Interior design embraces not only the decoration and furnishing of space, but also considerations of space planning, lighting, and programmatic issues pertaining to user behaviors, ranging from specific issues of accessibility to the nature of the activities to be conducted in the space. The hallmark of interior design today is a new elasticity in typologies, seen most dramatically in the domestication of commercial and public spaces.
Interior design encompasses both the programmatic planning and physical treatment of interior space: the projection of its use and the nature of its furnishings and surfaces, that is, walls, floors, and ceilings. Interior design is distinguished from interior decoration in the scope of its purview. Decorators are primarily concerned with the selection of furnishings, while designers integrate the discrete elements of décor into programmatic concerns of space and use. Interior designers generally practice collaboratively with architects on the interiors of spaces built from the ground up, but they also work independently, particularly in the case of renovations. There is also a strong history of architect-designed interiors, rooted in the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, that came out of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is no accident that its strongest proponents (from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe) extended their practices to include the realm of interiors during the nascency of the interior-design profession. Indeed, it was a defensive measure taken by architects who viewed formal intervention by an interior decorator or designer as a threat to the integrity of their aesthetic.
Today, apart from strict modernists like Richard Meier who place a premium on homogeneity, architects who take on the role of interior designer (and their numbers are growing) are more likely to be eclectic in philosophy and practice, paralleling the twenty-first century’s valorization of plurality. Nonetheless, the bias against interior designers and the realm of the interior itself continues to persist. Critical discussions of the interior have been hampered by its popular perception as a container of ephemera. Furthermore, conventional views of the interior have been fraught with biases: class biases related to centuries-old associations with tradesmen and gender biases related to the depiction of the decorating profession as primarily the domain of women and gay men. As a result, the credibility of the interior as an expression of cultural values has been seriously impaired.
However, the conditions and the light in which culture-at-large is understood are changing under the impact of globalization. The distinctions between “high” culture and “low” culture are dissipating in a more tolerant climate that encourages the cross-fertilization between the two poles. Likewise, there are more frequent instances of productive borrowings among architecture, design, and decoration, once considered exclusive domains. And while the fields of architecture, interior design, and interior decoration still have different educational protocols and different concentrations of emphasis, they are showing a greater mutuality of inte
Another way to think of this emergent synthesis is to substitute the triad of “architecture, interior design, and decoration” with “modernity, technology, and history.” One of the hallmarks of the postmodern era is a heightened awareness of the role of the past in shaping the present. In the interior, this manifests itself in a renewed interest in ornament, in evidence of craft and materiality, and in spatial complexities, all running parallel to the ongoing project of modernity.
Even more significantly, there is a new elasticity in typologies. Today, the traditional typologies of the interior—house, loft, office, restaurant, and so on—strain to control their borders. Evidence of programmatic convergences can clearly be seen in public and commercial spaces that aspire to be both more user-friendly and consumer-conscious. Growing numbers of private hospitals (in competition for patients) employ amenities and form languages inspired by luxury spas; at the same time, many gyms and health clubs are adopting the clinical mien of medical facilities to convince their clients of the value of their services. The same relaxation of interior protocols can be seen in offices that co-opt the informal, live-work ethic of the artist’s loft, and in hotels that use the language (and contents) of galleries. Similarly, increasing numbers of grocery stores and bookstores include spaces and furniture for eating and socializing.
Likewise, there is a new comfort with stylistic convergences in interiors that appropriate and recombine disparate quotations from design history. These are exemplified in spaces such as Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica (2005) in Porto, Portugal (with its inventive use of traditional Portuguese tiles), and Herzog & de Meuron’s Walker Art Center (2005) in Minneapolis, Minnesota (where stylized acanthus-leaf patterns are used to mark gallery entrances). These interiors make an art out of hybridism. They do not simply mix and match period furnishings and styles, but refilter them through a contemporary lens.
Another hallmark of the contemporary interior is the overt incorporation of narrative. Tightly themed environments persist in retail spaces such as Ralph Lauren’s clothing stores and in entertainment spaces like Las Vegas casinos. However, a more playful and less linear approach to narrative is increasingly common.
Of all the typologies of the interior, the residence has been least affected by change, apart from ephemeral trends such as outdoor kitchens and palatial bathrooms. However, the narrative of the residence dominates interior design at large. It has become the catalyst for rethinking a host of spaces once firmly isolated from it, ranging from the secretary’s cubicle, to the nurse’s station, to the librarian’s reading room. Considerations such as the accommodation of personal accessories in the work space, the use of color in hospitals, and the provision of couches in libraries are increasingly common, to cite just three examples. The domestication of such environments (with curtains and wallpaper, among other residential elements) provides more comfort, more reassurance, and more pleasure to domains formerly defined by institutional prohibitions and social exclusions. Unquestionably, these changes in public and commercial spaces are indebted to the liberation movements of the late 1960s. The battles fought against barriers of race, class, gender, and physical ability laid the groundwork for a larger climate of hospitality and accommodation.
It is also possible to detect a wholly other agenda in the popularity of the residential model. The introduction of domestic amenities into commercial spaces, such as recreation spaces in office interiors, can also be construed as part of a wider attempt to put a more acceptable face on the workings of free-market capitalism. In this view, interior design dons the mask of entertainment. There is nothing new about the charade. Every interior is fundamentally a stage set. Nor is it particularly insidious—as long as the conceit is transparent. Danger surfaces, however, when illusion becomes delusion—when design overcompensates for the realities of illness with patronizing sentiment, or when offices become surrogate apartments because of the relentless demands of a round-the-clock economy. In these instances, design relinquishes its potential to transform daily life in favor of what amounts to little more than a facile re-branding of space.
Another force is driving the domestication of the interior and that is the enlarged public awareness of design and designers. There is a growing popular demand for design as amenity and status symbol, stimulated by the proliferation of shelter magazines, television shows devoted to home decorating, and the advertising campaigns of commercial entities such as Target and Ikea. In the Western world, prosperity, combined with the appetite of the media, has all but fetishized the interior, yielding yet another reflection of the narcissism of a consumer-driven society. On the one hand, there are positive, democratic outcomes of the growing public profile of design that can be seen in the rise of do-it-yourself web sites and enterprises like Home Depot that emphasize self-reliance. It can also be argued, more generally, that the reconsideration of beauty implicit in the valorization of design is an ameliorating social phenomenon by virtue of its propensity to inspire improvement. On the other hand, the popularization of interior design through personas such as Philippe Starck, Martha Stewart, and Barbara Barry has encouraged a superficial understanding of the interior that is more focused on objects than it is on behaviors and interactions among objects.
For all the recent explosion of interest in interior design, it remains, however, a fundamentally conservative arena of design, rooted as it is in notions of enclosure, security, and comfort. This perception has been exacerbated by the growth of specialized practices focused, for example, on healthcare and hospitality. While such firms offer deep knowledge of the psychology, mechanics, and economies of particular environments, they also perpetuate distinctions that hinder a more integral approach to the interior as an extension of architecture and even the landscape outside. One notable exception is the growth of design and architecture firms accruing expertise in sustainable materials and their applications to the interior. At the same time that design firms are identifying themselves with sustainability and promoting themselves as environmentalists, a movement is building to incorporate environmental responsibility within normative practice.
Over the past four decades, efforts have intensified to professionalize the field of interior design and to accord it a status equal to that of architecture. In the US and Canada the Council for Interior Design Accreditation, formerly known as FIDER, reviews interior design education programs at colleges and universities to regulate standards of practice. Furthermore, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) embraces interior design within its purview, defining it as part of “intellectual profession, and not simply a trade or a service for enterprises.”
Yet, the education of interior designers remains tremendously variable, with no uniformity of pedagogy. Hence, interior design continues to be perceived as an arena open to the specialist and the amateur. This perception is indicative of both the relatively short history of the profession itself and the broader cultural forces of inclusion and interactivity that mark a global society.