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Decades of Design: How the Past 100 Years Have Influenced the Current State of Design

Design DNA: GRAY looks back to look forward.

William Morris wallpaper in blacks and greens with bird and flowers with a painting over a fireplace mantel in similar style

The Arts & Crafts Movement—which sprang up in England in the 1870s—is credited with helping elevate design to, as William Morris put it, “its rightful place beside painting and sculpture.” The Compton print, seen above, was created by William Morris in 1896. Photographed by Mark Cocksedge.

By Lauren Gallow


Over the last century, designers have reckoned with sea changes to their crafts as technologies advanced exponentially; social and political shifts brought about revolutions, wars, and changes in thinking; and humans came to understand ever more clearly our impact on the planet. Styles and motifs have responded in kind, evolving as popular tastes shifted, but also as designers aimed to make a lasting mark on the wider culture.

At a moment when reconciling our past is more important than ever, we revisit five of the most influential eras in global design. Although by no means an exhaustive list, the following movements can teach us volumes about design today. History is never as cut and dried as textbooks and timelines would have us believe, but understanding where we’ve been is perhaps the surest path toward designing a better, brighter future.

topographical view of Taopu Central Park in Shanghai with pathways, plantings, stream and foot bridge

In an example of a modern-day spinoff of the Environmental Movement, Taopu Central Park in Shanghai—designed by James Corner Field Operations—consists of a network of pathways, waterways, and topography to improve water quality, manage stormwater, and provide a soil-remediation strategy. Photograph © Insaw Image.


The Compton print, as seen in this contemporary fabric and wallpaper from House of Hackney, was created by William Morris in 1896. Photographed by Mark Cocksedge.

As industrialization took hold in the late 19th century, cheap mass-produced goods were making their way into homes across Europe and the United States. New technology and advanced machinery meant that companies could turn out thousands of hastily made consumer goods in the amount of time it previously took one skilled artisan to make a single bespoke object. Although more people had access to more stuff—ornate silver teapots, patterned carpets and wallpapers, machine-made tables and chairs—the quality was often shoddy.

The Arts & Crafts Movement sprang up in England in the 1870s as a reaction to the mass production of Victorian consumer goods. Spearheaded by wunderkind William Morris, the movement called for a return to hand-icraft and a closer connection between design and production. Frustrated by the loss of artistic expression wrought by mechanization, Arts & Crafts enthusiasts championed the role of the designer with almost religious fervor. Preserving local and regional craft techniques became important as the movement spread across Belgium, France, Germany, the United States, and even as far as India. Today, the Arts & Crafts Movement is credited with helping elevate design to, as Morris put it, “its rightful place beside painting and sculpture.”

modern maker, hand-crafted wood furniture, office furniture, desk, stool, table lamp, wall shelf

A new collection from South London furniture brand Jan Hendzel Studio is made exclusively from British timber—each piece is a celebration of British craftsmanship and natural, homegrown materials. Photographed by Jan Hendzel Studio.


William Morris, Gustav Stickley, Greene & Greene, Louis Comfort Tiffany


Red House, Bexleyheath, England, United Kingdom, William Morris and Philip Webb (1859); All Saints’ Church, Brockhampton, England, United Kingdom, William R. Lethaby (1901–2); Gamble House, Pasadena, CA, United States, Greene & Greene (1908–9)


William Morris’ wallpaper and textile designs, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained-glass lamps, Gustav Stickley’s furniture


Belief in individualism, artistic voice, simplicity and honesty of materials, and handicraft over mechanization


The Craftsman style continues to be a popular housing type across the United States; floral designs for textiles and wallpaper by brands including House of Hackney; handcrafted wood furniture including that of London- based Jan Hendzel Studio


dining room with Venetian plaster walls in neutral color palette, drum shade pendant light, round wall sconce, oval dining table, arched back brass and upholstered dining chairs

The handcrafted Soleil pendant from Atelier001’s Canvas collection pairs a raw, natural-silk shade with a brass frame. Its minimal design is elegant and timeless. Image courtesy Atelier001.

In the 1920s, the pendulum swung back toward a celebration of technology and the machine. Economies boomed in Europe and North America after World War I as pent-up demand and mass production made cars, radios, and other consumer goods as desirable as they were accessible.

The Roaring Twenties saw designers become enamored by machine-made and industrial forms, which often translated to decorative geometric compositions meant to express the modern era. Known as Art Deco, this artistic movement fl ourished in the United States and across the globe, with Bombay Deco in India, Mexi-Deco in Mexico, Cuba Deco in Havana, and more.

Sleek, jazzy, streamlined designs are hallmarks of Art Deco, often implying speed and forward motion with sweeping curves, contoured shapes, and repetitive geometric patterns. Pops of bright color and shiny surfaces—chrome and aluminum were favorite materials—distinguish Art Deco designs, which animated everything from toasters to cars and skyscrapers. The lasting infl uence of Art Deco ripples through design today, and many of its notable buildings around the world have become treasured landmarks.


Norman Bel Geddes, Gio Ponti, A.M. Cassandre, René Lalique, Sonia Delaunay

Art Deco chandelier in brass


Chrysler Building, New York City, William Van Alen (1930); Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, New York City, Raymond Hood, Edward Durell Stone, and Donald Deskey, (1939); Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium, Michel Polak (1930–34); Eros Cinema, South Mumbai, India, Sohrabji Bedhwar (1938)


Norman Bel Geddes’ radio and car designs, René Lalique’s glass works and hood ornaments, Gio Ponti’s lounge chairs, Paul Frankl’s skyscraper furniture


Streamlining, jazz, zigzag motifs, faith in the machine and technology


Bold, colorful, curvilinear interiors like India Mahdavi’s Sketch restaurant in London; geometric lighting such as Lara Bohinc for Roll & Hill’s Moonrise collection and London-based Atelier001’s Canvas collection; Priyanka Chopra’s New York City restaurant Sona, inspired by Indo-Deco

Above: The Moonrise chandelier from Roll & Hill is inspired by the lunar phases—its shape and materiality harken back to the Art Deco period. Photographed by Joseph Deleo.


midcentury modern dining room with arched top French doors to outdoor patio, red carpet, chandelier, Eero Saarinen table, Herman Miller, Knoll furniture

Midcentury Modern furniture and lighting designs remain in production today through companies such as Herman Miller and Knoll; the latter sells the Tulip table by Eero Saarinen and Cesca chairs by Marcel Breuer (both pictured).

In 1932, just two years after opening its doors, the Museum of Modern Art launched its first architectural exhibition. Featuring the work of 40 architects from 15 countries, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition was a watershed moment that defined what is today known as Midcentury Modernism.

Dominated by slick, boxy, unornamented designs, the MoMA show reflected what curators saw as a new modern style emerging in architecture. The museum was keen to market modernism as the best path forward for American design, and sent the exhibition to 14 venues across the United States, including department stores in Chicago and Los Angeles. To make it clear what qualified as modern, curators defined three distinguishing criteria for the new International Style: an emphasis on volume over mass, regularity over symmetry, and elegant materials over applied ornament.

While the modernist credos of “form follows function” and “less is more” continue to inspire today’s designers, since the mid-20th century, critics have decried the whitewashing and steamrolling of local traditions that often accompany modernist design, especially when applied in non-Western places. Nevertheless, the tenets of the International Style and its hopeful, pseudo-utopian undercurrents maintain their grip on designers worldwide.

modern rug with pattern of circles and lines, dark gray, rust, light blue, on ecru. background


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer, Eileen Gray, Kenzō Tange, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi


Bauhaus School, Dessau, Germany, Walter Gropius (1925-26); Stahl House (Case Study House #22), West Hollywood, CA, United States, Pierre Koenig (1960); São Paulo Museum of Art, São Paulo, Brazil, Lina Bo Bardi (1968); Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo, Japan, Kenzō Tange (1964)


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair, Charlotte Perriand’s LC4 Chaise Lounge, Charles and Ray Eames’ Lounge Chairs, Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs


Industrial architecture, pure functionalism, and the new design possibilities provided by reinforced concrete, steel, and glass


Midcentury Modern furni-ture and lighting designs remain in production; architects including Kengo Kuma, Peter Zumthor, SANAA, and John Pawson continue the modernist tradition of creating mini-malist, pure expressions of material and form.

Above: The Shine rug, designed by Claire McGovern for Rhyme Studio, is part of the Modernity collection, which pays homage to Irish designer Eileen Gray and abstract painter Kazimir Malevich. Image courtesy Rhyme Studio.


New York Highline with blue lights and people standing like statues in white shits and hats

Co-created by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang, The Mile-Long Opera was a 2018 public-engagement project that brought together 1,000 singers from across New York for free performances on the High Line. Photographed by Iwan Baan, courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

By the 1960s, as modernism made its imprint on people and places around the world, criticisms were mounting. Modernists promised that the new architecture would help allay social ills and make life easier, but in many instances, it failed miserably. Housing blocks of reinforced concrete constructed after World War II were denounced as inhumane and brutal, many modernist structures were found to be wholly unlivable, and steel-and-glass skyscrapers in cities around the world had become monuments to faceless, morally bankrupt corporations.

Just as counterculture movements took hold in the United States and Europe during this time, many artists and designers also rebelled. Movements like Arte Povera in Italy, Nouveau Réalisme in France, and the multinational Fluxus movement set out to annihilate the preciousness of art and architecture by turning to vernacular sources, using commonplace materials, and emphasizing process over form. Collectives like Archigram in the United Kingdom and Superstudio in Italy took aim at Architecture with a capital “A,” making fan-tastical, parafictional proposals for buildings and cities that were explosively dynamic in opposition to the restrained, minimal lines of modernism. Tangible social change was the goal, and work from this period often had an activist bent that continues to energize artists and designers to this day.


Archigram, Superstudio, Ant Farm, Gordon Matta- Clark, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Cedric Price


Walking City, Ron Herron and Archigram (1964); Watts Towers, Los Angeles, CA, United States, Simon Rodia (1921–54); Drop City, southern Colorado (1965); Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Bed-ins for Peace, two weeklong performances staged in Amsterdam and Montreal (1969)


Superstudio’s furniture and lighting, Gordon Matta- Clark’s Splitting houses


Anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, counterculture, vernacular architecture, advertising and mass consumerism


The collision of architec-ture and performance in works like Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s The Mile-Long Opera (2018) and SO–IL and Ana Prvački’s L’air pour l’air (2017); social activist artists using urbanism and spatial design as a tool for revolution


modern architecture cabin in the woods overlooking water view

Guided by a deep respect for the land, architecture firm Miller Hull erected this 400-square-foot bunkhouse next to the iconic Decatur Island Cabin, which was designed by Robert Hull, the firm’s late founding partner, in 1986. Photographed by Juan Benavides.

On a Thursday in December, 1972, as the Apollo 17 spacecraft traveled to the moon, the crew looked back to capture a crystal-clear photograph of the entire Earth. Known as “The Blue Marble,” the photo captivated scientists and everyday people alike and has since become one of the most reproduced images. As concerns mounted about the ecological costs of air and water pollution and the unbridled extraction of natural resources, this photo—capturing the beauty and vulnerability of our planet—helped spur the growing environmental movement in the United States. The formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, along with the first Earth Day celebration that same year, marked a shift in attitudes among architects and designers about their responsibility to care for the planet.

By the late 1980s, the American Institute of Architects had taken up the call, forming its Committee on the Environment to promote ways in which the profession could become more eco-friendly. What began as hippie, fringe movements in the 1970s for “passive buildings,” “Earthships,” and “green design” became mainstream by the century’s end. Today, as the climate cri-sis becomes increasingly urgent, sustainability is top of mind for architects and designers everywhere.

modern furniture design on rug in black and white room

Pieces by Grain, a Bainbridge Island, Washington-based design studio that was Climate Neutral certified in 2020. Photographed by Charlie Schuck.


Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand, Paolo Soleri, Ian McHarg


Arcosanti, Yavapai County, AZ, United States, Paolo Soleri (1970–ongoing); the Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA, United States, Charles Moore, William Turnbull, Jr., Lawrence Halprin (1964); Biosphere 2, Oracle, AZ, United States, John P. Allen (1987–1991); California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA, United States, Renzo Piano (2008)


Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, Agnes Denes’ installation Wheatfield— A Confrontation, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring


Environmental conscious-ness, climate change, new renewable-energy technologies


Lake Flato Architects; Michael Green Architecture; Jean Nouvel; Studio Gang; the Miller Hull Partnership; Olafur Eliasson; Martha Schwartz Partners; James Corner Field Operations; Lo—TEK; Grain


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