Classical design has been around since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Yet classical design still influences architecture in the modern day.
Just what is it that makes this style perennially relevant?
In this guide, we’ll show you how to recognize classical design elements in exteriors and interiors. We’ll also break down why this design style has appealed to so many people in both ancient and modern days.
Let’s take a look at how classical design has lasted through the years, and some of its major features.
History of Classical Design
Many elements of classical design are instantly recognizable: think columns, statues, and domes. This style is everywhere from government buildings to churches to houses.
Classical architecture pays homage to the ancient Greek and Roman days, although also influenced by more recent revivals. There are many different styles that fall under the “classical” umbrella, but some specific elements recognizable in all its different forms.
Ancient Rome and Greece
After the Roman empire collapsed, their architectural styles became largely forgotten for centuries. However, many of their buildings survived. Even today, you can go see the Colosseum in Rome or the Erechtheion temple in Athens.
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As these buildings survived, so did their beauty. Architects revisited classical design as early as the 8th century. The Carolingian Renaissance of northern Europe brought back certain elements like columns.
During the better-known European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries, many people looked to ancient Greece and Rome for arts and cultural inspiration. They studied surviving buildings at the time, as well as the text “De Architectura” by Vitruvius, an architect of ancient Rome.
Many buildings built in Europe during and after the Renaissance were in the classical style. And the style was revived yet again in just a matter of centuries.
In the mid-18th century, neoclassical design became the next interpretation of classical style.
This design hailed back both to the work of Vitruvius and ancient Rome and Greece, and to the classical buildings of the Renaissance.
Many people believed there was something to be gained by returning to the long-admired art forms of past societies. They were right. Gorgeous, artistic neoclassical buildings offered a relief from the previously popular decadent, curvaceous Rococo designs.
During this period, classical elements were added not just to building exteriors, but to interiors as well. New discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum (ancient towns that were destroyed by volcanoes) shed light on how classical interiors had really looked. From motifs and statues to colors and furniture, the ancient classical world appeared in many ways.
Classical design even influenced urban planning in the 18th and 19th centuries. The simple yet effective grid system used in ancient Roman cities created the bones of early planned cities, including Washington D.C.
Neo Classical Design
Today, “neo classical design” refers to modern buildings that use classical design principles.
Many other design trends have come and gone. From Art Deco to modernist styles, architects have plenty to draw inspiration from. Yet classically-inspired buildings are still built in many countries today.
Although more elaborate styles occasionally rise in popularity, people eventually get tired of ornate designs, just as with Rococo. However, the simple beauty seen in classical design is truly never out of style. And for those who find modernist styles too simple or dull, classical design offers just enough visual interest without being over-the-top.
In fact, some of the most influential modern architects have used classical elements to critique overly-sterile modernist looks. Classical design is not a strict set of rules in the modern world, but a place to pull inspiration from.
Whether it’s a literal reference to ancient buildings, or merged with newer elements to create a unique look, classical design is here to stay. Now, let’s take a look at some of the exterior elements that make classical design so recognizable.
One of the things you’ll notice first about many classical buildings is the use of symmetry and proportion to create visual balance.
The Gothic Chapel, Peterhof. In a departure from his popular Prussian Greek Revival designs, Karl friedrich Schinkel designed this church for Tsar Nicholas I in 1829. From the time the church was completed and consecrated in 1834 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, this building served as the private Romanov family chapel. Heavily vandalized during the Revolution and WWII, the building and its interiors were restored in 1998. In 2006 a reburial of Empress Maria Fyorodovna occurred in the building, which had served as her home church.
Humans crave symmetry. Many studies have shown that facial symmetry is a major feature in human attraction, although scientists aren’t quite sure why.
Classical design picks up on our symmetrical inclinations. Geometry and proportion were emphasized in the words of the Roman architect Vitruvius, and is seen in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian architectural orders of ancient Greece too.
Not all materials lend themselves well to classical design. For example, it’s usually difficult creating a beautiful, sleek column out of bricks.
Historically, stone was the material of choice for classical building construction. Ancient Greeks first adopted stone as a building material when they saw it used in Egypt. Had this never happened, they would likely have continued building with wood, and no examples of their ancient buildings would have survived into the modern day.
Today, new classical architecture is often made using faux stone or concrete. These materials can give a beautiful appearance with no need for gaudy paint.
Columns are perhaps the best-known classical design element. Looking at the columns is also the fastest way to recognize each ancient architectural order.
Architectural orders (Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian from Greece, plus Tuscan and Composite from Rome) are to ancient buildings what grammar is to writing. These sets of principles were created to help design buildings that were both structurally sound and beautiful.
Each order has its own column style. For example, Ionic columns have scrollwork at the ends, while Tuscan columns are very simple, without ornamentation.
Of course, newer interpretations don’t always follow these strict sets of rules. However, columns still give an attractive, inviting appeal to exteriors, adding visual interest without being too overwhelming.
The beautiful fanlight doorway of the Samuel Barker House, a 'brick ender' in Newport. It underwent several modifications, with the original parts supposedly going back to 1714. I suspect the doorway is from the latter half of the 18th century as a more academic approach to classicism emerged in the city. Also, check out the boot scraper built into the metal railing. Members of the Thurston family owned it for about 100 years from 1720 until 1829 when it was sold to Samuel Barker. . . . #colonialarchitecture #clapboard #clapboardhouse #oldhouse #neoclassical #neoclassicalarchitecture #door #architecturelovers #newport #newportri #georgian #georgianarchitecture #samuelbarkerhouse
The arch is another one of the most-recognized aspects of classical design.
Arches are first known to have appeared in ancient Mesopotamian architecture. However, ancient Rome was the first place where arches were commonplace.
Arches serve a practical purpose, as well as being visually pleasing. They use compression to remove tensile stress, allowing buildings to have open areas without collapsing.
Arches are especially important in buildings made of stone or concrete. These materials tend to be resistant to compression, but not as strong under tensile stress, so an arch is a great way to use these building materials more effectively.
Many of America’s most famous government buildings use classical design elements such as the dome. One of the most famous is the United States Capitol Dome, with a design inspired by the Roman Pantheon.
Vitruvius and other ancient architects believed natural elements should inspire buildings. Domes took the beautiful symmetry often seen in nature (think of round fruit or a bubble on the surface of a pond) and applied it to architecture.
Today, domes often represent stately and official, widely used in government buildings and churches. Domes are also incredibly strong. They use the same principle as the arch to create strength and stability.
If you’ve ever seen a free-standing row of columns that form a covered or open part of a building, that’s a colonnade.
Today, these are still a popular way to marry the indoors and outdoors in a building. The columns around Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial form one of the best-known colonnades in the modern world.
Ornamentation is a way to add beauty to a building while tying everything together.
In the ancient world, the ornamentation on buildings was symbolic – and this can still apply to new classical design.
From the scroll designs on Ionic columns to patterns that tell a story, ornamentation adds detail to a building without going over the top. Today, classical ornamentation is sometimes used as a reaction to the strictly unornamented modernist designs, adding a fine-art element to building exteriors.
Classical/Neo-Classical Interior Design
Some classical interior designs draw from actual discoveries about ancient Greek and Roman interiors. Others simply draw inspiration from classical design features. Let’s see how those features translate to interior design.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans actually made use of many vibrant colors. Because surviving statues and buildings are in shades of white, grey, and beige, we’ve adopted those neutral tones as well. However, many historians believe that these statues boasted paint, bright colors that disappeared over time.
These colors, often inspired by nature, weren’t necessarily garish or artificial-looking. Historians have found that ancient Greeks and Romans used a wide range of colors, including reds, blues, greens, and purples.
Although classical exterior design tends toward the neutral, classical interior design done right is as colorful and vibrant as the ancient world was.
The use of light and shadow, or chiaroscuro, is a critical part of classical design.
Chiaroscuro is a technique developed in Renaissance-era oil painting. It’s also applied to interior design. This method uses a high contrast between light and dark colors to create an intense visual effect.
Well-known artists like da Vinci and Rembrandt used this technique, and so did architects and interior designers of the time. When elements like arches and ornamentation are brought into the interior and played up with lighting techniques, the chiaroscuro effect can give a dramatic, beautiful look to a room.
Moldings are a great way to bring classical ornamentation inside.
These strips go along the edges of floors or ceilings, adding a transition to the edge of a room, plus a bit of decoration. Classical moldings are sometimes simple but often have more elaborate ornamental designs.
The neoclassical interior designs of the 18th and 19th century brought a new focus to floors.
Classical floor design often involves a geometric pattern in color or black-and-white. These patterns draw from fine art, adding a glamorous touch to an interior.
Inlays, tile, and wood are a few materials which form neoclassical patterns on floors. Though using rugs with bold, elegant geometric patterns can yield the same effect.
Comprehensive neoclassical interior design that includes floors and ceilings go back to the Adam brothers of 18th century Scotland. Their design work strongly influenced neoclassical interiors.
They advocated for integrating the interior of a building with its architecture. On ceilings, their design style included patterns and even figurative scenes made with paint or plasterwork. Motifs from the ancient world, including urns, sphinxes, and scrolls, added a sense of authenticity.
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Doors and windows
Door and windows are another way exterior classical design elements you can bring indoors.
The same design elements seen on floors and ceilings appear on doors and windows. Ornamentation can appear on window treatments or doorframes, for example.
Colors that reference classical design look good repeated on doors or curtains. These are great places to add a touch of the bold colors used in classical times. And, without overwhelming the room with color.
“ISIS Bullet Hole Painting: Temple of Zeus” at the Miami Art Fair on the stand of Thomas Jaeckel Gallery until the end of tomorrow. During the Ottoman Empire, German archaeologists bought the remnants of the Temple of Zeus from the site of theancient city of Pergamon in Modern day Turkey, and re assembled the pieces on Museum Island in Berlin. This work is a fragment of the larger reconstructed Frieze, punctured with cast ISIS bullet damage, moulded in front line villages with the help of the Peshmerga and PUK in Iraq in 2015. #ISISBulletHolesPaintings #isis #pergamon #turkey #iraq #iraqikurdistan #miamiartfair #artmiami #532thomasjaeckel #thomasjaeckelgallery #painting #sculpture #ancientart #reliefsculpture #wmf #worldmonumentsfund #isisbulletholepainting #pierssecunda #reliefsculpture #sculpture #painting #britishart #britishartist #ancientart #spacestudios #contemporaryart #nycart #thomasjaeckel #532gallerythomasjaeckel #nadinejohnson #nadinejohnsonpr
Relief sculpture creates a three-dimensional image attached to a solid surface.
Present on many classical exteriors, you will also find it in classical interior design. A wall relief can tell a story, or even use abstract elements to create a pattern.
Relief sculptures integrate art with the interior of a building. This is another way classical design has merged fine art with practical concerns. Since these sculptures can go directly onto a wall they have no need no free-standing space of their own.
Why Classical Design Lives On
Classical design made ancient Greek and Roman civilizations remarkable. They combined geometry and technology to create buildings that would survive for millennia.
Their buildings withstood the test of time, and so did the beauty of their classical design principles. Classical design strikes the perfect balance between simple and elaborate. It provides a visual break from both too-fancy and too-basic architecture. From the ancient day to the modern world, this design style has inspired countless generations.
What are your favorite classical design elements? Leave a comment and let us know!
Featured image: CC by 0, via Pixhere