Design Baddie - Interior Style History of the Ancient World: Greece and Rome

Design Diaries – History of the Ancient World: Greece and Rome

Interior Design History 101

white head bust in museum

Hello Designers and Future Designers,

Welcome back to another post in our Design School Diaries series here on Design Baddie! If you want to understand how the ancient arts, craftsmanship and design of Greece and Rome influenced interior design you’re in the right place. In this article, we will cover some architectural and design history that is relevant to the interior design of the ancient world. Specifically, we’ll delve into our research on the two titans of the ancient era, Greece and Rome.

This post, just one of a series on the history of interior design here on Design Baddie, is a handy reference for practicing interior designers, and a good introduction to the subject of interior design history for beginners to interior design.

Maybe you’re a new design student, an interior design lover, or maybe you just love history! Whatever your reason, I hope that you will find my student research and presentation of this subject interesting and informative.

Previous posts in this series:

What You Will Learn in Interior Design School

Design School Diaries – Materials, Stones and Suppliers

Design School Diaries – How to Design with Hard and Soft Woods in Interior Design

My assignment for the first history test of our history or interior design course was: To explain the role of Greece in influencing Roman art and architecture. The objectives were a) to describe a Roman interior in as much detail as possible, and b) explore how the Roman style evolved over time.

Disclaimer: Please note that all images referenced within images provided of the original student work are not my own. They are provided for context and are credited in the footnotes at the end of the essay.

Ancient Greece

model of ancient greek temple
Photo by Bruno Kraler on

“Surely then, to him who has an eye to see, there can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of moral beauty in his soul with outward beauty of form, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both.”
(Plato, 360 BCE as cited by FAZIO et al, 2008)

Map & socio-political notes

Figure 1–“Ancient Greek civilization (was) the period following Mycenaean civilization, which ended in about 1200 BC, to the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BC. It was a period of political, philosophical, artistic, and scientific achievements that formed a legacy with unparalleled influence on Western civilization.”

Four main points (FAZIO et al, 2008) arise from the study of Greek ideologies and their role in the shaping of their society’s cities and structures;

First, it is evident that beauty was important to the ancient Greeks and there was a definite standard set in terms of aesthetics. The deliberately applied similarity or “family resemblance” of the human form as seen in Greek sculpture is witness to this.

Second, in architecture it was from the mathematical dimensions of a building’s parts and the relationships between them that the beauty of the structure was derived.

Third, proportionate beauty of a mathematical nature was tantamount in the Greek consciousness to a form of godliness; a microcosm of the workings of their spiritual world, the Cosmos.

Fourth, Greek philosophy itself was key to the order of their society. Good proportion or ‘moral beauty’ was important in its citizens inwardly the way outer physical beauty was in the buildings of the polis, or city-state. Temples, especially, held for Greek society the embodiment of both their accomplishments and aspirations.

The periods of Greek history and styles

Figure 2–This is a statue of Apollo trampling the shields of the Galatians. It is a relic from a private house in the ruined Theater Quarter of Deloa. It is likely a small version of the statue dedicated to Delphi in honor of a victory against the Galls in 279-278 B.C.

Minoan (Out of the Aegean Cultures) 1400–2000 BC.

The Minoan period of Crete in ancient Greece is one which archaeology has only a sketchy
understanding of. Evidence suggests planning of a perceptual nature rather than an abstract or conceptual one (FAZIO et al, 2008).
Art style: Geometric. Simplified people and animals.

Figure 3–Example of a geometric style jug from the Minoan age.

Mycenaean (Pre-Greece) 1100–600 BC.

The Mycenaeans are credited with the megaron, which became an architectural archetype. It consisted of a large hall with a hearth and throne at its center, and including a porch and vestibule. This form laid down the basis for three-spatial units later applied to temple plans of classical Greece, and by extension, Rome. It is considered to be the predecessor of all orders of architectural theory (BRITANNICA, Web).

Art style: “Orientalizing”, an emphasis on narrative in pottery through curvilinear decoration,
influenced by the Near East. See illustration of megaron below.

The Dark Ages 1100-750 BC.

The Dark Ages, a period of civil war, are not significant to the study of of Greek art and design. The Dorians ruled.

Figure 4–Citadel with the Great Hall of the Megaron as it would have looked in its heydey, 1500-1300 B.C.

Archaic (Greek) 750-500 BC.

This was the age of the development of Greek art; specifically pottery and sculpture manifesting the characteristics later refined in the classical period
Architecture: Temple of Hera, Olympia & Appollo Epicurius, Bassai.

Art Style: Pottery; figured vases painted in black & red, sculptures. (HUDELSON, Web).

Figure 5–A ‘red-figured’ drinking cup from Athens, depicting the sacking of Troy, circa 500–475 BC.

Classical (Greek) 500-336 BC.

It was in this period that Athens achieved its cultural and political heights. The philosophical schools of Plato and Socrates feature here and the founding of a fully democratic government realized.

Architecture: The Parthenon & the Acropolis, Athens. See illustration below.
Art style: Early classical: large sculptures with figures in movement, contrapposto or weight
shifting first featured. Classical: attention to symmetry and proportion; idealized figures with expressionless faces. Late classical: Sculptors tackle unusual and difficult poses for figures. (HUDELSON, Web).

Figure 6–Aerial view of Athens showing the ruins of the Acropolis.

Hellenistic (Greek) 336-146 BC.

Different to “Hellenic”, Hellenistic refers to the great exportation of Greek culture, art and ideology into the Mediterranean and Asia Minor between the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great and the advent of the Roman Empire. (ANCIENT GREECE, Web).

Art style: Naturalistic and idealized, featuring drama, violence and emotion, influenced by the conquests of Alexander the Great. (HUDELSON, Web).

Figure 7—A detailed mosaic floor from the House of Dionysos at Delos in the Cyclades, circa 200 BC.

Notes on Entasis

According to Thompson et al (2007), entasis was the Greek practice of correcting the optical illusion which causes a straight column to appear narrower or ‘waisted’ at its sides. This was done by configuring the column to swell slightly, about a third of the way up. The word entasis means tension or bowing; to stretch.
Thomspon (2007) also cites Tegtmeyer (1994) in suggesting that entasis imitated nature’s aesthetic by deviating from the rigidity of straight lines in favor of the convex; i.e. the limbs of animals.

Figure 8–Illustration of the principle of entasis as applied to the proportions of Roman and Greek pillars

Ancient Rome

statue of neptune at capitoline rome italy
Photo by Michelle Reeves on

Map and socio-political notes

Figure 9—Rome must be considered one of the most successful imperial powers in history.

In the course of centuries Rome grew from a small town on the Tiber River in central Italy into a vast empire that ultimately embraced England, all of continental Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube, most of Asia west of the Euphrates, northern Africa, and the islands of the Mediterranean.

Unlike the Greeks, who excelled in intellectual and artistic endeavors, the Romans
achieved greatness in their military, political, and social institutions. Roman society, during the republic, was governed by a strong military ethos… …Unlike Greek city-states, which excluded foreigners and subjected peoples from political participation, Rome from its beginning incorporated conquered peoples into its social and political system. Allies and
subjects who adopted Roman ways were eventually granted Roman citizenship.

The lasting effects of Roman rule in Europe can be seen in the geographic distribution of the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian), all of which evolved from Latin, the language of the Romans. The Western alphabet of 26 letters and the
calendar of 12 months and 365.25 days are only two simple examples of the cultural legacy which Rome has bequeathed Western civilization.” (BRITANNICA, Web).

Greek legacy and its influence on the Romans

Figure 10–Illustration shows the classic Greek orders; Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, as well as the possibly earlier basic Tuscan and the ornate Roman Composite order which followed the Greek. The Composite order, more elaborate than its predecessors, was based on a combination of the classic Greek designs.

The influence of the Etruscans on the Roman culture cannot be overemphasized, according to historians. The Etruscans, being huge admirers of Greek art and architecture, assimilated many aspects of art and religion, thus influencing early Rome following Etruscan rule in the second century BC. (WATKIN, D. 1993)

The Roman Home or Domus

Figure 11–Axonometric view of a wealthy Roman home showing general layout.

The ‘impluvium’ was a shallow pool which collected rainwater in the open atrium, usually part of the entrance of the home. A villa often incorporated several courtyards, including the peristyle; a central garden area planted with trees and shrubbery. It was central to the home life and social activity of the upper class and many important rooms faced off
of it, including the kitchen.

The kitchen itself was not necessarily located near the dining room, because slaves made the carrying and serving of food easy enough. The Romans had different bedrooms for napping during the day and sleeping at night. These were small and scantily furnished, however. Other rooms of the privileged class may have included shrines, libraries, entertainment rooms, sun decks, pantries, storerooms and cellars (CLASSICS UNVEILED, Web).

Roman Interiors

General: Building materials ranged from stone and unburned brick in early times to weatherproof concrete in the classical period. Walls were frequently clad with stone, bricks or fine marble stucco. Interior decoration also evolved greatly. Simple décor, consisting mostly of the use of bright colours on walls, gave way to elaborate decorative effects toward the final century of the Republic circa 31 BC.

The interior hull: Ceilings were decorated lavishly in rich colours; these were often vaulted or paneled and divided by wooden beams. Door posts were frequently of elaborately carved marble; doors too were carved, sometimes forged of solid bronze or bronze plated. Door opened inwardly and outer doors had bolts and locks, though locks and keys were large and clumsy. For floors, marble was commonly used and regularly featured contrasting tile or mosaic detail. (CLASSICS UNVEILED, Web).

Figure 12—This is the dining room of the ‘Villa of the Mysteries’ outside of Herculaneum, a town famously destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The villa, among many others, has been preserved and partially reconstructed.

Above we see a classic example of a Roman floor; black and white mosaic stone in a checkered pattern and some examples of Roman furniture. These are banqueting couches, their arrangement, in groupings of three the origin of the name triclinium, or dining area. Here the triclinium looks onto the ‘portico’, a covered indoor-outdoor area. The villa is
named for the exquisitely painted wall mural thought to depict a rite of initiation into the Dionysiac mysteries. The frieze is three metres high and seventeen metres long.

(Photos of Herculaneum & Pompeii used in this essay from the educational website AD79 DESTRUCTION & RE-DISCOVERY. Update: Unfortunately, this Google site no longer exists).

General furnishings: The Romans did not live with a lot of furniture. However, furniture found in the homes of the wealthy, (i.e. those of the large villas of Pompeii) would have been well crafted, of rare and expensive materials and employing graceful forms. Chests were common, as were essentials such as chairs, tables, cabinets with wooden doors, couches and lamps. The absence of certain types of furniture in the Roman interior is notable; these include display cabinets, mirrors hung on walls, desks or writing tables and chests of drawers.

Furniture specifics: A couch, or lectus, often acted as both sofa and bed; these were very popular and often highly ornamental. Stools provided seating; some were even foldable. Benches were also common, but most chairs did not feature backs until the formal solium was used by patrons for receiving guests. A high-backed chair with arms and of stiff proportions, footstools were often necessary because of the great height. The curule
was a design to which only magistrates were entitled; a rich, purple-cushioned folding stool with legs of ivory. (CLASSICS UNVEILED, Web).

Figure 13–The remnant of a Roman couch from The House of the Carbonised Furniture at Herculaneum, near Pompeii.

A simple example of structure would be a wooden frame, including a back and either one or two arms, upon which a mattress was laid on interwoven straps (leather). Mattresses were first stuffed with straw; later wool and even down was used. (CLASSICS UNVEILED, Web)

The Four Styles of Roman fresco paintings:

First Style—Originating from the years 150-80 BC, often termed ‘structural’ or ‘incrustation’ style. Frescoes imitated architectural facings or features.
Second Style—Pegged between the first century BC and 62 AD. Considered to be a more original expression of Roman art; the height of this style was mythological scenes and illusionist paintings toward the end of the era.
Third Style—Emerging at the end of the reign of Augustus, this type of fresco is more colourful and finer in detail. It came to be known as the ‘Egyptian’ style, being influenced by Egyptian art.
Fourth Style—From Nero’s reign to about 68 AD, this style was characterized by the popularity of architectural vistas and is also known as the ‘ornamental’ style (AD79 DESTRUCTION & RE-DISCOVERY, Web).

Figure 14–Clockwise Top L-R: Illustration of the four styles in situ from the ruins of Pompeii; House of Sallust in the first style, the Villa of Poppaea in the second, the House of the Priest Amandus, third style decoration and finally the House of the Prince of Naples, fourth style (AD79 Destruction & Re-discovery, Web).

Student Notes

I find the classic art and architecture of both the Greeks and Romans hugely fascinating,
inspirational and informative to the interior design and architectural professions. To my view, the Greeks were idealists and purists, whereas the Romans brought practicality, innovation and a little more flair to their vision.

I am particularly drawn to the order and layout of Roman houses, mosaics, architectural details and sculptures.

In Conclusion

Thank you for reading this episode of Design Diaries – History of Interior Design, Ancient Greece and Rome. Drop your email below to be notified of new posts on everything I learned in interior design school.

Useful Sites and Web Resources




Works Cited in Student Work

Online references

AD79 DESTRUCTION & RE-DISCOVERY Website at (no longer exists)



(Retrieved 04 October, 2012 from
(Retrieved 04 October, 2012, from

Book References

FAZIO, M., MOFFETT, M., WODEHOUSE, L. (2008), A World History of Architecture, 2nd Ed., McGraw Hill.

Bibliography, Ancient Greece & Rome

THOMPSON, P. et al, (2007), The origins of entasis: illusion, aesthetic or engineering? Department of Psychology, University of York, York. (PDF document)

FAZIO, M. et al (2008). The Greek world & Conclusions about architectural details. In: A World History of

Architecture. 2nd Ed. McGraw Hill. Chapter 2
SEAR, F. (1993), Roman Architecture, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York
Photos & Illustrations—Ancient Greece

Image References for Ancient Greece

Figure 1, ANCIENT/CLASSICAL HISTORY.ABOUT.COM (Web), at Map of Greek and Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean basin, about 550 B.C.

Figure 2, ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF DELOS, Cyclades, Greece. Statue of Apollo, Hellenistic

Figure 3, CERAMIC STUDIES (Web) at Geometric vase.

Figure 4, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURG (Web) at, Citadel with Megadon.

Figure 5, CERAMIC STUDIES (Web) at
Red-figured vase.

Figure 6, UNIVERSTY OF CORNELL (Web) at, Aerial view of Acropolis, Athens.

Figure 7, CHEST OF BOOKS, ARCHITECTURE (Web) at, Entasis of Roman and Greek columns.

Figure 8, KTATOCHVIL Z., Eidola Image Database at Greek Mosaic from the House of Dionysos, Delos (Cyclades).

Image References for Ancient Rome

Figure 9, ANCIENT HISTORY.ABOUT.COM. (Web) at, Map of Ancient Rome

Figure 10, GUARDIAN, THE, Art & Design at, Classic Roman orders.

Figure 11, LIBER LEXICA (Web blog) at, Axonometric Roman house plan.

Figure 12, AD79 at Roman couch from the House of the Carbonised furniture, Herculaneum (Pompeii)

Figure 13, AD79 DESTRUCTION & RE-DISCOVERY at Villa of the Mysteries dining room.

Figure 14, AD79 DESTRUCTION & RE-DISCOVERY at Decorative styles (four photographs).

Graphic Design Work

All collages created by the author using Picasa.

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