EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VICTORIAN STYLE
Whether you call one of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies home, or you just have a sweet spot for tassels and damask, Victorian style rightfully deserves a second glance. Encapsulating the years immediately prior to the turn of the 20th Century, the term “Victorian” was derived from Queen Victoria, the English Monarch who reigned from 1837 to 1901. The Victorian era, which celebrated lavishness at every turn, was essentially a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which flooded the economy with newly-minted upper class families. In turn, these new owners built grand houses laced with ornate detailing and splurge-worthy finishes like marble, stained glass, and miles of milled wood.
Today, Victorian houses are instantly recognizable for their peaked roofs, candy-coated hues, and exquisite details that look piped by hand. Victorian interiors, however, haven’t remained quite as favorable, with claw foot tubs and fainting couches falling the way of corsets and parasols. Yet, so many elements of Victorian style can actually be subtly reinterpreted to give homes a classic and romantic feel. Here, we break down the basics of Victorian style and give you three ways to modernize the look in your own home.
THE ANATOMY OF VICTORIAN STYLE
If there’s one thing to remember about Victorian style it’s that minimalism need not apply. Given that Victorian style was a celebration of riches, Victorians aimed to cover nearly every available surface with color, pattern, or texture. To give you a look inside the Victorian mindset, a minimalist room would have been deemed “in poor taste” in their book.
The Industrial Revolution meant that machine manufactured goods could play a role in interior for the first time. For Victorians, factory-produced wallpaper was at the top of their wish lists. Early wallpaper patterns included heavy florals and damasks—prints that were also routinely featured on fabrics of the era. Contrary to what photos of Victorian homes might make us think, Victorians actually favored light, pastel color. Rose, mint, and pale yellow all would have made a Victorian’s heart sing. If these colors seem contradictory to the dark colors you’ve seen used in vintage Victorian photographs, there’s a reason: bad lighting! That said, Victorians did have a soft spot for slightly more saturated hues like maroon and gold.
While wallpaper could be produced at high volumes, Victorian furniture was still almost entirely hand-crafted of wood. Dark woods like walnut and mahogany were preferred, but oak was also frequently used. Like Victorian homes, ornate details on furniture was considered to be the height of fashion. Early in the era, details were so ornate that pieces were often deemed “Gothic Revival” or “Rococo Revival,” conjuring up the lavish and flowery furniture of those previous eras. Hand-carvings lent these pieces their character, and pieces often possessed a number of carving features like spires, fleur-de-lis, and quatrefoils. As the era matured, Victorian living room furniture and other pieces took on more minimalist traits. Eastlake and Anglo-Japanese styles are later examples of Victorian style furniture, with each showcasing straight up and down planes. The minimalist qualities of both of these styles would later influence Arts and Crafts style, as well as Modernism.
If there’s one piece of Victorian furniture that could be classified as iconic, it’s the Victorian settee. A close cousin of the chaise and the fainting couch (let’s thank those corsets!), the Victorian settee is a small sofa usually featuring an elaborate wood frame and upholstered back and seat. Perfect for adorning a nook or parlor, the Victorian settee is both ornamental and functional, making it the staple of any Victorian home.
Victorians were just as maximalist when it came to implementing decorative accessories to their home. Tchotchkes were all the rage (a point perhaps no better illustrated by the fact that it was during the Victorian era that the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree originated!) Victorians piled in décor in the form of keepsake boxes, tabletop mirrors, books, and even curiosities like birdcages and rocking horses!
HOW TO MAKE VICTORIAN STYLE WORK IN THE MODERN HOME
Unless you live in a Victorian home with stained glass and dashing entry staircases, Victorian style can feel a little alienating. Yet a Victorian settee or Victorian style chair can be just the unexpected touch a modern living room or bedroom needs. To learn how to modernize Victorian style, we’re sharing three ways to modernize Victorian decor.
Swap Out Pattern for Solid Color
If you’re looking for a romantic furniture piece with boudoir vibes, you can’t do better than an authentic Victorian settees or Victorian style chair. That said, these pieces' curvy silhouettes are often dampened by dull fabrics in faded florals and quatrefoils. Thankfully, to prep a Victorian settee or chair for 21st Century living all you need is to swap out the fabric. If you’re going for a funky feel, try a quirky patterned print or a solid fabric in a shout-out-loud color like bubblegum or chartreuse. For a slightly more refined look, try a leopard print or a classic linen. The neutral fabric will make the furniture's wood framework the star of the show, and will set it up for easy mixing and matching with modern furniture. Similarly, if you’ve fallen in love with a Victorian desk or Victorian dresser, but its wood finish feels far too dated, give it a coat of solid color paint, be it black, or gray, or even navy.
Layer up on Rugs
Given that Victorians were dead set on cramming as much pattern and goodness into a room as they could, it’s no surprise that they were known for doubling up on rugs. For a tame take on the trend, layer an Turkish or Persian rug over a solid, tight-weave wool rug. If you’re craving something a bit more daring, opt for two patterned rugs in a single room (i.e. use one to define a living era and another a pass-through or nook, for instance).
Pleating, Tassels, and Fringe
In the Victorian era, pleating, tassels, and fringe were applied to just about everything, ranging from curtains to lampshades. While we love these details, they can often feel a little frou-frou when applied to tiny objects in excess. To make them feel fresh, look for big-scale furniture with details like pleating, fringe, and tassels. When applied to pieces of a larger scale furniture, these details assume a funky vibe that feels just right for the 21st Century.