michel to interior design and her personal style. Jean Michel Frank never received official training in design, but he had a natural eye for materials and combinations that helped him step foot in interior design.
Frank made collaborations with other designers and that opened him doors to the interior design world. He worked in Paris, Argentina, and New York.
His whole life Jean Michel Frank was depressed. Most likely because he experienced the untimely death of his family (brothers and parents) when he was young, and he had to endure anti-semitism and homophobic bullying all of his life. At 46 he committed suicide leaving this world short of his future designs but solidating his talent in the work he had already done.
Dorothy Draper (1889-1969)
Dorothy Draper was an American interior designer. Elsie de Wolfe might have been the first one to step into the role of an interior designer, but Dorothy Draper took it to the next level by creating an interior design company and solidating it as a profession.
Her style was bold, colorful, and fun. Her signature color combination was black and white, which was often used on floors in a checker pattern, her signature pattern for wallpaper was cabbage rose as well as bold stripes. The black-and-white floors were combined with decor in different colors and wallpaper with bold, even oversized prints, so the place never looked monochrome, it was an explosion of excitement.
She is one of the first designers who explored unusual color combinations, for example, aubergine with pink. She also invented a style trend “Modern Baroque” – it takes the boldness and over-the-top feeling of old-school baroque, but keeps it modern with contemporary color and pattern combinations.
The Life of Dorothy Draper
Dorothy was born in the upper-class Tuckerman family in New York City. She was educated by governesses and tutors, and often took trips with family to Europe. Access to the best education and cultural exploration abroad played a role in creating her own personal style. Also, her social status provided her with the right contacts to later get the clientele for her interior design works.
Similar to Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper also started by decorating her own house. Her friends and acquaintances loved her style and started copying it. Encouraged by her closest friends, she started an interior design company. It was first called the “Architectural Clearing House” but later it gained the name “Dorothy Draper and Company”.
Dorothy designed lots of public spaces and hotels, which gave her public popularity as a designer. During the Great Depression, Dorothy wrote a column “Ask Dorothy Draper” which was published in 70 newspapers. That way, her advice, and style were able to influence a broad audience which led to her interior design becoming iconic and widespread.
Interior design, a field that has evolved over centuries, continues to shape the way we experience and interact with our surroundings. The trailblazers of the past and the innovators of today remind us that the art of design is a powerful force, capable of transforming spaces into veritable masterpieces.
So, whether you're considering a home makeover or simply seeking inspiration, remember the remarkable journey of interior design and the pioneers who continue to redefine it. As we move forward, let their creative spirits inspire us to push the boundaries of design and transform our living spaces into works of art that resonate with our hearts and souls.