What Are the Main Design Styles? – An in-depth look at what common design styles exist and how they can be understood and categorized.
Heads up: The main design styles are the most commonly imitated design styles
There’s no doubt you can learn about all the main interior design styles from popular media. For those of us who love design, it’s one of our favorite things to do.
The issue can be that with so many design styles out there there are bound to be some overlaps and confusion with different people calling the same styles different names, or confusing similar styles one with one another.
Since starting this blog I’ve made it my aim to try to demystify the subject of interior design styles and to make them more accessible to aspiring designers as well as my clients and readers.
I am working on a larger, more overarching personal study of styles and I have a particular interest in expanding the knowledge of styles outside of Europe and the US.
I’m also interested in climatic and various fusion styles.
If you can unearth a style I’ve never heard of, I’d love to hear about it.
A well curated list
I’ve scoured numerous resources and come up with my well-advised list of 30 main interior design styles which can be said to represent globally.
From Los Angeles to Cape Town and Sydney to Berlin, this round up of usual design suspects is a pretty good place to start an audit on design styles.
After all, interior design and architecture publications have been educating us about design and style for the last 120 years, and these styles can be said to feature across socioeconomic boundaries and borders.
As I do more research, some of these entries may change so that this list will always remain a core list of thirty styles.
I believe that almost every major interior and architecture blog or publisher will confirm the following styles as having tremendous influence and staying power:
The “Mega 30 List”
In alphabetical order, the main design styles used internationally for interiors are:
- Asian Zen
- Art Deco
- Ethnic modern
- French Parisian
- French country
- Gothic revival
- Hollywood regency
- Italian modern
- Mid century modern
- Modern, classic
- Modern farmhouse
- Organic modern
- Urban modern
- Vintage/Shabby chic
To see my 30 boards with representations of each of these styles, please visit:
Let’s Talk Style!
If I stopped someone on the street and asked them what their favorite design style was, what their home’s present design style was, or even just to name a design style at all, would the average person be able to tell me?
I am willing to bet that in most cases they wouldn’t.
You might have had some unique chairs in your home growing up and you still might not know the story behind their history and where they came from.
Chances are you never really thought about it that much.
But our interest in styles may be piqued after uncovering the story behind the style. Suppose you found out that the antique wooden chest at the foot of your grandmother’s stairs was a family heirloom that made its way by oxcart on the Great Trek in the 1830s, or that the dramatic wicker chair you bought on Etsy has been a cult classic among rock stars for over four decades.
The Best Way to Learn About Style
Most people don’t simply buy a brand, rock a haircut or choose a design style arbitrarily. There are a lot of factors that go into our perception of what is desirable, what is cool, and what is ‘us’.
The appeal of understanding or using design styles lies in our desire to distinguish ourselves from other people and tell our unique story.
Think of a style as a way to borrow from an established narrative, and then to adopt it personally and build upon it from there by adding our own little touches or interpretations.
It’s definitely a designer’s job to think about styles and even to teach and promote them.
There is a richness which comes from this visual form of consumable culture that is also so easily translated to the visceral.
People who enjoy decorating and home design love to talk about styles, and this enthusiasm for styles can be found outside of architecture, in the sister realms of fashion and even graphic design.
While I’ve certainly been interested in the look and style of interiors and architecture for a long time, I have always wanted to put everything into a greater context.
Around the time that I started design school I stopped reading more popular sources of information on decor, because I wanted to focus on the academic study of art, design and architecture and build my knowledge up from there.
I especially focused on history.
It was the right approach for me, and after my interior design history course I was excited to find that I could now watch movies and find myself able to point out what cultures rooms were styled in. Chairs, mantels and mouldings became endlessly fascinating.
It was also a lot easier for me to see which styles were related, and understand their evolution. A whole world opened up!
This encriching personal experience with architectural and interior design history is why I highly recommend that aspiring designers learn their history: It is such a valuable resource.
Where do styles come from?
In both fashion and design there tends to be a lot of influence from social movements. These trends almost always respond to periods of greater technological improvement and novel exploration, and then are followed by a backlash.
The style will fall out of popular favor for a while, since sentimental people become nostalgic for the past.
In this way traditionalist styles and modern styles have enjoyed a happy dance over the last century, and spawned a beautiful range of new and hybrid styles, besides.
Thirty styles or only Five?
If I wanted to simplify things a great deal, I could contend that there are only actually two style categories: Traditional and modern.
After all, if I asked someone to say which of those two they were, I could actually more likely elicit an answer.
But then I would be ignoring the fact that there are a lot of popular styles that fall somewhere between the two. So my new number would be three.
a) Traditional styles
b) Mixed or transitional styles
and of course,
c) Modern styles
So, one out of three stars or one out of five, does it matter?
I can’t help feeling like three doesn’t offer enough ambiguity or gray area (these are styles we’re talking about!), so that made me want to push this to a generous five categories.
Which is how I got this rough idea:
Styles by period
- Classical, Historic, Colonial and Revival Styles (15th century – present)
- Neo-Traditional Styles (17th century – present)
- Modern and Postmodern Styles (1920s, 1980s – present)
- Transitional Styles (1910s – present)
- Contemporary and Futuristic Styles (2010s – present)
It made sense to me after some reflection to organize the style “parent categories” across history into:
a) Styles from history (before the advent of modernism), including traditional styles which draw from history but are influenced by modern building methods
b) Neo-traditional styles which may be considered traditional today but are not pure traditional
c) Transitional styles encompass the happy marriage between the two worlds and the endless possible style arrangements there
d) Modern and postmodern styles from the more recent past are pretty well established
e) Avant garde and futuristic styles, beginning with contemporary styles and finishing up with tech-driven styles of the future, just because: style, like us, is never going to finish evolving.
|Five overarching style categories which represent traditional and modern fairly equally|
Thirty Design Styles in 5 Time Period Categories
Let’s see what those initial thirty “main” design styles look like separated into the five categories (also alphabetical order):
|Classical, Historic, Colonial and Revival Styles (15th century – present)||Neo-Traditional Styles (17th century – present)||Modern and Postmodern Styles (1920s, 1980s – present)||Transitional Styles (1910s – present)||Contemporary and Futuristic Styles (2010s – present)|
|Art Deco and Nouveau||Bohemian||Biophilic|
|Gothic revival||French Parisian||Ethnic modern||Chalet ||Contemporary|
|New Classical||Hollywood glam||Industrial||Coastal/Hamptons||Modern farmhouse|
|Traditional||Italian modern||Eclectic/Global||Organic modern|
|Mid century modern||Farmhouse||Urban modern|
Of course, we know the story can’t quite end there, because there’s more than one way to skin a style.
Other Ways to Categorize Style:
Other ways we might categorize styles include:
- Historic styles
- Style and social movements
- Thematic styles
- Cultural styles
- Geographic styles
- Climatic styles
- International + hospitality styles
Historic or legacy styles taken care of, let’s move to social movements.
By social movement I mean a paradigm shift from a previous way of thinking to an entirely new one. An example of this would be from Gothic architecture to Neoclassical or from Victorian to early modern, which included the arts and crafts movement and art deco.
Within the realms of interior design’s closest neighbors, architecture and art, these shifts in approaching design have been dramatic. The forces behind? The enlightenment, archaeology and the industrial revolution, to name a few.
The most influential ‘(thought) movement’ by decade over the last century looks like this:
|Time Period||Social Movement||Primary mode: material, construction or feature|
|1.||1890-1910||Art Nouveau||(flora, crimson)|
|2.||1910s||Art Deco||(round mirrors, geometric)|
|3.||1920s||Bauhaus||(bold, primary colors)|
|4.||1930s||Streamline Moderne||(tubular, steel, glass)|
|5.||1940s||Modernism||(bold, primary colors)|
|8.||1970s||Back to Nature||(naturals, upcycled)|
|9.||1980s||Post Modernism||(bold, oversize, clashing)|
|10.||1990s||Minimalism||(white, neutral, quality, sophistication)|
|11.||2000s||Green, Flat-Pack, Replica||(eco, multipurpose)|
|13.||2020s||Biophilic, Smart||(indoor plants, vertical gardens, smart technology)|
What are thematic styles? Really, thematic simply describes a specific and deliberate approach to decorating.
A theme could be seen as more of a guiding principle (in architecture this is parti) than a true style.
Thematic styles always follow a central topic. This decorating “rule” may be applied liberally to achieve the look.
It is possible with thematic styles to create a kind of fantasy in a space.
Think of children’s bedrooms, which might incorporate a play set and slide (as one of the homes I once lived in did.
The bedroom had a distinctively, light and dreamy, yet kind of funfair kind of vibe to it).
On a larger scale, this may be seen at amusement and theme parks and in hospitality venues. Certainly themes are common in many nurseries and children’s bedrooms.
Themes many times include realistic representations of nature and animals or other times, recognizable characters from fiction. A great place to look for thematic styles in the wild is in boutique hotels, especially in Asia, and of course, at places like Disneyland. In South Africa Sun City relies on a mythical theme, to great and popular effect!
Of course, at its heart the term “theme” is simply a category which several different styles fall into.
It implies telling a common story of related items and objects.
In this example, if French modernism was the theme, then Parisian could be a style within the context of that theme.
In another example, if wooden furniture was the theme, then a bench would be an example of a type, of which there could be many different styles.
Cultural styles develop among specific ethnic and language groups who share common geography, climate, terrain, architecture, art and fashion. Within this context and over generations, these populaces develop styles unique to themselves and which may be recognized to be wholly distinct from others.
The unique culture of a particular group of people is developed over generations and can depend on many factors. The tracing of the origins of style are further complicated when a culture has had contact with yet other cultures, resulting in the adoption of new traits.
Nationalism can complicate cultures, since what we think of as Chinese style may be a specific representation adopted and largely adapted for a western audience.
At the very least you have to consider that the cultures north and south of the Yangzi river are notably different from one another.
So, what exactly is Asian Zen?
Is that a Buddhist or Confucianist style; thus, a religious style, or is it a cultural one?
Asian is a pretty broad brush to paint with.
When I look at so-called Asian Zen I think I’m seeing elements of both Chinese and Japanese, with an emphasis on natural, organic materials and minimalism.
I’m not saying this style does not exist; only that it is a distinct variation from the original set of forms from which it arose and evolved.
Can interior design styles be geographic?
If there is such a thing as geographically specific architecture then yes, why not?
When I look for examples of this I’m drawn to the examples of log cabins in forest and mountain settings, and bungalows on beaches. There’s usually a natural element brought in from the available materials in these areas, which gives them a distinctive feel, mood or look, despite the fact that they may be found far apart.
Think of the common characteristiccs between a cabin in either Russia or Vermont, or a bungalow in East Africa, Fiji or Panama.
Climatic architectural styles would take more than just geography and terrain into account, they would also be built for inclement weather and conditions like typhoons, cyclones or blizzards.
An example might be a Malaysian kampang, a kind of traditional wooden house built in tropical jungle which is naturally ventilated without air conditioning.
The reason I have this one separate to geographic is because I would also tie this category to the types of plants found in specific regions, i.e. temperate or tropical. The architecture, materials and foliage present lends a very distinctive style which may be layered with historical or cultural and even geographic elements.
International and hospitality styles
The reason that I have this category is because I feel there is an unspoken finesse displayed in the blending oflocal styles with an established international standard for design, often taken up by major hotel chains and resorts.
Before boutique hotels and AirB&B taught us to embrace the imperfections and quirks in our vacation rentals, there has long been an established sense of hotel and resort fashion.
Depending on the establishment, it was usually decidedly classical or modern in leaning, with inoffensive color palettes and unimaginative artwork.
Often the high quality furniture is the redeeming factor, but still, vanilla best describes what is on offer:
a kind of watering down of local culture for the tourist who doesn’t want to stray too far from the familiar.
|If it seems like I am disparaging the hospitality style, actually, I should add that I think there is a lot to be learned from designers in this sphere of influence. It’s fairly difficult to produce a good design, which by intent is made to appeal to everybody and the result is almost always pleasing|
This is the realm of airports and mega resort chains, conference centers and public facilities like libraries and museums
As someone who can appreciate minimalism, I do like that many hospitality styles are able to inject just enough culture into a space to keep you rooted in where you happen to be on vacation, yet still remind you of home.
Hospitality and resort style promote a world of perfectly balanced transitional and eclectic design.
The term international style might have been prematurely used in the architectural context, but in interior design I think we can appreciate that it has served a purpose and furthermore, that there are some incredibly beautiful examples of it done right.
Conclusion: Style is evolution
Finally, I suggest that we apply period, theme, culture, geography and climate lenses to styles and devise a way to categorize present and future styles in an organized system upon which we can all agree.
I’m all for new styles, revised styles, fusion styles and fun styles in as many expressions as we continue to propagate.
Styles are fun.
At the end of the day we all love a good story. I hope that you enjoy the story that your style evolves to tell, and that we never stop telling good stories.
Got a great design style story? Comment below!