All posts by S Booth

A Retrospective on the History & Trends of Interior Design

In the half-century and more that I have been instructing young interior designers, the metamorphosing pattern of fashion and styles has been constant and in some respects spectacular.

In the late 20th century reaction to all the deprivations engendered by WW2 gave rise to a desire to reclaim what was lost in terms of luxury and stability. Coinciding as it did with the peak of John Fowler’s career, this dictated a return to classicism, which negated all the progressive elegance of the thirties and gave us instead The English Style. So Adam and his successors were re-visited with enthusiasm, the English antiques market boomed and America fell in love with, and bought, all things English to such an extent that someone remarked that we would ‘soon be a country of brown furniture’. I discounted this at the time (the sixties) but how right was the prophet!

Finding elegant furniture and artefacts of the 18th and 19th centuries is now difficult. At the top end of the market there are indeed marvellous furniture and objects available to those with a deep purse – at the bottom end dealers are now left with what are termed collectables, an all embracing class of items sometimes put on sale under the title “Interesting”.

Christie’s catalogues crystalise this odd situation. On the one hand a startling collection of items are included annually in an important summer sale; entitled the Exceptional Sale, it features exceptional items at very exceptional prices. Few of the bidders come into the category of young householders so one must assume that this is a market for new money or determined collectors. The same saleroom classifies a more modest event as the Interesting Sale, featuring objects which thirty years ago would have been identified as “objets trouve”, a phrase first used by travel writer Rory Cameron to describe his passion for casual eclecticism. There seems to be little in between these two extremes and, with now limited resources, it is hardly surprising that designers are uninterested in returning to the elegance of the 18th and 19th centuries or the snobberies invoked by what became the English Country House style.

The fact is that even reasonably good antiques involve care and cost. Insurance may be involved, they may require increasingly expensive restoration and they are certainly not child friendly. Before the advent of the dishwasher one thought nothing of using good china or glasses, no longer a practical option. Most families now are run by two working parents, indicating that anything at all that cuts their workload, enhances and extends family time and reduces the responsibility involved in inanimate objects is the way forward. Bedclothes are out, as are chandeliers – modern product designers writing a brief dictated by their own lifestyle have given us so many brilliant alternatives to alleviate work and save time that there is no incentive to complicate life. American lifestyle long ago dictated that families need living space which is all-inclusive, and so the kitchen moved into the sitting room, allowing the whole family to pursue play and work together. Thus the hostess can entertain and cook, and still enjoy the last joke and the final martini.
Which does sound as if we will have to go to Museums to see the great designs of past years; no bad thing, even if it does transform personal enjoyment into a learning curve.

As for fashion, it is gone before it is established. Style, which underlies all great design, will endure, becoming eventually the heritage of tomorrow and will join the lexicon of innovation now preserved so carefully by English Museums.

Meanwhile all the young designers are looking forward rather than backwards, which is just as it should be.

Comfort or Fashion – can you have both?

Prompted by the media, the average household now gives more attention to the principles of interior design than ever before and we have a flourishing profession to implement the styles and fashions that the media endorse.

Is there maybe a chance that we now put style before comfort? Or indeed that we do not understand the real principles of comfort?

In cultural terms, there is no doubt that the amateur decorator will copy the professionals, relying on symmetry rather than inspiration and reproducing schemes that look smart and shiny in the magazine but do not necessarily translate into a comfortable living space. And of course, living spaces should be about comfort primarily; the elegance of the glossy magazine should provide inspiration rather than offering a blueprint.

Here is an interesting litmus test – when you walk into a strange room, is it not true that you automatically scan the space, partly out of curiosity but it is also a desire to establish what you will do, where in this new experience will you sit? Or read – or talk – or drink? These are decisions that, for your psychological comfort, should be dictated by the overall design, the arrangement of furniture and the control of lighting whether it be natural or artificial. So here I am discussing, not the deep comfort of the armchair, but the mental reassurance that can familiarise you spontaneously with an unfamiliar area.

Such reassurance is part of the brief of which any designer should be aware and indeed capable of encompassing. With the acceptance of his brief, the designer takes on a role similar to that of a film ‘director’ and his decisions will dictate how the room will be used. Design solutions should be comforting, rather than challenging.

The first experience of space may surprise and fascinate but if you hesitate in the doorway wondering what to do or where to sit, then the designer has failed in his role as interior director because he has not resolved the spatial problem for the users of the space.

Thus the fundamental issues to be addressed in a living area are spatial considerations and furniture layout; these issues are supported, but supported only, by lighting choices, colour distribution and textural interest. An individual chair, however comfortable, still requires a flat surface in reaching distance for a book, or a glass and in turn it requires an efficient light source if the purpose is for reading.

Two large low sofas with a coffee table between them will involve the discomfort of leaning awkwardly forward if you wish to use the table. Generous sofas look splendid but how practical in daily terms? One sofa is better balanced by chairs – people like to face one another when they converse. The requirements in any room must accommodate psychological as well as personal comfort. These are considerations that come as a priority and they are the challenges that must be met in the manipulation of space for the ultimate comfort of those who occupy it.

This analysis of the design process inevitably dictates that style follows practicality – if the basics are right, if the space answers the demands of use and comfort, then the choice of style becomes a final decision, serving to enhance the scheme in its finality.

Comfort and style, then, are compatible companions, but in a successful design comfort comes first and must be addressed from the psychological as well as the physical viewpoint. The addition of style to comfort translates practicality into the arena of culture and glamour so beloved by the media.

Fashion in itself is a much less serious consideration; fashion is fun; fashion is transitory; fashion is the twist in the cocktail!

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