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Early American Design Style

Updated on November 17, 2011

The Early American design style is rooted in the independent spirit of the first colonists; they were inspired by the natural materials in their new environment and the traditions of the countries from which they came. The style now known as Early American is a collective of interior fashions with international roots.

European Influences
From the simply carved bench to the upholstered wingback chair, Early American decor has, and still does, include a multitude of styles. Influenced by English design, Jacobean furniture is large in scale with rounded corners and layered carving. The Shaker influence inspires simple, clean lines and minimal carving. The French bring a rustic appeal with what is now called French Country; the influence is seen in the country blue so often identified with Early American style. Even the Scandinavians from the northern regions of Europe helped shape the design, adding painted chests and chair backs to the style.

Brick fireplace surrounds are characteristic of Early American interior design
Brick fireplace surrounds are characteristic of Early American interior design | Source

Natural Materials
Man-made materials, such as plastic or resin, weren't available when settlers first came to America. Homes and public buildings were constructed from local woods and stone. This use of natural materials also influenced the interiors. Furniture was carved from local woods, fabric woven from raw materials such as cotton and wool, and pottery made from earthen materials such as clay and pewter.

To affect a contemporary Early American style, use cotton, linen and wool fabrics for window treatments, bed linens, rugs and upholstery. Ladderback and slat back chairs and benches carved from woods found locally add authenticity to the Early American design scheme as does stone flooring and stone or brick fireplace surrounds.

Color Schemes
Early settlers didn't have the advantage of going to the local hardware store for a can of paint, but they did bring color into their homes. Dyed fabrics for curtains and brightly colored quilts for beds added charm and were, of course, of practical use. As America became a more advanced civilization, the ability to expand on design grew proportionately.

As early as the 18th century, homeowners painted their wood trim in pale colors that coordinated with the lighter colors of plaster walls. Wood planks were used in flooring and stained to resemble the dark rich color of oak or walnut or the paler shades of pine or maple. It was fabrics, though, that brought color into the home. Made from natural materials, fabrics were brightly colored; deep reds and blues, rich purples and sunny yellows in quilts, bed linens, upholstered chairs, couches and window treatments made the colonists' homes cheery and aesthetically pleasing.

For a contemporary take on the Early American design style, add a "plaster" faux finish to the walls in a neutral shade, and install wide plank hardwood flooring. Bring in fabrics in bold, bright colors with simple patterns such as check or stripes, balanced with solid colors and floral prints.

Pulling It All Together
With such diversity in influence and variation in style, one might think the Early American style vague or lacking in distinctive characteristics. On the contrary, the use of natural materials, the bold color scheme and the eclectic mix of styles makes the design uniquely American and easily recognized.

Hardwood floors and textured walls make for a solid background. Add painted or stained wood trim to complement the walls and visually define rooms and entrances. Four poster beds layered in quilts and ruffled pillow slips for the bedroom; wingback chairs and round back couches for the sitting room; and a wood table with slat-back chairs and benches for the dining room all define the Early American style. Add painted chests and side chairs to accent the assembled furniture.

Printed fabrics are used for upholstery and drapery. Quilts are hung on racks and used as wall art as well. Wooden bowls, clay pottery and pewter platters add to the charm of this style. Early American home furnishing and decor reflect the mixing and melding of many national styles, just as America represents the melding of many nations.


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    • Shelly McRae profile imageAUTHOR

      Shelly McRae 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thanks for stopping my, RTalloni. I think Early American is such a great design style, precisely because it's as much a melting pot as our own society. Lots of room for fun accessories.

    • RTalloni profile image


      6 years ago from the short journey

      The eclectic mix is indeed what makes the early American design style a treasure trove of interest! Thanks for a great overview of a fading theme. So glad to see it highlighted! Voted up.


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