Was There Interior Design Before HGTV?

Was There Interior Design Before HGTV?

What is interior design and what's its function? If you Google the definition, the first explanation that pops us says it's “the art or process of designing the interior decoration of a room or building.” If you go by this description, the concept is much older than many people realize.

Elsie de Wolfe is thought to have been the first professional decorator in the early 1900s and some well-known architects like Frank Lloyd Wright prided themselves, beyond just designing the house as a structure, to take a more holistic approach by designing every minute detail on the inside, including furniture, in support of their vision and goals for a specific project. Long before the existence of interior design as a profession, interiors were often planned by the same person who also designed the structure itself, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright's approach. However, this practice was common even in ancient Rome and Greece.

Unique and timeless aspects like the reclaimed wood beams on the ceiling and attention to detail such as the door handle are what interior design is all about. Design by Ella Design Group. Photo by Paul S. Bartholomew.

Unique and timeless aspects like the reclaimed wood beams on the ceiling and attention to detail such as the door handle are what interior design is all about. Design by Ella Design Group. Photo by Paul S. Bartholomew.

We'd actually argue that the desire to "design the interior" has been around as long as architecture has, meaning it dates as far back as the Ziggurat of Urnammu, which was built around 2100 BCE and is considered to be one of the first architectural buildings. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, another famous architect, once said that architecture began “when two bricks were put together well.” While structurally the Ur was built using bricks, the interior was thoughtfully designed and crafted with decorations and sculptures covering all of the walls. In fact, from a design perspective, the interior probably received even more attention than the exterior.  

Today, interior design has a stated goal of creating functional and beautiful spaces. While any trained designer will always keep function as well as aesthetics in mind, in our current DIY and HGTV world of interiors, sometimes it seems like it's more about making spaces “pretty” and not really about how they work for a person's lifestyle and even less about quality and attention to detail in an effort to save time and money. 

So what's interior design from our perspective? We think design has historically had four primary objectives. In addition to aesthetics and function, two other drivers were religion and power/status.

Think about it. The first true buildings and larger, more formal structures, including the pyramids, were built for religious reasons.  

Something as basic as aqueducts illustrate the Romans' obsession with beautiful architecture and design that served a basic function to deliver access to water. 

In regards to power and status, doesn’t “bigger is better” apply as much to the goals of the Catholic Church during the Counter Reformation as it applies to someone today with the desire and financial ability to build an impressive mansion with an interior that “wows”?  From triumphal arches like the Arch of Constantine, to Vatican City, to medieval castles, to the Taj Mahal (or Trump Tower), isn't it, at least in part, about power, status or a combination of both?

Whatever the motivation, when architecture and interiors are carefully, meticulously and thoughtfully designed, sheer magic happens!

With Iris’ upcoming trip to Spain (woo hoo!!), the Great Mosque of Cordoba comes to mind as a gorgeous example of true interior design. In its most basic form, the interior of the Mosque was constructed as a large prayer hall, yet it accomplishes so much more. Architectural writer Jonathan Glancey put it beautifully when he said, “sunlight filters in through the windows, creating ever-shifting jewel-like patterns across the immense floor, originally only supplemented by the flickering light of a thousand small oil lamps.  It is like being inside a surreal architectural puzzle; it is an unforgettable experience and a demonstration of how the interior of a building needs no decoration, much less furniture, in the hands of master architects and craftsmen."

Texture, color, pattern and lighting are key elements in the design of the Mosque of Cordoba. The stripes were made using two different materials and the overlapping arches create new geometric forms.  - Image from  Wikipedia .

Texture, color, pattern and lighting are key elements in the design of the Mosque of Cordoba. The stripes were made using two different materials and the overlapping arches create new geometric forms.  - Image from Wikipedia.

Built in late 700 CE, lighting as well as a multitude of different building materials were fully utilized to create the breathtaking space that was perhaps intentionally “divinely” beautiful, not only providing a space for prayer but also enabling a better spiritual connection. Glancey’s description reminds us that good interior design uses all architectural forms and elements and has an emotional quality. In our busy, "instant gratification" era, we sometimes forget that interior design isn't just selecting paint colors and furnishings. Design starts with the space itself. The architectural details, if any, the space plan, the lighting, the intangible feeling we want to achieve, etc. It's also about choosing materials and finishes, considering functionality, durability and visual impact. It's about making design choices that allow a room to appear larger, or smaller or taller, depending on what we want the space to communicate to those who walk in or live there.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba is an example of what can be achieved. The space is a carefully developed and executed masterpiece where everything comes together in a cohesive way. This holistic approach, which equally encompasses functional goals, beauty, the architecture of the space, the people who will live there, as well as the desired emotional impact of the interior design, is as applicable today as it was in late 700 CE when the mosque was built. 

Meticulous attention to detail!

Meticulous attention to detail!

For us, this is the reason why we don’t pick a paint color in isolation, why design takes more thought and effort than selecting a few furniture pieces and accessories and ultimately why we believe that, when done right, design has the capability to create magic!

While beauty is most certainly in the eye of the beholder and we each favor different styles, our perception of beauty is also influenced by current design trends and different cultural or geographic influences. Yet, regardless of personal preferences, most of us are impressed with seemingly timeless interiors like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris, the Kölner Dom in Germany or contemporary examples of architecture. With those in mind, we think it's important to ask yourself if you want a "pretty," decorated room that will probably only last a few years until the next trend comes along or do you want want a truly "designed" room that will make you happy for decades?

The size of the house doesn't matter when it comes to interior design. 😉

The size of the house doesn't matter when it comes to interior design. 😉

Going back to Glancey's description of the Mosque of Cordoba, we love when he writes, "the interior of a building needs no decoration, much less furniture, in the hands of master architects and craftsmen." This is precisely how we want interior design to be viewed. We don't think of ourselves as decorators. We're designers, artists and craftswomen (or men) on a continued path to build on our training and expand our knowledge and expertise while also designing kick-ass personal interiors!