Colonial Architecture & Interior Design - Explained

Decoration and Design
Additions and Remodels
By Contractors.com Team August 03, 2021

The history of the United States and many aspects of our culture are rooted in colonialism. Architecture and design are among the most pleasant examples of colonial influence. To this day you will find plenty of houses built using its well-known design features, aesthetics, and stylizations, which were used centuries ago by European settlers and many of the first citizens of this country. 

Since the United States has not been a colony for centuries, its architectural roots are planted firmly in the design styles that were instilled by the European colonists. Colonial architecture and design are quite varied and there are a lot of subtypes you can come across. This is because, and as you may remember from history class, North America was colonized by a large number of empires, most notably the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Hence, when you say “colonial design and architecture”, it’s worth specifying which one you’re referring to.

The design variations are all quite different, especially considering how they were built in varied biomes, using different materials available, and under diverse circumstances. There is a lot to unpack when it comes to Colonial home design.

Origins of Colonial Architecture and Design

How Colonial Architecture and Design Came to Be

How Colonial Architecture and Design Came to Be

In the beginning of the 17th century, a group of Pilgrim settlers made their way from Europe to the shores of, what is today, Massachusetts, where they created the first colonial settlement in North America. One could say that this is where colonial architecture and design began — with the arrival of the very first settlers. Since then, as the British hold over New England and other parts of the continent grew, British Colonial design dominated the original 13 colonies.

The British Empire was not alone in its colonization of various corners of North America. The French, Spanish, and Dutch also had colonies all across the world, including many territories currently in the United States. So, distinctions between Dutch Colonial homes and those of Spanish, French, British, or German influence do exist and are noticeable.

British Colonial designs in the northern colonies, such as New England or Cape Cod, vary quite a bit from those found deeper in the south, such as in the Carolinas or Georgia. Since the climate is different, as are the materials that are available in those areas, the realization of the style ended up being a bit different. You will find that Cape Cod and New England houses stayed true to the motifs of the original British Colonial design, as they favored practicality and utilitarian design over ornamentation and regality. The further south you go, the more that sentiment is reversed. Since the climate down south is warmer, it wasn’t as pertinent to be economical with the construction materials such as wood, natural stone, brick, and iron.

So southern states had more freedom to focus on stylization and design aspects of their homes since the weather was not as much of a limitation for them. For example, French Colonial homes often featured ornate wooden window cases, more complex roof designs, and grand balconies, which made use of wrought iron railings. On the interior French Colonial also featured elegant trim and other accents, which the British Colonial avoided in order to conserve the construction materials.

Although Colonial has many sister realizations of the style, we can pinpoint which one dominates the scene. While there is no doubt that the melting pot that is the US has brought together styles from all corners of the globe throughout the centuries, the biggest influence on American Colonial design is accredited to the British. Whenever we talk about American Colonial design, we really mean British Colonial design. And while French, Spanish, Dutch, as well as many others that came later, such as Russian, Polish, and Scandinavian, have influenced the architecture of this country, the roots of American Colonial architecture lie with the British Empire.

How to Recognize Colonial Design

Cozy Colonial Style Bedroom Designs

Cozy Colonial Style Bedroom Designs

There are some distinct architectural and interior design features that can help you recognize the American Colonial style. One commonality among the exterior and interior features of colonial homes is simpler design elements and symmetry. These more subtle design elements make sense since the colonists were more interested in being economical with their resources and did not put as much emphasis on intricacy and nuance.

Bright Interiors

How to Brighten Up Old-School Interiors

How to Brighten Up Old-School Interiors

We are lucky to live in an era where lighting up a room is effortless. Even rooms with a dark and moody color scheme can be easily brightened up with a few well-placed light fixtures and decor contrast. But back in the day, when the only lighting you had access to were candles and oil lanterns, you had to make the most of it. Painting the walls white was the intuitive way to go.

White walls diffuse light very well, which means that even with a little bit of natural light coming through the windows or the limited glow of candles, you could keep your interior pretty bright. Colonial design also makes use of bright interiors to keep everything easy on the eyes. This is an inherent feature of most American Colonial homes out there and is one way that the design differentiates itself from other modern interiors.

Exterior Ornamentation and Symmetry

The Beauty and Benefits of Symmetry In Architecture

The Beauty and Benefits of Symmetry In Architecture

What gives the Colonial style home its unique and immediately identifiable appearance is its safe predictability. While Colonial homes may not be as grandiose as Gothic or Victorian-era homes, they are uniquely their own and can be easily distinguished from other styles of the era. Typically kept plain with minimal decor and ornamentation, American Colonial exteriors are famous for their simplicity, which gives them a subtle charm.

Colonial exteriors are also symmetrical, opting for a more two-floor box-like appearance with a simple gable roof, and a few windows perfectly aligned to give the exterior a clean appearance.  This is a huge departure from the more complicated designs you would find in Europe and it speaks to the practicality with which the settlers had to work. American architecture began to take more complex appearances a century after the US independence with the Gothic Revival of the early 19th century, the Greek Revival in the mid 19th century, and then, later on, art deco, transitional, and mid-century modern. But without a doubt, you can still find plenty of homes and buildings that were clearly influenced by Colonial architecture. 

Compare the exterior of British and French Colonial architecture if you want to see what simple exteriors mean. The exterior of a French Colonial is ornate with tons of regal details, from complex window cases to balconies, multileveled roofs, entrance roofs with beautiful engravings, and balcony railings that make the houses look like small palaces. British Colonial homes are a lot more subdued in comparison, as they lack the structural complexity and feature significantly fewer exterior design elements. In fact, many British Colonials don’t even have balconies to begin with. 

A Dash of Classical Revival

How to Implement Classical Features Into Your Home

How to Implement Classical Features Into Your Home

While Colonial houses are simple in terms of decoration, this does not mean they are not allowed to have a bit of lavishness. Many Colonial homes have a dash of classical revival elements that take just another simple and plain home and add a touch of grandeur.

The White House is a perfect example of the marriage between the simplicity of Colonial architecture and the grand ornamentation of classical revival. While it does adhere to the design aspects of Colonial architecture, such as the plain exterior and a small color palette, it does also include big columns, ornate window cases, luxury upholsteries, and entry roofs one would expect to see from a classical revival. 

Very Wooden Interiors

Wood Accents for Colonial Interiors

Wood Accents for Colonial Interiors

Colonial interior design is a product of its time and at that time wood was one of the most widely utilized construction materials. Even retrofitted and renovated Colonial buildings will still have plenty of rich wooden surfaces in most of the rooms. 

Paired with natural stone and brick, wood can be found in all Colonial style homes and is a prominent element in the design, both in terms of construction and style. Homey, solid, stoic, and inviting all at the same time.

How to Bring Colonial Architecture and Design Into Your Home

There is so much about the classic and simple character of Colonial design that lends it the flexibility and popularity it now enjoys as it’s used in current day interior design. If you’re thinking about adding a touch of Colonial to your home, there are some key elements you can highlight in your interior and exterior to make it happen.

Materials and Textiles

Materials You Can Accentuate Colonial Interiors With

Materials You Can Accentuate Colonial Interiors With

Textures and materials make up a large part of the interior style in Colonial Design. You will find that small accent pieces, such as pillows and curtains are the textures that will give your Colonial interior some much-needed personality. This is why textiles play such a huge role in Colonial interiors and are a must if you wish to create a more wholesome atmosphere that is both cozy and stylish.

Some common textile materials used in Colonial design include wool, cotton, linen, and fur. These are the period textures that evoke the feeling of being in Colonial times. However, you can still use materials that are not native to the area, such as silk and velvet. Pillows, sofa cushions, table cloths, blanks, curtains, and rugs are a great way to implement some cozy, but also luxurious, textures into your Colonial interior design. 

The Gabled Wall

How to Complement the Height of Your Home With the Siding

How to Complement the Height of Your Home With the Siding

Roofs can be a complicated ordeal, especially considering the many designs and materials they can employ. One design that is quite indicative of Colonial architecture is the gabled wall. This basically means that the siding of your house rises up to the peak where the two sides of the roof meet, instead of having the roof droop over the wall. 

If you are remodeling your second floor, consider speaking with a contractor to see if a gabled wall is possible for your home. It is a minor change but one that will get your house much closer to Colonial revival architecture and a taller look.

Stately Chimneys and Fireplaces

The Grand Place that Chimneys and Fireplaces Hold In a Colonial Home

The Grand Place that Chimneys and Fireplaces Hold In a Colonial Home

Fireplaces were an axial part of every home back when heating was not a button’s click away. As a result, fireplaces were quite large and big chimneys were another key feature of Colonial homes. If you are going for the authentic Colonial style of architecture, then emphasizing the chimney and fireplace is a great way of achieving this.

Even with an advanced HVAC system in place, able to heat up an entire home in no time. a modern colonial house could still make good use of a hardy fireplace, even if it is only for its charm.

Grand Entrance

Grand Entrance Lighting Ideas

Grand Entrance Lighting Ideas

If your front door opens up to a sweeping entrance with a big staircase, this is the perfect opportunity for you to implement more Colonial elements. You can start by introducing a chandelier that will take center stage as the most noticeable piece of interior decor upon entry. Another common feature of grand colonial entryways is handcrafted wooden furniture; round foyer tables or credenzas topped with an actual centerpiece arrangement would be perfect.

Also, consider opening up the door frame to make it bigger. Having a big entrance hall with a small door can look unappealing. If you have a big enough entryway to accommodate it, install a bigger door with clear panels to complement the grandeur of the room and bring in some natural light. 

Plenty of Wood

Balancing Wood With Other Textures In an Interior

Balancing Wood With Other Textures In an Interior

Hardwood floors, wooden furniture, and interior accents that utilize wood in different ways are all perfect for the Colonial interior. Wood was and is to this day one of the most widely utilized construction materials out there. 

While you should not cover every bit of surface area with wood, it is still a good idea to accentuate the interior. As with the exterior, try not to install too many abstract shapes or asymmetrical designs as this will conflict with the other simpler elements of the interior. Have plenty of wood in the interior, but remember to not overdo it. After all: you are going for a dignified Colonial interior, not a hunting cabin.

Written by
Contractors.com Team

Written by Contractors.com Team