The History of Interior Design

Interior design is a burgeoning profession these days, but its history is actually not that long. In fact, this particular profession is just around a century old, though it started out in the form of decorating. This art has evolved and become what we now as the specialized field of interior design. Today, it takes several years of studies, projects, and experience to become a successful interior design. If you want to become an interior designer in the high-end areas of New York, you’d have to put in even more effort than usual.

If we want to really understand the history of interior design, we might have to delve back a few centuries and look at how things developed from there. Let’s start by looking at how the terms ‘interior designer’, ‘interior decorator’, etc were used in the United States, and work our way back to the roots of this profession:

Usage of the Terms

It was in the early 1900s that Americans first started using ‘interior decorator’ for describing the profession. At that time, interior decorator had no actual academic credentials. However, they were successful due to their good taste, talent, and common sense.

Elsie deWolfe was the first known interior decorator to get a commission for interior design. She published the first ever interior design book in 1913, the title of which was ‘The House in Good Taste’. However, the first commercial interior decorator who was documented was Dorothy Draper. Draper established her own design firm in the year 1923.

A magazine named ‘Interior Design and Decoration’ first used the term ‘interior design’ in the 1930s. One of its competitors also used just ‘interior designer’ instead of ‘decorator’. At this point, designs schools were beginning to recognize the role of designers, engineers, and architects when it came to interior design.

Professional Organizations

In 1931, the largest form of professional organizations for interior design was formed. This was the American Institute of Design or AID. In 1936, this organization changed its title to the American Institute of Interior Designers. In the following years, there were several more professional organizations as well as associations to represent this growing field.

In the 1970s, the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) and the Foundation for Interior Design Educational Research (FIDER) were established for mainlining and governing the standards for interior design professionals. They also deal with the examination and education of these individuals. However, it was only in 1982 that Alabama passed legislation supporting the interior design profession.

Rapid Evolvement

We can see the profession of interior design evolving more rapidly as we speak, especially since the world is becoming more global. The demand for interior design is also becoming more focused and specialized, so designers have to stay updated on what the market needs. There are now several interior design specialties, including Healthcare Design, Universal Design, and Specialty Workplace Design.

The Timeline of Interior Design

We may define interior design as a kind of science and art that focuses on enhancing an interior space. The goal here is to create a pleasing, polished, and functional environment. Interior designers are trained to research, plan, coordinate and execute decorative projects with practical goals. While the profession itself is quite varied, the basics remain the same.

However, the profession wasn’t always so prominent, especially as interior design was initially coordinated to building architecture. With the middle-class society rising and the complex architecture of the Industrial Revolution, the interior design profession also came to the fore. Designers would work on making the most of any space, keeping in mind the well-being of the user. Below are a few highlights in the timeline of interior design history:

Ancient India

In ancient India, the architects were also the interior designers of their buildings. We know this from the references of the architect Vishwakarma, who is among the gods of Indian mythology. These references often showed several sculptures and palaces that were constructed in the 17th century.

Ancient Egypt

It’s also believed that ancient Egypt was aware of some form of interior design. This is due to their depictions of soul houses, which were model houses placed in tombs. These trinkets have given us many clues about the Egyptians’ knowledge about architecture. There’s evidence of columns, windows, ventilation systems, porticos, doors, and loggias within these models.

Ancient Egyptians would also decorate their mud houses with animal skins, textiles, murals, urns, and various sculptures. There were also gold ornaments obtained from Egyptian tombs, along with their trinkets that symbolized how important decoration was to this civilization. These decorations were also a way to show off wealth and power in those times.

Roman and Greek Civilizations

The Romans and Greeks took Egyptian interior design and put their own touches on it. The introduction of public buildings with domed roofs is one of the ways in which they celebrated their civic pride, while elaborate furniture with ivory and silver decorated their homes.

Both these civilizations also used the interior of their homes to establish the socio-political status as well as their wealth. Roman furniture would be made from bronze, wood, marble, and stone, with cushions and tapestries added for comfort.

Roman and Greeks also introduced interesting mosaics in their floors as well as greek vases for general decoration. Frescoes and wall paintings were just a couple of other features that made their spaces unique.

The Dark Ages

After so much decoration and ornamentation, there was a major change due to the wars in medieval Europe. These were known as the Dark Ages, and the interior design of this era reflected this name.

At this point, the interior design in most dwellings would feature stone slabs for flooring, dark wood paneling, and minimal furniture for practical uses only. Even the wealthier classes would go for sober and muted colors even if they did add stonework or tapestries.

After the Dark Ages passed, color and ornamentation once again became a part of interior design in Europe. We can also study the Gothic style, which was a dark yet romantic phase in the 12th century. This made full use of natural light and popularized open interiors.

15th and 16th centuries

During these centuries, the French Renaissance was in full force. This movement enhanced the focus on creativity and art, especially in the field of interior design. Architects would create homes with several decorative notes such as inlaid woodwork, marble flooring, fine material for the furniture, and paintings. All we need to do is look at the palaces, chapels, and villas of that time to get an idea of how interior design was in that era.

17th and 18th Centuries

After the Renaissance, Italian Baroque designs were all the rage in Europe. These were complex and intricate, with elements such as stained glass, colored marble, painted ceilings, and colored stone along with spiral columns. The best example of interior design for this era is the Palace of Versailles.

When the 18th century rolled around, interior designers in Europe had popularized the Rococo style. They were influenced by floral prints and Asian stoneware. The furniture was inlaid and detailed with mother-of-pearl and ivory.

The late 18th century was influenced by the Neoclassical look, which was inspired by design elements from ancient Rome. This included the ample use of satin, velvet, and silk in brilliant colors.

The 1800s and Onwards

In this era, there was more and more eclecticism and freedom in interior design, especially when it came to the developed civilizations in Europe and the United States. For the next couple of hundred years, there were several interior design innovations and movements that would go in and out of style as time passed. These include the Art Deco, Victorian, Bahaus, and Art Nouveau styles.

In the 19th century, there was an exponential increase in the popularity of interior design and the way people appreciated it. This practice was no longer limited to wealthy homes and royal compounds but was slowly reaching the masses as well. This way, the middle classes could also realize the possibilities of life-enhancing design within their homes.

The 20th Century

With the advent of the 20th century, functionality became a major part of interior design. This was a new challenge for interior designers of this century, as there were large home appliances to consider, including stoves, televisions, dishwashers, washing machines, etc. Interior designers hence had to create their layout and designs in an aesthetic plus practical fashion that incorporated these appliances without a tacky look.

With the turn of the 20th century, there were several beginner designers and publications that world to loosen the hold of high-end retail outlets in the field of interior design. This movement arguably began in the 1880s, when Mary Haweis published several essays on the subject. She talked about how ironic it was for the bourgeoisie to get excited about furnishing their homes with the restrictive options from retail outlets. Instead, Haweis proposed that the people should opt for design styles that were tailored specifically around their lifestyle needs and requirements. She even likened the homes of humans to nests and shells and claimed that our dwellings should represent our own habits much like the ones found in nature.

The Transition

The decorative arts slowly transitioned towards being a proper artistic profession, not just the strategies of salesmen. In 1899, the Institute of British Decorators was launched and represented around two hundred interior designers.

In 1916, there was a listing of about 127 professional interior decorators in the London Directory. Only ten of these were women, though Agnes and Rhoda Garrett were among the first women on record to be professionally coached in home designing (1874). These were important figures, with their design work considered to be at par with William Morris, the legendary maestro of interior design. They even published a guide in 1876 with the name of “Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork, and Furniture”. As a result, the sisters were recognized as authorities or artistic interior design, especially for the middle class.

Prominent Female Influences on Interior Design

Candace Wheeler was among the first of the American female interior designers. She’s known for her unique focus on interior design in the United States. Among her achievements was the development of the initial interior design academic courses especially for females in several important American hubs. She was also recognized as a major authority on American home décor in her time.

Yet another female name in the history of interior design is Edith Wharton, who co-wrote ‘The Decoration of Houses’ with Ogden Codman, a master architect. This was a widely-read guide on the subject of interiors design in 1897. This book saw the Victorian style of interior décor as irrelevant. They shinned the dark and moody theme of that time, along with the tufted seating and heavy furnishings. Instead, they leaned towards space planning and functional architectural details. This work is still held up to be one of the most seminal pieces on interior design, as its success gave rise to the stances of modern professional interior designers.

There were several other major influences on the history and field of interior design to date. More specifically, the names of seven major interior designers are worth mentioning here; Billy Baldwin, Dorothy Draper, Albert Hadley, Elsie de Wolfe, Sister Parish, Jean-Michel Frank, and David Hicks. Each of these deserves a separate discussion, as their influence on interior design is both unique and unmatched.


Today, the profession of interior design has evolved and developed according to the demands of the people. There are several design movements and furniture styles to gain inspiration from, along with influences from past civilizations. With the influential interior designer molding the profession along the way, we now have a lot of choice and variety when it comes to obtaining the best interior spaces possible. Continuing our exploration of interior design, our newest post looks at how cultural influences shape today’s interiors. Check it out!