When it comes to American interior design and architecture, there are very few styles that are unique to the States. Our neighborhoods are graced with borrowed Tudor architecture from England, Greek Revivals, and French Country copycats. While most towns in the United States are a collage of global influence, the Southwest is undeniably “all-American.” The Southwestern interior design style pulls inspiration from some of the most classic American iconographies, from the rustic landscape of the Grand Canyon to the lore of the cowboys. Southwestern design has endured for over a century, but for me, the charm was almost lost in the 1980s interpretation of the style. (You may remember the horrific pastel sunset paintings and turquoise carpets of the decade.) After a trip through the region, I decided to dive deeper into the style with my team of interior designers here in Austin, Texas. After researching the history of Southwestern interior design, I understand it better. It is clear to see why the Southwestern style is still popular today. Let’s review the elements of Southwestern decor and the movements that defined the style.
Elements of the Southwestern Interior Design Style
Desert-inspired Color Palettes
Southwestern color trends have changed through the decades. At the turn of the century, white plasters, dark wood tones, and terracotta clay tiles made up the primary color palette, with the occasional burst of turquoise. In the 1980s, Southwestern style was dominated by muted pastels inspired by desert sunsets. Coincidentally, these colors matched the preppy madras prints of the decade. Today, the Southwestern style gravitates towards natural hues from the landscape, including rust oranges, cowhide browns, and terracotta reds.
Nods to the American Landscape
Southwestern interior design takes inspiration from the desert landscape of the region. Nods to the landscape include desert photography, potted succulents and cacti, Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, and even cow skulls and taxidermy.
White Plaster Walls
Influenced by Spanish settlers, adobe home interiors typically feature white plaster walls. These walls add a textural element while providing a bright and clean background for diverse textiles, dark woods, vibrant clay tiles, and Southwestern artwork.
Rich Clay Tiles
The Southwestern interior design style uses clay tiles inside and out. Rich red terracotta is often accented with hand-painted tiles in colors like turquoise.
Layered and Diverse Textiles
Influenced by Native Americans, the Southwestern style incorporates various textiles, including Navajo weavings, animal hides, and baskets. Textiles are dispersed throughout the home, from floor rugs to furniture accents to wall hangings.
A Mix of Woods, Metals, and Leathers
Southwestern style relies on rustic materials, including hard-carved wood, hand-hammered metals, and leather. These often dark and heavy materials are showcased and brightened when paired with the white plaster walls associated with the style.
Historical Influences of the Southwestern Design Style
When it comes to all-American interior design styles, influence is drawn from not only the landscape but the groups of people who settled there. In the case of Southwestern design, the look was influenced by Indigenous peoples, Spanish settlers, and American cowboys. The Navajo inhabited the Southwest long before any other group. Their impact on the design style can be seen in bold textiles and iconic artisan crafts. Spanish settlers brought building techniques from Spain. They utilized adobe for tiles, white stucco for walls, and wood beam and wrought iron accents. Cowboys brought the “Wild West” element to Southwestern design, primarily seen in leather, cowhide, and animal-inspired motifs.
Turn-of-the-century Pioneers of the Southwestern Design Style
At the turn of the century, the American West was expanding, and so was Southwestern design. Two women, in particular, pioneered the style.
Mary Colter was one of the only female architects in the country during her time. As Americans were carving out space in the West, she was forging a path for women in the field. She is known for landmarks that define the region, including designs in the Grand Canyon National Park, buildings for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, and the famous La Posada Hotel. She defined the Southwestern style as we know it today, combining Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Native American design elements.
Georgia O’Keeffe captured the Southwestern landscape in a new genre of art unassociated with European movements. Deemed the “Mother of American Modernism,” she portrayed the uniquely American landscape amidst a quickly industrializing world. The desert-inspired pinks, yellows, purples, and reds of her paintings continue to influence the Southwestern color palette. The spirit of freedom is weaved into her beloved 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, representing all the ideals Southwestern design aims to capture.
The Rad Return of Southwestern Style in the 80s
During the totally tubular 1980s style era, Southwestern design made a big comeback. However, the original characteristics that made up the look were lost. The 80s Southwest style featured pastel colors inspired by the desert sunset, but the colors were more closely tied to the clothing styles of the decade. This modern Miami Vice twist on the American West went off course from the classic elements that made the style unique, replacing terracotta tile with turquoise carpet and artisan textiles with mass-produced flame stitch prints.
Modern Southwestern Design is Back in Style Today
While Southwestern design went off track in the 80s, today it is making a more refined return. The new Southwest style seeks to mix warm textiles, colors, and artisan crafts alongside contemporary furnishings for streamlined interpretation that still feels authentic to the region. Handwoven rugs and rich leather sofas have found their home among crisp white walls and sleek chandeliers. Southwestern design has moved past its awkward teenage years in the 80s, and I couldn’t be happier for the return!
Why Southwestern Style is “All-American”
The Southwest aesthetic is undeniably one of the most iconic representations of American style. But what is it that makes Southwestern design all-American? Early in my interior design career, I worked under my mentor Jeffrey Bilhuber who created stunning American-style room designs. Each space was layered in culture and history from all over the world. In the case of Southwest design, the main influences come from Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and cowboys, who all brought different elements to the architecture and design of the region. American interiors are constantly mixing different styles together to create something new. When it comes down to it, we’re a melting pot of culture and design. A mix of cultures is really what American style is all about!
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.