A Brief Timeline of Interior Design Movements

All contemporary interior design is largely shaped by the decor movements that preceded it. From as early as the 19th century, interior design has been considered an art form in and of itself. 

For those who are not students of interior design, some of these concepts may seem a bit confusing, abstract, or even difficult to differentiate. For example, you may at times be wondering which movement came before which, and which ideas characterized each particular movement. 

Well, for the sake of greater clarity – and so that you can better appreciate the many designers’ works we feature in our own collection – we would like to present you with this brief (and abridged) timeline of movements in the lifespan of interior design.

History of Interior Design 

When exactly did interior design become a concept? Surely, prior to a certain period, its focus was entirely on practicality. What interior elements allowed a space to serve its utilitarian purpose? Interior design’s earliest roots as an “art form” can be traced back to as early as the Renaissance. 

During this time, creativity started to become celebrated over mere practicality, and the home was viewed as yet another canvas for artistic expression. Furthermore, as architecture began to advance during this period, the advancement of interior design became a necessity as well. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, more complex architecture came to light – and the interior had to match the exterior. The rising middle class and overall growing economic prosperity also meant that people had more interest in luxuries. 

By the 20th century, the concept of a “homemaker” was realized. Women took on the role as “head of household” and all matters related to the inside of the home, thus providing more freedom to play with its aesthetic. 

Between its roots and this period of time, interior design has spanned over 200 years – and in these 200 years, a variety of movements. 

Modernism (1880 – 1940)

On the heels of the Industrial Revolution came the first of the well-known interior design movements: Modernism. Modernism is marked by this entry into a New World, characterized by technological advancements, increased prosperity, and overall positive regard. 

As such, this design type can be identified by its sleek, clean lines and an absence of clutter. Spaces were still to be functional, but also aesthetically pleasing. It was forward thinking, with a basis in traditional fine art. As more avant-garde thinking came to light, a distance formed from excessive realism. People become more focused on the pleasures life has to offer. 

Renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a critical figurehead for the Modernism movement. His almost-futuristic designs were the first iterations of this classic style.

Related Designers:

Le Corbusier
Eero Saarinen 
Mies van der Rohe

Art Deco (1910 – 1940)

As this style was also inspired by the Industrial Revolution, it’s no surprise its timeline overlaps with that of Modernism. However, Art Deco definitely took more direct influence from the “industrial theme” as it became characterized by large features and abundant metal finishes. 

“Interestingly, the monumental geometric forms of ancient Egyptian architecture inspired Art Deco designers,” explains architecture and interior design expert Leslie Saul. “Art Deco‘s symmetrical geometric forms were in opposition to the ornate eras of Victorian and Art Nouveau that preceded it. From an interior design perspective, Art Deco furniture and objects tend to be heavy, while mid-century modern and modern architecture of the 21st century tends to be light.” 

Generally, Art Deco tends to feature warm tones. Bronze and gold finishes are ubiquitous in this style, which does not pride itself on being overly polished. Geometrical patterns and symmetrical lines, as pointed out by Saul, are a flagship of this style. 

“[Art Deco] really was the reflection of a world on the move,” Saul says. “Trains and cruise ships took you to places unknown. Curiosity and modern thinking were reflected in the geometric clean lines.”

Related Designers:

Eileen Gray
Paul Frankl

De Stijl (1917-1931)

Mostly outside the US, a different movement was taking place, one called De Stijl. Dutch for “The Style”, this movement was perhaps most prominent in the art theory of neo-plasticism. Neo-plasticism breaks down to “new art”, a style of expression focused less on tangible, real-world subjects like nature and trees, and more on the depiction of space, movement, and patterns. 

De Stijl resulted from WWI, during a time when there was a desire to develop a more “utopian” aesthetic. Unsurprising, as it followed one of the world’s deadliest wars at the time. Much of De Stijl is almost childlike in its representation. It relies on primary colors, and continues with the concept of geometrical patterns and straight lines from the aforementioned movements. 

Related Designers:

Gerrit Rietveld
Frederick Kiesler

Bauhaus (1920 – 1934)

Perhaps one of the most influential design movements of all time, Bauhaus originated from a German art school by the same name. It roughly translates to “Building House” in that it was committed to the integration of mass production and individual expression. The Bauhaus movement is commonly referred to as “arts and crafts meets modernism.”

Much like its predecessors, Bauhaus discounts ornamentation in exchange for practicality. It aimed to combine artistry with functional design by utilizing materials like steel, glass, concrete, or chrome pipe. 

Related Designers:

Carl Aubock
Marianne Brandt
Marcel Breuer
Walter Gropius
Carl Jucker
Peter Keler
Gyula Pap
Lilly Reich
Wilhelm Wagenfeld

Surrealism (1925 – 1930)

Perhaps a response to the button-down simplicity of the Modernist movement, Surrealism aimed to challenge reality. As an art movement in general, it was characterized by dream-like scenes. In interior design, this is symbolized with the use of loud, bold, and overexaggerated pieces.

“Surrealism is the opposite [of Scandinavian design] in every way,” says Marco Bizzley, Certified Interior Designer at HouseGrail. “Surrealism is bold, full of color, and fun. It goes beyond the expected and brings in the unexpected. It defies reality. You’ll find many different shapes and colors, like a can of paint exploded into an art gallery.”

Oftentimes, Surrealism will call on Art Nouveau elements to create an aesthetic of eclecticism. It is very much inspired by the works of painters like Savldaor Dali, Frida Kahlo, and Max Ernst. 

“Surrealism can be seen in a few different design styles,” Bizzley goes on to explain. “There’s no denying that it is a factor in maximalism. I can also see where it influenced the glamour art deco moment that’s trending now also.” 

Related Designers

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Mid-Century Modern (1933-1965)

This ultra-American movement is probably one you’re most familiar with. As a retro take on Modernism, this style was also a direct reaction to the bleakness of a recent war – in this case, WWII. Society was once again inspired by new technology and a wide variety of materials had suddenly become available. 

As such, Mid-Century Modern is meant to symbolize newfound prosperity and a renewed sense of hope in a post-war world. That’s why it can be almost whimsical, thriving on the mixing and matching of materials, finishes, and textures. It takes away the sleek, straight, symmetrical lines of previous movements and introduces a sense of softness by including more rounded corners and plush upholstery.

Furthermore, it relies on pops of color, specifically jewel tones and Earth tones, like emerald, terracotta, and ruby red. 

Related Designers

Arne Jacobsen
Eero Saarinen 
Mies van der Rohe
Marcel Breuer

Scandinavian Modern (1935 – Present)

This is easily the largest interior design movement alive today. Pioneered by Nordic designers, Scandinavian Modern was seen as a way to improve indoor, daily life due to the region’s long, cold winters. It originally gained global popularity with a traveling show, and then returned to popularity in the modern day due to its relative affordability and sustainable focus. 

Scandinavian Modern is exhibited by organic textures, specifically clay, leather, and timber. It relies on cooler, ash tones that offset the warmth of the natural materials. Similar to traditional modernism, it employs the use of sleek, clean lines. 

“Scandinavian interior design has a lot of clean lines and hard edges to it and can almost look industrial at times,” explains Martha McNamara, the head of design at Vevano Home. “But then it’s balanced with warm wood tones and unique accent pieces that you can change through the year. The beauty of Scandinavian design is that by having a neutral color palette and versatile base design, you can constantly refresh your space with new accent colors and seasonal décor.”

Bizzley specifically comments on Scandinavian design’s relevance in our contemporary world.

“[It] is still popular today and will probably continue to be popular with people choosing to have most of their homes inspired by nature, as they want to use sustainable products,” he says. “I can see where this design has influenced the trending minimalist design style.”

Related Designers

Michael Thonet and his bentwood chairs are a great example of the natural, wood textures found in this aesthetic

Postmodernism (1978 – Present)

Postmodern interior design is the design of “now.” It is very much inspired by Millennials and pop culture, specifically calling on elements of playfulness and colorfulness. Though it is in direct contrast to its contemporary counterpart of Scandinavian design, it is yet another branch of the always-alternating maximalist concepts. “Cottagecore” and “granny chic” are popular expressions of this style.

The works of artists and designers like Andy Warhol, Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottass, and Karl Lagerfeld can be felt in the execution of this design type.

By co-existing, Postmodern and Scandinavian design show us how deeply these movements are influenced by general societal sentiment, geographical location, and generational differences. As they continue to shape their successors, one can truly appreciate the versatility and flexibility that is the interior design movements of the last two centuries. 

Related Designers