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Do you know where the classic houndstooth style originated? | Image ©

Do you know your armoire from your armchair? Could you spot mid-century modern design at fifty paces? The interior design world is crammed with complex terms – guest writer and interior designer Janine Saal offers up a décor glossary of 10 key terms to know about.

As a designer, it always gives me the good kind of chills when a client really knows what they are talking about. Here are just a few terms (out of a million or so) that one should commit to memory when exploring the interior design world. As well as giving yourself confidence making your own home décor decisions, who knows, you might even teach your decorator/designer a thing or three.

1) Armoire

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Armoire closet | Image ©

As tall cupboards with doors that are normally used as a wardrobes, armoires have been given a new lease of life and function in recent decades by being used to house entertainment centres and computer workstations. Fun fact: back in the day they were used to house weapons, hence the name (16th century Old French related to armouries).


2) Toile (or Toile De Jouy)

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Toile cushion | Image ©

These are repeated patterns, usually pastoral countryside scenes, animals or people that are printed on a plain backing, used for many decorative pieces from cushions to wallpaper. In the French language, the phrase literally means ‘cloth from Jouy-en-Josas’, a town in the south-west suburbs of Paris.

They make for quite the trendy feature piece, when used in small quantities (and not to be confused with the dress-making toile: a test version of a garment made by a fashion designer, usually made in cheap material in the process of practising execution of a pattern and perfecting a design).


3) Mid-century modern

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Mid century modern | Image ©

Using design and décor ideas from the 1940s-1970s in contemporary interiors, making quite the sophisticated but stylish setting. Think along the lines of bringing a bit of Mad Men into your home – a very on-trend style in contemporary interior design that is in high demand from clients and widely serviced by furniture manufacturers.


4) Vignette

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A clean, simple vignette | Image ©

An arrangement of items that adds that extra bit of character to any home. It showcases your personality and style and can be a useful & appealing punctuation point. From the French, meaning ‘little vine’ when such decorative illustrations were used to separate chapters or sections in books, a ‘vignette’ has come to mean a self-contained ‘stop-frame’ image that tells a story; in everything from graphic design to filming and photography. What stories could you tell in your home with a carefully places vignette?


5) Steampunk

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Steampunk interior style is on-trend in urban restaurants | Image ©

Though it might sound like an ‘80s boyband, Steampunk style is a celebration of contemporary technology power-driven by steam, reminiscent of the 19th century industrial revolution. Truth Coffee in Buitenkant Street in Cape Town’s CBD is a perfect example of such an inspired interior and it is a trend increasingly found in urban restaurants. Think original copper piping, exposed brickwork, dark woods and visible chrome air conditioning units – intentionally designed to look quite raw and unfinished with an industrial vibe.


6) Upcycle

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Succulent plant pots made by upcycling jam jars | Image ©

The process of literally taking what you would consider as junk and creating something valuable and functional out of it. So instead of cradle to the grave, one man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure. In our age of increasing concern for the environment, reducing waste volume and carbon footprints, upcycling is a popular movement in sustainability and something every décor enthusiast should be conscious of including in their home.


7) Cantilevered

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A cantilevered staircase gives the impression of ‘floating’ steps | Image ©

When an object is supported on one end only to create a floating effect that adds a distinct taste of minimalism and creates a sleek design. The magic is in the construction of the object or furniture piece and the precise engineering required to provide a functional support within seamless design.


8) Partial storey/ mezzanine

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An open mezzanine removes the workspace from the living area | Image © Manolo Yllera for

An additional level in an area that does not cover more than a quarter  of the space (give or take), creating a double-height effect. It’s a great addition to any home that wants to add more functionality to a large, cavernous space but maintain the natural light and openness of a space, while cutting the costs of adding a second floor.


9) Houndstooth/Dogstooth

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Classic houndstooth style dates back to the 1930s | Image ©

A classic favourite that seems to come around again in a cyclical trend every few years, the houndstooth pattern is formed from small broken checks – woven or printed on basically anything your heart desires. Traditionally in black and white, with more contemporary patterns introducing a vibrant hue like a neon pink.

Modern uses include the Australian department store David Jones (recently bought by Woolworths) who uses a houndstooth pattern as part of its corporate logo, but it can be dated back to the 1930s where gun club checks and houndstooth Scotch plaids were found in men’s suits collections. In interiors, just like with Toile, this one should be used sparingly or as a feature.


10) Ergonomics

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The standing desk is a popular ergonomic trend in home offices | Image ©

It might not be the most glamorous of our definitions but is possibly the most important. Nothing mentioned above would be comfortable or practical if ergonomics were not considered in the design process. Ergonomics is the study of how people function in any given area or object; from the way you reach for your coffee cup in the morning to way you get into bed at night, ergonomics was right there making it more comfortable.

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Are there more interior design concepts you want explained?

Tell us what they are in the comments below or sends us an #askDECO tweet @ELLE_Deco.

Janine Saal headshotDeco guest writer Janine is a CPUT graduate and loves anything and everything to do with design and decor. Her passion lies in helping the everyday reader to understand the wide world of interior design. Currently she is working for Collaboration in Woodstock where her passion meets execution. She is a yogi in the morning, a designer by day and writer/avid series fanatic at night.
You can follow her in Instagram too.