Interior Design History 101

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Shares the Importance of Historically Informed Interiors


Coming off of the holiday season, I’ve been spending many cozy nights in my den with my family, watching movies. It’s been a nice break before getting back into the swing of things at my Austin interior design studio, where I will surely have to put up a fight against the wave of new interior design trends arriving with 2024. If you’ve been here before, you know I’m not a fan of trends because they are often applied without regard for design history. But I’m getting ahead of myself. While it’s not a holiday movie, a film that I always come back to around this time of year is The Devil Wears Prada, which has just as much to do with design as a whole as it does fashion. I’ve said it before, the devil not only wears Prada, but she designs interiors and is now teaching your Interior Design History 101 class. Why is no one ready? 

The Devil is in the Trends 

Rather than taking an academic approach to interior design, many folks think they can skirt past centuries of design history by hopping on the latest trends. You think design history has nothing to do with you. So, you go to your Pinterest board and select, I don’t know, that lumpy peel-and-stick wallpaper, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you don’t take your home too seriously and you’re ready to update the second trends change. But what you don’t know is that the birds stealing strawberries on that twisty botanical pattern are not sparrows, not finches, not robins, but actually thrushes. 

Strawberry Theif, William Morris

You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 1883, William Morris designed that Strawberry Thief wallpaper pattern based on the thrushes that stole the fruit from the garden of his Oxfordshire home. And that his company, Morris & Co., wasn’t it, would go on to produce botanical-inspired tapestries, wallpapers, fabrics, furniture, and stained- glass windows that would define the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th Ccentury. 

And then botanical patterns quickly showed up in the Art Nouveau movement that spread across the world from 1890 through 1910. While Morris & Co. folded in 1940, the Sanderson Design Group would acquire the rights and reimagine his botanical patterns in trending 60s and 70s designs, although with a groovier take. They’d go on to have a quiet launch of the original patterns in the 1990s. However, it wasn’t until the late 2010s that they began partnering with other brands to bring the patterns to the forefront of the trend world and home stores, which would eventually trickle down to peel-and-stick wallpaper knockoffs landing in some tragic home goods store where you, no doubt, fished a few remaining rolls out of some clearance bin. 

However, that pattern represents decades of design history and multiple arts movements, and it’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from design history when your walls are clad in a pattern chosen for you over 140 years ago. 

And that’s why this design history stuff is so important. 

Design History 101: Know Your Design Movements

Design movements extend far beyond the reach of interiors. The Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco movements also influenced the design of objects like jewelry, art, and even appliances. Before I became an interior designer, I worked at Christie’s auction house in the jewelry department. I learned so much about design there, from intaking antique jewelry to working pre-auction viewings of antique furniture. My time at Christie’s was my hands-on experience in Design History 101. After being fully immersed in that world, I could identify the style, period, and material of any piece in a snap. The same design principles used in jewelry translated to other objects, furniture, and interiors as a whole, which helped me stand out as I began my design career. 

When I was interviewing at a New York City interior design firm, the thing that set me apart from the other designers coming through the door was my expertise in being able to identify design periods. While some of these fresh designers could have told you the latest color trend, I could go out in the field to shop for a client and know the difference between a Georgian or a Neoclassical desk. It pays off to bring back exactly what the boss asked for on his shopping list. It also pays off to know the difference between antique and vintage or modern and contemporary. Antique refers to items made over 100 years ago, whereas vintage items only need to be 20 years old to claim that title. Modern is a design movement spanning roughly from the 1940s through the 60s, while contemporary refers to the here and now. 

Without an understanding of design history and periods, your final interior design will be void of context. Every successful design plan has a strong concept, taking into account the lifestyle of the client and the architectural period of the home. (Hopefully, trends will be left out of the equation altogether.) The design should seek to increase function and livability while accentuating the details of the structure. For example, a turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts bungalow would look lovely finished with a recommissioned William Morris wallpaper print, while a mid-century modern home could be updated with new terrazzo tile. These materials, while re-creations, feel at home in each of these periods. Both are also currently quite trendy, but that doesn’t mean they should be forced to live together in a 1940s Spanish Revival. Are you beginning to see the point? 

Your Design History 101 Homework 

The next time you see a trend, question where it came from and how its period influence relates to your home and reflects your personal style. Every trend has come from somewhere, and styles tend to cycle. For example, the Art Deco movement of the 1930s made a gaudy resurgence in the 80s and is being reimagined today in a cleaner, more streamlined variation. However, all three iterations use brass, strong geometric lines, and lively colors. Just remember — before you hop on a trend, take time to know where it came from. The best interiors are historically informed. 

That’s all. 

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.



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