Exterior and Interior Design: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

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zagreb cityscape

Exterior and interior design in Europe differs from North America. Here’s a take by traveling writer Steffani Cameron on the differences, and what we can learn.


After two years of slowly minimizing my life, I’m down to a few boxes in storage, and living out of a big bag as I travel. For the first time, I’m seeing how the other side of the world lives.

For now, I’m in the young-old country of Croatia. Technically, it’s just a couple decades old yet packed with history as much as 3,000 years old in some areas. I’m in Zagreb, the capital, where a 1980’s beer commercial has played on a loop in my head for days. The song? “It Doesn’t Matter (It’s What’s Inside that Counts)”.

”Where you’re from, it doesn’t matter

What you wear, it doesn’t matter

The way you move, it doesn’t matter

It doesn’t matter how you cut your hair

It’s what’s inside that counts.

It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Why? I’m surrounded by weathered, crumbling old buildings from the Habsburg Empire and beyond. At nights, when street lighting is down low and blinds are all shut and the world is dark, all these old buildings with graffiti tags and eroding exteriors can be downright freaky.

zagreb exterior wall

Old world exterior wall in Zagreb, Croatia. (image: Steffani Cameron, FullNomad.com)

Insides and design

But then I get a glimpse into an apartment where the blinds are up and lights on, and I see majestic high ceilings, beautiful wall colors, incredible mouldings and trim, gorgeous artwork, stunning shelves, and so much more interior design that I just swoon and sigh.

Here, in less advantaged regions of Europe, where exterior maintenance is both unaffordable but also unnecessary thanks to two-foot-deep exterior concrete, it really is what’s inside the home that counts.

Built to last

Buildings here were made to to stand through empires. Walls are feet, not inches, thick, and any erosion is cosmetic. Structurally, they’re going nowhere. This is a place where you don’t tear things down because you’re not happy with the exterior appeal. You simply gut it and improve it. Buildings are shells, not status symbols — although it sure is nice to be in a fancy structure.

This is a place where you’re more likely to see an apartment block that’s 300 years old than one that’s only a decade old. There’s a widespread respect for things that are still standing after all the wars and recessions and irresponsible politicians.

These old buildings have earned the wear and tear, much as I feel I’ve earned those new grey hairs popping up on my head.

exterior zagreb

Architecture in old Zagreb (image: Steffani Cameron, FullNomad.com).

Lessons we could learn

I wish North America could learn that building better quality structures with a view on having them stand for 100 years, let alone a thousand, isn’t just a testimony of quality, it’s part of how we save the planet too.

There are all kinds of ways to save structures and improve what’s inside. With new counters, water sealants, quality floors, reinforced building techniques, and regular general maintenance, there’s no reason we can’t have our buildings lasting longer as a testimony to the times we’ve lived through and the styles we once embraced.

Classic beauty

Walking the streets here, I can get a sense of how the world looked decades, even centuries, ago. Sure, there are flaws and weathered spots, but people are sheltered in homes that are filled with classic European beauty. Vaulted ceilings, beautiful woodwork, stunning details, and a craftsmanship that just isn’t readily found anymore.

They know it’s what’s inside their homes that really counts. As long as they maintain the interior and keep the structure sound, that cosmetic stuff just doesn’t count.
Gosh, who knew beer commercials were so wise?

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.