Pretty much everyone has a version of their dream home somewhere in their heads, but they may not know how to make it a reality. You might have a grand vision about a beautiful, personalized space but you have no idea where to start with the minutiae of interior design. Decorating your home can be a very rewarding process but also can be exhausting if you are starting from scratch.
Despite what you might think, there is a science to interior design. It’s not just about having a good eye—there is an objective component to what might seem like a purely subjective practice. Interior design is about making your physical space exude a particular character and style. It draws from several areas of study, including architecture, psychology, sociology, engineering, and more.
But getting into interior design can be hard if you do not know where to start. So to help you out, we put together this comprehensive guide on the basic fundamentals of interior design and style. We will talk about some basic principles of interior design and also talk about some popular interior design styles.
What is Interior Design?
According to the University of Northwestern Iowa School of Applied Human Sciences, Interior design is the application of creative and technical solutions to achieve a built interior environment. The point of interior design is to engineer interior environments to improve the quality of life and culture of people who live there.
So, in other words, interior design is all about creating beautiful spaces that are sensitive to the values, preferences, and aesthetic tastes of the people who live there. Interior design is a massive field and incorporates aspects of architecture, neuropsychology, social science, semiotics, and anthropology.
Interior Design vs Interior Decorating
The terms “interior design” and “interior decorating” are often used synonymously but refer to distinct practices. Interior design is focused less on specific decorative elements and instead focuses more on the abstract properties of a specific space like shape, light, form, color, and perspective. Interior design requires formal training and education whereas interior decorating does not.
Interior decorating, in contrast, is more about specific decorative elements like carpeting, wall coloring, furniture placement, pictures, etc. One way you can think about the relationship between the two is that interior design creates the overall drawing while an interior decorating colors it with a specific palette.
7 Elements of Interior Design
Interior design uses informal rules and principles that are based on core elements. Most texts identify 7 key elements of interior design. These elements form the basic building blocks of any particular design plan.
Space is one of those things we are all familiar with but would be hard-pressed to define. Space can be understood as the three dimensions that we exist in (length, width, height) or it can be understood by splitting it into two components: positive and negative space.
Positive space is the parts that contain objects while negative space is the parts that do not contain any objects. If you look around your apartment or house, you can probably immediately identify a few aspects of positive and negative space in the design.
Good interior design is based on balancing these two components of 3-D space. Too much positive space and things are cluttered. Too much negative space and things seem barren and sparse. Different styles lend themselves to different ratios of positive to negative space. For example, minimalist styles emphasize negative over positive space.
Lines are important to interior design because lines give the room shape. Furniture and structural elements can create various lines through a design that guide the eye and funnel attention. For example, think of the way that horizontal lines through things like tables and surfaces can make a room look wider. Conversely, vertical lines through tall furniture can make a room look taller.
Lines can also be dynamic and curved. A good example of dynamic lines common to interior design is stairs. The zig-zag shape of stairs provides a sense of momentum and movement to a room. Line placement is an important part of making sure that the human eye is focusing on intended design features.
Form refers to the 3-D shape of any objects in the room. Human beings seem naturally attuned to specific types of shapes and shapes can give a room a particular feeling. For example, did you know that humans are more likely to have a positive emotional reaction to rounded, curved shapes and are more likely to have negative emotional reactions to sharp, angular shapes?
Form can be divided into geometric or natural. Geometric forms include the common shapes that we all learned in elementary school—things like squares, triangles, cubes, pyramids, prisms, etc. Geometric forms typically have an artificial feel and evoke man-made objects. Natural forms, in contrast, are based on shapes and geometric patterns found in nature.
Light is an important aspect of any space. In general, light can be divided into task lighting, accent lighting, and mood lighting. Each type of lighting has a different purpose.
Task lighting is for a specific purpose, such a light so that people can see. For example, a well-designed office needs light so that workers can see. Accent lighting, in contrast, is meant to draw attention to specific spots. Mood lighting is meant to provide a particular emotional response of feeling.
There is also the distinction between natural and artificial light (e.g. lightbulbs, lamps, etc.). Modern trends in interior design emphasize natural light through the placement of windows, doors, and mirrors.
Color is an extremely important aspect of interior design and has a science all on its own. Color can create moods and emotions in humans and also can change our perception of objects and spaces. For instance, green and blue are associated with calming feelings while reds and oranges are more energetic.
One way to think about the color of the room is to think about what it will be used for. For example, red is often used in kitchens because it promotes appetite. The interaction of light and color is also an important consideration.
Texture refers to the tactile surface of an object. Texture is important because the surface of objects gives a room depth and dynamism. Think about the difference between solid, glossy, flat surfaces and textured rougher surfaces. The texture of a surface defines how it attracts the eye and how it contrasts with other objects.
A lack of texture can make a room seem flat or boring. A good interior designer knows how to use texture to make objects pop.
Pattern is closely related to both texture and color. Pattern is basically a repeated design element, like a pattern of lines, shapes, colors, etc. Patterns can be used as a focal point for the eye and can combine different types of colors and lines. Different styles lend themselves to different patterns. As a general rule of thumb, a room should incorporate no more than three patterns, so as not to overwhelm the eye.
Questions to Ask Yourself About Interior Design
Before embarking on your interior design journey, take some time to ask you these key questions.
What is my ultimate goal?
To get started, you need to find your inspiration. Ask yourself questions like “what is my ultimate goal for this space?” You can’t start designing unless you have a semi-coherent idea of what you are trying to achieve. Do you want to completely redesign a space or change just a few elements? Do you intend to use the room for a specific purpose? Answering these questions will help turn your idea into a full-fledged vision.
How do I plan to elevate the space?
Here it is instructive to refer to the 7 elements of design we covered earlier. Becoming fluent with these elements will help you figure out how to change a space.
How invested do I want to be?
Another key question is about your commitment. Be honest with how much time and effort you are willing to devote to the project. You do not want to bite off more than you can chew and be stuck with a tepid and not very inspired design.
What is my timeline and budget?
Obviously, budget and time concerns are important. A full-scale interior design is an involved process that requires a lot of time and money. So make sure you plan your design within reasonable parameters.
Common Interior Design Styles
Interior design is a multi-faceted approach that is heavily dependent on specific designers. That being said, there are some key general styles that have emerged in recent years as popular templates. Here are just a few of the more popular general design styles.
The traditional interior design style can trace its roots back to the stylings of 18th and 19th century England and France. The traditional style is characterized by its reliance on ornate structures, luxurious materials like silk and velvet, and wood materials. Traditional style design also emphasizes a kind of high-class aesthetic. It’s like the classical music of interior design. This form of design used to be incredibly popular in the Americas but has slowly forfeited some of its ground to other styles.
Modernist styles emerged in the 20th century and are best-contrasted with traditional styles. Whereas traditional styles focus on patterns, textures, and ornate furniture, modernist styles feature clean lines, smooth surfaces, and a kind of ‘streamlined” look. Modernist styles also leave behind the more earthen tones of classical design and incorporate brighter and bolder colors.
Minimalist styles, as the name implies, strip away inessential details and put core design elements first and foremost. Minimalist style is based on the aphorism that “less is more” and emphasizes negative space, straight lines, and simple surfaces. We have heard minimalist styles described as “Ikea-chique” before and we think that an accurate descriptor. Minimalism also heavily focuses on functional aspects of space and furniture.
Rustic styles are popular in the American South and Southwest and feature natural, muted colors, simple color palettes, rustic finishes, and heavily textured surfaces. Rustic styles are informed by the specific locale. For example, in the Southwest, rustic styles tend to be based on Spanish textiles, natural shapes, and simple metals like iron. Leather is a common material used for upholstery in rustic designs.
Common in larger cities and industrial towns, the industrial style is characterized by its minimalist design and focus on building materials. One aspect of industrial design is the art of exposed beams and concrete in the walls. Industrial styles are usually coded as ‘masculine” brutalist styles but can be softened with the proper application of color and texture.
The Art Deco style was popularized in the central regions of France and eventually made its way to the United States during the early 20th century. Art Deco is known for its jagged shapes and lines as well as its bold and experimental color palette. Art Deco has also become known for its oversized furniture and use of metal in structures.
The Bohemian style is defined by its eclectic and multi-faceted nature. The Bohemian style is hard to define as it incorporates so many distinct styles and elements in novel ways. Characteristic features include a penchant for open spaces and a willingness to mix multiple cultural elements. Bright colors and accents are common on the walls and furniture. Rich woods and solid metals are also common design elements.
Interior design is a highly varied practice and there is ample opportunity for self-expression within it. The key aspect of interior design is to find new ways to play with elements of light space, line, color, and more to create attractive designs that improve quality of life. Interior design is a very rewarding practice and can transform your living space to match the vision that you have in your head.
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