History of Design Styles

This is a difficult subject to write about as I have found little information that is easy to understand. Encyclopaedia have detailed explanations but no pictures which makes little sense as we are dealing with 3 dimensional products and graphic design. My main source was "the Design Source Book" but this is now sadly out of print.

Find more pictures on the web using links from the "Relevant Web Sites" page. For copyright information, see the special section on the second page.


Millions of years ago, human beings evolved out of Apes because they could use tools to make things. At first these objects helped them survive, such as spears, shelters, fencing. Gradually, as life became easier, adults could spend time making toys for their children. None of these objects of this early period survived as they were made from wood, which rotted away easily.

A few of these early people started to develop more skills than others in their tribe. Naturally being inquisitive, they would start to develop new processes and designs and became experts at making things. "The first craftsman". We know of their existence through cave paintings. These craftsmen would make practical objects and then add decorations just to make them beautiful. The next step would be to make beautiful objects with no practical purpose, perhaps for religious purpose. We now see the start of the split between practical design and decorative art that is still with us today. I wonder if these early people sat around the fire discussing the role of art in design?

It has been said that toys played a very important role in the development of objects, their technology and use. It is highly likely that the first wheel was used on a toy. It would be very easy to make a small wheel out of clay using a fish bone for its axle. A lot harder to make a full size one.


Up until the Industrial Revolution objects were made by craftsmen, either working on their own, collectively in rural cottage industries or in Guilds or Societies in the towns. The majority worked at a low level of skill and design, producing simple buildings, furniture, plates etc. This resulted in localised designs often produced by generations of one family with no technological or design style changes. It was if time stood still.
There were a few craftsmen who worked for the nobility and the rich merchants producing objects based on designs and technology taken from other countries. They formed their own design styles, but they still could only make a limited number of objects at a high price. Theses objects can now be seen in museums.

The dates given for design style movements can only be approximate. Nothing suddenly happens. In many cases two styles overlap, one fading away and one coming in. The reasons why these new movements occur are a complex mix of historical, political and social facts, but that's history.

The time between 1914 and 1950 was a period of great upheaval, loss of life and world depression. However new technologies still steadily improved and design went through different styles. (First World War 1914 - 1918, Second World War 1939 - 1945)

The Industrial Revolution.

The usual dates are given as 1730 to 1840, but this is now called the First Industrial Revolution as technological revolution is still going on now.

The invention of machines of mass production occurred at a time when the wealthy merchants and bankers gained legal and political rights over the landed nobility producing a new business class. Labour began to move from the land to the towns. Technology is still rapidly changing and the Industrial Revolution is with us today. The use of computers has changed society and in a way, has allowed people to leave the towns and return to the villages.

1st. Industrial Revolution 1730 - 1840

The history of Industrial Design really began with the start of the Industrial Revolution that took place during the early part of the 1700's with the invention of mechanical processes of production. Everything changed, for the first time it was possible to produce large quantities of a product cheap enough for most people to own.

The design of the product came out of the technology available at the time. Ceramic manufacturers found it easy to mass-produce plain white plates but still had to paint on the pattern by hand -Too expensive. They developed a method of transfer printing but only blue ink would withstand the high temperatures used during the glazing process. This is why all the plates of the early period are blue, the most famous being the Willow Pattern. As ink technology improved, so did the colour and complexity of the patterns.

Design was led by its technology and was of a very low standard with very little though for the user. Manufacturers spent no money on beautifying their products as they had little competition and were out to make as much money as possible. In those days designers were either Architects or Artists and manufacturers felt no need to use them. In the early part of the 1800's, people began to realise that there was a problem. The Architect, Charles Cockerel said "the attempt to supersede the work of the mind and the hand by mechanical process for the sake of economy, will always have the effect of degrading and ultimately ruining art". Many years later, the Bauhaus used technological processes as the basis of their designs.
In 1833, a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to examine the problem of a low standard of product design. The morality of the country was felt to be reflected through its art. This feeling is still held today by many academics.
In 1837, a government School of Art was set up with the aim to train designers for working with industry but it failed.

It took the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Arts and Crafts Movement to change things.

Gartenstuhl Chair Shaker chair
Cast Iron Chair 1820 Shaker Chair 1880

2nd. Industrial Revolution. 1860 - 1914

In the second half of the 1800's, there was an explosion of scientific inventions such as electricity and chemicals. This lead to the start of many large industries on a scale never seen before. Cars, electric motors, plastics, telephone, radio etc. Now the near monopoly of British industries was being challenged by Europe (Germany) and USA. By the end of this period, Britain had lost its world domination.

3rd. Industrial Revolution. 1951 -

Like the Great Exhibition of 1851 one hundred years before, The Festival of Britain 1951 was an impetus for a revival of design, technology and social change. Home ownership rapidly increased and television and magazines started to show good design to the masses. The "Habitat Shops" and their mail order catalogue started up by the designer Terrance Conran in the Sixties, gave new design styles to an ever increasing affluent younger generation. His 450 page book in 1974 called "The House Book" was a bible, I still have a well thumbed copy on my shelf. This is similar to the power IKEA has on today's home furnishing products. The clean lines and modern colours of their "Swedish Style" gave an alternative to the UK's traditional love of dark woods and sombre colours. Some call it "the English Porridge Style". We now have all these TV programs converting rooms and gardens in two days!!! Design has now become entertainment, but like the food programs, many watch and only a very few try out the ideas. So from a design education point of view, they have little value.

The design of products has come a very long way and the role of the Industrial Designer is now highly valued. The internal components of many products are very similar if not the same. The mobile phone uses a mass produced chip available to any manufacturer. There are not that many different types of batteries. It is the designers task to package these internal components into a unique produce. To do this they have to know all about the technical processes of production, the artistic values of colour, shape and form, the functionality of the product (ergonomics) and profile of the user (marketing). This has been going on for the last one hundred and fifty years and why it is important to learn how designers solved similar problems in the past.

Nothing is new, just a new arrangement of old ideas?

The Great Exhibition 1851

Queen Victoria's husband, the Prince Consort was one of the key instigators of the Great Exhibition. In five and a half months over six million people visited the exhibition held the famous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

The Prince Consort wanted the manufacturers to use good design in their products. Many manufacturers exhibiting spent a lot of effort, for the first time, to use good design to show off their products. The Great Exhibition was a trade promotion show to the rest of the Empire and it became a catalyst for Industrial Design and was the start of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Great Exhibition 1851
The Great Exhibition 1851

The Arts and Crafts Movement. 1850 - 1915

During the early part of the Industrial Revolution, it was natural for manufacturers to use the ever-increasing technological advances to produce more for greater profit. The products looked like they did because that's how they were made. Any decoration was an attempt to make the product to look good. It was often over elaborate with mixed styles from previous ages. The role of good artistic design was never felt to be important as it cost money and manufacturers had little competition throughout the world.

A group of artists reacted against these poorly designed machine products and started up the Arts and Crafts movement. They wanted to create a style that reflected the old ideals of craftsmanship with artistic form, shape and colour.

In 1861, William Morris started up a design company to produce handcrafted furniture, metalwork, jewellery, textiles and his famous styles of wallpaper. His designs recaptured the beauty and quality of medieval craftsmanship.
The reasons why this movement failed were that it was looking backwards and had no way of transforming itself into modern styles. It was not really practical, suitable for mass production and was only available to the wealthy. It just became out of date.
The Arts and Craft movement was formally re-organised in 1915 into the Design & Industry Association. and its influence remains with us today. Its unique style is always being rediscovered.
The Arts and Crafts movement was mainly a British movement. Other countries, especially North Europe and USA used its ideas and developed them into their own style called "Art Nouveau" 1880 -1918. So strong was its influence that the European "Art Nouveau" style was hardly used in Britain.

Silver decanter by Ashbee Contempory jewellery box
Decanter by Ashbee Jewellery Box
Clock by Mackintosh Garden bench by Lutyens
Clock by Mackintosh Bench by Lutyens

Art Nouveau. 1890 - 1910

The name "Art Nouveau" was taken from the name of the shop opened by the art dealer Samuel Bing in Paris in 1895. He displayed art and objects made in this new style.

Art Nouveau was a decorative style applied to the surface of products ranging from buildings, tea pots, posters and wallpaper. It is characterised by its sinuous curving lines that flowed in undulating and intertwining patterns. It was richly embellished with ornamentation. In Germany the "Jugendstil" movement used plant forms morphing into sweeping lines. The Art Nouveau designers were heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement but used their flowing lines to show the extraordinary energy of this period.

The "Glasgow Four" of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert McNair and their wives were a major influence in Britain. The London shop "Liberty's" was the centre for Art Nouveau furniture, fabrics and wallpaper. Two of the most famous products of this time were the lamps made by Louis Tiffany in America and the Paris Metro Stations by Hector Gurmard. Others were Aubrey Beardsley (UK), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (France), Emile Galle (France), Antonio Gaudi (Spain) and Victor Horta (Belgium).

In Europe different names were used for the same basic style. Jugendstil in Germany. Style Metro in Austria. Style Liberty in Italy. Floral patterns were used in Belgium, France and Spain. Geometrical patterns in England, Scotland and Germany.

By the time of the First World War (1914 - 1918) the Art Nouveau style had faded from popularity. Designers had come to understand materials and processes and now realised that there was much more to mass-produced products than just surface decoration. They started to use the shape, form and colour of the materials.

Poster by Mackintosh Hill House Chair by Mackintosh
Poster by Mackintosh 1900 Hill House Chair 1903
Paris Metro entrance
Paris Metro

Bauhaus 1919 - 1933

The Belgium architect Henri Van de Velde designed the interiors for Samuel Bing's shop in Paris called "Art Nouveau". He went on to start up the "Art Academy and Polytechnical School" in Weimar, Germany.
In 1917 a magazine called "De Stijl" was published in Holland. This was the start of the Dutch modern movement using strong geometrical and abstract images with puer colour and form. The most famous being the painter Piet Mondrian.

In 1919, Walter Gropius took over the school in Weimar as director. He immediately merged the two schools of "Fine art" and "Applied Art" into one. Each student had two teachers, a painter and a craftsman. The most famous being the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. This system of education is the foundation of today's art schools.

Walter Gropius wanted to eliminate excessive ornamentation and let the function of the object express itself through its appearance. Materials technology had advanced so much that it was possible to make many new shapes.
In 1922, Gropius turned away from the ideals of art and craft towards machinery and its technologies.
The Nazis closed the school down in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Gropius and many others fled to America.

The first recorded use of the term "Industrial Designer" was in America in 1920.

Le Corbusier Chair Chair by Brewer
Chaise-Longue 1928 Brewer Chair 1929

Art Deco (Style Moderne) 1920 -1940

The name Art Deco came from "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes" It is also called the "Style Modern".
The exhibition was held in Paris in 1925 and it was the first time the Art Deco style had been shown to the public. It rapidly spread around the world.

Like the Arts and Crafts movement before it, Art Deco was a rejection of the over elaborate designs of the latter part of Art Nouveau. It combined the best of Art Nouveau with the simple functional style of the Bauhaus. It also drew on Cubism and the stage scenery of the Russian "Ballets Russes". Functionalism + Cubism + Futurism.

Explorers were coming back to Europe with pictures of primitive and ancient art. Art Deco designers used ideas from the Aztecs, North American Indians, Egypt etc.

Features of Art Deco are its simple clean lines with striking colours, geometrical or stylised patterns and often with a streamlined look. They achieved a style of sophisticated elegance and wealth. Products, fashion buildings etc were both individually crafted or massed produced. Cheap industrial materials such as plastics, metals and concrtet were used together with expensive natural materials such as silver, ivory and crystal. Designs were often repetitive to symbolise mass production.

Art Deco went out of fashion during the Second World War. Like other design styles, it keeps reappearing today especially on TV make over programs.

Clarice Cliff blue jugs Susie Cooper box
Clarice Cliff Susie Cooper
Peacock chair by Frank Lloyd Wright Table lamp by Frank Lloyd Wright
Peacock Chair 1921 Table Lamp
Issue 32 - 24/4/03
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