Kings of Chelsea

Changing trends in 20th Century Interior Design – Part 1 1900-1960

Interior Design was predominantly for the rich and fashionable, though “style” percolated through to the homes of many more people in the 20th century through mass production and commercialization as well as dissemination of information through journals and magazines. Trends began amongst the upper and upper middle classes in the UK & US and the bourgeoisie in France and Europe. Much like today, those with money and success were often time poor, so the task of making their mansions and estates look beautiful was left to architects, tradesmen, and professional designers. The notion of an “Interior Designer” was relatively late to the century, only really being used from the 30s onwards.

As a very arbitrary date, were we to begin the century at the year 1900, we would find ourselves in the middle of the trend for naturalistic and sinuous forms that was known as Art Nouveau, named after the fashionable shop in Paris founded by Siegfried Bing called “L’Art Nouveau”. In Italy, the same movement was called “Stile Liberty” after the famous London store. Now very overbearing and busy to our modern eyes, Art Nouveau was seen as a very artistic and knowledgeable style, and served to exhibit a love for things exotic and dramatic. In the USA the foremost proponent was Tiffany, in France, Majorelle, Daum & Galle, in Italy, Bugatti & Carlo Zen. In other countries, total works of art were created within Interior Design where the furniture, door handles, cupboards and even cutlery were all designed together. A fine example of this is the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, furnished by the Austrian Wiener Werkstatte company and with wall murals by Gustav Klimt

By the beginning of the First World War, the excess of Art Nouveau was on the wane, and by 1918 a new asceticism combined with the machine aesthetic of the new technologically advanced world led to Modernism and Art Deco. Existing in parallel, Art Deco was always Modernism’s flamboyant cousin, using more luxurious finishes and materials, as well as a level of surface decoration that was anathema to the progressive Modernists. Some interiors of the 1920’s and 1930’s still look like the future even now, and it is designers like Chareau, Gropius, Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier that set the standards for the rest of the century. Architecture dictated the new interior style as walls were removed, and large expanses of window and light became possible through a change in construction technology. This approach was particularly evident in the Bauhaus and the Dutch modernists such as Oud and Rietveld

Like most trends, there was a subsequent reaction to what was considered by some to be a soulless and clinical style in Modernism, and the 1940’s offered up may revival styles such as Neo-Baroque and Hollywood Regency. Italy and France recycled classicism but with a modern twist adding luxury and humour into the mix. This was short lived however, as WW2 put pay to any optimism and excess that existed in this period

Another great leap forward in Interior Design occurred in the 1950’s when after almost a decade of austerity, greater risks were taken with design and style. The advent of space exploration and more money in people’s pockets meant that a greater interest was taken in design and technology, and various World Fairs bought a deeper interest in what was happening around the world. Japan, Brazil, USA, Italy, France and the UK all had hugely talented designers and architects working around this time, many of whom are now household names such as Eames, Robin Day, George Nelson, Carlo Mollino, Gio Ponti, Niemeyer and Noguchi. The key shapes and forms of this period were inspired by atomic patterns and scientific developments in nature, an antidote to the linear sharp edged modernism of the 1920s & 30’s. Often referred to as “Mid Century Modernism”, it was both progressive and visually satisfying as well as comfortable, perhaps not as challenging and uncompromising as its predecessor.