Interior design history: An environmental and contextual story

Presented by: Bryan D. Orthel, Dana Vaux, Erin Cunningham

History is more than facts. Hayden White (1984) contrasts the telling of history with the meanings of ideas. In this context, how and why history is recorded and used matters more than abstract knowledge of data. Accordingly, design history might be used to frame how people understand their environment and lived experience. How can educators teach design history and theory that aids students in understanding the world of ideas and the world of people? How do the stories we tell shape and inform the ways we design? Interior design educators and historians must address broader contextual understanding of history as environmental, ordinary, and grounded in everyday life (Vaux, 2015; Cunningham, 2014). While the design history canon now includes a more realistic representation of gender, ethnicity, and cultural background, it still excludes many voices—not the least, the ordinary human experience (Orthel, 2014; Upton, 2013). This panel looks closely at the impact of design history on design practice and education. Context History’s position in interior design curricula is integral to how problems are identified, shaped, and solved. Design history rightly celebrates design as process and product, but must also inform how designers think about problems. The history of design reveals ways that people understood their situations and sought to create futures. These futures were based on contemporary worldviews, understandings, and actions. The 2017 CIDA Standards require that students understand such knowledge and the corresponding worldviews to the extent that they can apply this background in solving future problems. Students may know history as facts (e.g., dates, names, stylistic characteristics), but their use of this knowledge is separate from the information that is part of their design process. Heuristics and archetypes provide limited demonstrations of what design history represents. Students require integrated awareness of how these ideas are produced and consequently produce society everyday. Method The proposed panel consists of three paper presentations (6 minutes each) followed by an interactive discussion activity engaging the audience in how the explanation and use of history shapes design problem solving. The discussion activity will structure connections between ideas for teaching design history in topical and studio courses, and explore how design history methods and theory support CIDA standards. The three papers outline narrative, contextual, and experiential approaches to analyzing history. Although the methods differ, the papers share a theoretical base in the historical conceptualization of everyday, ordinary human experience within built environments. Outcomes The presentations and interactive discussion will demonstrate a distinct theoretical framework for design history that offers an alternative to canonical history. The presentations and discussion will explore strengths and weaknesses of this alternative approach for teaching and integrating interior design history in course curricula and research. Examples of history-based instruction in non-history courses will be discussed. Advancement of Design Knowledge The discussion of design history as a driver in the creation of solutions and an understanding of broad social and environmental characteristics engages history as an active, integrated component of interior design curriculum. In this context, design history is not abstract criticism, dates, or memorized canons; History helps designers understand the individual value people place in their experience of the everyday world. History explains how we see that world today. History, then, operates as lived experience within an understood past, uncovering larger-scale worldviews that shape future decisions. When history is reframed in this way and actively used in the design process, disciplinary knowledge crosses boundaries and becomes more coherent and relevant for solving design problems.


  • Cunningham, Erin. (2014). Navigating the past: What does history offer the discipline of interior design? Journal of Interior Design, 39(3) v–xi.
  • Orthel, B.D. (2014). Ordinary wallpaper: Identity and use of history. Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture, 5(3) 361–388.
  • Upton, Dell. (2013). Neglected modernity. Keynote presentation at the 8th Savannah Symposium: Modernities Across Time, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA, February 7–9.
  • Vaux, Dana. (2015). An ethos of place: A historical understanding of place experience through ethos-intensive objects. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.
  • White, Hayden. (1984). The question of narrative in contemporary historical theory. History and Theory, 23(1) 1–33.