Introduction to the History of Design

The 1700s, 1800s and 1900s have seen a series of revolutions in architecture, interior and decorative design. The layout, constrution and external decoration of buildings has changed, but not always in the same way as fashions in interior design and the decorative styles of fabrics, wallpapers and furnishings.

Just as today, few builders will have built houses in a pure style, and few people who lived in them will have decorated and furnished them with a clear vision; instead builders created houses of an eclectic style embodying old and fashionable elements, and they will have been decorated similarly. Bought-in components like doors, stained glass, fireplaces and plaster mouldings will have tended to be in the newest styles, while the general brickwork remained little changed from 1850 to 1950.

Architectural Style

In urban areas, most Georgian houses adopted elements from Classical design ideas in their architecture. These then faded from fashion, with the rise of Gothic ideas. This High Victorian style of the mid-19th century was superseded by the decorative ideas of the Aesthetic Movement by 1880. The craft element then evolved into the Arts and Crafts approach, with its sparse, rather bleak style. And then the pendulum swung back, with greater ornamentation around 1900; Art Nouveau influences showed in much of the design detail, though in continental Europe the swirling shapes appeared more forcefully. The first half of the 20th century saw a continuation of the function versus form debates, culminating in the battle between the Art Deco and Moderne styles. These were ignored by many builders and their customers who still preferred to hark back in history with the mock-Tudor style in all its variations.

Homes in this period were:

  • detached houses, with no other connected houses
  • semi-attached houses, today called 'semi-detached', with one other connected house
  • terraced houses, with two other connected houses, one on each side
  • mansion flats (apartments)

It was not until late in the century that mansion flats became fashionable, and the more modest versions common. In the 1840s, Henry Roberts had designed blocks of 'model' flats (apartments) for labourers in London.

In viewing these houses today, we must remember that although some 25% of today's London houses are Victorian, those that have survived are the better ones; the poor quality buildings have been demolished.

Decorative Style

The architectural styles were also reflected in the many and varied decorative styles - medieval, Jacobean, Stuart, Adam, and Louis XVI revivals were mixed with Morris, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau fashions. And Japanese, Moorish and Indian styles also played their part.