To showcase the technical advances made throughout the English Empire the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in Hyde Park in the Crystal Palace, a structure made of steel and covered with more than one million feet of glass. Steel making was a featured exhibit, and envelope machines, the jacquard loom, and kitchen appliances were among the 13,000 displays.
How did this revolution impact design and furnishings? With the advent of machinery, there was a mass exodus to the cities from the small countryside shops where for centuries limited quantities of furniture had been made by hand. In the cities factories could mass produce great quantities at lower prices. The days when one person would see a job from start to finish was replaced by an assembly line mentality. Hand carving was at a minimum. Instead flat “cookie cutter” shapes and lathe turned spindles and legs provided the majority of decoration. Original designs and inspirations took second place to mass production.
The Victorian age spawned revivals of rococo, Egyptian, Renaissance, and Gothic styles with a touch of Turkish and Islamic influences thrown in for good measure
Victorian furniture, in general, was massive, dark, tasseled, fringed and over tufted. The motto seemed to be: if some is good, then more is better. Exotic woods were popular, including ebony, black walnut and rosewood. New furniture forms included what-nots, to display keepsakes brought back from travels and all upholstered furniture (with newly invented coil springs. For the first time drawer locks had the word “Lever” engraved on the top. If a chest has the original drawer lock with this marking, it can be dated as a Victorian piece. If the wood around the lock has been tampered with during the replacing of the lock, the item is pre-Victorian. The preferred style of drawer pulls was of the large, single knob variety in glass or wood. Look on the back side of drawer fronts, if there is evidence of several sets of pulls (drilled holes where the pulls were attached) and one was a single knob, the chest is Victorian or earlier. Then check the front of the drawer, any holes on the back should match filled holes on the front of the drawer, if not, perhaps the piece has been re-veneered.
Designer William Morris became the father of the Arts and Crafts movement when he rebelled against the quantity over quality and eclectic approaches in the decorative arts. A socialist, he sought to bring back simple hand crafted furniture that featured simple construction and honest design, most often produced in oak. His designs of wallpaper, carpets and fabrics repeated this thinking.
John Henry Belter, a German immigrant living in New York, was a Victorian designer who invented the method of laminating many thin layers of rosewood at alternating 90 degree angles producing plywood that could be heavily carved and pierced while maintaining the structural integrity. While Belter did use a machine to laminate, the carving was all done by hand. Rococo Revival furniture by Belter is some of the most collectible of the period. A parlor set can be seen at Bayou Bend Museum in Houston.
Whether or not you choose to live with or even like Victorian furniture, there are bits and pieces of the arts that can be appreciated.
*Published in NFocus magazine in July 2000.