Interior Design

from The New Book of Knowledge®


Interior design is the art of planning and carrying out the design for the inside of a room, a home, a business, or a public building. Interior design is also called interior decorating. Since we live and work mostly indoors, it is important that the interiors of our homes and other buildings please us and suit our needs. The best interior design makes people feel comfortable and happy. People who are not professional designers often decorate their own homes and businesses.

From the earliest times, people have decorated the places they live to make them as comfortable, convenient, functional, and beautiful as possible. The ancient Egyptians decorated their walls with murals, or large wall paintings. Their furniture was often inlaid with ebony and ivory. The ancient Romans also used wall paintings, as well as colorful mosaics on the floors.

In the Middle Ages (500-1500), the castles and manor houses of Europe were built more for defense than for beauty and comfort. Furniture was simple and useful. Interior design as we know it--with decorative furniture, curtains, and rugs—emerged toward the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance (1300-1600), a time when comfort and beauty became more important to people.

During the Renaissance, people traveled to distant lands and rediscovered the art of ancient Greece and Rome. As a result, new styles of interior design developed. There have been many decorating styles over the years. Some have been simple and elegant. Some have been rich and elaborate. Many things continue to affect styles of decoration--travel to other countries, scientific discoveries, lifestyle changes, and changes in architecture and building methods.

Elements of Design

A well-designed room creates a mood that suits its use and the people who will use it. The designer uses various elements to create these moods. Among the most important elements of design are the style; the balance, scale, and placement of the furniture; color and light; and pattern and texture.


Today people can choose from the styles of many periods, from the traditional designs of the past to modern, or contemporary, styles. They tend to choose styles that suit the way they live. For example, Early American furniture was sturdy and plain. The early settlers were too busy farming and clearing the wilderness to make anything but necessary and useful objects. Today this style is a favorite of people who want a "country" look.

Some people want a more formal look. They might choose elegant furniture in the Chippendale style, which was first popular in England in the 1700's. Or they might want a contemporary look, with clean lines and lots of glass. It is not necessary for all the furnishings to be from exactly the same style or period, but they should reflect the same mood.

Balance and Scale

"Balance" refers to the way the furnishings of a room are arranged. Furniture should be arranged to take into account the natural traffic patterns of a room and what is pleasing to the eye. It would look odd if all the tall pieces were at one end of the room and all the low pieces at the other.

"Scale" refers to the size of the furniture in relation to the room, to other pieces of furniture in the room, and to the people who will use it. Large pieces of furniture may look crowded in a small room, and small furniture may seem lost in a large room. A delicate table might seem out of place next to a heavy, overstuffed sofa.

Color and Light

Color is important in creating the mood of a room. Yellow, orange, and red are warm, cheerful colors. Blue and green are cool, relaxing colors. Earth tones—brown, orange, rust, dark green, and gold--help create a cozy, country look. White and beige--perhaps with accents of bright red, blue, or fresh green—produce a crisper, more formal look.

The colors chosen for a room make up its color scheme. The designer may choose a monochromatic scheme (a scheme using variations of the same color). This often produces a restful mood. Or the scheme may include related colors, such as yellow and orange or blue and green. Contrasting colors—red and blue, for example—can create an exciting color scheme. If too many colors are used, they can be distracting. Color and light go hand in hand. Light colors will reflect light, while dark colors will absorb light and make a room darker. A room that gets little natural light will seem brighter if light colors are used.

Lighting should suit the mood and the use of the room. A busy kitchen will need more light than a study. Window curtains, shades, and shutters can be used to control the amount of daylight. At night most rooms need background lighting and area lighting. Background lighting, such as that from wall lamps or recessed lights, is reflected from the walls and ceiling to light the whole room softly. Area lighting provides more light for such tasks as reading, playing cards, or using a computer.

Pattern and Texture

Designers use fabrics, rugs, and wall coverings to add pattern and texture to a room. They try to choose patterns and textures that will blend well and will suit the style of the furnishings. Adding pattern and texture helps keep the room from being boring. And when the same pattern is used in several places it can help unify the room.

How an Interior Designer Works

Suppose that an interior designer is asked to decorate a casual living room for a family of four. The first step is to meet with the family. The designer will measure the room and find out how the family wants to use it and how much money they can spend on decorating it. This will affect the kind of furniture they buy and the way it will be arranged. If they do a great deal of entertaining, for example, they will need more seating than they would otherwise. If they have books, a sound system, or video-game equipment they want to use in the room, the designer will have to devise shelves to hold these items.

Next the designer draws a plan of the room, putting in doors and windows, and marks the plan to show where the furniture will be placed. The plan is done to scale. That is, if the scale is 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) to 1 foot (30 centimeters), every foot (30 centimeters) of the room's dimensions will be shown as 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) on the plan. The furniture is shown in the same scale.

The plan reflects the room's traffic pattern—how people will probably move through the room—as well as its use. The furniture should be arranged so that the space in the room is used in an appealing way—so that pieces are not crowded together or spaced too far apart. Furniture placement must also be functional. For example, side tables should be near chairs. The designer also determines the room's focal point. If it has a fireplace or a good view through a window, chairs and sofas will be placed so that people can enjoy these things. With a computer-aided design (CAD) program, a designer can use computer graphics to show a client a three-dimensional view of how the finished room might look.

When the family has approved the plan, the designer helps them decide on the style of furniture and the color scheme of the room. They may want a country look, a contemporary look, or an Asian look. Or they may prefer a mixture of styles. Then the designer helps the family choose pieces that fit the room's scale as well as its style.

The next step is to design a background—wall and floor coverings, fabrics, and window treatments—that works with the style chosen for the room. Wallpaper or wood paneling on the walls might suit a country look, for example. The designer may even add ceiling beams to complete the look. On the other hand, glossy painted walls and mirrors might go well in a contemporary room. The floor covering may be wood with area rugs in front of the sofas and chairs, or wall-to-wall carpeting. Formal draperies might suit one room and casual, wooden shutters another.

The designer will also devise the lighting for the room. There must be strong lamps near sofas and chairs for reading. Spotlights and track lights can be used to highlight a work of art or to wash a wall with light. If the lights are controlled by dimmers, they can be changed from soft to bright to meet the requirements of the moment.

The final step is to add accessories to the room. Accessories include paintings, vases, candlesticks, and other personal things.

Careers in Interior Design

Interior designers work in many areas. For instance, real-estate developers and furniture stores may employ designers to advise their customers. In addition to decorating homes, designers help make offices, restaurants, schools, and hospitals as comfortable and attractive as possible.

Most successful designers have had some formal study in preparation for their profession. There are schools that teach how to draw, how to measure rooms and make scale drawings, how to decide what furnishings are appropriate for what space, and how to design structural changes. Courses cover design for homes and businesses, as well as the history of interior decoration.

There are several organizations that can help students and professional interior designers. The largest of these, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), publishes a student newsletter and also sponsors scholarship competitions. Other organizations include the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC) and the International Interior Design Association.

Fred Lowe Vestal
Interior Designer
Reviewed by Kathryn George
Decorating Remodeling Magazine

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