I often tell my interior design students how privileged we all are to live at a time when the entire history of the world—its styles and richness—are laid at our feet. We can choose from the best of any era’s design and furnishings and suit the selections to each individual client’s style. Not only that, but every year in the world of interior fashions and apparel (a great influencer of furnishing style), the scene changes and the mode becomes fresh—even though it is invariably borrowed from an earlier era.
It is often said, “There is no such thing as a new color, only
old colors with new names.” However, we can say that there
certainly is such a thing as revisiting a style and giving it new
coloring—meaning colors that were not a part of the original
style. This is perhaps the very key to contemporary interior design,
and also the reason our clients need us.
When we select a style from yesteryear and give it new life, it
is like creating a new look with a familiar charm, like something
we have known before. It’s almost a deja vu experience. We
might liken this to renewing an old friendship with someone from
an earlier part of our lives and finding we both have grown into
interesting, charactered people with deeper viewpoints and more
appreciation for the beauty (as well as the trials) that life has
bestowed on us.
Indeed, a beautiful room can spawn feelings that take us back, yet
make us feel renewed and refreshed and better off for the reacquaintance.
IN FASHION ONCE MORE
In my 30-plus years of working in and teaching about interior design,
I have observed that each time a historic style becomes fashionable
again, it has qualities that are more beautiful than the original
style—less rigid, more forgiving. Perhaps this is due to the
eclectic nature of today’s lifestyles. Perhaps it is because
most advanced economic cultures (i.e. those with a considerable
amount of discretionary income per capita), have been exposed to
so many styles of interior design that there is, overall, a higher
level of discrimination.
This is good, as it allows us to lean with more confidence on the
opinions and tastes of our clientele. There is less need for educating
many customers than there was as little as 10 years ago. Much of
this is due to the high quality of interior design periodicals and
education widely available to the public and to design professionals
as well. People today are better educated than at any other time
in history. As a result, we know more about interior design in a
historic sense as well as an aesthetic one.
To a great number of people today, the word retro means revisiting
mid-century modern—the post-World War II “happy days”
of the prosperous 1950s, which gave rise to much new modern design.
Cleaned up from any prior decoration and introducing a new genre
of design and vocabulary, this style was originally fairly spare
and cold. In my memory, it was a time when homes were too under
furnished, too clean, too sterile and with more than a little poor
Yet the experimental 1950s gave birth to a style that was quite
uniquely American fueled by rock ’n’ roll, jalopy or hot-rod
racing and the freedom to experiment with hair styles and dance
styles. It was a fun time when the youth were ready to make a new
name for themselves in the creation of a brave new world of hip-hop
Smooth black-and-white linoleum tile floors, chrome-plated tubular
steel and new products such as laminates and vinyl upholstery were
all influenced by the sleek and pyramidal step shapes of the Art
Deco era, the foundation for the acceptance of the New Modern style
that followed the revolutionary ’50s era.
What’s going on in today’s retro styling? For one thing,
the entirely white walls and the surgical-scrub cleanliness of the
real ’50s have been replaced with wall coverings and fabrics
with pattern! Today’s surface and product designers have added
pattern and decoration and pulled together the design elements for
a more cozy, warm effect. They also are filled with images that
evoke a simple and optimistic past, much relished by many Baby Boomers
who have fond memories of a simpler era.
RELIVING THE FEMININE SIDE
New for spring 2004 is another nostalgic look: the reminiscence
of the feminine side of the glamour era of the 1930s and 1940s.
This trend expands the definition of the retro style to a broader
audience. This high-style look was seen at the end of the Beaux
Arts architectural era in which beautiful detailing and great style
from accurate interiors inspired architects and designers to create
pure styles. Fashion was not just for interiors. The way one dressed
was a key factor in succeeding socially.
Dress was decidedly feminine and masculine, respectively, and both
sexes wore neat, precise-appearing clothing. A recent issue of the
daily e-mail fashion magazine, WGSN Daily (Worth Global Style Network),
reported that when prominent United Kingdom retailer Marks &
Spencer unveiled its spring/summer womenswear collection for 2004
the focus was on retro glamour. If you saw the movie “Pearl
Harbor,” the women’s clothing is an example of the inspiration
for this new look.
Also predicted for this spring season is a change towards feminine,
retro-influenced glamour eras from the 1920s and 1930s through to
the 1950s and 1960s. This key look for spring is the Art Deco style
from these eras of tailored elegance. This is a very soft and feminine
look in whch key pieces include tea dresses, short cardigans and
small, waisted jackets.
How does this forecast impact interior design? Fashion is often
the precursor of interior design styles because first we wear the
style, then we live in the style. With a return to feminine design
as a strong element, we welcome floral prints and embrace the mixing
Examples of this newfound freely feminine look are seen in the bedroom
vignette photograph featuring light spring floral nosegay patterns
from Seabrook. This room evokes a gentle, simple feminine feeling.
An example of gracious yesteryear gentility revamped for today’s
interiors is seen in the other bedroom photograph in which beautiful
fabrics from Waverly are inspired from the 1940s era of keen historic
STRAIGHT LINES, COMPLEX DESIGNS
Another retro look that continues strong today includes the complex
William Morris patterns associated with the Arts & Crafts era.
Often we see keep rich colors along with frank and open oak furniture
originally designed by Gustav Stickley, but made more livable for
today’s intimate lifestyles.
The perennial charm of this style of interior is that it is deep,
dark and cozy. It somehow feels “real” as compared with,
say, cyberspace. All the elements—fabrics, textures, surfaces—are
very tactile. They seem to want to be touched. Many people connect
with this style as a part of their own history and want to make
the style belong to them. It is a style of contrast—the straight
lines of the wood furniture, the wall coverings, the draperies,
the moldings, the floor planks—as compared to the complex and
rich designs of the fabrics and fringe. The entire visual experience
Concurrent with Arts & Crafts was the Early Modern Organic Prairie
Style of Frank Lloyd Wright. His angular designs were inspired by
the dual influences of Pre-Columbian South America and historic
Japanese design. Many earthy, environmental interiors today focus
on Wright’s designs as the key decorative element among frankly
So many reasons exist for going back in time to recapture a style,
to make it fresh and then to own it. The feelings of connecting
to the past give greater security and satisfaction to the present
and a future that has not lost touch with things and people who
went before—which have made us what we are now.
Remembering is at the core of our being. Many people want to connect
the future generation to the past, a desire with great nobility,
for in preserving memory we foster appreciation, gratitude and love
for the past.
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular
correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion,
education and merchandising.