Interior Design Materials 101: An Overview

All about interior design materials for Designers, DIY Enthusiasts and Home Builders

Ah, materials. The elemental building blocks of all interior design and construction work. The colors, textures and finishes that make up the palette of the interior designer.

In the world of interior design, materials rank pretty high in their importance. We can think of them as fundamental blocks of design. They are the raw ingredients that designers plan with and builders work with. They also form the basis of every project, and without them, there is no design.

Every interior design student learns about materials right at the start of their studies, and for good reason. Designers who design interior spaces and the builders that bring them to life both need to understand materials at a fundamental and practical level. Designers because they specify materials, and builders because they actually work with them in a hands-on way.

A good foundational knowledge of materials help designers and builders to create and implement designs that will be practical, effective and long lasting.

What is a “material” in interior design?

The term “materials” in interior design includes a vast array of substances, each with its unique qualities, textures, colors, and capabilities. From the smooth, cool touch of marble to the warmth of rich hardwood, material have their own “personalities”, and their own unique pros and cons for each use case.

Today we’re exploring the world of interior design materials, to understand their basic classifications and their pivotal role in shaping the look, feel, and functionality of our living environments. Whether you’re a seasoned designer, a DIY enthusiast, or simply someone with an appreciation for the beauty of interiors, consider this your 101 guide to materials for interiors.

(It can also serve as a spring board for further study and exploration.)

Why Interior Designers Need to Understand Materials

Understanding how to use materials in interior design practice gives designers the palette they need to produce their masterpieces. Beyond aesthetics, understanding material properties and how to use each material effectively and to its fullest strength is another incredibly important part of an interior designer’s work. When used to their greatest potential materials can blend to create living spaces that tell stories and evoke emotions, as well as serve daily needs. On the other hand, when materials are not understood or used properly they may present issues and even safety hazards.

Materials Classifications

For our 101 overview guide on materials for interior design, it’s helpful to introduce the major classifications of materials that designers commonly work with.

Here are the major classifications designers usually work with:

General Materials

1. Natural Materials:

These are materials that are sourced directly from nature and are minimally processed. Examples include wood, stone, leather, cotton, and wool. Natural materials often bring warmth and a sense of connection to the environment into interior spaces.

2. Artificial or Synthetic Materials

Synthetic materials are human-made and are often engineered to have specific properties or characteristics. Examples include plastic, laminate, vinyl, and engineered wood products. They offer versatility, and can be designed to mimic natural materials.

3. Textiles

Textiles play a significant role in interior design and can be made from both natural and synthetic fibers. Common textile materials include fabrics, carpets, rugs, and upholstery materials. Textiles provide comfort, texture, and color to interior spaces.

4. Metals

Metals are generally considered synthetic or engineered materials. Examples include steel, aluminum, brass, and copper are used in various interior applications, from structural elements, like pillars and posts, to decorative accents, like lighting fixtures. Metals can add a touch of modernity, shine, and durability to interiors.

5. Ceramics and Tiles

Ceramic materials are also synthetic, since they are highly processed. They include porcelain and ceramic tiles, and are popular choices for flooring, backsplashes, and decorative surfaces in interior design. They offer great durability, and they are available in a wide range of colors and patterns.

6. Glass

Glass is a synthetic material which has a long history. It is very versatile and can be used for windows, doors, mirrors, and decorative elements. It allows natural light to enter spaces and can create a sense of openness and transparency. Safety glass is special variety of glass that is often used in commercial construction.

7. Plaster and Concrete

Plaster and concrete are materials used for wall and ceiling finishes. They can be sculpted, textured, and colored to create unique design elements. Clay plasters are organic, and considered natural, while concrete is a synthetically engineered product. The invention of concrete goes back to Roman times.

Applied Materials

1. Furniture Materials

Materials used in furniture construction include wood, metal, upholstery fabrics, and foam. Furniture materials impact both aesthetics and comfort in interior spaces.

2. Lighting Materials

Lighting fixtures can be made from various materials, such as glass, metal, and fabric. The choice of lighting materials influences the ambiance and style of a room.

3. Environmental or Sustainable Materials

With a growing emphasis on sustainability, designers may choose materials that are eco-friendly and have low environmental impact. These materials can include reclaimed wood, recycled glass, and low-VOC paints.

4. Functional and Smart Materials

In modern interior design, smart materials like self-healing surfaces, thermochromic coatings, and sound-absorbing materials are gaining popularity for their functionality and efficiency.

    As we mentioned earlier, interior designers learn about materials in the early part of their fundamental studies as students. Exploring material properties is equivalent to learning our interior design ABCs. Later, understanding different material applications and use cases is also an elemental part of our education. I believe that understanding the major classifications of materials is a a fundamental step for anyone wanting to design interiors effectively.

    Remember that each material type has its own unique characteristics, benefits, and considerations. The art of interior design often lies in selecting and combining these materials effectively to achieve the desired aesthetic and functional goals for a space. That a certain material looks good is not a good enough reason to use it in a design. You need to understand its properties and how it’s safety profile, and how it functions and ‘plays’ with other materials before committing to using it.

    Materials and Safety

    Beginners to construction for interior design should have a basic understanding of material safety to ensure the well-being of occupants in the designed spaces. Here are some key considerations:

    1. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are chemicals that can be emitted from certain materials like paints, adhesives, and synthetic fabrics. Prolonged exposure to high levels of VOCs can have adverse health effects, including respiratory problems and headaches. Pro tip: Interior design beginners should look for low-VOC or VOC-free products when selecting materials.
    2. Allergens and Irritants: Some materials, such as certain types of carpeting or upholstery fabrics, can harbor allergens like dust mites or pet dander. Pro tip: It’s essential to consider the potential for allergens and irritants in materials, especially for individuals with allergies or asthma.
    3. Fire Safety: Upholstery, draperies, and wall coverings should meet fire safety standards to reduce the risk of fire hazards. Pro tip: Beginners should be aware of local building codes and regulations related to fire safety in interior spaces.
    4. Material Emissions: Some materials may emit harmful substances over time, a process known as off-gassing. Pro tip: Beginners should inquire about a material’s emissions profile and choose products that have been tested for low emissions.
    5. Lead and Heavy Metals: Lead-based paints and heavy metals in certain materials can pose serious health risks, especially in older buildings. Pro tip: Interior design beginners should be cautious when dealing with renovations and ensure that materials are lead-free and compliant with safety regulations.
    6. Safety Standards: Familiarize yourself with safety standards and certifications relevant to interior materials. Pro tip: Look for certifications like GREENGUARD or OEKO-TEX, which indicate that a product has met specific safety and environmental criteria.
    7. Durability and Maintenance: Materials that require frequent maintenance or may deteriorate quickly can pose safety hazards. Pro tip: Beginners should consider the long-term durability and ease of maintenance of materials to ensure the safety and longevity of interior elements.
    8. Slip Resistance: Flooring materials should have appropriate slip resistance to prevent accidents, especially in areas prone to moisture, such as bathrooms and kitchens. Pro tip: Ask your flooring provider for advice on what materials are appropriate for your project.
    9. Accessibility: For commercial or public spaces, it’s crucial to consider materials that meet accessibility standards. Ensure that all individuals, including those with disabilities, can use the space safely and comfortably. Pro tip: Make sure to reference the appropriate formal ergonomic and universal accessibility guidelines established for the design of public spaces.
    10. Proper Installation: Even safe materials can become hazardous if not installed correctly. Pro tip: Interior design beginners should ensure that materials are installed according to manufacturer guidelines and by experienced professionals when necessary.
    11. Ergonomics: When selecting furniture and other interior elements, consider ergonomics to promote user comfort and prevent physical strain or discomfort. Pro tip: Keep an ergonomic reference handy when designing.

    It’s important for beginners in interior design to do thorough research on materials, consult with experts when needed, and stay informed about safety standards and regulations in their region.

    Prioritizing materials safety not only contributes to the well-being of occupants but also enhances the overall quality and professionalism of interior design projects.

    Materials and Performance

    Beyond material safety, another reason that it is so important to understanding materials for interior design is related to the performance qualities of materials.

    Each material possesses unique characteristics that influence its functionality, durability, and suitability for specific applications. Thus, the decisions a designer makes when selecting materials for any given application shouldn’t be arbitrary, or based on aesthetics alone.

    For instance, hardwood floors may offer timeless beauty and durability, making them an excellent choice for high-traffic areas in homes. However, in a commercial application a floor finish with greater resilience might be needed. Luxurious soft textiles like silk or velvet add style and comfort to furnishings but require more delicate care. This is one reason why the fabrics and carpeting specified for commercial or contract interiors have industry standard requirements. These requirements are usually related to performance and fire code.

    Another area to pay attention to when it comes to materials for interior design is efficiency. Materials play a critical role in determining a space’s acoustics, insulation, and energy efficiency. For example, acoustic panels or carpets can help control sound in commercial spaces, while well-insulated windows contribute to energy conservation in residential settings.

    As interior designers explore materials and their performance qualities, they gain the ability to make informed decisions that balance aesthetics with practicality, safety, and sustainability, ultimately creating spaces that are both visually appealing and functionally effective.

    Materials and Aesthetics

    Of course, when selecting materials for interior design, aesthetic considerations are also very important and can’t be totally ignored. After all, the visual appearance of the room is how the room is usually judged. Materials profoundly influence a space’s visual appeal, setting the tone for style, mood, and atmosphere. Factors like color, texture, pattern, and finish all contribute to the overall aesthetics. Materials can evoke a sense of luxury with marble or warmth with wood. If practicality is your aim, performance or hard-wearing and anti-fragile materials will suit your project better.

    Remember, too, that the choice of materials can be modern, contemporary, rustic, or eclectic, allowing designers to craft spaces that align with their clients’ desired aesthetics. Applied properly, materials creating visually captivating and harmonious interiors.

    Materials Innovation

    One of the most exciting things about materials in interior design is that they continue to evolve. This evolution has a profound effect on the interiors which will be built now and going into the future.

    There’s no denying that material innovation in the field of interior design continues to make significant strides, and it’s likely that these trends will continue! In fact, we think that material innovation just may be the key to building the safer, more healthful and holistic interiors that we need to strive for.

    Here’s a brief glimpse into what we can expect with regards to material innovation in the near future:

    1. Sustainability: In recent times there has been a growing emphasis on sustainable materials and practices, with an increasing use of recycled, upcycled, and eco-friendly materials. In the future, we can anticipate even more sustainable innovations, including materials made from agricultural waste, biodegradable options, and increased recycling in the industry.
    2. Smart Materials: The integration of technology into materials is on the rise, with the development of smart materials capable of changing color, texture, and transparency. In the future, we may see further advancements in smart materials, offering enhanced functionality and interactivity within interior spaces.
    3. Nanotechnology: Nanomaterials are being explored for their unique properties, such as self-cleaning surfaces, improved durability, and enhanced insulation. Future developments may include more widespread use of nanotechnology in interior materials, providing superior performance and maintenance benefits.
    4. Health and Wellness: Although now in our rear-view mirror, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated interest in materials with antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. In the future, we can expect an even greater focus on materials that promote health and well-being, including those that improve indoor air quality and reduce allergens.
    5. 3D Printing: 3D printing is gaining traction in interior design, allowing for intricate and customized designs. In the future, this technology may become more accessible, enabling designers to create highly personalized and innovative interior elements.
    6. Biophilic Design: Materials that mimic natural textures and patterns to promote biophilic design principles are also becoming more popular. Future trends may include advancements in materials that not only replicate nature but also incorporate living elements, like plants or algae.
    7. Transparency and Traceability: There is a growing demand for transparency in material sourcing and production. In the future, materials may come with more detailed information about their origins, environmental impact, and ethical considerations. Blockchain technology is likely to play an important role in these developments.
    8. Flexibility and Adaptability: Materials designed for flexible and adaptable spaces are starting to generate interest, addressing the need for versatile interior layouts. In the future, we may see materials that can adapt to changing needs, reducing the need for extensive renovations.

    Not only is it important to stay informed about the evolving trends in material innovation, but it can also be fun! Material innovation can significantly impact the way interior design is practiced and the choices made in creating functional, aesthetically pleasing, and sustainable living spaces. Keeping an eye on emerging materials and technologies can empower designers and homeowners to make informed decisions for their projects.

    Materials and Sustainability

    It’s no secret that the materials we choose for our designs and building projects have an impact on the environment. While sustainability isn’t always the first requirement for many when selecting materials for a project, more than ever it’s important to be educated on how to make more sustainable and healthy choices. Making use of sustainable and locally-available options, like reclaimed wood or recycled glass, can align with aesthetic and performance goals and reduce the environmental footprint of interior projects.

    Although we still have a long way to go, sustainability considerations are slowly creeping into the consciousness of the modern interior design industry. Designers are seeing the need to prioritize materials with low environmental impact, and stay up to date on new material developments to this end.

    It’s important to remember that making the more sustainable choice not only reduces waste and resource depletion, but also promotes healthier indoor environments. This means that the friendlier choice for the planet is also the better human-centered design choice. Another interesting fact worth knowing is that sustainability extends to the durability and longevity of materials over their entire life cycle. Sometimes a more expensive product lasts longer and is worth considering for these reason.

    Designing with longevity in mind insures that interior designs have a better chance of standing the test of time and minimizes the need for replacements in the long run. We think you’ll agree: sustainability in material selection is a crucial aspect of responsible and forward-thinking interior design.

    Benefits of Understanding Materials for Designers

    Thank you for joining us on this “101” introduction to the basics of materials and their use in interior design.

    Remember that materials hold the power to transform spaces, evoke emotions, and tell stories. As we conclude this foundational exploration of materials in interior design, we invite you to continue your exploration. Learning about materials and making your own connections in the physical materials design industry world is a key part of becoming an interior designer.

    If you’d like to read two related articles from our “Design School Diaries” series, you can find them here:

    Design School Diaries: Materials, Stone and Suppliers

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

    Here are some additional material resources that you might want to check out:

    Useful Books on Interior Design Materials

    Please note that some of the linked physical books below are affiliate links, which help to support the site at no expense to you, our reader. As an Amazon Affiliate Design Baddie earns from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support!

    By the way, each of these books is listed because it was an invaluable resource that we personally used through design school. We only recommend products that we have personally used or endorse through quality research.

    The Surface Texture Bible, Cat Martin/Abrams, 2005.
    Interior Materials and Surfaces—the Complete Guide, Helen Bowers/Firefly.
    The Architect’s Handbook of Marble, Granite and Stone, Vol.1 Technical Guide, by Enrico Corbella/Van Nostrand Reinhold, 2004.

    Useful Websites for Interior Design Materials

    Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute: Certified Products

    EEBA (Energy and Environmental Building Alliance) Product Database

    Energy Star Energy Efficient Products for Consumers

    Green Point Rated Product Directory

    Green Seal Certified Directory

    Happy design learning!


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