Origins of interior design
The art of interior design encompasses all of the fixed and movable ornamental objects that form an integral part of the inside of any human habitation. It is essential to remember that much of what today is classified as art and exhibited in galleries and museums was originally used to furnish interiors. Paintings were usually ordered by size and frequently by subject from a painter who often practiced other forms of art, including furniture design and decoration. Sculptors in stone or bronze were often goldsmiths who did a variety of ornamental metalwork. The more important artists had studios with assistants and apprentices and often signed cooperative work. Many architects also designed interiors, including the accessories—furniture, pottery, porcelain, silver, rugs, and tapestries. Paintings often took the form of cabinet pictures, framed to be hung on a wall in a particular position, such as over a door. Murals were painted on a diversity of subjects; during the period of the Baroque style in the 17th century, murals sometimes were painted to look like an extension of the interior itself, making it appear more spacious. Mirrors were employed for the same purpose of adding space to an interior.
The deliberate use of antiques as decoration was unusual in most periods. Generally, in older houses elements of the previous decorative scheme were relegated to less important rooms when new decoration was undertaken to bring an old interior into line with current fashion. In this way many antiques have been preserved. The art market has existed from the earliest times for the purpose of providing both new and antique works for the decoration of interiors, but in early times the market in old work was usually limited to paintings by admired masters and goldsmith’s work.
Only within the recent historic past have any interiors but those belonging to the rich and powerful been considered worthy of consideration. Still more recent is the collection of the interior furnishings of the past by museums and galleries, where they are studied in scholarly isolation. The segregation of such objects in galleries, however, has led to an increasing misunderstanding of their original purpose; and the division of the arts by museum curators into the fine arts and the decorative (or industrial) arts has helped to obscure the original functions of interior furnishings.
To some extent the present attitude has resulted from the rise of the specialist collector since the 1840s. Porcelain and silver, for instance, no longer fulfill their original purpose as part of the household furnishings but are collected into cabinets, since they are so precious. Similarly, the small porcelain figures of Meissen, which were originally part of a table decoration and an integral part of a service, are now too highly valued to be so used.
The notion of interior design historically has arisen as part of a settled agricultural way of life. The tents of nomadic peoples were hardly suitable for the more permanent forms of decoration. Among Central Asian nomads, however, carpets and rugs have been employed to decorate and provide comfort in tents and portable dwellings, usually taking the form of coverings for floor and bed, and these have been the principal form of art of the peoples concerned. The oldest nomadic carpet, found in Central Mongolia, dates to the 5th century BC, but geometrically patterned stone reliefs from Assyria in the 7th century BC are thought to be based on earlier carpet patterns.
Hunting peoples living in caves decorated the walls with paintings as early as 20,000 years ago, but these were almost certainly votive paintings rather than decoration, and no trace of movable furniture has survived.
Although the practices of present-day primitive peoples sometimes shed light on the historical origins of those practices, there is too little art and decoration in such communities today to illuminate the beginnings of interior decoration. No clear-cut progressions of styles, like those that occurred in Europe, can be identified except among peoples who could hardly be regarded as primitive, such as the former civilizations of South America or the Benin culture of Africa. Nevertheless, even the poorest and most primitive peoples devote some time to the production of works that give them pleasure, and these works often are employed to decorate interiors. Primitive painting often consists of a series of abstract patterns, such as that on the pottery of the Pueblo Indians. Furniture, such as wooden stools, usually has some ornamental carving. Basketwork, wooden vessels, and pottery are decorated with abstract geometrical patterns, and an insistence on symmetry is the rule. Since most of these patterns—especially those to be found in basketry and textiles—bear no resemblance to natural forms, they probably arose from the nature of the techniques employed in making the objects in question.
Ornament based on natural objects more or less realistically depicted probably had a magical connotation; animals, for instance, are intended to promote success in hunting. Even the most abstract and geometric of motifs have a symbolic meaning, which can be interpreted by those who know the key, and this meaning is almost always magical. There are few objects or motifs that do not have some meaning, and the making of objects that have no other purpose than the pleasure taken by their creator in executing them is very rare.
Origins in Western antiquity
Excavations in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt suggest that the earliest equivalent of furniture consisted of platforms of bricks, which served as chairs, tables, and beds, no doubt spread with textiles or animal skins. There is also good reason to think that walls were painted and, in the case of more important buildings, decorated with mural paintings. Movable furniture first occurred only in the most important residences, such as palaces, and in public buildings. Furniture is of considerable antiquity, though it is known, for the most part, only from wall paintings, sculpture, and vase paintings. Some furniture survives from ancient Egyptian tombs from about 3000 BC in the form of beds, chairs, tables, and storage chests. It is in such furniture that decoration is first seen—in the leg of the bull and the lion employed as a furniture support, especially for beds. It is from this point in the ancient past that the development of interior design can be traced historically.