Most consistent thing about design tastes is that they always change

by Patricia Cove
Posted 1/28/21

As much as I love design, my earliest interest in interiors was not really the paint colors, wallpaper or furnishings, but more so what caused those things to become popular features within a space. 

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Most consistent thing about design tastes is that they always change

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As much as I love design, my earliest interest in interiors was not really the paint colors, wallpaper or furnishings, but more so what caused those things to become popular features within a space.  Studying architectural history, I learned that surroundings were affected by external forces that trigger millions of people to adopt a particular style, or for lack of a better word, “trend.”

More recently, trends were the result of commercial furnishing companies like Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn that flooded the market with mass-produced case goods and upholstery pieces. People, especially younger people, jumped on that bandwagon, and a new “trend” was born. But historically, trends were based on much stronger forces.

Forces like political, economic, industrial and social influence once triggered millions of people to adopt a particular style. In the 1790s, for example, Napoleon of France, known for his military prowess, used symbols of his leadership as propaganda, and furnishings began to display hallmarks of his campaigns. Winged lions, sphinx, spears and arrows, bees and acanthus leaves, displayed on brightly colored silk fabrics were used to acclaim his military might and his strength as a political leader.

At about the same time, Britain was starting a quiet revolution in design, which heralded a more relaxed, and eclectic interior, and a strong leaning toward Neoclassisism.  This period in England, known as the Regency period,  as well as its American counterpart, known as American Federal, became more light and airy in design as well as architecture. 

Master furniture makers like Thomas Chippendale from Yorkshire, England, Samuel McIntire from Massachusetts, and Benjamin Randolf, one of the foremost cabinetmakers in colonial Philadelphia, began to design furniture in more delicate profiles. 

Sideboards, Pembroke tables, chests of drawers and heart-shaped, shield back dining chairs, were decorated and inlaid with finer, more graceful details like ribbons and bows, beads, urns, baskets and florals. Reeded and fluted pilasters gave reference to the Greek influence.

But it is hard to find anything more influential on the look of interiors than the Industrial Revolution, which peaked in America in about 1840. It was a time when handmade furniture gave way to pieces that could be made on a machine. This meant that furniture could not only be manufactured but could include detail that would make handcrafted pieces much too expensive. Thus was born, what we now call the Victorian Period, as it coincided with Victoria’s reign in England.  The more modern phrase of “too much is never enough” could have also been the mantra of the Victorian period. 

Manufacturing plants were now producing everything ornamental from heavily carved chairs and tables -- often appearing Gothic in design -- to encaustic tiles, especially popular for hall floors. Architectural “gingerbread” became the hallmark of Victorian mansions, and preservationists today continue to revel in the decorative details that grace their homes. 

But, as often happens in design and architecture, the pendulum will soon start to swing in the opposite direction. It is fascinating to observe what occurs socially and economically that brings the popularity of these styles to an end, and the appearance of our architecture, both interior and exterior, to begin to change drastically. 

Stay with me in the weeks ahead to see the comparisons of what happened 100 years ago, to some of the happenings today, and what they may portend for the future of design.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website: www.patriciacove.com.

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