In 1997, a major impact not only in color, but in fabric, wall covering, furniture and accessory designs will be a multicultural ethnic influence based on centuries of wonderful design elements.
Influences that will be felt in the 1997 palette include, among others, designs from Africa, the American Southwest, Mexico and exotic cultures of the Far East and India. These designs will be historic motifs -- patterns, colors and textures that have become classics because they have passed the test of time. Often, they may be adapted and stylized rather than specific motifs.
Although each culture possesses its own motifs, history and folk art, all have common elements. Ethnic designs often are based on geometric, abstract designs simplified and highlighted by colors that are clean and vibrant. This is a general rule, not a hard and fast one. Today we see abstract designs in pastels, bright colors, medium value dull colors and even deep, dark hues. The pattern design influence, in other words, does not always dictate the color scheme. Rather, colors are skewed toward contemporary trends as forecast by groups such as Color Marketing Group (CMG) and Color Association of the United States (CAUS). The coloring of designs in forecast color groups assures their salability.
Just what does ethnic mean? Ethnic is a broad term that may be defined as groups of people in their native habitats, before they were influenced by Western European Renaissance thought or culture. Historically, these groups were culturally pure, meaning they had developed their societies, cultures, traditions, motifs or patterns and colors for their textiles, pottery and utilitarian wares based on their own systems of beliefs or religion and family/community structure.
Ethnic groups often are considered indigenous peoples -- groups native to their lands and locale. Some ethnic groups are highly developed, complex cultures while others have simpler forms of coexistence. Every continent and many islands have ethnic heritages, and while these groups have not always been revered or respected by explorers and conquerors, things are different today.
In terms of design inspiration and cultural respect, ethnic is a hot look, and living in an ethnically influenced interior is satisfying and interesting to many people. Today there is no need for hypersensitivity to the term ethnic. It is meant to be highly regarded and venerated.
Creating an Ethnic Interior
Ethnic interiors can have many different looks. Unlike a traditional style such as Early Georgian, there is no specific furniture, window treatments or artwork that is ethnic. As these cultures are found in every corner of the world, so is the interpretation of the ethnic interior. An interior may reflect one or more cultures and happily combine them into an interesting, unique whole.
An ethnic-based interior is often environmentally-based, using patterns, colors, textures and even materials that are natural. This makes sense because ethnic groups often have lived close to the earth and used nature's elements as an integral part of their lifestyles and as a basis for patterns and colors. Furniture may reflect the culture or be rustic antiques, simple, hand-hewn and distressed.
Floors, walls and ceilings in ethnic design may be rugged and earthy.
Floors of broad, random-plank wood, brick, stone, natural-appearing tile or carpeting with a Berber (natural wool) look in tans, beiges and brown families -- particularly in shaded, trackless varieties -- are all good choices.
Atop hard floors or flat wall-to-wall carpet textures may be seen in folk rugs. Folk rugs generally are a reversible, flat tapestry weave with an abstract design. This includes Navajo rugs, rugs from Africa, South America or Mexico. Some Oriental rugs that have a less complex, less refined appearance are good, too. Examples might be Caucasian rugs, Tibetan rugs and knock-off designs imported from India. Also, natural matting gives an ethnic feeling as in woven grasses, coir, pina, sisal and maize mats.
Walls are backgrounds that can be natural and textural and draw little attention, or they can be places to bring ethnic designs to life. The natural approach means rough stucco or brick walls with bleeding mortar all whitewashed or painted a neutral color. Sponge-textures also can produce a natural effect -- uneven and interesting, but subtle. Brick walls and stone, such as rubble, ashlar, or random-cut stone, are great.
Textural wall coverings such as grasscloth, woven natural linen, jute, wool and the gamut of vinyl wall coverings that duplicate these and other nubby textures also are ethnic.
Ethnic patterns on the wall can bring vibrancy and drama to a scheme or establish an earthy, unobtrusive background. Wall coverings in ethnic-inspired patterns abound today, and often a border is enough to establish the theme.
Ethnic patterns in wall coverings come from Mexican, Native American and East Indian cultures, African tribes and many other ethnic groups. These designs are fun and enlivening. They offer respect and dignity to the native artisan heritage, and they are intriguing to people whose cultural background is not ethnic.
Ceilings may be subtly patterned or plain, with round or squared rough-hewn planks or beans. Wall covering textures also can be applied to ceilings with great success.
The first type of window treatment that comes to the minds of many is the white shutters, or wood or aluminum blinds that reflect the heat of arid climates and make interiors seem crisp and cool. However, vertical louvers offer many natural textures in free-hanging or inserted vanes, and valances can be handsome as well.
Draperies with coarse linen-like textures, real or imitation suede or leather effects and hung casually on wrought iron hardware is a great look. Pinch-pleated draperies are fine, especially in ethnic patterns or natural textures.
Accents of natural linen passementerie, rope-covered rods and rope-like tiebacks and tassels and jewelry of rolled steel in petroglyph-like figures can add adapted authenticity to an ethnic scheme. Sometimes a valance or wood cornice over an alternative treatment such as a textured shade or blind is a perfect answer for ethnic window fashions.
To Be or Not to Be -- Authentic
Authentic ethnic interiors stay very close to their native origins and are part of the ancestral pride of groups of new Americans who have descended from a particular culture and have financial resources to fully decorate or furnish their interiors. Authentic ethnic design also is appropriate in thematic hospitality designs, such as restaurants, hotels or bed-and-breakfast interiors, and for residences where the look is sought even though an ethnic cultural heritage is missing.
Most ethnic design, however, is adapted, merged and blended and used to spice, flavor or complement earthy, environmental elements. In these cases, a few select pieces of authentic artifacts or artwork can be the finishing touch. These interiors are more casual and easy to live in. They help us to be open-minded and appreciative of cultures that make up our complex and fascinating world of interior design. The important thing is to have fun and to be respectful and the interior should pull together in a rewarding and handsome way.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.