The United States has recently experienced an interesting metamorphosis as we recall traditions that have made this country great from its beginning. In times of distress and war, many turn to their own traditions including faith in God, honor, duty, courage, family bonds, loyal friendship, and the safety and security of home.
These traditional values reflect many customers’ furnishing preferences, regardless of what cutting-edge design may try to persuade us into believing. As a result, in real life, traditional interior design is more popular than ever. We feel safe and secure living with furnishings that have withstood a test of time and still endure and endear today.
Traditional design reminds us that the great circle of life is as sure as the sun rising in the east, giving us stability during times of war, peace and stock market fluctuations.
How do we define and create good traditional design? The first step is to recognize which historic periods make up a traditional interior. There are two “levels” of traditional design: first, the formal or elegant style; and second, the upscale casual or less-formal style. Both are alive and well in today’s marketplace, and each has a role to play in satisfying our customers’ needs and wants.
FORMAL OR ELEGANT TRADITIONAL DESIGN
This is the single or combined use of the following European and American periods: Italian and French Renaissance, Baroque, French Rococo, Early and Late Georgian, Neoclassic, Federal, Greek Revival, Empire and Victorian. When these styles are kept pure within their respective periods, they reflect their individual “spirit of the times” that was cohesive.
Architecture, furniture, wall coverings, rugs, textile applications and even art and accessories all reflected the political, economic, trade and literary mood of a given time frame. A single period or traditional style has unity and strength. The downside to a pure approach is that the result may become museum-like and, as a result, may not be very livable.
Another approach to formal or elegant traditional design is to combine elements into a unique yet sophisticated look. Given that freedom today, we take selectively from these periods to create a contemporary traditional look. Contemporary meaning “what is being done today.” This approach is important because it gives us artistic license to redefine traditional on a daily basis.
As we design for individual clients, we are continually reminded that interior design can and should be unique for each person or family. No two humans are identical in their attitudes or approaches to life; everyone holds opinions and finds different textiles and furnishings akin to their tastes.
Formal design is important in cases in which the client prefers that the interior establishes a level of tasteful manners and good behavior. It is appropriate where interior architecture is exquisite and furnishings are precious and well-designed keepsakes, sometimes of the caliber of a museum piece.
It also is possible to combine styles and, over time, designers have realized that certain period styles seem to be more harmonious together. Groups of furnishing styles, for example, that combine well include:
1. Early Georgian (Queen Anne), Late Georgian (Chippendale) and Neoclassic styles.
2. Neoclassic and Empire styles.
3. Victorian, leaning toward one of its components, which are:
a. English Renaissance, known as Renaissance Revival
b. Court French Rococo, known as Rococo Revival
c. Country Cottage styling, based on the Palladian English estates where the fabric is the bond that holds together the look.
• Traditional Backgrounds—Common bonds of formal traditional style include period moldings or raised paneling, hardwood floors with fine area rugs, often Oriental, French Aubusson or Savonnerie, or Portuguese/ Chinese needlepoint. Fine art—especially oil painted landscapes in elaborate gilt frames—are always appropriate.
• Traditional Furniture—From the Georgian periods, Queen Anne (the attached, gentle cabriole leg) and Chippendale styles (claw-and-ball, ornate cabriole or straight Marlborough leg) are elegant choices.
Rococo furniture is easy to identify because of the feminine and well-proportioned curves on seat, legs, arms and backs.
Neoclassic furniture with its straight tapered legs and thimble feet was primarily that of George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton of England.
Empire furniture included English designer Duncan Phyfe, sometimes called Regency style with its cornucopia legs, and the heavy, profound style of English Beidermeier and American Empire pieces where masculine strength and straight legs predominated.
• Fabrics—Renaissance, Baroque (Late Renaissance) and Rococo fabrics often focused on elaborate, large-scale floral or leaf-based sprays (arrangements) set inside a scalloped leaf or ribbon frame. Damask fabrics are one color and reversible, brocades give the effect of embroidery, satin fabric is often used as a base cloth with its very smooth and refined face into which brocade or broché (cut brocade) is woven. Brocatelle is a textile that is heavier than damask, where the similar designs have more depth or seem to be in relief (puffed up).
Velvets were a strong element from the beginning of formal European Renaissance styling. Plain cotton velvet or velveteen is a classic, as is antique velvet with its streaked appearance. Cut velvets have woven designs, moquette velvets have loops and cut pile in multi colors with a plain weave (not velvet) background and panné velvets are either pressed in one direction or pressed in a pattern (contemporary).
Neoclassic fabric patterns became delicate in scale and motif. Close-set stripes with climbing floral elements wrapped around it was a favorite. The honeysuckle blossom, tiny interlacing laurel leaves were appropriate for the delicate Sheraton/Hepplewhite furniture. Today this style is very popular, but size has been increased to be appropriate for very large-scale furnishings set in large scale interiors which are prolific today.
Empire fabrics became plain satins and included brocaded isolated motifs taken from Napoleon’s interpretation of Greco-Roman designs: the Caesar’s laurel wreath, the honey bee (symbol of his army), the Greek lyre and the snowflake are all classics. Stripes made by contrasting the crammed repp and satin weaves were wide and commanding. Today, large-scale stripes are joined by a larger scale motif to meet the over scaled specifications. Everything is bigger now.
Finishing touches are imperative in a formal traditional interior. To include passementerie (trimmings) is the icing on the cake, and unacceptable (from a purist’s point of view) without it. Some periods used more trim than others, and scale is an obvious point of sensitivity. In a smaller scale Neoclassic room the fringe will be refined and delicate, in the Victorian interior with its combination of all former styles of textiles fringe became heavy and the long twisted boulle fringe seen on draperies and upholstery defined the rigor of the period.
The overall effect of a traditional room is elegance, richness, a bit of wondrous indulgence and an anchoring, tenacious feeling that no matter what happens in the world, this still will be here. It’s good, safe, secure design. Formal traditional design fills up the senses and gives peace.
LAVISH TRADITIONAL DESIGN
This traditional interpretation is created by using a few nice pieces of traditional furniture, listed above, and applying the Victorian concept of “if a little is good, a lot must be better.”
This look lends itself to interiors where personal styling is the guiding force. Lots of fabric, everywhere the client and design professional can think to place it, gives an impression of “I’m here to stay!” It is the stamp of personality using fabrics from any of the historic periods in colors that are in style at the time of selection. It is a look of indulgence and lavishness.
LESS FORMAL TRADITIONAL DESIGN
The other direction in traditional design is a newer interpretation that has recently established itself. It is outside the formal definition discussed above because it is barely 100 years old. It is the application of Arts and Crafts, or the renewal of the English Elizabethan Medieval period. Today it has much the same effect as formal traditional, except that it feels more earthy, more suited for common life, more suited for everyday activities. It succeeds because of the simple lines of Gustav Stickley’s mission furniture combined with the genius of William Morris’ complex textiles.
Morris designs are plant-based textile furnishing and wall covering designs in colorations that range from subtle to strikingly fresh. These richly overlaid textiles are the qualifying element that assure acceptance into the realm of Less Formal Traditional.
Morris often began with a lightly colored overall pattern of, for example, leaves. Over this background he fashioned more dramatic plant elements, sometimes in surprisingly vivid colorations that were rigorous and bold, often in the blue and yellow or red and blue families, yet surprisingly natural and livable. A bit of fun in motifs such as the wren stealing a raspberry (The Raspberry Thief) made his works seem real and even humorous. His influence has been far reaching and has itself become a new genre of accepted style: less formal traditional.
From the Morris influence have sprung many textiles with a somewhat similar feel but which are not restricted to plant and animal life. Geometric forms, stylized elements from nature and overall complex designs regardless of the inspiration, all work well with Stickley-like furnishings and turn-of-the-20th-century architectural elements—the look of the “big old house” with art glass, tall ceilings and lots of woodwork.
Area rugs might be influenced by Morris; they may be of an ethnic styling, or they may be natural fiber rugs with only a textural element in their favor.
Overall, this updated style gives a sense of comfort, hominess, and a low-tech background for our high-tech lives.
Tradition! Yes! Traditional design may link us not only to our past, but to our inner values and to the future we all hope will be safe, secure and peaceful. Living with this style can give us hope and optimism that these desires will indeed be a reality.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.