In the literal sense, classic design means the styles from the Classical Greek (ca. 400 B.C., the Golden Age) and Imperial Roman (200 B.C. – 400 A.D.) eras. Today, we have much that we owe these two great civilizations, not the least among our debts is beautiful architecture and the flowing use of fabrics as couture—especially in Roman society—which later became flowing fabric at windows and as upholstery.
With the demise of the Roman Empire, the European world was left in a cultural downward tailspin until the unifying force of Christianity again gave meaning to architectural achievement. European inhabitants honed and combined their skills and labors to create extraordinary cathedrals and churches. Some Medieval gentry lived in castles, to be sure, but their standard of living compared to ours was primitive.
With the European Renaissance, which had its roots in Florence, Italy, beginning in 1420 A.D., the authentic Greco-Roman Classics began to come together in a way that profoundly influenced our furnishings today.
Renaissance architectural background elements included raised paneled walls; molded window frames; niches for ornamental statuary (or today, gorgeous floral arrangements); and high, sometimes coffered or beamed, ceilings that often were finished with a combination of moldings where the wall meets the ceiling. The higher the wall, the deeper the molding, both at the ceiling and as baseboard.
Windows as architectural features became beautiful contributing elements as the art of glassmaking was discovered, having been preserved by monks as makers of stained glass. Moldings around windows became status symbols.
Fabrics included velvets (as in Genoan, Venetian and Florentine velvets), large foliage bouquets in damask weave, brocade and many other delectable textiles. Magnificent marble, tile or parquet (patterned) wood floors were left uncovered until later eras when precious oriental rugs came off the tables and were laid on the floors for insulation and comfort to be (shutter!) walked on.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. These background elements are in continual use today as impeccably wonderful architecturally handsome spaces waiting to be filled with traditional furnishing treasures.
Classic is a word that is often used to describe well-appointed traditional interiors. When we say something is classic, we often mean that it’s ambience is based on furnishings that have stood the test of time, just as beautiful a few hundred years ago when the items were new as they are in homes today.
The term traditional in interior design has another definition, useful to all who design, specify, select, sell, install and live with furnishings. It is the application of backgrounds and elements, furniture, lighting, textiles and accessories from the following historic periods: Renaissance and Baroque, Early and Late Georgian, French Court Rococo, European Neoclassic and American Federal, Greek Revival and American Empire, and Victorian.
Of interest is the fact that in all these periods, the only one that was overfilled and over-decorated was the Victorian era. The other periods held restraint as a valued hallmark. So let us first consider that traditional design is not necessarily overdone. It can be fairly simple. This is a critical factor, as we are now living in an age of renewed mid-century modern starkness. Traditional design is not mutually exclusive of clean appearing interiors, nor does it need to feel that it is of an antiquated historic period. No! Just the opposite is true. It is alive, vibrant and beautiful and has a wide range of looks, as the period names themselves represent.
It is also important to understand that, in traditional design, each of the periods listed above do have an authenticity. It is recommended study for all in the interior design profession, and seminars on these periods are offered at the upcoming D&WC Designer & Workroom Conference in August.
In each historic style, there was a “spirit of the times” where all elements including furnishings and decorative arts were designed to carry out the theme or style, which was often based on socio-political and geographic discoveries and influences of import trade.
Authentic period furnishings have been valued in America since the Beaux Arts period (c. 1880-1945) where “pure” style was held in highest esteem in residential and nonresidential architecture. Today, a visit to great hotels, art and history museums, homes, theatres and other places often reveals a period theme replicated with authenticity with regard to our contemporary senses. In other words, not everything from a period style is still lovely to us today, although much of it is. The skill of the designer is to synthesize the most appealing of historic elements for occupied spaces in our day.
The classic look of traditional design in the vast majority of present-day applications is eclectic, meaning a blending of styles including some items that are clearly out of context but fresh, unexpected and exhilarating, such as a piece of modern sculpture, wall art or artistic lighting in an otherwise traditional room.
Contemporary is what is being done today. Thus, contemporary traditional eclectic describes all the photos accompanying this article and those in the Portfolio section that follows. (Note: The term contemporary can be freely used to describe all styles of interior design, such as Contemporary Craftsman, Contemporary Country American or Contemporary French, for example).
The great traditional looks of today have their roots clearly in styles of the past, but now include the ease and convenience of low-upkeep, new manufactured materials and textiles, mechanical features such as rolling shades, motorization and specialty applications that give us artistic latitude never imagined in any past historic time period. At our fingertips are not only the loveliness of each extraordinarily accomplished style with all its decorative components, but also the ability to put them together in ways that are right for our contemporary lifestyles.
CLASSIC WINDOW TREATMENTS
Traditional window treatments are usually layered. It surprises many people to know that even in the 18th century (1700s) that two-inch blinds were used. They were referred to as Venetian blinds (as in Venice, Italy). Raised panel shutters, and in later periods moveable louvered shutters, were favored as well. Today, under-treatments with horizontal lines such as blinds, shutters or folding shades and woven woods look well as privacy treatments, and are handsome from the exterior.
Over-treatments such as draperies have always been based on long flowing fabric lines, more vertical than deeply curved except for American Empire, French Rococo and Victorian treatments, which were sometimes dramatically festooned in their tied back effects. Slender lines were most often used, as traditional windows were narrow. Keeping these same proportions on wider windows (as separated tied back draperies) are usually most aesthetically pleasing.
Top treatments often are included in classic window treatments. They may be straight or shaped valances or a variety of swag or festoon styles with their accompanying cascades and perhaps jabots, rosettes and detailing. They also may include beautiful designer hardware exposed under a number of pleated heading styles and as ornament to hold tiebacks and rope trimmings.
Trimmings are an essential, non-negotiable finishing touch in traditional window treatments. The collective body of trimmings is known as passementerie and includes fringe, braid, gimp, tassels, rope and a host of other categories. Colors of passementerie add an undeniable richness to traditional window coverings.
That brings us to color. Colors in traditional settings are often rich hues in middle to low value and closely related. A more profound palette often gives a traditional interior a sense of stateliness and historic value—as though time has deepened the colors making them somehow more important.
This is, of course, psychological and contemporary. Historic palettes were specific and often saturated, but sometimes very pale, and other times pretty and lovely. As colors today are fashion-statements, the best approach is to establish the color scheme based on a great fabric, a fabulous rug or a valued piece of art. For interiors where authenticity is paramount, selecting colors that were in-period will be preferred over contemporary color combinations.
Traditional styling will never go out of fashion. Having withstood the test of time for hundreds of years and being loved more than ever before, we see traditional, classic fabrics and furnishings, rich color and finely appointed detailing have become luxurious, classic interior design elements. Use them with confidence for your customers who want many years of value for the money they invest in their surroundings.
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.