Aesthetic Preference – European Traditional/Victorian

All Traditional Contemporary Living Room. Photo:

First, some thoughts about language

The “Traditional Aesthetic” is a catch-all term understood to mean general Western European/British design with visual roots in Victorian Era styles, which themselves include revivals of even earlier styles. Queen Anne style is an excellent example, which according to this neat website, was most popular between 1880 to around 1910, while Queen Anne herself reigned rather briefly in the early 1700’s. It means an enjoyment of antiques, reproductions, revivals of older styles, and contemporary adaptations of older styles. This post is not about the historical time-line of furniture design, but rather how these many European eras of design broadly inform the contemporary incarnation of this aesthetic and the aficionado’s appreciation of antiques, repros and so on.

However, this is a challenging aesthetic preference to write about, because the word itself, “Traditional”, in this context, assumes that the default meaning is in the sense of Western European history. This essentially forces the many other aesthetic ideas that belong to traditions outside of the Western European culture to use specifying qualifiers. For example, “Traditional Native American” or “Traditional Ethiopian” or many other national, spiritual, or ethnic groups.

This is a minor instance of a larger linguistic problem that is one ongoing manifestation of implicit and institutional bias. To redress this, I won’t say only “Victorian” or “Neo-Classical” as that leaves out the Baroque end of the style rather entirely, but rather “European Traditional”, with the full understanding that this still lumps in (and leaves out) some European cultures with distinct aesthetics of their own, and tends to refer to the accouterments of the upper classes and wealthy.

Additionally, this very era was the height of the imperialist colonization of many of these other traditions, with the architectural sowing particularly noticeable. Here’s a neat site showing some existing colonial architecture in Hong Kong. Any one of these buildings would be perfectly at home in Sydney. One of the remarkable and brilliant things about designers, including architects, is their ability to take influences, even imposed strictures, and absorb and incorporate them into their own artistic heritage. Here is a site showing some public buildings that date from the British Raj period in India.

Flagstaff House, Hong Kong. Photo: vhines200/flicr

European Traditional today

There is often a very strong element of functionality, and many design aspects such as shapes or proportions were a direct response to the original usage and other design factors or influences. For example, chairs with lower arms and a wider seat allowed people wearing voluminous garments to sit more comfortably. Today’s Queen Anne chairs, for example, will be narrower in the seat and the “fiddle-back”. It is a contemporary and populist aesthetic preference, redolent with history, and full of repeated motifs and shapes, but accessible. Some might even consider it too conservative and even dull.

The foundation of this aesthetic is solidity, strength and continuity – strong columns, heavy wood pieces, a lot of wood, especially in oak, walnut, cherry, and mahogany (an exotic wood that implies wealth) and often darker staining – but not too much black. Cabinets, sideboards, cupboards, credenzas, bureaus and chests-of-drawers feature. The silhouette is important, with curves, curves, curves – curved legs, arms, and backs – but so is ornament often in the form of 3D carvings. Even rectangular tables will have curved beveled edges, rather than sharp angles. Less over-stuffed upholstery, more wood arms and visible framing around the upholstery, but also tufted seat backs and leather, and don’t forget the modern innovation – a recliner. Interior pieces tend to be in sets that match or at least coordinate across different functional rooms.

The pieces are firmly grounded. It is the opposite of Nordic Minimalism (post coming soon) and Mid-Century Modern – pieces from those aesthetics feel out-of-place inserted into a European Traditional décor scheme. The opposite is not true – a single antique, like a gilt mirror or crystal chandelier, can be a focal point within a minimalist room. Actually, contemporary renditions of older items tend to simplification, slightly less serpentine curves, sparer carvings and calmer imagery. The original designs lend themselves to adaptation and reproduction in every subsequent era, it seems.

This might be your preference if you stick to the original Sherlock Holmes rather than any of the modern iterations, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, straightforward adaptations of books and plays in the original rather than wildly altered. You could prefer a well-tended rose garden to a yard filled with wildflowers. Muted stripes in harmonious hues. You might prefer a wall of family portraits. A string of real pearls, like so many of Fragonard’s women. Any historical drama film from the mid-20th Century will feature a hodgepodge of traditional furniture in the set decoration.

The Little Foxes (1941) with Bette Davis. Reportedly, Davis quarreled with the Director, William Wyler, over the level of opulence in the set, which she felt was too much for a family financially struggling – but one could also argue that this was just the family’s old stuff from before the time period of the film (1910’s), and that they were trying to keep up appearances.

The serenity and solidity of this kind of home and environment provide a secure place from which to explore. Neo-classical can be especially reassuring in some professional environments, like a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. The style is meant to convey the impression of good old-fashioned reliability and affluence, and the idea of inherent quality that can be passed down. Neo-classical pieces work well with 1930’s style club chairs and leather sofas. They have more straight lines, and simpler silhouettes.

Neo-Classic Office Furniture – Montserrat Home Design Catalog

People play with the conventions by adding Post-Modernism, altering the iconic elements, such as painting a Queen Anne chair bright pink and upholstering it with polka dots. Often these pieces form the basis of a Shabby Chic treatment. If it is just a repro, not a valuable antique, why not paint it all white, with shot silk upholstery set in a creamy cottage interior. It is actually tremendously versatile, representing everything from conservative stately values, to luxury and opulence.

Pink Rococo Chair

Baroque, Versailles and Rococo

In history Baroque, sometimes called Versailles after the well-know bastion of luxurious excess, gave way to Rococo, and Rococo gave way to Neo-Classicism. Today all these variations exist together. As a continuum of taste, just as Art Deco morphs into Hollywood Glamor, European Traditional morphs into Baroque styles. Chestnut and Walnut stains become gilt, stripes become floral brocade, and the shapes become torturous and more extreme. Angels and mythological figures, an idealized view of nature, feature in art and tchotchkes. Stylistically, Queen Anne is at the Baroque end of European Traditional, as distinct from Neo-Classical.

French Rococo chairs by Louis Delanois (1731–92); in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris.
Courtesy of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris; photograph by Eddy van der Veen

Part of the development of European Traditional includes the revival of Chippendale style furniture, which has a lightness to it, influenced by Art Nouveau at the end of the 19th Century, and, ironically, Chinese Chippendale and other chinoiserie where the styles and techniques of Chinese, Japanese and other Asian influences were appropriated and recreated by European, especially English, artisans as part of the transition into Art Deco. My mother-in-law had a chinoiserie enameled folding screen from this period.

The folding screen – and some chairs painted pink with leopard print upholstery made by Tony Duquette.

Rococo began as a reaction against the excess of the original Versailles-style display. It was meant to be intimate rather than palatial. To the modern eye, the curlicues and ornament still feel conspicuous, the paintings still have a surfeit of romantic detail and hyper-realism. Yet, it is remarkable what scale can do – Rococo jewelry feels absolutely contemporary.

And for some, The Sun King’s original intention of creating an egregious display of wealth and superiority still motivates the use of the style.

Donald and Melania’s sitting room in New York. Photo by Sam Horine for Refinery 29

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” ~ Oscar Wilde.

Coming tomorrow: A “Try It Tuesday” post.