100 Years of Home Décor:
A Century of Evolution
Spending hours on Pinterest searching for decorating ideas for your toddler's play room is a uniquely modern activity, but the instinct behind it--decorating your living space to enhance its comfort and appearance--is almost as old as humanity. The earliest cave paintings, discovered at Maros in Indonesia, date back over 35,000 years. Who can deny that these early designs represent the earliest expressions of home decor?
The Romans in particular were lavish interior decorators, with their intricate mosaics, rich tapestries, and plush upholstered couches. The Romans pioneered home comforts such as the hypocaust (an early form of central heating) and glass-paned windows, an innovation that died out along with the Roman Empire. Glass-paned windows didn't reappear until the Middle Ages, when Saxons resurrected the practice.
Many design trends were born from function, not style. The four-poster bed that later generations associated with status and wealth? That innovation of the Middle Ages was designed for warmth and protection--the frames were used to hang heavy rugs and quilts to protect against winter drafts.
For much of history, home decor was the province only of the rich; fine furniture, fabrics, textiles, and rugs were made by hand and far too expensive for common folk. It took the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, and the advent of mass production, to unleash the inner home decorator in every Victorian.
In the late 19th century, home decorating as a hobby or profession puttered along without much attention from Victorian hobbyists. Feminist author Mary Haweis wrote a widely read series of essays around the turn of the century in which she advocated rejecting the decorating conformity being pushed by popular retailers of the time. She wrote, "One of my strongest convictions, and one of the first canons of good taste, is that our houses, like the fish's shell and the bird's nest, ought to represent our individual taste and habits." Mary’s assertion was in fact a shocking idea that paved the way for a brand new profession: the interior designer.
Home decorating took off with the advent of mass culture in the early 1900s, and the last 100 years have seen a remarkable revolution in the way we approach home decor.
Home Decor Roars to Life
Pittsburg's KDKA, the nation's first radio station, hit the airwaves in 1920, and by 1923, there were over 500 stations across the country, and there were radios in 12 million American homes by the end of the decade. For most families, the radio became the center of family life, and living rooms were generally arranged around this new and remarkable piece of technology.
Design trends of the Decade of Excess included the opulent influence of the Art Deco era as well as the modern, pared down modernism of the Bauhaus movement in Europe. Black and white tile floors, shiny modern surfaces such as mirror, glass, and chrome, and furniture upholstered with glittering metallic-touched fabrics were the height of style in 1920s homes.
The glamour of Hollywood played a role in home fashions as well. Cocktail carts and smoking loungers were desirable touches, as were exotic accents from Africa and the Orient. Furniture by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray set the standard for a fashionable home, accentuated by an opulent display of ostrich feathers.
The 1920s housewife was introduced to modern conveniences such as the washing machine, electric flat iron, ice box, and vacuum cleaner, but few women could enjoy them because home electricity wasn't widely available outside large cities. The excesses of the 20s screeched to a halt with the stock market crash, resulting in a much more austere 1930s.
The "Suite" Decade
In the 1930s, interior design's focus turned towards function and form. A living room chair needed an ottoman or footstool properly placed, as well as a table with a lamp for reading. The concept of proper furniture placement emerged, and designers stressed convenience and traffic flow in choosing furniture pieces.
Furniture manufacturers capitalized on this new trend by introducing matching "suites" of furniture that included everything from coordinating lamps and vases. One popular 14-piece living room suite came with one sofa, two accent chairs, two foot stools, three matching tables, two table lamps, two floor lamps, two vases, and a sofa "cushion," the precursor to today's throw pillow.
Hanging modular shelving became popular in the 30s so that households could display their favorite knickknacks, trinkets, and ceramics. Souvenir spoon collections, which were introduced at the turn of the century, were wildly popular with the housewives of the 30s. The electric table fan was introduced in 1931, and every family with a few dollars to spare clamored to buy one.
The Federal Housing Administration, created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, set standards for what a home must have to be eligible for a mortgage. In 1939, for example, if a home didn't have bedrooms with doors that closed, adequate lighting and ventilation, an accessible bathroom, space to do laundry, and closets for blankets, linens, and cleaning supplies, it wouldn't qualify for a mortgage loan. For the first time, the government took steps to ensure a uniform standard of housing, an important step given the housing boom of the 40’s.
The Suburban Explosion
After the soldiers returned from World War II, the country experienced a housing boom unseen in its history. The GIs and their brides moved en masse out of the crowded cities into planned neighborhoods in the suburbs packed with affordable tract homes. The wartime generation then started making lots of babies--the first baby boomers were born in 1946.
After the deprivation and austerity of the Great Depression and the war era, wives of the 40s wanted bright, colorful, welcoming homes. The focus was comfort. Unlike homes of earlier eras, many 40s era homes had carpeting in each room, and wallpaper replaced paneling as the interior finish of choice.
Home interiors bloomed with floral fabrics in cheerful reds, blues, and yellows. Sofas and chairs plumped up, with extra layers of stuffing and better strung seats. Potted plants popped up in corners, and table displays were more carefully cluttered with books, family photos, and knick-knacks which was a notable change from the bare, formal look of past decades. The iconic rooster figurines so popular with collectors of retro kitsch hit peak popularity in the kitchens and living rooms of 1940s homes.
The Victorian-style front porch was replaced with enclosed sleeping porches at the rear of the house, which was the result of noisy cars and trucks on the streets in front and the birth of the suburban backyard, a luxury not found in the urban homes of past decades. Families of the 40s wanted outdoor living space with their new backyards, and the sleeping porch evolved into spacious screened porches, sunrooms, and covered patios with space to relax and have an outdoor meal, a desire that shaped the home plans of the 50s.
The suburban explosion kicked into high gear in the 50’s, with millions of ranch homes springing up with surprising rapidity. These suburban neighborhoods teemed with children, earning them campy nicknames like "Fertility Row," and "Rabbit Hutch." The American economy was in overdrive, and people were optimistic about the future. The 50’s was the decade of the family--over 4 million babies were born each year, more than any other period in history.
Homes reflected the decade’s focus on the family; in fact, this decade introduced the family room into American architecture, and most homes of the era were designed with at least two baths. Attached two-car garages became the norm, as did sliding glass doors and outdoor decks. Garbage disposals, fireplaces, kitchens with matched range and refrigerator and dual sinks, walk-in closets, and walk-in ceramic tile showers with glass doors were home innovations of the 1950’s. Interiors were open and airy, with just screens and lattices to break up open living spaces.
While women in past decades showed interest in home decorating, the women of the 50’s embraced it with a passion. They had spacious new homes and yards--and the time and disposable income to decorate them. The popular women's magazines of the day, such as Good Housekeeping, Woman and Home, My Home, and Home Journal, reflected this zeal for creating a lovely, comfortable, and well-run home.
Decor trends of the era were heavily influenced by Scandinavian furniture styles and modern materials such as lucite, vinyl, and chrome. This look, known as Mid-Century Modern, featured two color palettes: Modern (electric primary colors matched with black and white) and pastel (pink, aqua, and mint matched with blonde woods). The iconic Eames lounge chair paired with a chrome and lucite table topped with candid family photos in boxy acrylic frames was the height of modern living room style.
The 1950’s kitchen was the heart of the home; families ate dinner there, eschewing the formal dining room of the past. A formica and chrome Duncan Phyfe dinette with matching vinyl-covered chairs was a must-have for a fashionable kitchen. Occasionally, an indulgent mom would let the family take a casual meal in the family room on new-fangled metal TV trays while watching I Love Lucy or The Jack Benny Show.
The Space Age Home
Design trends of the 60’s seem almost schizophrenic, perhaps because they were a mashup of the two main influences of the era: The space race and the countercultural "hippy" movement. Colors inspired by nature were ramped up to intense, almost painful hues that were found on everything from cars to appliances to furniture. At the other end of the spectrum, energetic pinks and oranges in psychedelic patterns and oversized florals accosted the senses.
Batiks, cotton fabrics from Morocco, bold tie-dyes, and saris from India were used for everything from bed spreads to curtains. The iconic yellow smiley face was designed by Harvey Ross Ball in 1963 and hit peak popularity in the late 60’s, popping up in home decor on fabrics, pillows, and even on vinyl furniture.
America's infatuation with the space program showed up in many ways in the home. Furniture made from heavy duty plastic, PVC tubing, and chrome set a distinctly futuristic look. Mies van der Rohe's popular plastic S-chairs set the stage for 1967's epochal Panton chair, driving fashion-forward women out in droves to snap them up to complement their modern black and white decor. Modular adjustable shelving units in brushed copper or chrome anchored family room walls or served as airy room dividers.
For good or ill, shag carpeting made its debut in the 1960’s, blanketing suburban living rooms in vivid hues of moss green, rusty brown, saffron yellow, and even weaves of all three. Girls bedrooms of the 60’s featured bubble-gum pink shag and white and gold Princess furniture. The country's shag-mania even led to such decor blunders as shag toilet seat and tank covers, shag-covered chairs, and even shag bed spreads.
Posters as wall art went vogue in the 60’s, with Andy Warhol's popular Campbell's soup print taking center stage in modern kitchens. "Mod" was the operative word, and lava lamps and fiber optic lighting was de riguer in bedrooms and family rooms. 60’s favorites included ceramic Siamese cat figurines, anything mushroom--think mushroom-shaped candles, cookie jars, even salt and pepper shakers--and owl pictures and figurines. The daisy delivered the ultimate "flower power," and daisy print fabrics were popular for curtains and tablecloths.
The Earth Tone Decade
Tom Wolfe, the American writer, called the 70’s the "Me Decade;" perhaps it's not surprising that Self magazine launched in the 70’s. This new-found self-awareness led many Americans to seek spiritual enlightenment in ancient Asian religions, a trend that showed up in the decor of the 70’s. Paradoxically, as Americans were turning inward, they were also turning outward. Environmentalism was elevated to national prominence--Earth Day was established in 1970, and Greenpeace was founded in 1971. These two trends had a significant impact on home decor.
The decade's color palette was anchored in nature, with browns, greens, and blues paired with sunny yellows and oranges. White was a hugely popular furniture color--white wicker patio sets, white vinyl kitchen dinettes, white leather sofas, white Saarinen tulip chairs--accented with bursts of color and bold floral patterns. One designer of the era called the 70’s post-modern look "eco-tripping back to nature."
Ranch homes were still the rage, with new enhancements such as sunken living rooms, floating staircases, and finished basement "rec rooms" containing a billiards table and bar. Exposed brick walls, dark wood paneling and ceiling beams, and skylights were common features in a 1970’s home, and atriums and indoor gardens were growing in popularity. A well-appointed home featured at least a few pots of creeping ivy in a macramé hanger.
The 70’s were also notable for the introduction of faux fur as an upholstery choice for sofas and chairs; a faux fur bean bag was a particular prize. Faux fur rug islands bobbed in a deep brown sea of wall-to-wall shag. Living room furniture had a square, boxy appearance, and chunky sectionals were in vogue. It wasn't uncommon for a single wall in the family room to be papered with a photo mural of a forest or beach.
Harvest Gold was the color of choice for kitchen appliances, although you could also buy them in Coppertone and Avocado. Electric fondue pots were all the rage for family dining. Other kitchen innovations of the decade include jack-in-the-box dishwashers that opened from the top, hot air popcorn poppers, food processors, and the ultra-exclusive microwave oven.
Other regrettable 1970’s fashions included white globe lighting, indoor-outdoor carpeting for sunrooms and patios, and bright pink, yellow, and blue bathroom sinks and even toilets--swathed in more brightly colored shag covers.
Prints, Pastels, and Prep
While some of the cultural icons of the 80’s are making a comeback, 80’s home fashions definitely aren't. In fact, it's been persuasively argued that the 80’s was the ugliest decade for home decor. Home interiors of the 80’s typically fell in one of three camps--Southwestern, Country Chic, or Prep--and sometimes a busy combination of all three.
Color schemes were invariably pastel, with peach and "sea foam green" being a hugely popular combination for formal living rooms and bedrooms. Delicate floral prints a la Laura Ashley decorated everything from ruffled tablecloths and bedspreads to sofa pillows and curtains. Even southwest-inspired palettes were subdued shades of rose and teal accenting the ubiquitous "Navajo white" paint.
Furniture of the 80’s tended to be overstuffed and upholstered in shiny floral chintz or thick velour. No longer content with its place on patios and porches, rattan furniture made its way into living rooms and family rooms, where a La-Z-Boy recliner was also a must. Polished brass was the finish of choice for table legs, indoor planters, bed frames, and even bathroom faucets. Glass-topped tables were de rigueur in living rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms, where metal framed chairs with caned backs and velvet cushions rounded out the dining tableau.
The short-lived Fern Bar trend of the era made its way into the home; 80’s decor featured plenty of feathery ferns and greenery hanging from ceilings and flowing over tables. Wallpaper borders snaked their way around bedroom, dining room, and kitchen walls, and vinyl vertical blinds dominated sliding glass doors. Track lighting popped up in family rooms and dens, even making its way over butcher block islands in large eat-in kitchens.
Kitchens of the era featured dark wooden cabinets, brass and ceramic knobs and pulls, and revolutionary Corian countertops. The truly stylish kitchen demanded an overhead rack hung with copper pots and pans—and only copper would do. The most desirable homes featured either a kitchen island or a kitchen nook, and often featured both.
"The Official Preppy Handbook," published in 1980, had a strong influence on design trends of the decade. Horizontal stripes, crisp navy and white color schemes, nautical themes, and plenty of canvas evoked the Hamptons look memorialized in the book. White wicker forests with blue pin striped cushions occupied furniture on porches and patios.
Crafting Goes Crazy
The words "hunter green" and "dusty rose" conjure up 90’s decor like no other, except perhaps "sponge painting." Anyone who grew up in a 90’s decorated home likely had a hunter green accent wall in the family room, a dusty rose living room, and a bedroom or bath with sponge-painted walls. And who can forget the ever-present ivy stencils gracing 90’s kitchen walls?
Homes in the 90’s woke up with a pastel floral hangover and treated it with a heavy dose of beige and bright colors. The tiny prints of the previous decade were replaced with plaids and stripes in bright bold colors. Clean white melamine cabinets without knobs or pulls replaced the dark wood kitchens of the 80’s and well-dressed kitchens of the era featured square wicker baskets of silk ivy plants placed atop cabinets and trailing down walls.
Wallpaper borders were banished and replaced with stenciled rows of ivy, flowers, fleur de lis, nautical designs and even inspirational words and phrases ("live well, laugh often, love much"). Sponge painting and faux finished walls popped up in family rooms, bedrooms, and baths.
America's passion for crafting included silk flower arrangements. Baskets and vases were filled with silk flowers and greens, and mounds of silk blossoms covered grapevine wreaths to hang on walls and doors. No room was too small to escape a floral design; even bathroom vanities, lit with classic 90’s-era Hollywood lighting, were topped with small floral arrangements.
The 90’s was a decade of conspicuous consumption; the bigger the better. The homes of the era, derisively called McMansions, featured soaring two-story foyers, ostentatious brass chandeliers, arched doorways, and huge, multi-paned windows covered in layers of ornate curtains and drapes. Three, four, and even five bay garages, "garage mahals" in 90’s parlance, were common, as were in-ground pools and huge multi-tiered decks.
Big, bulky sectionals festooned with pillows and throws were the family room furniture of choice, and light-finished pine was the preferred for tables, buffets, curios, and desks. The fashionable living room featured a large entertainment armoire to discreetly disguise the TV, VCR, and in progressive homes, DVD players.
Kids of the 90’s will remember other trends from the time including inflatable furniture, glow-in-the-dark plastic ceiling stars, celestial-themed bathrooms, and garish bed-in-a-bag bedroom decor.
The 21st Century
As the century--and the extravagance of the 90’s--came to a close, Americans re-evaluated their relationships with their homes and living spaces. New technology and flexible work opportunities led to a rise in telecommuting, and the home office, along with the media room and the mud room, became the most in-demand rooms in a home.
The formal living room and dining room gave way to spacious multi-purpose great rooms designed to enhance family interaction. Home theaters, complete with theater-style seating and Dolby surround sound, slowly evolved into modern media rooms equipped with flat screen TVs, video on demand, sophisticated sound systems with almost invisible speakers, and sleek, cozy sofas and leather lounge chairs.
For many 21st century families, environmental awareness and sustainable living affected buying decisions as much as factors such as price and appearance. Hardwood, stone, tile, and bamboo replaced wall-to-wall carpets as the flooring of choice, and recycled materials turned up in countertops, furniture, and even art.
Families ditched the oversized sectionals of the 90’s in favor of slimmer pieces that defined each space and room in the home. The old rules governing matching pieces were turned on their heads and eclectic mix-and-match styles expressed each home's individual features.
Shoppers returned to the light, airy Scandinavian styles that marked Mid Century Modern but with contemporary twists like nubby natural fabrics and recycled wood. The rise of flat-pack furniture--and an Ikea within driving distance of nearly every address--made stylish, well-furnished interiors possible for everyone, even new families on limited budgets. Kitchens of the decade progressed beyond the black and white appliances of the 80’s and 90’s; stainless steel surged in popularity, along with countertops made with natural materials like granite, marble, and wood.
Outdoor spaces took on outsized importance; al fresco dining spaces and even outdoor kitchens became almost necessities. The formal landscaping of 90’s homes gave way to herb and vegetable gardens, whether planted in suburban back yards or in grown in containers on urban patios and decks. The 21st century home integrated both indoor and outdoor spaces into a comfortable, functional, sustainable whole.
The social sharing platform Pinterest revolutionized the way families decorated their homes, with creative individuals sharing everything from decorating ideas, DIY projects, entertaining possibilities, and party planning. Working moms who want to repurpose a linen closet into a functional workspace or find ways to make flat-pack furniture their own find creative solutions from like-minded women, in a personal way they can adopt as their own.
2015 and Beyond
What will the homes of the 2020s look like? The International Furnishings and Design Association has some excellent predictions. According to their most recent survey, the homes of 2025 will look radically different from the homes of the last 100 years.
Homes will be smaller, with fewer--but larger--multipurpose living spaces. Formal living and dining spaces will go the way of the dinosaur, replaced by large, open rooms that accommodate all the activities of 21st century families. The home office will become space for telecommuting while combining space for homework, projects, and even entertainment.
The kitchen, still the heart of the home, will grow larger, with plenty of space for preparing and eating home-cooked meals; families of the 2020s will devote more time to cooking and eating together. Kitchens of the future will include innovative features such as smart faucets that dispense both ice and carbonated water, in-sink dishwashers that can wash dinner dishes in five minutes or less, integrated modular conduction cooking elements, and composting drawers that turn food scraps into food for the garden.
Luxurious spa baths will replace multi-car garages as the must-have feature for 21st century homes. Deep soaking tubs, free-form walk-in showers with multiple shower heads, and natural materials such as granite and stone will be the hallmarks of a well-designed bath. The master bedroom and bath will become a welcome retreat for busy couples.
Modular, multi-purpose furniture that is easily moved and scaled to smaller 21st century homes will replace room-specific pieces; built-ins and big furniture have no place in the homes of the future. Technology will be completely integrated, with fixtures and appliances remotely controlled by smartphone apps.
The Internet of Things will connect everything from the thermostat and coffeepot to the car and the calendar. Everything from heating to air conditioning, lights, and even motorized window coverings will be sensor or voice-controlled. Gauzy curtains, Roman shades, and even naked windows will overtake the overdressed windows of previous years.
Outdoor living space will grow in importance, and tiled terraces and brick courtyards furnished with outdoor fireplaces or fire pits will become the norm. An outdoor prep sink for cleaning home-grown produce, a smoker for curing meat and fish, and even a fully functional outdoor kitchen will be must-haves in 2020’s homes.
The houses of the future will be smaller, more efficient, technologically integrated, and focused on convenience. In short, they will be comfortable homes where families enjoy spending time together.