“Not So” All-American Style: Empire Interior Design

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Never New — Is Empire Interior Design a Copycat of Bygone Eras or a Style Unto Itself?   

Center Table in Foyer_Design By amity kett

There’s a famous quote from the Bible: 

What has been will be again,

    what has been done will be done again;

    there is nothing new under the sun. 

— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Now to be clear, this is a design history lesson, not a Sunday school lecture. However, I love just how relevant this passage is to the design world and trends in general. No matter how original or new or groundbreaking you believe a trend to be, it’s probably been done before — and possibly even done better. 

Something borrowed, something blue. It’s like that scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda breaks down the origin of Andy’s cerulean blue Casual Corner sweater — the color coming straight from the fashion runways she thinks she’s too good for. Nothing is new unto itself. Everything comes from something else and has been done again, and again, and again. 

While Americans tend to pride ourselves on our rebellious original spirits, our design choices are anything but. American style is a sponge, absorbing immigrated trends throughout history. It turns out American interior design styles are really “not-so” American after all, but rather a copycat conglomeration of ideas from other countries. 

One of the biggest copycat styles is Empire interior design, stealing from the bygone empires of Napoleon, Caesar, and Cleopatra. 

 

Where Does the Empire Style Come From? A Brief History… 

Where does the Empire style come from? Well, in many ways, it’s a copy of a copy of a copy. The Americans stole the style from the French, who stole motifs from the Romans and Egyptians. Let’s break this down.  

First Empire Design

The “original” Empire style was developed by two French Architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, between 1800 and 1815 during the First French Empire period under the rule of Napoleon I. Drawing inspiration from Neoclassicism and Egyptian motifs, the designs sought to reinforce Napoleon’s leadership and convey the dominance of the French government. Some of the most famous First Empire structures include the Arc de Triomphe, Place Vendome, and La Madeleine Church in Paris — all mimicking some of Rome’s most famous temples. Napoleon saw the success of these past empires and thought, “Why reinvent the wheel?” As a result, first Empire design is ostentatious, combining grand scale with rigid symmetry, intricate carvings, Corinthian columns, rich woods, metals, and Roman & Egyptian motifs. 

Second Empire Design

The borrowing of past design trends doesn’t stop there. Americans developed the Second Empire style at the turn of the century, during French architect Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s renovation of Paris led by Napoleon III. During this time, American architects were inspired by the French and flocked to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, bringing French design trends back with them. The American renditions of the Empire style include homes with mansard roofs, ornate trim, stately facades, and central towers filled with reproduction Empire furnishings. Of course, trends come and go. The Empire style fell out of favor during the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of Napoleon III’s empire. As a result, empire designs gave way to the Queen Anne style, which favored similar stylistic elements of grandeur with less rigid symmetry and Neoclassical motifs. 

Empire Design Today

Now, we’ve taken a break from reimagining the Empire style. For one reason, the style’s use of hand-carved trim work and heirloom pieces would be cost-prohibitive for most to recreate. However, that didn’t stop us from reinterpreting the style in the 90s. During the 90s, the Empire style had a moment as we reimagined the look through very pared-down pieces with similar shapes and feels. Picture the upscale 90s movie house that we all questioned how the family could afford. Empire-inspired pieces included metallic brass fixtures, fringe sofas, canopy beds, and the oh-so 90s cherub motif. While Empire decadence had its moment in the 90s, these days, we’re favoring the cleaner, curvier lines of 70s and 80s interior design.  

 

Elements of the Empire Interior Design Style

Roman and Egyptian Motifs 

Empire design is full of subtle (and not so subtle) Neoclassical and Egyptian motifs. You can find furnishings and interior millwork featuring Greek-key, Sphinx, cherub, rope, Roman eagle, and animal feet carvings. If you look closely, you may even find N-patterns to honor Napoleon himself. 

Polished Woods and Metals

Empire wood and metal finishes are heavily polished and rich. Dark wood colors include oak, mahogany, and maple paired with glistening silver and gold metallics. Furniture pieces often include veneers and inlays to add an extra layer of detail and elegance. 

Rich Colors and Murals 

Sometimes, more is more! You won’t find restraint in an Empire interior design scheme. Rooms will be layered with rich colors, like deep reds and blues. Murals and patterns will also dominate the space, covering textiles, walls, and even ceilings. 

Stately Symmetry

The Empire style relies on a grand scale to achieve its striking look. Inside and out, an Empire home will feature broad, tall, and imposing symmetrical lines with few features breaking up the structure. Empire design was developed during periods of wealth and opulence and aimed to convey grandeur by commanding visual space. 

Entry Towers and Mansard Roofs

Outside, Empire-style homes create defined points of entry with towering pavilions over the central doorway. This feature breaks from the often symmetrical structure of the facade, towering one or two stories above the rest of the house. Mansard roof lines are also common exterior features. This roof style appears flat at the top and includes steep curved slopes down all four sides with dormer windows peeping through. Empire mansard roofs are typically accented with decorative trim, cornices, soffits, or railings along the top. 

 

Empire Design: Is it a Wannabe or in a League of Its Own? 

The Empire style’s American cousin has always seemed like a wannabe, mimicking the more sophisticated French look with knock-offs and reproductions. The 90s Empire trend felt like an insecure style adopted by folks who wanted their homes to be fancy and feel classy. But the truth of the matter is that Empire is a fancy style. The woods are heavy, polished, and finished with intricate detail and plenty of gold embellishments. Empire design is like that rich piece of chocolate cake — so rich it makes your teeth hurt to look at it. 

 

So what if the Empire is a copycat wannabe ripping off past decades of grandeur? We all want to be a little fancy sometimes. 

 

Want to learn more about residential design?

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Further Reading

“Not So” All-American Style: Searching for a Common Thread in the Patchwork of American Interior Design


Amity Worrel

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.