In a previous life, I was a re-enactor; but not like those folks slogging around muddy fields dressed in Civil War garb: I was obsessed with the decorative arts of 1878-1883. Everything in my home had been manufactured or painted during that period. Over the years, I had vetted what I considered the lesser pieces outside of those parameters; I liked to think that a time-traveler from 1880 could step into my house and feel right at home.
Only they wouldn’t have; they would’ve thought they were in the showroom of some Victorian furniture store.
You see, no one except the exceedingly wealthy suddenly woke up on the morning of say, June 7th 1855, and thought “We’re gonna decorate our shiny new Second Empire Mansard with nothing but Rococo Revival furnishings! All of that ratty Federal and Empire crap is going straight into the carriage house!” Nope, we would’ve moved into our Mansard right along with our grandmother’s Chippendale chest-on-frame and the Gothic side-chair we had purchased just after we got married.
People have always dragged their possessions from household to household, whether it was by sentiment or economics. If you study period interior photographs or paintings of actual dwellings (as opposed to advertisements or designer’s renderings), you’ll rarely see one that contains furnishings that were all made within a year of each other. Careful scrutiny will always reveal items from a previous era.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the way a house’s interior slowly evolved over time than the Gibson House Museum in Boston’s Back Bay. Built in 1859, it was owned by the same family for nearly a century before becoming a museum in the 1950s. While the interior architectural finishes are decidedly a blend of the popular Renaissance and Rococo Revivals, the stairwell paper is an 1880s faux embossed leather from Japan. The house’s furnishings run the gamut of styles: Federal chairs, Empire console table, Turkish upholstered divans and a magnificent aesthetic movement bamboo bedroom set, along with the walnut bookcases original to the house itself.
Although museums are our first, and often best, exposure to historic interiors, the high-style period rooms at some of the well-known museums can also be somewhat misleading. These installations are designed to educate to a specific time, and while they may represent the home or collection of a wealthy individual, these rooms can also be an assemblage of parts that, while serving a critical educational aspect to us, may also lead us to believe that this was the standard of the period. Yes, there were a lot of Carpenter Gothic houses built in the 1840s, but there were a lot more folks still embracing the Greek Revival.
This constant stylistic evolution continues in every home. Nowhere has a period in time been less pure than the 1890-1910: We had three major design trends colliding head-on: American Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival and Late Victorian/Aesthetic Movement, along with the occasional bit of Art Nouveau that may have snuck over from the Continent. Interiors for this period were a gleefully impure mélange of any or all of these styles. Yes, furniture makers advertised entire homes of Mission furniture, but in reality, you were more than likely to find a reddish mahogany Victrola adjacent to that fumed oak settle.
The same holds true throughout the 20th century as well. Think about it; have you ever been in a home of someone who wasn’t a collector that was stylistically pure to any given period? How many Eames chairs have you seen placed on oriental rugs? Or waterfall bedroom sets with a little Victorian table off in the corner?
Some of us collect a certain style because we hold it dear above all other styles, and that supersedes our desire to create a historically accurate interior. Others among us wish to be eclectic; choosing from a wide variety of periods which reflect a connoisseur-ship, but defy the normal course of events in the evolution of the home.
For those desiring to recreate an interior with an authentic feel that observes the natural progression of decorative styles, it’s important to use logic that emulates the passing of the decades, lest they merely create a collection of various decorative objects. Think in terms of your own childhood home; there were familial pieces and things added over the roughly two decades you spent there. Some are to be kept, others discarded: Grandma’s dining table, yes your black light posters, well…at least into the attic with them. But the goal is to recreate 20 or 30 years of a lifetime, and not acquire everything that was available from the Sears catalog of 1977.
Wall, floor and ceiling finishes are one way to convey a feeling of the passing of time. Many old rooms can be found to have the carpeting that might have been installed with the completion of the house, but as their corresponding wallpapers became obsolete through wear or fashion in a much shorter period of time, say about 10 years, the homeowner could not afford to replace a still perfectly good (and expensive) carpet. Thus, it is not at all unusual to find floor-coverings that at stylistically incongruous with the wall and ceiling treatments. This being said, those of us designing our circa 1900 Arts & Crafts parlor nuanced with the slightest touch of Colonial Revival just can’t bring ourselves to place an Eastlake strip carpet on the floor; we’ll still want to coordinate them. We can still place earlier furnishings to lend the desired effect.
Employ the methods of many a house museum curator: begin with a period of interpretation. Research what were the appropriate furnishings of that time, as well as the decades leading up to it. Perhaps you’ll build the room around a favorite antique, such as a parlor set or a bedroom suite. Bring in earlier incidental pieces such as small tables and/or side chairs. You can recreate an old “updating” of an interior by adding an over-mantel mirror from a later decade, say an Eastlake piece on top of a Classical mantle. The goal is to capture the progression of time instead of being a compulsive collector.
Friends of mine in Springfield, Massachusetts wanted to use electricity and acknowledge its presence, as they were smitten with Tiffany lighting. Working backwards from that point, they’ve collected pieces originating in the 1870s and 1880s, but there’s an 1820s fall-front desk, and many early 20th century items as well, including Oriental rugs. Their kitchen is about as original as humanly possible, with an antique gas stove and a monitor-top refrigerator. Walking through their home, one truly does feel as if they’ve stepped back into the first quarter of the 20th century. There is no sense of artifice or installation here; the aura is the same as Gibson House, that this is someone’s home, and not a period room in a museum.
Dan Cooper is a well-known author, and has published over a thousand articles on the subjects of antiques, architecture, preservation and historic interior design.
His first book, New Classic American Houses, was published by The Vendome Press.
Dan is also President and CEO of Cooper Lace, has designed and sold historic lace curtains for twenty four years, providing them to private homes, museums and film sets. Dan is recognized as a leading authority on the subject of historic carpeting.