Knowing Your Historical Design Styles
By Neil Blevins
Created On: May 24th 2021

Art History wasn't exactly my favorite class in University, I was horrible at memorizing dates. But it turns out that what I learned there was super important in my later life as a concept artist. Not only so that when the Art Director uses a term like "Baroque" I have some clue what they're talking about, but because I could take what I learned from art history and use it to define art styles for fictional universes, whether scifi or fantasy. This lesson will go over a couple of major artistic styles from our own history, showing how they define a specific look through their shape language, and then how you can use the knowledge of that look to invent your own for your own species, world or universe.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

If It Ain't Baroque...

So there have been countless design styles throughout human history, but there are several that come up pretty frequently, and define a look that can be applied all over your world. The examples I'll use are Baroque, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. These styles are applied to any number of items, from objects like chairs, sofas, and lamps, to architecture such as buildings, to even clothing and character items like jewelry.

So let's start with a chair!

The chair below is a Baroque chair. Baroque is a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries and is characterized by ornate detail.

Before we get into what makes the chair Baroque, let's look at some more examples.

Now that we've seen a number of pieces of Baroque furniture, we can start seeing the trend.

If I had to describe it in words, I'd say it's organic flowery detail. But despite the organic nature of it, it's also very symmetrical (notice the right and left side are always mirrors of each other). And it frequently shows up in gold, although not always as the black couch shows.

Baroque also appears in architecture, not just objects. Notice many of the same elements, the flowery 3d dimensional details on the top of the columns. And how symmetrical everything is.

Many Styles

Now that we've boiled down the details that frequently define something as Baroque, let's go back to our chair example, and look at different chairs of different styles...

They're all chairs, but they look very different from each other.

The second chair is Art Deco, which is a more modern aesthetic that frequently has a streamlined feel, like you're going fast in a train or a plane. Notice how the 3 long swooping lines are the legs. They almost appear like racing stripes, or action lines in a cartoon. Other details also make up the Art Deco style, but for the sake of this lesson, let's just focus on this one aspect of Art Deco shape language.

The third chair is Art Nouveau. And while, like Baroque, it is also organic and flowery, it has a number of key differences. First off, while this chair is symmetrical, Art Nouveau is frequently far less symmetrical than Baroque. Second, instead of small little concentrated details in an area, the flowery elements are larger, more swooping and flowing. Almost like crazy flower stems. Also, since Art Nouveau is supposed to be connected with nature, you're far more likely to see natural wood as a material.

Here's some more examples of objects in these 3 styles.

And the styles certainly don't stop there. There's Arts And Crafts, Gothic, Brutalist, Rococo. And that's just a few of the western art styles. You have other countries and cultures from Africa to Asia, and each area themselves have dozens of sub styles to study. And after looking at enough examples, I bet you can pinpoint the attributes that define the look.

So Why Do I Need To Know This Stuff Anyways?

First, say you're about to work on a movie or a game, and the art director says "We're going for a baroque style". Now you may not be the expert in baroque architecture or furniture, but if you at least know the basics of what baroque looks like, you can immediately speak their language, and have something helpful to add to the conversation. And having something important to add to the conversation is how you become indispensable at your job. And of course, after you've had the discussions, you go back and do an even deeper dive into the design style through books and the internet.

The second situation is a mashup. It's quite common to take 1 or more styles and mix them together for a film or game. For example, maybe you're on a game and the director says that this world is going to be a mashup of scifi, Art Deco and Baroque. For example, Lynch's Dune film from the 80s has a lot of elements of Scifi, Baroque and Art Deco. So knowing these styles will give you an immediate picture in your head. You can use that knowledge to clarify the intentions of the art director, like saying "Would Lynch's Dune be a good example of the overall look we're going for". Knowing your styles helps you communicate more effectively and faster.

And third, sometimes you have to make up a style from scratch. And if you already have a good idea of how that happens in real life, how a few design attributes and how shape language can appear in everything from chairs to lamps to buildings, it's far easier to create something brand new. For example, one of my favorite examples is the dwarfs from the Lord Of The Rings films. The design motif and shape language for the dwarves were diamonds, triangles and angular gem shapes. Not only did those shapes represent the gems the dwarves mined from the ground, but it also represented their physical bodies, they were short, wide, stout, and immovable from the ground (like the pyramids with their solid triangular base). Knocking a dwarf off their feet is tough, and so are these shapes.

And just look at all the ways they integrated that idea into the furniture, items and architecture of the dwarves...


So while I could do a long art lesson on each and every one of these art movements, my goal with this lesson was to give you a little taste, and to give you a method for analyzing art movements through history based on reoccurring shape themes. And that will help you not only work in those styles, but gives you an idea how to invent your own styles for a completely made up world.

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