The Victorian Era was named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837-1901. There were many changes throughout the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution changed the structure of society, and of course, that influenced architecture, furniture and design.
Victorians embraced the new technology and materials of the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, history was a key element of design, and because of this, the Victorian Period was filled with style revivals. The newer designs were not historically accurate, but rather a modern interpretation. The two most popular Revivals were Gothic and Rococo.
Gothic Revival, 1830s-1880s
These were difficult times. People in England were living in squalor, and goods were scarce. By looking to the past to the Gothic era of the Middle Ages, there was hope for stability and a better quality of life. Religion was very important in the Middle Ages, and architectural elements reflected that – pointed arches, spires pointing towards the heavens, stained glass, trefoils, quatrefoils, and tracery.
Design elements of the Gothic Revival were reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but were not completely accurate. Motifs were added to contemporary forms, instead of being part of the whole. And so, in the 1850s, the Gothic Revival became a rebellion against the Industrial Revolution and its mechanization, poor quality, poor design and consumerism.
Gothic architecture and design
Architects and designers like Augustus Pugin began to accurately imitate 13th and 14th century Gothic style with ‘truth to materials’ and ‘honest construction’ – using natural materials and allowing them and the construction to show through. This was the opposite of mass-production. There were no veneers or inlay. Woods used were oak, mahogany, rosewood and walnut. Furniture and accessories imitated the architecture of the time.
With the advent of High Victorian Gothic from the 1850s to the 1880s, furniture became heavier in scale, and much of it was inlaid, painted or tiled. It was large scaled with bold details.
Reformed Gothic design
Reformed Gothic design of the 1850-60s had little reference to the Middle Ages. Bruce Talbert, a wood carver, architect and writer, was the best-known designer of this period. His furniture designs were simplified and less massive. Naturalistic carvings, inlay and tile decorated his pieces.
Talbert made cast iron hinges for cupboard doors. Because his designs were so simple, they were easy to mas-produce. Reformed Gothic paved the way for Art Furniture of the 1870s, and it influenced the Arts & Crafts Movement, 1880-1918.
Rococo Revival, 1845-1870s
Design of the Rococo era of the 1700s was asymmetrical and light in scale, a reaction against the bold, symmetrical designs of the Baroque period before it. Rococo was modern, not based on history. Motifs were naturalistic and conveyed romance, fantasy and a pastoral life. Rococo Revival was very popular with the upper and middle classes in Britain and the US. American designers made the lavish style affordable through mass production and less expensive woods.
Rococo was replaced by the Neo-classical period of simple, formal Greek and Roman design. The Rococo Revival rebelled against that with visually complex designs. Elaborate curves, high-relief carvings, naturalistic motifs and feminine taste were the marks of interiors and furniture of the Rococo Revival, which was not evident in architecture.
Industrial revolution drives interior design status
Due to the Industrial Revolution, men went to work, and women stayed home. The home and its decorations became evidence of status, and women were responsible for creating an atmosphere of opulence. Rococo Revival design was seen in the rooms that women used most – the parlor, the drawing room and the boudoir.
Being wealthy was fashionable and desirable, so Rococo Revival furniture was sumptuous. Expensive woods, such as mahogany and rosewood, were used mostly. Upholstered furniture had springs, and seats were deep and comfortable. Backs and seats were tufted for a fuller look. Textiles were luxurious – damask, velvet, brocatelle, satin and silk – and had floral motifs. Wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting were also covered in floral designs.
Fireplace mantles were made of marble, and a large elaborately carved mirror usually hung above. Bed headboards were tall with detailed naturalistic carving. Lighting fixtures had curving C and S scrolls. Crystal chandeliers added to the opulent look.
Victorian era looked to the past for inspiration – like today!
The Victorian era was marked by the belief that referring to past eras was equated with education, taste, luxury, refinement and gentility. This is the root of the period revivals. Despite the benefits of the technology of the Industrial Revolution, early Gothic revival designers rejected it. Rococo revival designers embraced it.
While the gaudiness and clutter of the Victorian era was winding down, simpler design ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement were gearing up.