We create Victorian interiors so skillfully with such great results today, that to create an "authentic" Victorian look is much less appealing than today's interpretation. Authentic Victorian was overbearing, often ill-proportioned, over- furnished and over-furbelowed. The interiors often were cluttered, dark and depressing.
What was wonderful during that time were the gardens. Victorians were avid gardeners and passionate about flowers. It was the impact of flowers as exampled by Waverly's Roses, Roses, Roses collection in the 1980s that established the resurgence of interest in things Victorian, and the recreation of Victorian rooms.
The Victorian era was a time when nearly everything was mass-produced, bringing to the public for the first time an abundance of affordable merchandise. The philosophy of "if a little is good, a lot must be better" resulted in rooms that were over decorated, overstuffed and, today, busy. But sometimes they were very beautiful.
Magazines that feature Victoriana are among the most well circulated periodicals today. Their popularity is undisputed. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans who are romantically nostalgic, a fact which has long intrigued me. Why are so many people so thematically romantic in their decorating tastes? Here are some possible reasons:
1. The Victorian era was a romantic era of gathering artistic and nostalgic furnishings and accessories from any era of the past and combining them in a personal, eclectic manner. Organized clutter is a comforting, individual statement -- particularly when each item has some significance or meaning to us.
2. The Victorian era was a time of gracious gentility, when people cultivated good manners, refinement, beautiful gardens and had time to "take tea." Let's face it, how many people today have the time for tea?
Therefore, if we can create an interior reminiscent of that era, then when we enter and repose in that room we likewise feel some of the cordiality of the era. We can forget for a few moments or hours the stress and pressures of living in the 1990s. Back then there were no fax machines, pagers or other devices that demanded immediate attention or action. Life was slower. There actually was time to smell the roses.
3. Since roses became a favorite flower during the Victorian era, they influenced floral designs that are the focus of Victorian-style fabrics and wall coverings today. The roses-only rage has waned, but in their place are many of the other Victorian flowers depicted in bouquets or isolated in today's prints.
These flowers include: tulips, narcissus, iris, allium, lilac, sweet william, foxglove, delphinium, hollyhock, daisy, sunflower, forget-me-not, peony, chrysanthemum, coral bells, day lily (varieties), lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart, stocks, crocus, primrose and pansies. These flowers, and many others, seem to take turns at being a trend inspiration. Recently, we have seen sunflowers and pansies galore, for example.
Gardening today is the number one hobby and these perennials and bulbs are more popular than ever (of course, so are annuals), but the flowers that come up faithfully on their own year after year seem to give us stability. They connect us to the past and imbue an ages-of-the-earth wisdom, or a connection to great people and philosophies of yesteryear.
Floral creations are real. In our gardens we can create a palette of color, form and never-ending blooms that bring out the artist in each of us. If gardens can feed the soul, then floral fabrics, wall coverings, silk or dried arrangements and floral accessories all speak to our hearts.
4. Victorian is often considered synonymous with Country England, and America seems to never let go of its love affair with Victorian Country England -- the "Secret Garden" setting -- need I say more?
How to Create a Victorian Room
1. Start with a great fabric or floor covering. This may or may not be floral in pattern. Consider stripes, Scottish-inspired plaids or paisley. If a floral is your choice, it can be a large, medium or small scale pattern in bouquets or alone, as part of a trellis pattern, or an all-over composition.
Other patterns that were used during the Victorian era included classic damask patterns with Renaissance and Neoclassic patternsÑpatterns with a medieval or Elizabethan look: crewel, flamestitch or Gothic designs. Scenic patterns mixed with florals, and double-design fabrics. Damasks and prints for example are also Victorian.
2. Decide where to put the pattern. Often, impact is achieved by repeating the fabric(s). Here are some good choices in order of largest to smallest application.
Draperies and Valances: Floral or striped/combination draperies, and even plaid sometimes, are a delight to the eye. They set the stage for lavish visual richness. Floral fabrics make wonderful valances, even in rooms where less pattern is preferred.
Long draperies, straight, tied back and perhaps puddled are definitely Victorian-inspired. Combine these with sheer or lace underdraperies, shutters (or wood blinds) or alternate window treatments. Pleated or cellular shades, or shading systems products, can be lovely and practical companions that cover the glass allowing you to be artistic with the fabric that frames the window.
Valances are a great way to set a Victorian theme. Swags were and are especially popular. Layered and heavy, fringed or ruffled, deep and full -- that's a Victorian window treatment.
Wall Treatments: Walls with patterns often are a key element in Victorian interiors. Wall coverings that coordinate are perfect, and borders originated in the Victorian era, so they, too, are "right."
The idea of the chair rail, crown or cornice molding and raised paneling is a Georgian carry-over and was used in more formal rooms as they are today. Fireplace mantelpieces that are authentically Victorian were heavily carved on the face and have a round arch opening. However, these are not very popular and Georgian or Neoclassic or Empire mantles usually are preferred.
Upholstery or Bedding: Sofas and chairs are great places to put Victorian fabrics. Using the same fabric on at least one upholstery piece as is used on the window is a way to link the patterns and make the room more unified. Solid and textured fabrics, plaids, stripes and other florals in different sizes can work wonderfully well as upholstery. With the current trend toward the mix-and-match look on sofas and chairs, some real fun can be had. And don't overlook the ottoman. Victorian ottomans today are significant, doubling as cocktail tables on which magazines, refreshments and resting feet can happily co-exist.
Authentic Victorian details included deep boule fringe, gimp, moss-edge fringe on upholstery and luxurious tufting. The overstuffed look is purely Victorian, and this is the era of the men's club chair and the ladies fireside chair, the settee and tête-à-tête (a sofa where two backs faced opposite directions and curved toward each other).
Cast iron from the assembly line was especially popular during the Victorian era and is today. Many rooms feature at least one iron piece. Large ottomans are another item that has received a popularity revival.
Coordinating bedspreads, comforters or coverlets, bed skirts or dust ruffles and pillow shams is a sure key to success in Victorian rooms. Be sure they are carefully coordinated with the window treatment, wall coverings and floor covering so the bed is not a stand-alone item -- that is a no-no. It must be part of a bigger, lavish theme.
Flooring: Floor coverings often were the focus of attention, with wall-to-wall patterned carpet overlaid with Oriental rugs, and perhaps even a bear-skin rug atop the Oriental! Today, it is much more tasteful to overlay a plain, plush wall-to-wall cut pile with an area rug that is real or faux needlepoint -- yes, in floral designs -- with a light or dark background. Surround the rug with wood flooring if desired.
Pillows, Accessories, Accents or Trimmings: The hallmark of Victorian decorating is the emphasis on organized clutter. Charm is inherent in the busy, delectable detailing of a contemporary Victorian interior. Each corner, shelf, window treatment, tabletop and bed area is filled with visual wonders.
Luxurious pillows piled out nearly to the middle of the bed, frames and objects d'art, lamps and potpourri, ribbons and trimmings, books and fragrant drawer liners and, of course, fresh or imitation flowers all are a part of the complete Victorian interior. Its sensuousness carries us away to a time of lavish indulgence -- an appreciation for fine things and a few moments to enjoy it
Everyone deserves a little bit of romance and nostalgia. Those who find it are often enjoying a Victorian interior.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, IDEC, 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.