The visual wealth of historically significant periods is being unfolded before us today. We see them interpreted in fabric, wall coverings, furniture, flooring and art and accessory items that assist today's creative design professionals to fashion interiors with a look of a particular time and place in history, romantically far away but close by in our imaginations.
In a recent article published in the U.S. Air Magazine, more than 600 million people visited museums in 1995. That is more than the number who attended movies, sporting events and rock concerts combined. It represents an intense public interest in historic elements and a fascination for culture, artifacts and patterns. Home furnishings designers and manufacturers often turn to museum collections for inspiration in creating new lines. Two elements seem to combine to create success in historic interiors. These are:
1. The level of public fascination with the era.
2. The coloration, sophistication and fresh interpretation of the historic elements, whether it is on target with what we today consider to be beautiful and vogue.
What's Vogue about Antiquity?
Antique feels very comfortable to many people today, perhaps as a reaction against the technology age in which we are trapped. Reasons why furnishings of a past time and distant place have appeal include these:
* The desire for gentility. The gracious quality of life of a historic or ancient upper society family is within reach of many people today. There is a genuine need and longing in today's lifestyle for good manners and sophisticated beauty.
Gentility also suggests a slowing down of life (particularly compared to today's hectic pace) and the ability and determination to savor the moment, to cherish the association of friends and family, to show respect for others and express interest in their well-being. These mannerly traits might come more naturally in an environment of quality, richness and attention to artistic detail. Sound romantic? You bet!
* The security of tried and true design. There is a comfort in knowing we can own designs that have survived the test of time -- that they already have been judged and found worthy of the fine design label. Designs that have remained or resurfaced as classic motifs, colors, overall designs or forms help us create interiors that feel classy yet safe; intriguing yet conservative. This combination feels good to many people today.
Creating the Look
There are two directions we can take in creating a look of antiquity. One is the traditional antique interior; the other reflects excavated designs of the ancient world. A look at both of these design directions will reveal some similarities and some differences.
* Traditional Antique Interiors. Traditional antique interiors are those with the American or European flavor of our historic past. Antiques in furniture generally are accepted as those over 75 to 100 years old (semi-antiques are 25 to 75 years old.)
Periods from which traditional antiques come include Baroque, Early and Late Georgian (D&WC, May 1996), Neoclassic or Federal, Empire (D&WC, June 1996) and Victorian (D&WC, July 1996). The traditional antique interior can follow the period precisely. Or it can follow it loosely by focusing on items that closely reflect authenticity with some pieces of furniture and fabrics, or even art or accessories, actual antiques or reproductions of antiques.
Specific furnishings and colors for the periods listed above have been the topics of past articles. In a nutshell, however, these periods often used wood floors overlaid with Oriental rugs, or wall-to-wall patterned carpeting in the Empire and Victorian eras. During some periods, such as the Baroque and Early and Late Georgian era through the Victorian period, wallpapers were used progressing from large scenic hand-painted imports beginning in the 1750s to mass-produced floral and traditional or classic patterns in the 1800s.
Furniture and accessory styles are period-specific. Early Georgian furniture is largely Queen Anne; Late Georgian styles are made from Thomas Chippendale pattern books; Neoclassic and Federal furniture were copies of the works of Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. Duncan Phyfe's (Regency) designs spanned Neoclassic and Empire. Empire furniture was inspired by Napoleon and the Beidermeier movement in northern Europe.
Long draperies are consistent in every period except Early Georgian in which valances only over blinds or shutters and bare windows were more common. Swags are appropriate for every period also, although they became heavy in scale and ornamentation in the Empire and Victorian eras when passementerie also was excessively long and heavy. Sheers were seen as early as the Late Georgian era (1751-1790) mainly as Austrian sheer shades, and by the Empire period sheers were being produced for underdraperies or printed overdraperies with a heavy valance. Lace fabric at the window was the rage in the Victorian era.
Colors were most intense during the Baroque, Late Georgian and Empire periods; dull in the Early Georgian; pale or pastel in the Neoclassic; and dark or somber in the Victorian era.
All of these elements constitute styles of the past that form marvelous selections for today's interiors. Living with the patina of antique or historic furnishings makes life itself a richer experience.
* The Ancient World. Antiquity, or the ancient world, usually is considered to be the classical civilizations, which include the Golden Age of Greece (around 500 BC), the Imperial Age of Rome (570 BC to 476 AD) and fragments of cultures that were discovered by archaeologists -- the world of the Mycean, ancient Egypt, China, India and even the pre-Columbian cultures of the Maya and Aztec.
Prehistoric means before history was written, so there are dozens of civilizations or cultures that qualify for antiquity. As a general rule, ancient worlds do not encompass the Medieval era.
Because ancient cultures are lost to us in their fullness, we cannot create exact or even adapted interiors with any semblance of authenticity. Instead, we use bits and pieces of ancient artifacts or reproductions in today's interiors as artwork or as focal points such as inspiration for wall coverings; textile designs for draperies, bedding and linens; upholstery; rugs; and hardware styling. Often the interior will be decidedly neutral or contemporary with a single item that reflects the ancient world. This makes the focal point or accent all the more exciting. It is as though we have created a tantalizing glimpse into a forgotten time and place that still exists in the imagination.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.