It’s no secret that Americans tend to break the mold and challenge the status quo. So, how does the rebellious and entrepreneurial American spirit affect our interior design decisions, taste, and architecture? How do we balance a history of global influences while also establishing ourselves as trendsetters in our own right? When you think “American interior design,” what do you picture? (We are all probably imagining very different spaces right now!) My Austin interior design team and I are on a mission to define American styles and determine what makes American interior design “American.” I am optimistic that it is more than a red, white, and blue color palette. Let’s start by reviewing some of America’s top style icons who defined our nation’s aesthetic. Then, we can dive into classic American interior design and architecture styles that have deep roots in our history and culture. I am embarking on a classic American road trip from the Hamptons to Malibu, and I can’t wait to update you on all the design styles I find along the way.
All-American Style Icons That Defined a Nation’s Design Aesthetic
Name someone more American than Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren defined the American clothing style, repurposing workwear items like blue jeans and utility shirts and making them chic and fashionable. Chambray shirts and cricket sweaters are now the uniforms of the Hamptons, and Polo shirts are worn everywhere from the golf course to the office. The accessibility of Ralph Lauren allows it to dominate our wardrobes and spill into our home interiors. Ready to shop the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, anyone?
Billy Baldwin reported to the New York Times in 1965 that “we in this country have the greatest taste level in the world.” Dubbed the “Dean of Interior Decorators,” Baldwin embraced the American ideals of comfort, endurance, and diversity in his design schemes. He believed Americans have a better decorating sense than our European counterparts because we don’t have past design periods to use as a crutch. We constantly have to forge new ideas and blend styles to achieve new looks.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright is no doubt one of America’s most famous architects. He established the Prairie School Style (America’s only design style formed without outside influence from other countries), coined the term “organic architecture”, and essentially invented the concept of indoor-outdoor living we all embrace today. You can thank Frank Lloyd Wright for that wall of panoramic glass doors leading out to your patio!
As one of the only female architects in America during her time, Mary Colter was a pioneering woman in architecture. She is known for her designs throughout the Grand Canyon National Park and Santa Fe Railroad. She established the Southwest style we know today by combining Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Native American motifs.
If you love the look and feel of California, you are probably a fan of Julia Morgan’s architectural work. She designed over 700 buildings in California after establishing her own lifestyle-focused architecture firm in 1904. In true American fashion, some of those lifestyles were larger than life. She is most famous for designing Hearst Castle, the home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Julia Morgan basically created the blueprint for the American mogul’s mansion.
Interior design is all about establishing a sense of time and place in the home, and no one knows that better than Steven Gambrel. He wrote the book on it! He is the founder of S.R. Gambrel, Inc., an influential interior design firm specializing in design commissions and custom furnishings. Steven Gambrel’s designs create a distinct American appeal, sampling from various styles, including Colonial, contemporary, and coastal.
Jeffery Bilhuber creates classic American interiors for classic American trendsetters, including Anna Wintour and David Bowie. He says that “American design is grounded in function and based on necessity.” After all, what is the purpose of having a room that doesn’t suit your needs? I was lucky enough to have Jeffery as my mentor early on in my design career. He taught me the foundations of American style, mixing highbrow and lowbrow items together in the same space—all with an air of not taking yourself too seriously.
Miles Redd says that his approach to design is “taking the best of history and making it work for you.” One of the benefits of being American is deciding who we want to be no matter where we come from, and the same goes for our interiors! Miles Redd’s interiors mix different styles and periods, combining 18th-century art with streamlined contemporary furnishings. In a way, his rooms reflect the melting pot of American culture.
Kelly Wearstler is an interior designer that everyone should know. As the “Dame of West Coast Design,” she sets the standard of effortless modern luxury and leads the California Coastal trend. Combining elements of Hollywood Regency, mid-century modern, and her own unique twist on contemporary, she has forged a new style that is distinctly Californian and distinctly American. She has branded herself and her designs as the embodiment of “California cool” and redefined the aesthetic of celebrity-grade interiors.
All-American Architectural and Interior Design Styles
American Colonial is our country’s first real design style, gracing New England and serving as the backdrop for the Founding Fathers. Colonial architecture borrows elements from English, French, Dutch, and Spanish styles brought over by the first settlers. It includes design features like symmetry, columns, brick or wood cladding, and dormer windows. This is where the American design revolution began!
The Cape Cod style reinterprets Colonial elements like symmetry and dormer windows, repurposing the designs to better fit the stormy weather along the coast of Cape Cod. Featuring a steep roof, wood shingle siding, central chimney, and little ornamentation, the design resonated with coastal communities and defines East Coast living.
The farmhouse trend grows out of a nostalgia for a made-up history of early American farm life. While we seek to recreate a Little House on the Prairie lifestyle cooking farm fresh eggs and gathering around the table for breakfast, the modern farmhouse trend of the past decade sees us toasting Pop-Tarts in all-white kitchens with quartz counters. The modern farmhouse borrows heavily from the vernacular of simple family homes in American farm country and pairs the aesthetic with all the conveniences of suburban life.
The Craftsman style was inspired by the European Arts and Crafts movement but is deeply rooted in American values, reflecting the ideals of stability, hard work, and craftsmanship. With features like welcoming front porches, hardwood floors, and custom built-ins, Craftsman homes remain one of the most popular architectural styles among Americans today.
Unlike other American styles that take influence from around the world, the Prairie School style was established by Frank Lloyd Wright to celebrate the flat landscape of the American Midwest. With strong horizontal lines, low pitched roofs, and minimal ornamentation, Prairie School homes echo the unique American landscape and vastness of the plains.
Taking inspiration from another American landscape, the Southwestern style looks to the desert for color and material selections. The style was pioneered mainly by Mary Colter, who combined Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Native American design elements in her projects for the Santa Fe Railroad and Grand Canyon National Park. Terracotta tile, white plaster, leather, and handwoven textiles are all popular components of the look.
Taking inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic architecture,” the mid-century modern movement brought indoor-outdoor living and streamlined design to the homes that would define the American suburbs. This post-war design trend still resonates with American homeowners today. I think it’s safe to assume the hit series Mad Men had something to do with its renewed popularity.
Art Deco design originated in France. However, thanks to MGM art director Cedric Gibbons who designed his movie sets in the style during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the look took off in the States. As a result, Art Deco decor moved from the silver screen and into homes across the country, defining American glitz and glamour during the 1920s.
American design tends to take pieces of other styles, mix them together, and claim them as our own. Hollywood Regency does just that, combining elements of 19th century Regency, Art Deco, and mid-century modern design styles to create spaces that are sleek and modern but also opulent and over-the-top. This style was the luxury standard during the 1950s.
Americans are constantly redefining what luxury means. Today, effortless elegance, cool colors, and casual contemporary interiors make up the backdrop of modern celebrity and glamour. The California Coastal style influenced by the designs of Kelly Wearstler is America’s latest interior trend. In true American fashion, this style still places comfort at the center of luxurious design.
The Mogul’s Mansion
The American fascination with success, money, and status has always positioned celebrities and moguls to be the leaders of American trends. While they build homes and launch rockets into space, the rest of us take note. From the Hearst Castle to the Biltmore Estate to the set of The Philadelphia Story, the display of wealth has been central to American design. Whether it’s a sprawling country estate, a Malibu beach house, or an NYC penthouse, we want to see what styles are behind the doors and how we can copy them on a budget.
What Makes “American Interior Design” American?
What makes American interior design “American” is the mix of global styles that transcend time and place. Just like America itself, our design style is a melting pot of architectural elements, time periods, and influences. It’s liberating for American designers to pull freely from all periods without restraint, combine the new and old, blend the highbrow and lowbrow, and form something completely unique. We are free to embrace different traditions and styles, from the Southwestern Pueblo to the New England Colonial, the California Bungalow, and the Midwestern mid-century. We can even invent our own.
America is Still Finding Its Sense of Style
In regards to American style, Billy Baldwin said that “because we are young, we’ve always been on the way up and have never had to come down.” Compared to the centuries-old countries in Europe, America is still a young nation. When it comes to antiques, our most popular American designs so far don’t even qualify for the label! As a country, we are full of fresh ideas and not afraid to do things outside of tradition. We are constantly reimagining what the home can be and adapting styles to our changing ways of life. In many ways, we are still finding our own personal sense of style.