Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The Victorian era ranges roughly from 1837 to 1901. In this period of time,
new inventions had become available due to the Industrial Revolution, which also
affected the world population. It had both grown in numbers and become more wealthy. These changes in turn affected interior design in many different ways. The population growth and the increasing wealth resulted in building bigger houses or enlarging existing ones, adding new rooms for the family and for servants that worked and lived in the families' houses. The new rooms required the design of new furniture. Two examples are a room to play billiards, which became a very popular sport during the Victorian era; and a room for smoking.
At that time it was considered impolite to smoke in the presence of the
lady of the house. For that reason, they designed a separate room with specially
designed ventilation. The presence of servants also required some adjustments.
For one, there was a need for a piece of furniture where servants could put both
food and drinks before they would serve them to the family and, if present, their
guests. For this purpose, furniture makers designed the sideboard, which
became an important piece in the dining room.
With people becoming wealthier and the Industrial Revolution having
improved ways of transportation, people were able to travel further than before.
This possibility triggered an interest in foreign cultures, which was expressed
both by using elements from foreign cultures in furniture designs and by taking
home memorabilia, which had to be displayed. Elements from other cultures that
were used are, for instance, the sphinx head and depictions of the goddess Isis
from Egypt; the use of bamboo and laque from Japan; and the more refined
carvings from France. Wanting to display the memorabilia people got on their
journeys created a need for space to lay them out. In order to do so, furniture
makers added shelves to sideboards, people fixed shelves above their door
posts, and designers came up with the mantelpiece.
Finally, the Industrial Revolution had made it possible to use and/or create
machines that could do certain things more quickly and more accurately than a
human being could do it. In the case of interior design, this led to ornaments
becoming more detailed and complex, and to the possibility of using new
techniques and materials, like paper-maché and cast iron, a material that had
not been used for structural purposes before the late 18th century. During the
same period, gas and electricity were discovered, giving way to the design of
elaborate candelabras, and sanitary facilities were improved, creating a market
for bathroom designing.
The Victorian era didn’t just consist of one style. Just as with exterior
design, there existed several different styles for interior design. At the beginning,
interior design was mostly influenced by Greek art, resulting in symmetrical
shapes. Furniture was kept very simple, with balanced ornamentation. In reaction
to this style, a more picturesque trend emerged, incorporating different kinds of
styles, like the Elizabethan style, the medieval or gothic style, and the French
Rococo style. Main features for the picturesque styles are unsymmetrical shapes;
a vigorous look; and an animated, not refined use of ornaments. The styles differ
in relatively small ways, and could be seen as reactions to one another, although
they existed along side each other for many years, until approximately 1851.
The Elizabethan style is the most vaguely described style, and the term
often has been used in the wrong way. Also, it is thought to have been an
undervalued style in its own era, gaining more appreciation in succeeding years.
This style is said to combine elements from the Gothic and the Roman/Italian
style. In the Elizabethan style, we see a revival of old oak furniture and the use of
a lot of ornaments. You could say ornaments were being overused. The
medieval/gothic style looks a great deal like the grecian style, but with a few
more ornaments. Finally, the French Rococo style was characterized by curved
lines and an excess of curvilinear ornaments. All designs were carried out at
Between 1851 and 1867, there was a big influence from France. The lines
became straighter, moving away from the Rococo style; the carvings were no
longer placed all over a piece, but, instead, were more contained; and the
outlines of the pieces were shown more clearly. This period is referred to as
modern English Gothic.
After 1867, furniture wasn’t just designed by furniture makers anymore.
Architects and designers would be designing furniture for years to come. During
this same period, influences in style and use of material started coming from
Japan, for it had just opened its border. One of the last styles during the Victorian era was the Queen Anne style. For interior design, this meant a revival of neo-classic/Greek furniture. People got tired of the contemporary furniture, which was no longer considered to be an art, but merely an industry. Furniture makers would either use original, old pieces or
make reproductions, and they would add on ornaments to give the pieces a more
decorative and richer look. The focus, however, was on technical rather than
At the end of the Victorian era, William Morris influenced furniture making
and designing to a great extent. Eventually, the arts and crafts movement
emerged, reviving ornamentation, and, once more, emphasizing artistic beauty.
As described in the former paragraph, ornaments were being used
throughout the Victorian era, forming the most important key feature, with
changes, now and then, to what extent ornaments were being used. Most of the
ornaments consisted of wood carvings. They could be made in one of two ways:
1) carving the wood from the furniture piece itself, or 2) making a separate
ornament from another piece of wood or from sawdust pressed together, and
then adding it onto the piece of furniture; thus creating relief. Along with the
different phases throughout the Victorian era, not only did the quantity of the
ornaments and the heaviness of the carving changed; so did their shapes. During
some periods, ornaments were round and/or had a lot of curves in them. During
others, ornaments were very linear, so that there was less wood being cut to
waste. After 1851, larger pieces of the furniture, such as the sideboard or
wardrobe, were left blank. These panels would then be used for paintings.
Usually painters would depict (part of) a (heroic) story.
Another key element, that stayed rather consistent throughout the era,
was that furniture was made to look heavy. A lot of emphasis was being put on
the wood, which for the biggest part was dark colored. In most cases, pieces of
furniture that were put together in one room, would be designed to match each
Furthermore, the drapes were voluminous. They were created that way by
using lots of fabric, pleating them heavily, and trailing them on the floor. Back
then, drapes were not only used as window blinds. In addition, drapes were hung
around the bed. They were be closed at night, supposedly as an extra protection
against the contagious night air. Halfway through the era, people used fewer
drapes around the bed; at that point only stretching half the length of their beds.
Since the family home had become an important part of people’s lives,
furniture was made as comfortable as possible. The shapes of chairs, for
instance, changed throughout the Victorian era. At first, they made rectangular
chairs, which were later replaced by balloon-backed chairs, to give more comfort
to people’s backs. Even later, upholstery was added, to create soft and
comfortable seats and backs.
Not only furniture was decorated, so were the walls, ceilings and floors.
For the walls and ceiling people could use wall- and ceiling paper respectively.
Another way to decorate the walls was to use wooden panelling. The floors
would either be showing the parquet or they would have wall-to-wall carpeting.
As the mantelpiece made its entrance into the Victorian houses, so did the
large mirrors that were hanged above them, usually as part of a larger
overmantel. Large mirrors were also used in the master bedroom and in the hall
way, either for visitors to check their appearance before meeting with their hosts
or for people going outside to put on their coats and hats. In the hallway, the
mirror usually was part of a bigger hat and coat stand.
Two important elements that were widely used in the Queen Anne style,
and even before that, were colored mosaics and stained glass. The mosaics
would often be used for the pavement, either in front of the entrance or in the
hallway. Using stained glass was a way to get light into the house without people
from the outside looking in. In the bathroom people would use ceramic tiles for
the walls and either tiles or a mosaic for the floor.
Some of the most used materials in the Victorian era have already been
mentioned in the former paragraph. The most important material that was used
was different kinds of wood, such as oak, mahogany, ebony, and later on, due to
Japanese influences, bamboo. During the larger part of the Victorian era, the
wood was left unpolished in order to let it be able to get old and change color.
The front door wood be varnished to protect it from the weather conditions, still
allowing you to see the wood clearly. During some periods, for example when the
French had a big influence on Victorian furniture, wood would be polished.
Papier-maché made its entrance during the Victorian era and was often
used as a substitute for wood in making ornaments. Instead of carving separate
pieces of wood or pressing together sawdust, they would make papier-maché
shapes and treat these in a specific way in order to resemble real wood. A large
number of the materials used during this era were either actually expensive or
made to look expensive. Expensive materials are, for instance: ivory, gold, pearl
shells, and different kinds of gems, like lapis-lazuli and jasper. Again, most of
these materials were in some way used to ornate pieces of furniture. The gold
could be replaced by a mix of copper, brass, zinc and silver to make it a little less
expensive. For candelabras gold-plated silver could also be used. The pearl
shells were used for drawings or paintings. Painters used varnish to paint an
image, then used acid to burn the shell; leaving the painting in tact, and ready to
be added on to a chest, wardrobe or sideboard. Marble was very popular for
countertops in the kitchen and bathroom and later on for tabletops. It could also
be found in the master bedroom, used for a table with a water bowl on top and
for a splashback behind the bowl, to prevent the wallpaper from getting wet.
Upholstery and wall- and ceilingpaper were mostly made of satin. Also,
velvet was used for upholstery of chairs and for draperies.
Finally, metalwork and cast iron are important materials to be found in a
Victorian home. Due to new inventions, it was now possible to shape the iron in
practically any way people desired. At first, the iron was used as an element of a
piece of furniture. At the end of the Victorian era, furniture makers made
complete chairs and tables out of cast iron. Usually for the garden or the
greenhouse, but occasionally for inside the house as well.
Looking at all the information presented in this paper, it would be fair to
say that the Victorian era was an interesting one. It was an era in which many
things changed, either by completely new inventions and ideas or by
improvement of already existing concepts. The Industrial Revolution was very
influential in this development, changing not only the way people lived, but,
moreover, the way furniture was made. All and all, it was an era of wealth, which
people were encouraged to show off. This lead to crowded and very heavily
decorated interiors, in which different expensive, or expensive looking, materials
were used. Less certainly wasn’t more during this era; “the more the merrier”
sounds like a better credo to describe interior design in the Victorian era.
Posted by John Robinson at 9:08 PM