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A Short History of Interior Design

One of the earliest known humans lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Africa. The oldest known cave painting was made by a Neanderthal in Spain. It has been dated to be older than 64,000 years. Undoubtedly, he wasn't an interior decorator and the animal painting he'd done at the time wasn't intended as a mere interior decoration motif. Nonetheless, it shows how our distant ancestors had treated their interior space. We couldn't, and still can't, just leave it blank and unadorned. It is a pure human instinct that we must do something about our living quarters. Not much has changed since that time.


Crude animal paintings had become more sophisticated and colourful over time. In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used their hieroglyphics to write special prayers on tombs to help pharaohs and others travel to the afterlife. Each hieroglyphs was carefully drawn and painted with love and respect. It was a kind of religious decorative art that served a very practical function. The aesthetic value of hieroglyphics might only be secondary to its meaning and purpose, nonetheless it had served inadvertently and effectively as a means to decorate an interior space in a spiritual manner.


Elsewhere in ancient Rome, the Romans had brilliantly utilized fresco paintings, a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid lime plaster, to decorate the walls of their homes with bright and sprightly colours and images. For the affluent Romans with sackful of denarius to spend, splendidly made marble mosaic tiles were used to lavishly adorn the floors and walls of their luxurious villas probably on the Palatine Hill. The ancient Romans were arguably the first human civilization which fully embraced the art of residential interior design and decoration purely for the sake of creature comforts and the appreciation of a life well lived.


The development of interior and furniture design had reached a high point during the Renaissance in Europe, especially in Florence and Tuscany of Italy. The dreadful Middle Ages was out, and a period of intensive learning, cultural appreciation and new architectural principals were in. The old Medieval and Gothic styles were frowned upon and forsaken, Classical design which reminisced the glorious past of the ancient Rome was all the rave. The main focus was to create an ideal city following the principles and proportions of Classical architecture and utilizing Classical decorative motifs as faithfully as possible. Interior design during the Renaissance period closely mirrored such profound social and cultural movement in Italy.


Fast-forward to the 19th century Victorian England, the far-reaching and influential industrial revolution had given rise to a whole new social class which didn't exist before - the wealthy merchant class, a.k.a the "New Money". The new bosses were passionate about expensive grand manor houses and sumptuous interior design and furnishing. The Victorian interior design is known for its strong decorative ornamentation. The use of wall paint in various colours and faux marble paint effect on woodwork were common. Plaster work that resembled stone work and plaster ceiling mouldings as interior decoration were also popular. Intricate wood panelling and trims along with Classical style wood columns could be found in many of the grand houses. Wallpapers with elaborate floral patterns had became accessible to many households due to the technique of mass production. When it comes to furniture, Victorians loved to use pieces from various periods to create an eclectic styles. Victorian decorative individualism as cultural enlightenment was passionately advocated during the period.


The movement known as Art Nouveau or "New Art" had emerged at the end of the Victorian era. Its main inspiration came from organic forms such as plants and flowers. It is characterized by sinuous, sculptural, organic shapes, arches, curving lines, and sensual ornamentation. Iron, wood and glass are the main choice of materials. It was widely adopted in interior design and furniture design during the period. However, this new style was proved to be technically difficult and costly to implement. Its influence was largely faded in the beginning of the 20th century.


Art and Craft movement took place along side with the Art Nouveau movement and gave it its roots. It acted as a reaction against the excessive ornamentation and the machine-aided mass production of manufactured goods of the Victorian era. It stood for simple, honest and traditional craftsmanship. Its main purpose was to create objects that were finely crafted and beautifully rendered. Natural materials such as wood and stone were often used. Like Art Nouveau, it was also widely adopted in interior and furniture design during the same period. Arts & Crafts interiors feature richly crafted woodwork & trims. The use of wallpapers with floral patterns and wall paints was common. Beautifully handmade decorative objects were placed throughout the house.


Modernism started with the founding of Bauhaus in 1919, an art school in Germany, which was famous for its approach to design. It sought to combined crafts and the fine arts, and to to unify individual artistic vision with the principles of mass production and emphasis on function. The Bauhaus movement had a profound influence on interior and furniture designs. Modernism, or International Style, as a design style features simple geometric shapes, rounded corners and sometimes rounded walls without elaborate decorations. The simplified forms, rationality and functionality were the foundation stones of the movement. Walls were mostly painted white or grey; bright colours were seldom used or used with extreme discipline. Chrome metal pipes that curve at corners were commonly found on furniture. The key design philosophy of Modernism was "forms follow functions", "less is more" and ""a house is a machine to live in".


Post-Modernism had emerged in the late 1950s as a reaction against the austerity, formality, and lack of variety of the Modernism or International Style. It sought complexity and contradiction, and to reject the puritanism of modernism. The movement flourished from the 1980s through the 1990s. It supported incorporating historical elements into the design and reinterpreting them to reflect the modern time and local culture and to celebrate the existing architecture in a place. Classical architectural motifs with a colourful, sometimes playful, modern twist were predominant not only in architecture, but also in interior design and furniture design throughout the movement. The influence of Post-Modernism had faded away at the 1990s.


Major art and design movements and dominant design philosophy in architecture and interior design have been absent since the end of Post-Modernism. As the world has become more inter-connected, thanks to the internet, similar design styles can be seen in major urban centres all over the world. Perhaps, we have finally achieved a global consensus on design, a true International Style for the 21st century. The history of interior design continues.



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