Interior Decorating Styles: Inspired by the Past
INSPIRATION OF THE PAST
Up until the 18th century, style evolved in different countries, sometimes according to the dictates of fashion — for example, seating had to be redesigned to accommodate hoop skirts and crinolines — or as new woods, materials, skills, techniques and domestic articles were introduced. The general interest in Chinoiserie, for example, followed directly from the first appearance in Europe of oriental lacquered goods and silks, and small tables were invented for the ‘new fangled practices’ of tea-drinking and card-playing. There was, then, little nostalgic harking back to the past — at least, not deliberately — for the new was always the rage.
Once travel became more general, however, all this changed. The Grand Tour around Europe became de rigueur for the young men (and quite often women) of the aristocracy, and a direct result was the Neoclassical movement in Britain during the 1750s. Initially this movement was a product of Inigo Jones’s discovery in the 17th century of the work of Palladio. The fashion for Palladianism dominated the 18th century in Britain, thanks largely to Lord Burlington and his protégé William Kent, and it fostered a general admiration for the noble simplicity and calm grandeur’ of the ancient classical forms, especially the Greek. This was followed by studies of the Italian Renaissance and by the extravaganzas of the Gothick revival, which spread around Europe and to North America. Late 18th and 19th-century travellers to the Far East, India, the Middle East and Egypt, not to mention military expeditions and campaigns in those areas, were responsible for the emergence of the exotica of the Regency and for the introduction of ancient Greek and Egyptian influences.
Although the wholesale historical revivalism of the 19th century had more or less burned itself out by the 1900s — Art Nouveau, with its roots in the arts and crafts movement, owed little to other styles — decorative inspiration continued (and continues) to be provided by the styles of many different periods.
‘Period styles come and go, and sometimes come again’ remarked Witold Rybczynski blithely in his beautifully written historical survey Home. His point would seem proved by such episodes as the rediscovery during the early 1900s of the Rococo, Neoclassical and
Georgian delights of the 18th century — more often used all together. Another example is the resurgence of Regency ideas in the middle of the 20th century. The further revivals of Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and early modern styles and the sly allusions to classical motifs in today’s Post-Modernism provide further support for Rybczynski’s aphorism.
This harking back to the past is rarely a matter of slavish imitation of earlier interiors. Rather, it is the sympathetic use of traditional motifs and forms in conjunction with the best materials of the present to produce what can often be a highly memorable and pleasing result.
At the same time, it means nostalgia, a very salient part of decoration in the late 20th century: nostalgia for what are perceived to have been the ‘good old days’; nostalgia, especially in the United States, for ‘roots’. Although Modernism is now some 70 years old, the majority of people have been uncomfortable with its tenets, simply because it is uncomfortable. By contrast, the nebulous ‘past’, especially as glamorously recreated by designers such as Ralph Lauren, seems warm, cosy and leisurely, while at the same time distinguished and patrician. People today are therefore looking on the ‘past’ as a time to be envied — even though we all know it never really happened like that.
These can have harmonious charm — the old pine, yew and elm, cherry, American golden oak and simple English oak; the rustic painted or stained pieces of furniture (cupboards, wardrobes, dressers, dining chairs and side and dining tables); and the wall and floor tiles, rag rugs, bric-a-brac, stoneware, china, prints, engravings and needlework homilies. A fine list, yet nothing on it is at all grand.
The popularity of this type of decoration has been partly a result of the fact that prices were, and still are, comparatively cheap for such generally attractive objects. The main reason, however, has been that the furniture shapes are simple and spare enough, and the objects handsome and interesting enough, for them to be mixed comfortably with modern furnishings. They add a degree of warmth and idiosyncracy to a room, yet are in no way aggressively antique.
The 19th Century
In general, we tend to think of the 19th century in terms of the solidity and expansive opulence of High Victoriana. But style during the century was so much more diverse and fragmented than that. At the beginning of the century the exuberance of the Regency, with its exotic oriental and Indian influences, still survived. There were the Egyptian and Greek revivals exemplified by Thomas Hope; Empire in France; Empire in the United States; and the fanciful Gothick. In addition there was the anglicized Japanese of the aesthetic movement, the earnestness of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement and (in the United States) the Mission, and the sinuous shapes of Art Nouveau.
Today we appreciate 19th-century furniture, furnishings, art and accessories for much the same reasons as not so long ago we were rejecting them. Now we enjoy the solidity, slavish attention to detail, whimsy and sentimentality of so many of the objects and so much of the art: the fruit and classical figures under glass domes, the framed birds and fish and the bottled ships, the beautifully made brass scientific instruments, spectacle cases, pen boxes, lorgnettes and other collectables. Many of us love the bedsteads, the lamps, the samplers, the richness of the wallpapers, the silks and damasks and velvets, the floral charm of the Victorian chintzes. And there is a distinct harking after the palms and antimacassars, dados and wainscoting, arches, pillars, mouldings and balustrades of the Queen Anne revival and Victoriana in general.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco
The Art Nouveau style was unusual in having little historical connection; it lasted less than a decade, from 1892 to 1900. It began in Brussels, and spread all over Europe and to the United States, being known by a variety of different names in different countries — Iugendstil in Germany, Liberty in Britain, Style Moderne in France, and so on. Art Nouveau rooms were full of extravagant, sinuous ornament based on forms drawn from nature: this extended throughout fabrics, wallpapers, furniture, rugs, carpets, lighting and ornamental objects to give an amazingly strong stylistic consistency.
Perhaps it was for this reason — that Art Nouveau was so complete in itself, so self-contained — that it had such a short life. Or perhaps it was too connected with the decadence of the Naughty Nineties. In its final form, the Vienna Secession style, it lost much of its floreate style: in the hands of the Austrian architect/designer Josef
Hoffman — as indeed in the hands of the Scotsman, Charles Rennie Mackintosh — it became somewhat more abstract and geometric, so that, along with Art Deco, it figured as a precursor of Modernism.
Art Deco was primarily concerned with sumptuous surface effects, superb ornamentation, and jazzed-up versions of old forms. Although named after the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1925, it was sparked off by a radical movement in clothing towards sensual and flamboyant lines. Interior design to match this new exoticism followed swiftly. The style was not so much a denial of the past as the past reworked under the influence of new technology.
Art Deco also incorporated African influences (tropical woods for frames and inlays, and zebra and leopard skins) and echoes of the recent archaeological discoveries in Egypt.