Victorian Style: More is More

Posted In Design - 09/13/2016

Interior design always swings between extremes: simple or opulent, delicate or bulky, straight or rounded. It’s been going on like that for centuries, and we’re currently in an era of “less is more.” We’ve become conditioned to prefer the pared-down, the sleek – but the bravest among us isn’t afraid to admit to the guilty pleasures inspired by the luxurious styles and decorative designs ideals rooted in the Victorian era.

Be honest: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Victorian furniture?” Over-the-top pieces, dripping with carved angels and covered in dark velvet and gold paint, right? Well, while the Victorians certainly weren’t shy about ornamentation, there was a lot more that came out of that era (roughly 1830 to the beginning of the twentieth century) which coincides with the long, prosperous reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria. But to understand the Victorian era and the design trends that sprang from it, you have to understand the society of the day.

The first half of the nineteenth century was driven by social change. In America, England, and Europe, aristocratic and formal styles began to give way to furniture that was simpler, more democratic in design and affordable to a growing middle class. The Industrial Revolution meant that larger factories began to elbow their way in beside the smaller artisans’ workshops, using mass-production techniques that created an ever-increasing range of styles and decoration. Manufacturers made design decisions to take advantage of the new machinery that could imitate handcrafted woodworking and decoration. And more people, employed in the rapidly multiplying factories, had discretionary income to spend on the new lower-priced furniture for their homes.

Setting the Stage

Technology may have set the stage, but the bottom line for many middle class Victorians was that opulent styles became affordable. This phenomenon contributed to a renewed fascination with historical styles and designs from previous eras. The impulse to “look back” wasn’t invented by the Victorians, of course, but certainly took root in the beginning of the 19th century. English, American and French styles during those years were influenced by excavations of Pompeii and other Roman ruins. Bookcases and sideboards came to resemble temple facades, sofas took the shape of Roman chaises and, in general, furniture bulked up to resemble the massive architecture it was emulating. The Victorians changed focus from ancient civilization, but their design continued to be fueled by earlier eras.

The first true Victorian style in England was Neo-Gothic design, arriving around 1830 with a heavy emphasis on the medieval era. The style is most closely associated with the architect Augustus Pugin, who with his father used Gothic motifs in designing London’s Houses of Parliament. Dark woods, pointed arches, trefoils (a shape similar to three-leaf clover) and other Gothic cathedral carvings recalled the dedication of medieval craftsman and implied moral character.

Reviving Rococo and Renaissance

From 1850 to 1870, popular taste turned to a more romantic form known as “Rococo Revival.” This furniture looked back to eighteenth century France with swirling lines, natural motifs like fruit and flowers, and dark woods like mahogany, rosewood and black walnut. Furniture had gilt and marble accents, carved leaf or fruit drawer pulls, serpentine fronts and rounded tops and corners. Parlor seating featured cabriole legs, curved backs with carved oval insets, and rich, opulent fabrics. Cabinetmaker John Henry Belter, whose highly ornamented designs set the standard and were widely (and sometimes badly) imitated, is most prominently associated with the period.

The overlapping Renaissance Revival (roughly 1860-1880) offered a different set of options. Curvy cabriole legs were replaced with straight, turned or fluted legs and massive squared-off silhouettes ruled.

There was no lack of ego in this look; huge sideboards, beds and armoires that approached ceiling height were among the most extravagant pieces. Burl panels, carved crests, medallions, pediments, finials and bronze and brass accents replaced rococo carved flowers and fruit motifs. Such decorative elements took on a life of their own and were often lavishly added to poorly made furniture to give it a little more “class.”

During the 1850s and ‘60s, other trends took root. Patterned wallpapers and large-design wall-to-wall carpeting were mass produced, becoming increasingly available and desirable. Window treatments became more important, more layered and architectural, more opulent. For the first time, furniture was sold in suites: matched pieces for the parlor, dining room or bedroom.

Alternatives to Opulence

As in current times, there was an alternative to opulence. In the 1840s, Cottage furniture surfaced as the less expensive, less formal option for working class homes, rustic getaways, and even the for the porches and solariums of the massive seaside “cottages” of communities like Newport, Rhode Island. Though simpler in design, and often crafted from less expensive woods, these pieces were anything but plain, often given light or pastel colors, then embellished with hand-painted or stenciled designs. Like gingerbread houses, this furniture sought to be conspicuously quaint, personal and intimate. These homey looks remained popular to the end of the century and beyond. They relate to the Adirondack style popularized at the turn of the century, and enjoying a strong revival today.

Cottage furniture wasn’t the only reaction to the ornate sensibilities of Victorian style. In the early 1870s, Charles Eastlake’s rejection of the overblown and excessive furniture had traveled from Great Britain to America. His call for honest furniture design resulted in more modestly scaled pieces with relatively (for the time) simple decoration such as carved geometric motifs, incised lines and modest painted accents. Golden oak replaced darker woods and for the first time, mail order furniture became available, sending a wave of Eastlake’s affordable factory-made furniture into homes across the country.

The final 25 years of the nineteenth century kept much of what had gone before, as well as a riot of new options. In the United States, the 1876 Centennial of the American Revolution fostered a Colonial revival, a Victorian’s look back at the eighteenth century. The Aesthetic movement was influenced by the fascination with all things Japanese – delicate bamboo and wicker furniture, folding screens and fans provided relief from the darker, heavier Victorian formality, as did the exotic touches of Oriental carpets, indoor plants and silk wallpapers and lampshades. By the 1890s, the circle was complete, with the curved lines of Rococo Revival giving birth to the simplified curves of the Art Nouveau style, and the chunkier geometric elements of Gothic Revival making way first for the straightened and geometric flavors of Eastlake, and then for simpler-yet squareness of the Arts and Crafts (or Mission) movement.

The importance of technology in furniture manufacturing as a factor in design trends cannot be overstated. Big cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston set the trends, and small town manufacturers across the country fell into formation and began to produce the “newest looks,” taking advantage of a constantly improving set of manufacturing techniques and technologies. Routing and stamping echoed the look of hand-carving. Spool beds developed as power lathes made it possible to turn out miles of simple turnings at a fraction of what they had cost to produce in the recent past. A process developed by German inventor/designer Michael Thonet for steam bending wood was used by manufacturers across the country to produce simple, intriguing bentwood chairs, rockers and beds, laying the ground work for the twentieth century’s modernist movements.

If we can step outside of our own realities for a moment, it’s not really hard to understand why a newly-monied nineteenth-century middle class rushed to embrace a suddenly-affordable, opulent style, even with its occasional excesses. The concept of “less is more” would have baffled them as a conceit of the wealthiest. Hard-lived lives had taught them that less was, in fact, less, and they cannot be faulted for wanting to see for themselves what it was like to have “more.”

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