The words we use when we think about design, 1984 to 2009

Graph of "interior design" vs. "decor" in the NYT

This graph shows the occurrence of the terms “decor” (blue) and “interior design” (red) in The New York Times between 1984 and 2009. What happened to the word “decor”? It fell out of usage in approximately February, 2001, maybe a result of a change in editorial style policy? When I first saw this we wondered if it had to do with some sort of anti-French sentiment, decor being French in origin, but then we realized that its drop in usage came about seven months before 9-11. This was one of many surprising discoveries we made when I asked Jer Thorp to make some graphs for me. Jer, a digital artist and also man about my studio, recently wrote some software for graphing the occurrence of certain words in the newly-opened NYT text database. The NYT only recently made its entire text archive searchable online, beginning with the year 1981. Jer had made some beautiful graphs of various word occurrences, and I asked him to build some for me based on a few design-related keywords. Choosing design-related search terms is hard just because so many design terms have such broad usage, and are common to so many different fields, that a search for them doesn’t tell us much – “design,” for example, or “modern.” So I decided on some slightly more specific search terms: midcentury modern, modernism, Eames, Corbusier, retro, vintage, interior design and decor. I was just curious to see whether there would be a noticeable rise in interest in modern and modernist design, as I thought there might be, and if so, I wanted to see if it was a slow or a steep rise. Of course, the NYT is a very specific publication speaking to a relatively specific audience, and those things have to be taken into consideration when looking at these results. Note: The NYT database isn’t yet fully complete between 1981 and 1984, so Jer and I just searched 1984 onward. Tip: each bar is one month. Click on each graph to find a larger version in our Flickr. I may ask Jer to make a few more of these – any suggestions?

Graph of "retro" vs. "vintage" in the NYT, 1984-2009

Above is the instance of “vintage” (the jade green) vs. “retro” (yellow-green). The near-absence of the word “retro” in the 1980s was surprising. Even more surprising, and it’s a little hard to see here, but over the past year and a half the word “retro” has all but disappeared, while “vintage” maintains its steady rise.

Graph of "modernism" vs. "midcentury modern" in the NYT, 1984-2009

This graph shows the slow, steady increase in interest in “modernism” (red) and “midcentury modern” (orange), with the two almost perfectly mirroring each other. Mentions of the word “Eames” (yellow) and “Corbusier” (pink) were similar. I’m not sure what we were expecting – we thought that perhaps an American designer would be mentioned more often than a European? – but the latter two are about the same. Many more of Jer’s graphs, on a variety of topics, are here.

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7 Responses to “The words we use when we think about design, 1984 to 2009”

  1. John Hopper Says:

    Interesting survey. Technically ‘interior design’ concerns the interior space and is much more closely associated with architecture and can involve restructuring a building or room, while ‘interior decoration’ is what most people mean when they refer to interior design, the decoration of an interior with accessories.

    Interior designers have to have a professional qualification to function, while an interior decorator does not. The pecking order firmly places an architect first, followed by an interior designer, with an interior decorator coming a poor third.

    This is not neccessarily fair but neither is it fair to think of a professional interior designer as a decorator, but I can also understand why a decorator would want to be more firmly associated and aligned with the interior design profession rather than painting and decorating.

    A word of warning though, be careful when you bring the subject up with a true interior designer, they tend not to be that tolerant about the fudging of their job title with interior decoration!

    Vintage and retro are two interesting terms. Vintage, although not ‘antique’ seems closer to that term than ‘retro’, and is closely associated with wine, for example. Both terms do not technically mean anything as both can be used to denote that something is of a vintage or retro ‘style’ but still brand new. However, retro has become associated with a younger audience and their interest in the popular culture side of twentieth century collecting.

    I suppose some of the changes in labelling have something to do with the media having to re-access its readership base, different terms for a different generation perhaps. There is also an element of beefing up decor to the professional level of interior design. Perhaps the media have been tweaking with words to change their own appearance and cachet.

  2. Juli Says:

    Wow, this is really interesting! I catch myself all the time “correcting” myself from saying decor to design. I think, at least in recent years, design has had a huge upswing even with the masses and that to use the term decor seems less savvy. I wish I had more to add but you guys covered it pretty well!

  3. “The king has donkey ears” should have been used more often in 2008. | Ouno Design Says:

    […] found this neat tool after Jer Thorp made us some design-related graphs. Actually, Jer found it. It allows you to compare the frequency of any two words or phrases in the […]

  4. Pixel-Hustler Says:

    Our Evolving Design Vocabulary…

    Interior Design vs. Decor. Vintage vs. Retro. Have you ever thought of how certain words seem to creep up and overtake others in our collective vernacular? When people talk about design, it seems as though the vocabulary used evolves along with the gen…

  5. The week in links 06/03/09 - Craig Baldwin's Blog Says:

    […]     I don’t always agree with the upset, I mean I quite like the 2012 logo *ducks*. 13/  The Words We Use When We Think About Design, 1984 To 2009 (     See how the words we use have changed over time, pretty bar graphs to […]

  6. Keehnan Konyha Says:


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