| May 2, 2014 |
Amy Azzarito on history’s influence in design
Boh staff
By Staff

What do the Windsor chair, flocked wallpaper, the color indigo, and Native American motifs have in common? They’re design trends rooted in history, each with a fascinating backstory. Design*Sponge writer and author of “Past & Present” Amy Azzarito looked closely at the historical timeline of design when she shared her research last week in a lecture at New York School of Interior Design (NYSID).

“We all want our homes and clients’ homes to tell the story of our lives, but it is equally important to understand the greater story of why these things are in our homes,” said Azzarito. From timeless Windsor chairs and Native American prints to popular colors such as black and indigo, Azzarito guided designers through the historic movements that inspire trends today.

Windsor chairs are a timeless furniture piece that were first used in the Windsor Castle garden in 18th century England and became popular in America during the time of the Revolutionary War. The middle piece in the back of the chair, known as the splat, defines the difference between the English and American versions. Ranging from fan-back to bow-back to brace-back, Windsor chairs are available at popular retail stores such as Crate & Barrel and West Elm.

Design*Sponge offices with flock-inspired wallpaper shown on the left

Azzarito is particularly fond of the history of wallpaper that is flocked, a term used to describe a powdered wool that was the waste product of the wool and cloth industry in England. A less expensive alternative to cut velvet wall hangings, flocked wallpaper became extremely prevalent during the 18th century when Madame Pompadour used it in her Versailles apartments.

The flocking process required painting a background color onto a paper canvas, stenciling a design and then applying a slow drying adhesive to scatter the flock over. Azzarito personally attempted designing flocked wallpaper with a flocking kit available by Martha Stewart.

Color trends are constantly changing, but the ever-popular indigo is a color rich with history and seen as early as 1330 B.C. In Egypt the color was revered and was the predominant color of King Tut’s funerary wardrobe. It is an extremely colorfast, plant-based dye found most commonly in the Middle East.

Indigo continues to be a common color in design as seen in the shared examples from Azzarito. Nightwood, a small Brooklyn-based furniture, textiles and interiors outfit specializing in handmade furniture and textiles, designs stunning indigo dyed furniture pieces. Also, Brooklyn-based designer Rebecca Atwood creates hand-dyed indigo pillows.

Indigo is not the only color trending, however. Black is seen everywhere today and it was back in the early Renaissance when it came into fashion. At the time, extremely wealthy merchants were unable to enter the noble class and were forbidden the use of certain colors, such as the peacock blues of Florence, even though they could afford it. To get around these laws, the merchants obtained the best quality of black dye they could afford.

To obtain a genuine black color, dyers used an oak apple—a small spherical growth found on the leaves of certain oak trees. The best oak apples came from Eastern Europe, the Near East or Africa. Because the apples had to be imported into Italy and the dye was extremely expensive to produce, black became a symbol of virtue and authority.

Another trend that Azzarito continues to see is Native American inspired designs. “I keep thinking that this trend is over, but it just keeps popping up. People just love geometrics and I still see it everywhere,” she said. The patterns were first seen in the blankets designed by Europeans and the British in the 17th and 18th centuries. The blankets, currently known as Hudson’s Bay blankets, were created for trade with Native Americans. Over time the look of the blankets evolved into joined by blankets that utilized geometric patterns and motifs popular among the Native American tribes.

To demonstrate how to use historical inspiration, Azzarito asked RISD graduate and jewelry designer Caitlin Mociun to design something from the Native American prints. Instead of cutting up a blanket to reproduce a tote or similar product, Mocuin designed napkin rings.

“That is what I think is really valuable—incorporating design history into your work in any way you can,” Azzarito concluded. “Whether that’s putting a Windsor chair back into a garden or incorporating Windsor chairs into a home of a client who has British ancestry as a subtle hint to that. I think that is where design history becomes interesting.”

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