The History of Design

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Where do mirrors come from? Why do we have museums? Who invented the greenhouse? For those who have a thirst for design knowledge, Amy Azzarito, author of new book “Past & Present: 24 Favorite Moments in Decorative Arts History” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013), has the answers.

Azzarito, managing editor of the immensely popular Design Sponge blog, has been writing online about the history of design styles for years now, expanding the horizons of countless design enthusiasts, amateurs and experts alike.

The idea for the book came from Azzarito’s own sense of surprise and wonder as she studied for her master’s degree in decorative arts and design. “I hadn’t even realized these things – that the sofa I’m sitting on now hasn’t always been in our living rooms,” she says. “Someone invented the sofa? What did people sit on before then? Hard chairs?”

With the ever-increasing popularity of home-decorating television shows and design magazines and blogs, more and more people are interested in design and how we create the beautiful spaces we see every day.

“There are a few things in the book that everyone has heard of before but may not know exactly what it is,” she says. For instance, chinoiserie may have a Chinese aesthetic and the word may sound Chinese, but it’s actually a European take on a Chinese style that gained its own notoriety.

Thoughout “Past & Present,” Azzarito eloquently connects each design style of the past to its influence upon the present. The book includes a range from ancient obelisks and Renaissance collections to Victorian style and mid-century modernism. To top it off, she includes DIY projects from 24 designers and artists that embody each design style – including big names in design like Eddie Ross and Todd Oldham.

“I went to designer studios with books and gave them a choice of three different topics,” Azzarito says of recruiting people to create DIY projects for her book. “I asked, ‘Which one resonates with you?’ I wanted them to be inspired by this moment in history.”

Though Azzarito, who also has a master’s in library science, has an expansive knowledge of design topics, she chose styles that she thought would spark curiosity in most people. “These are the things I like to ramble on about,” she admits. “If we were at a party together and you asked me about design,” she would talk about how well-to-do Europeans in the 17th century would have servants bring entire fruit trees from their greenhouse into the dining room so guests could pick off a cherry or orange. “That was like the height of elegance,” she says.

As for her favorite entries in the book, she cites the secret compartments of Louis XVI as particularly personal. While studying in France, Azzarito recalls visiting Versailles, where her instructor showed her a hidden doorway in a bedroom that led to Marie Antoinette’s private library and dining room. “There was something about seeing that and really understanding public versus private dichotomy in that time period,” Azzarito says. “She had this tiny place to escape to, about the size of my apartment in Brooklyn. Through that, you understand something about people. People never change: We are looking for comfort, privacy and security in our homes, no matter who we are.”

This fundamental statement about home design is what ties all the disparate elements of Azzarito’s book together. Design has always signified the way we live and how we want to live – home design especially caters to people’s most basic needs.

Some might say that constant rehashing of the “retro” and “vintage” signifies stagnation, but Azzarito vehemently disagrees. “Of course what you’re seeing isn’t totally new. We’re working in a historical context,” she says. “Everything is a reinvention ... You can see the lineage of design and the way in which design builds on the movements that came before.”

Tags: design, history, DIY