What is Interior Design?
The main mistake most people make when thinking about interior design is to conflate it with interior decorating or painting and decorating. The practice of interior design, in reality, is much closer to the practice of architecture in that it is concerned with spatial awareness and the relationship between internal layout and user experience.
Interior design spans both art and science (in that it uses tested, demonstrable and codified techniques proven to enhance the somewhat elusive and subjective goal of ‘quality of life’) in its pursuit of designing, developing and improving the inside of buildings. And the people who work in the practice of doing so are known as interior designers.
An interior designer is not merely someone who decorates the inside of a building. (That would be a painter and decorator – a very different role, indeed.) An interior designer, rather, is involved in every aspect of the building’s internal development – space planning, site inspection, measuring, researching, stakeholder liaison, conceptual development, contractor management, design execution, finishing, quality control and so on.
The practice of interior design is still unregulated in the UK so is, in a sense, still not officially considered a profession – meaning that, technically, anyone can do it. However, the best interior designers not only have broad project portfolios demonstrating the scope of their abilities, but are also qualified as such.
Can I Study Interior Design at University?
Some of the UK’s best universities offer programmes in or incorporating Interior Design, so Interior Designers qualified from those institutions are naturally going to find their way to the top of the profession, working alongside architects to ensure that the inside of buildings is as structurally, aesthetically and functionally impactful as the exterior.
You will find interior designers coming from the likes of Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, Glasgow School of Art, Goldsmiths, Loughborough University, University of Oxford and University of Brighton, amongst others. If you are considering hiring an interior designer for your own remodelling, rebuild or renovation project, it would certainly be worth your time looking into their credentials.
The UK even has its own Interior Design Institute, which today offers online learning for students hoping to expand their knowledge or launch their careers in interior design.
The History of Interior Design
Chinese geomancy – better known as feng shui (literally translated as ‘wind water’) – is one of the earliest known examples of codified attempts to harmonise individuals with their surroundings, stretching back as far as 4000 BC. As such, it becomes one of the first defining tenets of what we today call interior design and relates to what it suggests are invisible forces of qi (or chi) that bind people, the planet and the universe together.
Feng shui, however, should not be mistaken for the Chinese practice of interior design as it concerns much broader subject matter, stretching into the wider realm of architecture and analysing factors such as the angles at which buildings are built and the directions in which their windows face and so on. And, as we look across different historical cultures, we tend to find that architecture and interior design were very much a single, indistinguishable practice. In ancient India, for instance, we only need look to the interiors of its palaces to see depictions of sacred texts depicted in sculpture and painting and, in ancient Egypt, to the ‘soul houses’ left inside tombs, which acted as containers for food offerings.
As we move through the last few hundred years, we see interior design taking on a more defined role as an artisanal craft carried out primarily by homemakers under the advice of employed craftsmen, though architects would also hire artisans to work on the interior design aspects of their buildings. It is only as we move to the latter part of the 19th century, however, that we see interior design coming into its own as a result of the industrial revolution and the developing middle class.
Owen Jones and Popular Interior Design
In 1851, architect Owen Jones launched his first project, which quickly became one of the most influential pieces in interior design history. The decoration, furniture and arrangement of the interior of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace for that year’s Great Exhibition was highly controversial, using – for instance – the bold colour choices of yellow, red and blue for interior ironwork, which sent the press at the time into uproar. After its unveiling by Queen Victoria, however, the work was reviewed in a much more favourable light and Jones went on to write what became a key text in the development of Interior Design theory, The Grammar of Ornament (1856). This paved the way for the grand scale industrial interior design that was to come as the 19th Century turned into the 20th.
20th Century Interior Design
The Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of the early 20th Century were signifiers that interior design was becoming as much of a codified and individual consideration in the design and development of buildings as architecture itself. Furniture, lighting, spatial arrangement and adornments/decoration were harmonised in manners that were nevertheless distinct from the exteriors of existing buildings (often erected during earlier stylistic periods) and became demonstrative of the emerging bourgeoisie.
However, professional interior design only really took off in the middle of the 20th Century with the emergence of the Danish (or Scandinavian) style and you can still see its influence running strongly through the vast majority of styles that occur today (with a style we actually now refer to as Mid-Century Modern).
After the Second World War, prosperity and celebration were in the air. Cabinet makers and upholsterers began expanding their businesses, contracting their individual styles out to offices and hotels, as well as advertising their interior designs to the general public. Huge department stores became paeans to the world’s new favourite hobby of shopping and the public began its infinite obsession with all things interior design. And the world’s first showrooms and show homes sprang into being as standardised models of presenting interior styles and wares.
By 1986, the Chartered Society of Designers had been established in the UK and, in 1994, the International Interior Design Association came into being in the UK, also, giving the profession the credibility and gravitas it had so long and so sorely demanded.
What are the Elements of Interior Design?
Functionality and effective use of space are the core tenets of interior design today. Far less so than merely decoration, which is of course, still central to the idea of the aesthetics of interior design. 21st Century interior designers will be involved in everything from where walls (with the assistance of a structural engineer), doors and windows should be situated within buildings to acoustic and lighting design. Essentially, today’s interior designers are in charge of the development of the inside of a building and, whether it’s a new-build project or a redevelopment, will tend to work hand-in-hand with architects, whose vision will counterbalance interior design with structural aesthetic and material considerations.
Are There Different Types of Interior Design?
Interior designers now occupy a wide range of specialties, catering to different audiences and working within different types of buildings.
There are residential interior designers who focus on the private homes of individual clients, often working to very specific design briefs and attempting to marry their own stylistic footprint with the exacting needs of the client, whether on a remodel or on a brand-new building.
Commercial interior designers, on the other hand, are employed by architects and property development firms to deliver cost-effective but highly stylised visions for everything from retail, healthcare and sports environments to theatres, banks and offices. Whenever you step into a public building, take a look around you and think about the decisions that have been made about layout, materials, style and feel. These have almost certainly been decided by commercial designers.
Then there are other types of interior designers who work in much more niche areas, such as exhibition and museum design, set design for films and TV, science laboratory design and educational facility design. The more the world becomes aware of its need for well-considered interiors that are conducive to best meeting their purpose, the more it narrows down the field of interior design into very specific subsets.
Who are the Top Interior Designers in the World Today?
Every year, Elle Décor produces a list of the world’s best interior designers and this is something of a bible for the field of interior design. If you’re on that list, it means you are the best of the best. Today’s list includes some of the broadest examples from across the stylistic world, which is more eclectic now than ever before.
Today, you will find minimalists and maximalists rubbing shoulders with futurists, traditionalists and Mid-Century Modern obsessives. All of which suggests that we are moving ever further away from the movement-based approach to interior design and to a more individualised, designer-led approach that borrows the best of past home design and infuses it with the unique eye and taste of each designer.
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