10 Countries That Will Inspire & Boost Your Skills
I’ve been fortunate to travel the globe for work and pleasure, to countries as local as France or as unfrequented as Afghanistan. In each I’ve admired how traditional and contemporary interior design emphasises and encourages local lifestyles. Distinct national styles evolve, and the countries below may inspire your own decorative scheme.
The Japanese are masters of design, with incredible attention to detail in their homes. Japanese interiors evoke order, minimalism, zen and miniaturisation, in a mountainous country where only 25% of the land can be built upon to house 130 million people, 90% of whom live in cities. Small is beautiful in the land of the rising sun - think bonsai! These design approaches arise from a formal, ritual-filled society, where high-tech modernity rubs shoulders with ancient tradition.
Sliding shoji screens; futon beds; clean lines and clever use of space; ukiyo-e woodblock prints; lacquered furniture; modernism; natural materials (wood, bamboo) and imagery; open-plan living and multi-functional rooms; neutral, nature-inspired colour palettes.
I’m obsessed with Majorelle Blue, the vibrant, deep colour synonymous with Jacques Majorelle’s garden oasis in Marrakesh. Morocco combines elegant Islamic shapes with ancient Berber culture and wild landscapes. It is a country recalled in starry patterns thrown around a room by the cut metal and coloured glass of their traditional lanterns. Moroccan style is exotic and luxurious, combining bright, hot colours with the cool respite of riad courtyards set around sahridj (pools or fountains). Plain building frontages belie the highly decorative and ornamental interiors within, conforming to the family-focused privacy of Islamic culture.
Colourful patterned kilim rugs; soft round leather pouffes; arches and keyhole shapes to architecture and furniture; coloured tadelakt plaster walls and surfaces; intricately carved and cut dark wood screens; intensely coloured zelige tiles in mosaics; geometric and nature designs.
I’m choosing Norway as I recently visited, but other Scandinavian countries can substitute. This region gave us hygge – when cold nights lengthen, Norwegians light candles, gather friends around dinner tables to snuggle up in woollen blankets and soft cushions for old-fashioned conversation. Scandinavia is also synonymous with iconic furniture design – and I’m not talking Ikea! Wooden homes (with exteriors often painted blood red or deep blue) and the furniture within embrace form and function, in open spaces which encourage easy living. Soothing colour palettes echo the pale Northern light and natural beauty.
White wooden floors and tongue-and-groove walls; graceful curves and muted paint of Gustavian furniture; high-design mid-century chairs by Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Nanna Ditzel, Finn Juhl and many others; log-burners; bold floral designs of cult Finnish designers Marimekko; geometric stars and roses in traditional knitting (see The Killing’s Sarah Lund!)
As a Brit I’m obliged to extol the design credentials of my fair islands! British design is rooted in architectural history spanning thatched cottages, Palladian mansions, crescents of Georgian townhouses and rows of Victorian terraces. Heritage brands including Colefax & Fowler, Farrow & Ball and Liberty are synonymous with British style. Like our Northern European neighbours, we embrace cosiness and comfort, but inject this with quintessential quirkiness. Mismatched chairs and junk-shop finds feature in every British interiors magazine, but then we chuck in a high-design piece (and don’t boast about it – that’s very un-British).
William Morris’s patterns of the Arts & Crafts movement; tweed textiles; thugs and tramps on Timorous Beastie’s London Toile; Victorian encaustic tiled hallways; butler sinks and Aga stoves; Scottish tartan and Welsh blankets; eccentric cushions in otherwise understated rooms.
Fiery, passionate - and dangerous. Mexicans live ‘la vida’ large and loud, with no apologies and buckets of ardour. They embrace life and death equally: Mexico has one of the highest crime rates in the world, yet parties hard on the Day of the Dead. Their proud artistic and cultural history starts with the Aztecs and Maya and includes the strong floral and rural scenes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Deeply pigmented colours carry traditional symbolic significance.
Fabric hammocks slung indoors and out; decorated skulls; bold primary and secondary colours, often clashing with abandon; decorative and cooling tiled floors and walls; intricately woven textiles with indigenous zig-zag, animal and flora designs; burnt sienna and ochre; masses of big flowers.
The tumultuous past of this melting pot of northern and southern peoples is evident in their art and culture. Political murals abound in South Africa. Identity is important, seen in the intricate Zulu beadwork in which patterns define rank and status. Bold modern homes contrast graceful Dutch Colonial architecture and vividly painted Ndebele houses. Add to this striking landscapes of surf-battered coast, flower-strewn plains, glorious mountains and fauna-filled deserts and the Rainbow Nation provides a stunningly inspirational feast.
Astonishing patterns of zebra, leopard and giraffe; surf boards and shells; twisted kudu antlers and skulls; large architectural plants; stone and concrete.
Such a vast country provides diverse inspiration. America has frontier spirit and awe-inspiring landscapes, alongside iconic fast-paced cities of brash colour and movement. America gave us Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘organic architecture’ (The Guggenheim and more), and interior style continues to be bedded in nature and place. There are so many styles – laid-back Cape Cod, the antebellum grandeur of the Deep South, ranch and Sante Fe raw materials, New York loft living to name a few.
Gleaming silver Airstream trailers; 1950’s advertising images and Americana; Miami flamingo kitsch; plantation shutters; exposed stone walls; neon signs; patchwork prairie quilts.
Think of French style and couture fashion comes to mind, the elegance and ‘je ne sais quoi’. But seemingly effortless style is based on tested rules, and French interior styles similarly adhere to convention. There is less experimentation in France than some other countries. But then, who needs experimentation when you’ve nailed style? French properties are iconic – grand chateau, rustic gites, 19th century Parisian apartments, terracotta-roofed Provencal village houses. At their heart is understated luxury: it doesn’t scream ‘look at me’ – but you do.
Parquet wood or terracotta tile floors; ornate mouldings and decorative fire surrounds; vivid Van Gogh colours on walls and furniture; chaise longue and chandeliers; lavender bushes; striped silk or linen fabric; elegant Philippe Stark chairs.
Vietnam’s French colonial past remains in tall terraced buildings along tree-lined avenues in Hanoi. But in rural areas, traditional stone or wooden properties with elegantly curved and decorated tile roofs predominate. Vietnamese interiors evoke dark woods and lacquer, fine silks and painted furniture. The lush, mountainous, steamy landscapes are captured in vivid accessories and intricate carvings. Whilst the parts may be ornate, the sum is a serene and elegant style. Vietnam is perfectly summarised to me by the ao dai dress – often boldly coloured and embellished, yet beautifully simplistic.
Faded, peeling warm-coloured plaster; rusted wrought ironwork; red paper lanterns; dragon and mountain motifs; bamboo; colourful embroidered Flower Hmong trim; silk cushions.
If my examples demonstrate one thing it’s that interior style has a sense of place – natural and artisanal, rural and urban. Exploring, understanding and honouring your country’s design and architectural heritage will result in authentic and integrated interiors. Incorporate elements of the local landscape and you ground the scheme even more solidly.
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Offers inspiration, practical guidance and considerations around the wonderful world of interiors and homes.