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.