While the written theories, history, and explanations on interior design could easily fill a library, there are many terms often used when it comes to home décor. With the prevalence of home décor shows and publications available to help anyone achieve their perfect, dream-home aesthetic, terms get thrown around that can be confusing, and even incorrect. Please explore this collection of brief explanations of design styles for a deeper understanding of common aesthetic language. However, they cannot all fit in a single article, so look out for the second installment!
This design style is perhaps the most commonly confused term when it comes to aesthetics, often confused with “contemporary.” Modern is a broad term that refers to the specific era in design; a style made popular in the 1920s. With both German and Scandinavian roots, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (or Mies for short) popularly holds the title for Father of Modern Design. In 1929, an International Exhibition was held in Barcelona, Spain. At this point in aesthetic history, Art Deco was queen, dominated by stylized curves, zigzags, ornamental inlays, elaboration, fancy metalwork, and painted ceilings. Mies’s German installment at the exhibition stood in stark contrast, its linear steel frame topped with a flat room, and large glass walls as a simple barrier between the indoors and out. The color palette was simply the natural hues and tones of the materials used, such as a marble room divider.
Modern design, in general, is marked by its simplicity. Spaces seem sparse, devoid of knickknacks and clutter. Items that exist within the area are useful and essential, form following from function. Lines and shapes are clean and crisp, utilizing basic geometrical shapes and angles, with very little plush or pattern. To get an idea of modern furniture, think about the Barcelona Chair, which premiered at the same exhibition and is still an icon in the design world, with its industrious x-base.
Mid-century modern (or MCM for short here) design followed on the heels of the birth of the modern aesthetic but refers to the style that was prevalent in the post-World War II decades, from about 1945 to the late 1960s. The term was coined in the ‘80s to discuss furniture and style of that era. Like its predecessor, MCM prioritized function, so it avoided excessive ornamentation and clutter. Characteristic furniture layouts tended towards a strong focal point as opposed to filling the space, dictated by the room’s intended use; “negative space” plays an important role here. Furniture was often able to be used in multiple ways or rooms if needed.
Like modern design, the natural materials in MCM tend to promote a lifestyle of sustainability. But one area where MCM diverges from its forefather is color. This era of design was marked by bright, cheerful colors throughout the home. Rugs, for instance, featured bold geometric patterns in a variety of colors. Think television’s The Brady Bunch, Mad Men, or even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The industrial look became popular in the late ‘00s and continues today. The aesthetic is reminiscent of the Industrial Era of the turn of the 20th century and often has the look of a converted factory or warehouse. One adjective that pops up time and time again when discussing this style is “exposed:” exposed brick walls, exposed pipes, exposed steel. The look often includes elements such as large, open spaces; plenty of natural light; concrete floors; open-faced, and metal shelving. For a soft touch, a large sectional would pair perfectly in a space like this, as would a reclaimed wood table. A natural color palette is typical of the style. A modern variation would feature copper accents, cleaner lines, and lighter tones. An industrialized yet rustic look would likely include some ornamentation in terms of metalwork or details, and darker underlying hues.
Often misused as a substitute for “modern,” and vice versa, contemporary design is ever-changing and evolving, really just referring to the current trends. What was considered contemporary even five or ten years ago would seem outdated today, in the moment. And in another decade from now, contemporary could mean something completely different once again.
Pantone’s Color of the Year and any trend forecast or “what’s hot now” type articles and blogs and television spots can provide the most current information on how to achieve a contemporary look. Items like oversized, colorful art or murals, creative and interesting storage, and color-blocking
are trends of the day. Contemporary can incorporate elements across styles and also “throw-back” trends to earlier aesthetic periods.
While often used interchangeably with “eclectic,” the interior bohemian aesthetic is a bit more technical. The term hails from the French word meaning “gypsy,” and the look is one that inspires a feeling of freedom, liberty, and creativity. With colorful and interesting touches as far as the eye can see, this aesthetic has the viewer imagining the home’s resident to be an exotic traveler, a hippy, or perhaps an artist. The aesthetic is extremely personal and reflects an individual’s own experiences and tastes. Those with a penchant towards boho-chic seem to fill every possible space, layering old and new, texturizing and cozying with reckless abandon. For those who prefer functional, clean, simple, or orderly, it is unlikely this would be an ideal aesthetic. For the truly free spirit, live rule-free and happily when it comes to décor! If you like it, then it works.
In 1996, Rachel Ashwell, founder of a furniture line called Shabby Chic, wrote a book about the design style. Shabby chic harkens back to the British country cottage, with quality wooden furniture, vintage-looking fabric sofas, and an air of elegance for good measure. Layers of paint showing through distressed areas and nicks are an essential characteristic of the aesthetic. Painting and repurposing furniture is key, breathing new life into older, vintage items and antiques or taking basic, unadorned pieces and adding a cozy, well-loved layer of paint or stain. With the French countryside as inspirations, linens are particularly popular along with cottons. Palettes often include softer hues. With a quite feminine feel, this style feels creative yet pulled together. So for those who love the mix-and-match of a chenille throw, some floral throw pillows, an old dresser painted cream with vintage-inspired knobs, and a chandelier found at a flea market, shabby chic is a good way to go.
Scandinavian, or Nordic, design is more than just picking up a cute furniture addition at Ikea, functional and affordable. It is a way of life. Everything from the furniture to the textiles is “lagom,” a term that means “just the right amount; not too little but not too much.” Swedes seem to be the world’s experts in balance, particularly when it comes to design aesthetic. Scandi-style often features storage as statements, with baskets and racks becoming functional works of art when placed strategically in a space. Block-printed fabrics with nature themes such as feathers lend a unique look to Nordic décor. Gray tends to be the underlying base of the color palette, but it is not unusual to find pops of jewel tones, with bright, happy blues a favorite. Wooden slats, whimsical lighting, communal spaces, monochromatic artwork, and uneven textures (think sheepskin, leather, and velvet) work easily in a Scandinavian space. Hailing from Denmark, the look can be summed up in the word “hygge,” which means “a special, charming, cozy feeling of contentment.” Not a bad way to live!