The 2010s tested interior design like no other decade. The recession of 2007–2009 led people to question long-held assumptions about design, resulting in dramatic changes in how shoppers choose what they buy, where we all get inspired, and what designers create. Modern design became more conscious, more engaged, more exciting, more democratic, more individualistic. It was applied in so many new ways to so many new challenges.
Are we better off for it all? It’s debatable.
I started covering design in 2010, a challenging time for the industry, to say the least. The country was reeling from the recession, which was felt deeply in homes, as millions of families lost them during the foreclosure crisis and never recovered. Construction stalled, and the projects that survived were value engineered within an inch of their lives. Budget materials like plywood and oriented strand board were everywhere. Cautious retailers played it safe with their home-furnishing offerings. The Cooper Hewitt’s triennial asked “Why design now?” and challenged the industry to think about the problem-solving capacity of design in terms of sustainability.
While the dawn of the decade was challenging for the design industry, it also laid the groundwork for the 2010s in ways that we’d never have been able to predict at the time. Instagram, Pinterest, Warby Parker, and WeWork all launched in 2010, and Airbnb, founded two years earlier, received its first round of Series A funding. The ripple effect of these companies on influence, business models, and style is still felt widely today, for better or worse.
When I look back on the last decade, these trends from the early, mid-, and late 2010s stand out to me the most. Your personal list might be different. Let us know your favorite—and least favorite—trends in the comment section below.
During the early 2010s, post-recession belt tightening informed interior design. This more-with-less sensibility was reflected in off-the-shelf finishes and fixtures like plywood, Ikea cabinets, raw metals, and painted accents. Mainstream retailers hedged their bets on safe colors, shapes, and fabrics—nothing too adventurous or too bold. Think beiges, grays, and blues—ascetic hues that spoke to cautious shoppers. Silhouettes were minimalist and rigid, as if it were all protection from the chaos of the time. Blogs helped their audiences design on a budget through Ikea hacks, simple DIY projects, and vintage shopping tips.
“The recession really killed business for a lot of people,” says Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer, media personality, and founder of the paint company Clare. “The whole professional interior design industry shifted because it became harder for traditional designers to monetize. The middle has thinned out. You’re either budget or high-end.”
The early 2010s gave rise to hygge, a Danish term that loosely translates as a cozy feeling, like being curled up in a blanket, drinking tea by the fire with friends and family. While books and trend pieces about the style peaked in 2016, contemporary Scandinavian design flooded the design world at the dawn of the decade thanks in part to Kinfolk. The lifestyle magazine launched in 2011 and featured aspirational spartan interiors with natural wood; black, white, and gray color schemes; sheepskins and knits; and plenty of lattes.
The chevron pattern
This graphic motif was beloved by design bloggers during the late aughts and early teens, appearing on curtains, pillows, and especially rugs, like in this room designed by Nicole Gibbons. This bold pattern made a statement and amped up interiors in one fell swoop—a boon for the budget-conscious shopper.
Brass and warm metallics
These luxe-looking but utilitarian materials peaked in the early teens, as high-end designers like Tom Dixon, Lindsey Adelman, Roll & Hill, and Workstead used them amply in lighting. After Adelman posted instructions for making her popular Branching Bubbles chandelier with hardware store items, bloggers began making, and sharing, their own DIY versions.
Design began to soften during the middle of the 2010s, a time when many more products entered the picture. “Contextualized e-commerce”—the buzzphrase for articles where many of the featured products could be easily purchased through embedded links—had been slowly ramping up and peaked during this time. One Kings Lane, the luxury home decor website, was valued at $912 million in 2014 but sold for only $12 million in 2016 after customer growth stalled. When Domino, the cult interior design magazine that folded in 2009, relaunched in 2013 as an e-commerce site, it featured on its cover a plush Moroccan rug alongside a velvety goldenrod sofa with curved lines. This was the time of conversation pits making a comeback and fiber art appearing everywhere.
Interior design trends became bigger and more viral during the mid-2010s. Instagram reached 100 million active users in 2013 and Pinterest did so in 2015. Social media turned the picture-perfect interior into a valuable commodity and helped empower people to see how they could incorporate design into their lives. Interior design startups tried to capitalize on this, too. Homepolish, an affordable interior design services website founded in 2011, raised $20 million in funding in 2016. (It’s since run out of funding.)
But instead of social media cultivating uniqueness, everything began to feel algorithmically optimized into the same tasteful, yet safe, styles. The same “It” colors—like 2016’s millennial pink—and “It” plants—the fiddle-leaf fig, the monstera—and “It” rugs—the Beni Ourain—flooded social media feeds during the mid-2010s.
During the 1990s and 2000s, midcentury modernism became a luxury—fueled by collectors, Wallpaper and Dwell magazines, and Design Within Reach—despite its fairly democratic roots as furniture that’s “the best for the most for the least,” as Charles Eames once said. During the 2010s, midcentury modernism had trickled down to mass-market brands like West Elm, CB2, Target, and Amazon, which nailed its style, but not its quality, as the Awl skewered in its story on the now-infamous Peggy Sofa.
During the 2010s, real estate and renovation shows took off thanks to HGTV. Fixer Upper, which aired from 2013 to 2018, became one of the cable network’s most popular shows, as millions of viewers tuned in to watch hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines flip outdated homes into iterations of the same “modern farmhouse.” Picture shiplap walls, industrial fixtures, antique furniture, and lots of gray, white, and black. The Gaineses even launched a lifestyle magazine dedicated to this aesthetic, Magnolia Journal, and transformed Waco, Texas, into a tourist destination in part thanks to their renovation work around the city. Amazon made a serious play for the home furnishings market in 2017 when it launched its first in-house furniture brands: Rivet, a midcentury-inspired line, and Stone & Beam, a modern farmhouse collection.
In an article for The Verge, Kyle Chayka dubbed the phenomenon of global minimalism “Airspace.” Think reclaimed wood furniture, powder-coated metal accessories, Edison bulbs, plants, and subway tile. Home design, hospitality design, workspace design, and retail design—which usually operate in different cycles—all adopted similar sensibilities simultaneously. This was attributable in part to the fluidity of environments due to changes in technology. Interiors became powerful marketing tools thanks to Instagram and Airbnb. WeWork developed its signature look during this time, and leveraged tasteful, albeit ubiquitous, design as a perk.
During the late 2010s, colors became bolder, patterns became more dazzling, materials became more tactile, and silhouettes became more adventurous. The decade crescendoed to maximalism with designers from the 1970s and ’80s like Milo Baughman, Ward Bennett, Pierre Paulin, Jean Royere, and Memphis serving as gurus. This style—or confluence of styles—was a response to the midcentury-inspired Airspace of the mid-2010s, and an example of the broader trend of greater self-expression through design.
“This design moment really allows an anything-goes attitude,” says Tariq Dixon, founder of TRNK. “It’s about embracing contrasts. It allows you, personally, and the space to evolve together in a way that a more singular design philosophy just doesn’t permit.”
Shapes have become rounder and more exaggerated. And some designers are reclaiming styles once debased as ugly—see Freakebana floral arrangements and Grandmillennial interiors.
As with Airspace, technology is behind this.
“You now have personalities who have come up and figured out how to make their own audiences,” Nicole Gibbons says. “The rise of influencers has lifted the hood off the design world and has given the average consumer more personalities, more media platforms to devour, and more people to look up to. The digital landscape has broadened, but become more fragmented.”
For designers who didn’t see their points of view reflected in whatever trends the few gatekeepers of the past sanctioned, the change has been good. Malene Barnett—an artist and founder of the Black Artists and Designers Guild—has noticed more receptiveness to different perspectives now compared to 2010.
“I think people are taking ownership of their space unapologetically,” Barnett says. Because she’s now able to build her own audience versus relying on gatekeepers, her creative practice has thrived. Clients come to her because of her point of view rather than hiring her to execute their ideas only. “I wanted to be the force of expression, the person interpreting the ideas, and the person making them as well.”
The radical Italian design group active in the 1980s was known for fighting the cult of “good taste” promoted by the modernist establishment. They used raucous colors and patterns, dramatic geometric shapes, and lots of different materials—terrazzo being a signature, which appears in this recent Tribeca kitchen renovation. Memphis’s revival hit high-end design around 2015, but it became more mainstream during the latter part of the decade thanks to exhibitions, new books, and emerging designers embracing the style. While this trend burned bright for a couple of years, it’s now run its course.
While design from the early and mid 2010s pulled from modernism, the late 2010s have progressed into postmodernism, which embraced eclecticism, historicism, and plurality. Brands are translating eclecticism through collections that include hand-worn finishes, natural and artificial materials, and global references. “Consumers are looking for more elevated, unique designs today,” says Ryan Turf, president of CB2. “It’s about people expressing personalities, and maximalism is how people really live. People don’t live in austere spaces; they want soul and warmth. The term ‘modern’ used to be defined in one way, but we believe it’s about the mix.”
The direct-to-consumer business model pioneered by Warby Parker began to enter the home and interior design space in the mid-2010s—Casper was founded in 2014—and went full steam ahead in 2018 with numerous cookware, tableware, paint, bed linen, and houseplant companies adopting similar strategies and aesthetics. While the products themselves aren’t new, the digital-first experience and branding around them are.
“Good product isn’t enough,” Gibbons says. “There are plenty of places to buy a sofa. At the end of the day the company that’s going to win the sofa war is going to deliver a better experience and make shopping delightful.”
2020 AND BEYOND
On the eve of 2020, there’s one movement—I refuse to call it a trend—that’s impossible to ignore: environmentalism. In 2019, we watched catastrophic fires in the Amazon. We saw extreme flooding in the Midwest. We heard the United Nations warn about unprecedented declines in biodiversity. We saw Greta Thunberg sail across the Atlantic to protest climate change alongside millions of teens and eventually become Time’s person of the year.
The design world responded, too, through a number of exhibitions and installations that provoked introspection about designers’ role in the crisis and how they might fix their mistakes. What do you do when your industry is responsible for creating so much stuff? As the Design in Turbulent Times graduate show at Central Saint Martin’s—a top design school in London—showed, this might mean working with bio materials, finding alternatives to plastic, designing for longevity, or creating products from waste. With any luck, the next decade will mainstream these ideas.