Interior Design Chair Alfonso Torino: The Importance of History and Culture in Modern Day Design

It is essential that interior design students know about culture and history of place and people as well as the architecture itself. They should know the variety of world cultures and be able to apply this knowledge at the various phases of a design project. Interior designers should understand history and geography and have some confidence in their knowledge of the people and relevant area's culture. This knowledge will clearly help in the development of design concepts, as well as in historic restorations and rehabilitations. Understanding diverse cultures will also help the designer understand our contemporary ethnic diversity, a reality on which we shall dwell and prosper.

The importance of culture and history in your school years!

In 21st century interior design, culture and history play a very important role. There are infinite variables to keep under control when attempting to tackle a design project. It has come to my attention over the many years of teaching and practicing architecture and interior design, that students entering the design world by trying to obtain an A.A.S. degree or a Bachelor’s degree have this unexplainable impression that the history classes they are forced to take are a waste of their time—that they will probably never apply the knowledge learned in those classes ever again in their “real life” experiences. Well…with respect to the importance of culture and history courses, the exact opposite is true.

Interior design is taking a large role in the architectural world. Technical and creative qualities of designers are allowing them to take an important role in design firms as well as in the corporate world. By covering aspects of design that are rarely even seen in projects given in architectural schools, interior design schools are getting harder and more demanding in preparing their students for the profession.

After a few years of studying design, you realize that a successful residential or commercial design project lays its foundation in a strong Design Concept; yes…. that stressful concept that every student dreads to develop and desperately tries to avoid as much as possible. Students can’t wait to begin drawing plans and elevations that will have absolutely no sense or meaning without a concept. These schemes come out of nowhere; they only express some subjective decision without the necessary elements required to begin the famous creative brainstorming phase. This foundation should include, analyzing the scope of the work, the existing conditions, the client’s objective and the overall problem at the base of the project. It is therefore necessary to come up with an inspiration that will lead eventually into the overall generating force that will guide your decision making

throughout the project. This overall guiding theme is the famous Design Concept that no project can do without.

How your background can help shape your future

I grew up in Italy where you are naturally surrounded by history and culture. This country is composed of 20 regions, each with their own language, history, geography, and culinary traditions— which are all very distinct from one another. This diversity has always been a substantial component in my design experience. Being surrounded by this cultural experience makes one naturally become inquisitive about the architectural environment that clearly influences humans in their ways of going thru life. These cultural and historical aspects will naturally allow you to develop a critical way to analyze and creatively find solutions to problems that confront us in our daily lives.

Society expresses its character through social, religious, political, and economical aspects. Architecture, in my opinion, should clearly express in a structural form all aspects listed above. One of the most important components of this profession is the capability of being able to approach every project with a critical eye and being able to analyze all variables of the project that need to be understood in order to creatively come up with the ideal solution to the problem. The key is to find the inspiration connected to the problem. This will determine the Design Concept that will guide the decision making throughout.

Starting out in my career, I was able to get my biggest commission thanks to the Cultural and Historical bullet points listed in my CV. I renovated an historical building outside of Rome, in a town named Frascati which is located on the hills to the south of the “Eternal City.” This area was mainly used by the Romans as their summer retreat, since the temperature in the summer months is always much cooler than in Rome.

The scope of this assignment was basically handling 30,000 square meters of interior design. We transformed this monastery into a five-star hotel, restaurant, and conference center. This building has been through many phases of design and construction, starting in 1578 by Cardinal Alessandro Rufini, the derivation of its original name “Villa Rufinella”. Up until 1740, the villa went through the hands of many occupants and owners, amongst them cardinals, popes, and nobleman of the era. The Jesuits purchased it from the Sacchetti family and commissioned the famous architect Luigi Vanvitelli to handle the design and construction of the project. Vanvitelli’s famous façade design is still visible today.

The building continued to pass from owners to owners over the years. All of them created small changes to both the inside and the surrounding landscape. In 1966 the Salesians, the last family owner, began a major renovation to the building due to the severe damage caused by WW II bombing. The result of this last renovation was the existing conditions that I found in 1995 when the new owners (a group of local entrepreneurs) decided to renovate the building again. The major task at this time was to be able to make the structure economically independent and prosperous. The new owners needed a designer who understood the original architecture of the building, as well as the historical periods of the various renovations. They wanted to restore and rehabilitate the building, taking into

consideration the diverse styles of design throughout the years. Not an easy task for the common cultureless interior designer of our contemporary world.

I needed to combine the periods of cultural history, from the Renaissance to the Baroque and Rococo. Highlighting all of its original design features and splendor was not to be underestimated. Who would have ever thought that my love and passion for this subject would have paid off in the long run? It did. I never would have thought so, but it did.

The relevance of history, art, and culture

It’s critical to mention some of the reasons students don’t feel that studying history, art, and culture are important to their professional development. Out of the thousands of students that I have come across, the overwhelming majority think such studying history is a waste of their time and that these subjects have little or no relevance to interior designers.

I believe that studying history, art, and culture teaches a student how to live a better life by being more aware of the social and civil aspects of society. This allows our minds to practice a more critical sense and free judgment of our architectural environment as well as our social and political structure.

I have also observed over the many years of teaching historical, creative, and artistic subjects, that they improve focus and cognitive functions in students. This is sometimes hard to prove, but the argument is based on years of observation and teaching. It’s a simple concept:

History allows us to understand our origins. The first true activity that distinguished man from animals is, in fact, ART. Drawings originated before writings. This was the first visual communication that man used. Freehand drawing, like children do from the very early years of their life, is the oldest form of drawing done by man. Since pre-historic times, art is therefore integral in human nature.

Culture and history also allow students to socialize better and overcome diversities. This creativity will help global integration as it uses a universal language. It could be seen almost as therapeutic, permitting us to overcome communication barriers and helping one feel capable of applying a creative approach to life situations.

Be patient, and the benefits will become evident.

In conclusion, I would like to sum up the importance of culture and history for the interior designers:

1. Culture and history are the largest sources to initiate the research process and find inspirations that are ideal for the concept development. The world of culture encompasses many fields—ranging from music to art, from cinema to theatre, from poetry to literature, all of which can be seen in the various historical contexts. These cultural aspects of society

allow us to draw from an enormous pool of information when brainstorming and analyzing our projects in the very early stages.

2. Understanding the importance of the history of architecture allows us to critically reflect on where society has been, and how humankind has evolved throughout the years. Being able to analyze these aspects of humanity with respect to societies will clearly help you understand where we are today, and will critically allow you to come up with design concepts that will put us into where we should be in the future.

3. Knowing history and a variety of world cultures will allow you to relate better to clients of different ethnicities who offer projects related to their culture and backgrounds. Our contemporary history teaches us that the world has become smaller and people of different cultures are living in unique urban settings together. A designer cannot afford to be ignorant with respect to the various aspects of the ethnic groups populating our cities. The designer cannot be indifferent to the unique ethnic diversities.

4. Understanding history and geography allows you to develop the capability of critical analysis needed to embrace social issues related to design projects. This aspect immediately sets you apart from the average professional, allowing you to interact with your clients and peers on the same intellectual and psychological level. This knowledge will give you the edge in understanding and tackling all aspects of the project from its various perspectives.

5. Being able to include the knowledge of culture and history on your resume can open up many more job opportunities for both residential and commercial projects. This is especially true of residential renovations due to the fact that 75% of the homes in the United States that need work were all built in revival styles. History knowledge will qualify you better in addressing these projects. In commercial designs there is always a multicultural aspect somewhere within the project variables. Being able to address these aspects qualifies you immediately in the eyes of the commissioners.

I feel very passionate about this topic and extremely convinced of my thesis. My responsibility as a design educator is to make my students the best design professionals they can be by helping them maximize their potential for expression. This entails hard work, dedication, and continuous growth in school and especially out of school. For too many years now I’ve been trying to communicate to design students the importance of culture and history for their professional growth. I can clearly say after working in the architectural world for more than 30 years and being an educator for 25 years that designers who were able to achieve a good level of success all the “culture and history” card in their portfolios. The ones that either dropped out of the design world or pursued a very mediocre career had little to no culture and history knowledge at all. So, don’t underestimate the importance of culture and history in your school years!

The views and/or opinions in this article are those of the individuals interviewed. The academic achievements and/or employment outcomes described in this article are specific to each individual and are not a guarantee of similar results for past or current students. For up-to-date and detailed information, please visit and view our catalogs at