Good residential interior design and decorating is as much about practicality, comfort and detail as it is about style and aesthetics.  Any competent designer asked either to improve a home or to plan one from scratch would first try to find out exactly how the occupants live, to draw people out in order to establish their style, and the factors in their home in which to apply that style.  This done, the designer can use the information as a basis for design solutions. 


The question of what overall style you should choose, or of putting a name to a mental picture of a room or rooms can become as intimidating as that of selecting colour schemes to put together for your interior space.  Just as in choosing colours, there are certain criteria to follow. Learn to really look, take note of what pleases you, and try to analyze why. Think about why a particular room gives you pleasure.  Some people look hard for that indefinable STYLE, while they cannot adequately describe it, they can recognize it as soon as they see it.  It may be something as simple as a fireplace mantel that immediately gives a feeling of genuine pleasure.


In general, unless you are sure of your decorating style, if an interior space already has some distinctive style or ‘feel’ you should make a point of being sensitive to it. This does not mean that you should furnish it exactly to period, however beautiful and however much your budget is or knowledge you might have to carry it through to its best potential.  With any house you live in, whatever its architectural detail – a sense of style is really an attitude of mind, a sense of scale and proportion, an understanding of the overall “feel” of the surroundings and a sensitivity both to what is fitting for those surroundings and to your needs.


There are certain common sense factors to consider as well. For example, country houses look best when they are obviously geared to country living and the outdoor life.  Floors, for instance, seem more fittingly rural when they are of wood, brick or stone than if they have linoleum. Although a country “feel” or style has a certain charm in an urban house, a sophisticated urban minimalistic look is not particularly suited to rural life.  The whole idea of such houses is to make people feel relaxed, comfortable and surrounded by natural elements.


When first entering a “new” interior, there is usually a certain something about each room that helps to set the style.  If, for example, a room is heavily beamed and low-ceilinged, it would be best to select a comfortable, warm-coloured eclectic ambience rather than a roomful of clean-lined modern furniture.  Another room might be well proportioned but dark. In which case there is the choice of taking advantage of the lack of natural light to make the room warm and cosy or making the place look much brighter through the use of pale warm colours and plenty of added artificial lighting.


Yet another example could be a room with a wall of windows and a great view.  This space should not be overcrowded with large pieces, but kept simple in order not to distract attention from the view outside.  To add various touches of character in a room that is boxy and characterless, dress up the walls, try to make the windows more interesting with an appropriately selected window treatment, add crown moldings or wainscoting, select an interesting floor covering, or unusual art pieces. 


The point is that, whatever the nature of a room, look for any hint that might help determine the appropriate style of decoration. This hint might lie within the room itself but if the room says nothing to you, it may be possible to find it among decorative inspirations from the past.  These inspirations continue to be provided by the styles of many different periods seen through the use of traditional motifs and forms in conjunction with the best materials of the present. Today we appreciate and enjoy the solidity and attention to detail of so many objects and so much of the art from the past.


Up until the 16th century, style evolved only within different countries.  Voyages of the early explorers, an increase in literacy and modern ideas about trade and economic issues laid the foundations for interest in classical structures and a new understanding of construction leading to design innovations.  New wood materials, skills, techniques and domestic articles and fashions were introduced. With this enlightenment came the development or naming of styles.   


Trying to describe exactly what each style involves and looks like would probably take several hundred pages of text.  Many of us are somewhat familiar with these named interior decorating styles (schemes/themes) so I will try to give a very brief description of characteristic features of each.  


1) There are “national” styles as English, English Country, American Country, American South West, French, French Country, Italian, Caribbean and Oriental. 


2) There are “period” styles, named for a particular age:

Gothic – pointed arch and vault shape, sculpted religious details

Renaissance – rediscovery of the classical and symmetrical details of ancient Rome and Greece

Restoration, Regence, Directoire – decorations are influenced by the discovery of ancient Pompeii, the division of walls into cornice

Federal, Empire – fluted pilasters, pediments, neoclassical columns, elliptical fanlights, and tracery.


3) Monarch styles such as Louis XIV, XV, XVI in France, the Stuarts, William and Mary, Oueen Anne, Georgian and Victorian in Britain. 


4) There are styles named for particular furniture designers (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Adam Brothers and Sheraton). 


There are also general terms of particular styles of furniture and decoration, as follows:

Baroque – elaborate and excessive wood carving and decoration, as in the spirally twisted columns in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; 

Rococo – curves and shells; 

Neoclassic – simple Greek/Roman classical forms; 

Art Nouveau – abandonment of all historical references, extensive use of curved contours, extravagant, twisted ornament based on forms drawn from nature; 

Art Deco – luxurious surface effects and exquisite ornamentation, streamlining,  incorporating tropical woods, animal skins and archaeological discoveries in Egypt; 

William Morris/Arts & Crafts Movement – enthusiasm towards bringing nature into design, concentrating on fine handcrafted furniture and accessories.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh – abstract and geometric design;

Bauhaus/Le Corbusier/Modernism – stark lines, uncluttered, glass-walled, limited use of colour, tubular steel furniture.  

Minimalism – the art of living with the least as in traditional Japanese interiors.  

Post-Modernism – the presence and influence of the past on contemporary spaces and elements of design.

High Tech – emphasis on advanced technologies and visible displays of elements of science, computer-oriented, aerospace and automated industrial.


Pure decoration of a single period is fairly predictable.  Most people, including professional designers are more at ease with an exciting and varied Eclectic look. The Eclectic (“borrowing from many sources”) style is a real art form.  What is needed for success in this style is a balanced combination of form, scale and colour in order to mix period styles of furniture, paintings, sculptures, materials, objects and lighting to create a whole that is completely harmonious.