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Interior Design and Femininity

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As interior designers have to know what makes an interior masculine or feminine. It is also important to understand why certain forms or colours are liked with femininity and others with masculinity.

Interior designers have to know what makes an interior masculine or feminine. It's also important to understand why certain forms or colours are liked with femininity and others with masculinity.

Which of the following interiors do you think is more feminine?

Most of us would agree that the first interior is overtly feminine because it's pink, frilly and decorative; it uses floral patterns, plush quilts and pillows, faux-Victorian furniture and curving lines.  The  mirror and dressing table are familiar signs of feminity, as of course are the feminine clothes. Conversely, the second interior is inherently masculine because it is composed of blacks, whites and greys; the aestheic is cool and minimalist.  Modernist furniture has been used and the pictures on the walls depict active, masculine scenarios.

The real question is why should these things be associated with masculinity or femininity? We all know which interior is masculine and which is feminine, but it’s very difficult to explain why. The answer is that our idea of gender is formed by a very complex process. Society presents us with acceptable models of masculinity and femininity, and these shape our understanding. The media play a role in this: films, TV and advertising portray gender in certain ways and these images build up a shared understanding of what masculinity and femininity are. In other words, gender is a social construction – it’s shaped by society.

An important point is that gender is different from sex. Sex is a biological difference: we’re born male or female. Gender is a set of social codes that define what it means to be male or female. These codes are shaped by society and need to be learned. We learn them by a process of social conditioning. This process starts as soon as we’re born. Everyone knows that when a baby is born you buy it something blue if it’s a boy, and something pink if it’s a girl. To illustrate that, this is an assemblage of feminine imagery to celebrate the birth of a girl: everything is pink and floral.


The male equivalent is stereotypically masculine. There’s no biological reason for this; it is simply a social convention. We can image that in another culture, where colours have different meaning, they may have a different convention.

Children’s toys contribute to social conditioning. Boys’ toys tend to be noisy and violent. They encourage boys to be active, to make noise, to spread out and use space. Many of them are military-themed and have connotations of conflict, violence and aggression. This encourages boys to take on these attributes in life. Some of these foreshadow roles they’ll play in adulthood: the fireman is typically male persona.

Girls’ toys often revolve around quiet, neat and contained activities, which encourages girls to be passive and submissive, as they’re expected to be. They also introduce girls to their future domestic responsibilities. They’re themed around the home, the kitchen, babies and make up – foreshadowing the roles women are expected to play in later life.

Feminists have analysed this process of social conditioning. Pat Kirkham published a book called The Gendered Object (1996), which contains an essay on Action Man and Barbie. It argues that these toys contribute to the shaping of gender roles. Barbie has an idealised body: the legs are three times longer than the torso and the waist is tiny. The idealised portrayal encourages girls to be obsessed with their appearance. Each figure comes with interchangeable clothes, which encourages girls to have an interest in fashion, hair-styles and shopping. At the same time, Barbie has very few joints – she’s not very capable. This is because she’s not meant to be active, she’s meant to be beautiful, but passive.

The boys’ equivalent of Barbie is Action Man. Like Barbie, this is a doll you’re meant to dress up, but in this case he comes with a military uniform and an arsenal of weapons. This encourages boys to take on forceful, aggressive attributes. Action Man has more joints, which make him active and physical. As children play with these toys they learn patterns of behaviour from them. This is one of the ways we learn acceptable notions of masculinity and femininity.

To summarise, gender is a social construction. We learn gender roles through a process of social conditioning that starts as soon as we’re born.


For most of history, society has been patriarchal – i.e. dominated by men. In the Victorian era, when a woman got married, all her property passed to her husband; she became completely dependent on him. Married women had no right to own property. If a woman committed adultery, that was considered grounds for divorce and she’d lose everything. However, if a man committed adultery that was acceptable: men were allowed indiscretions. So there was a double standard that favoured men. This ensured that women had subordinate status within Victorian society.

This is a 19th century painting by Augustus Egg. It shows a quintessential Victorian domestic interior – it’s cluttered and fussy, with heavy fabrics and antique-style furniture. The husband has just received a letter telling him his wife has been unfaithful. The husband is shattered, but he’s sitting upright, still authoritative. The woman is disgraced, strewn across the floor and hiding her face in shame.  The mirror reveals that the door is open: the woman is about to be expelled from the home.

The children are engaged in a childhood game, suggesting innocence, but they’ve been interrupted by the domestic calamity: the eldest girl looks over and sees the mother. The mother’s infidelity is a threat to the girl’s innocence. The pictures on the wall represent Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and a shipwreck. They convey moral condemnation of the woman’s actions.

Fifties Domesticity

By the 1950s, traditional gender roles had become thoroughly entrenched. The 50s domestic ideal revolved around a male breadwinner who went out to work and an economically-dependent housewife who maintained the home as a haven from the world of work. The overriding mentality was that a woman’s place was in the home. This is significant for our purposes, because it means that the home, the domestic interior, has always been perceived as a feminine space.

This is an article called ‘The Good Wife’s Guide’, published in Housekeeping Monthly (1955). This was a woman’s magazine about home economics and interior design. It features instructions on how to be the perfect wife - according to the conventional gender relations of the time. This involves being totally subservient to one’s husband, maintaining the home as a haven, accepting his authority unquestioningly and remaining beautiful for him.

The text reads:

  • Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favourite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.
  • Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.
  • Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.
  • Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the house just before your husband arrives.
  • Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper etc and then run a dustcloth over the tables.
  • Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.
  • Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children's hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.
  • Be happy to see him.
  • Greet him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him. He's worked hard all day and a friendly face is much appreciated!
  • Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time.
  • Let him talk first - remember his topics of conversation are more important that yours.
  • Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.
  • Your goal: Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquillity where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.
  • Don't greet him with complaints and problems.
  • Don't complain if he's late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.
  • Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.
  • Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.
  • Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember he is the master of the house and as such will always excercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

In the post-war period, America experienced an explosion of consumerism. New consumer goods and labour-saving devices were produced and sold by the expanding advertising industry. Everyone aspired to own a television, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner etc. Crucially, these products were aimed at women, because the home was woman’s domain. Adverts of this period purveyed stereotypical images of men and women. This is an ad for the Kenwood Chef, a labour-saving domestic appliance. The assumption is that only the wife should cook. Like the appliance, she is a possession with a definite function.

The mass culture of the 50s amounted to propaganda telling women that what they wanted out of life was a husband, family and domestic bliss. Adverts promised the American dream, but having achieved it, many women found their existence unfulfilling. One of the first people to pick up on this was the feminist writer Betty Friedan, who published a book called The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan argued that women were encouraged to want a husband, a home and children, but achieving these things didn’t necessarily bring fulfilment. Women had no identity for themselves, and living in the perfect suburban house became stifling and soul-destroying. She called this the ‘problem that has no name’:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?’

The boredom of 50s suburbia has been explored in numerous film and TV productions. Mad Men is set in the high-powered and glamorous world of 1960s advertising. The main character is a suave ad man called Don Draper. His wife Betty has everything a women was supposed to want, but she’s stranded in their suburban home and her own identity is suppressed.

Farnsworth House

Some women broke out of these conventional gender roles. In 1945, the Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe designed a notorious building called the Farnsworth House. The house was built as a country retreat for Edith Farnsworth, an unmarried doctor from Chicago. The house is very significant for what it reveals about gender.

It’s one of the classics of Modernism and embodies Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim ‘less is more’. As you can see, it has glass walls and the interior is completely exposed except for a central service core. The furniture is by Mies van der Rohe and it’s equally spartan.  It seems very masculine, even though it was designed for a woman.

The relationship with nature is important. Nature is traditionally associated with femininity. The Farnsworth House is sealed off from nature – it’s raised disdainfully above the ground and enveloped in an impermeable glass skin with only one door and two small windows. Inside, it reduces the natural world to two-dimensional images seen through the architectural framework. So you could argue that the design imposes a sense of masculine order and rationality on nature.

The Farnsworth House provoked a media storm. Journalists ridiculed it and people came to see the house, staring through the walls, which made it impossible to live in.

In her book Women and the Making of the Modern House, the feminist design historian Alice T. Friedman argues that the house was attacked because it represented a threat to conventional gender relations. Again, the 50s ideal was the male breadwinner and the economically dependent housewife. The radical design of the Farnsworth House and the fact that it was built for a single, independent women challenged the conventional gender divisions of 50s society. This alternative mode of femininity had to be suppressed.


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