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Aesthetic Movement Interiors 1872–1889: Embracing Beauty in Everyday Life

CEO Khai Intela
Illustration by Steve Bauer The Aesthetic Movement, a precursor to the British Arts & Crafts reform, emerged as a reaction against Victorian mass production and the rise of the "cult of beauty." Led by influential...

Aesthetic Movement Interiors 1872-1889

Illustration by Steve Bauer

The Aesthetic Movement, a precursor to the British Arts & Crafts reform, emerged as a reaction against Victorian mass production and the rise of the "cult of beauty." Led by influential figures like Ruskin, Morris, and Oscar Wilde, this movement sought to infuse everyday life with beauty and artistic expression.

One important aspect of the Aesthetic Movement was Japonisme, which heavily influenced the Anglo-Japanese furniture designs of E.W. Godwin and the decorative works of Walter Crane and James McNeil Whistler. Popular motifs during this period included the stork, sunflower, and lily. Liberty & Co. in London, along with other fashionable decorators, perpetuated this trend throughout the 1880s.

Aesthetic Movement Interiors 1872-1889

A Hunzinger sofa centers a Manhattan parlor featuring Aesthetic furniture: the table and elaborate cabinets are by the Herter Brothers. (Photo by Alan Weintraub)

Renowned names like William Morris, ceramist William De Morgan, designer C.R. Ashbee, and tastemaker Bruce J. Talbert were associated with this movement. They challenged the notion that the fine and applied arts should be kept separate, advocating for the integration of beautiful design into everyday objects such as furniture, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles. Morris, despite his attempts to distance himself from the parodied Aesthetic Movement, actually played a significant role in expanding its influence in the United States. By 1870, his wallpapers were already being sold in Boston, and his ideas reached a wider American audience through publications like "Hints on Household Taste" by Charles Locke Eastlake. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia further exposed thousands of Americans to the reform movements in England. Additionally, Oscar Wilde's famous lecture tour of the U.S. in 1882-83 left a lasting impact.

In the United States, New York cabinetmakers like the Herter Brothers began experimenting with their own interpretation of the Anglo-Japanese style by the mid-1880s. Ceramics and silverware reflecting the Aesthetic taste became widely available. The fascination with Japan, sparked by Commodore Perry's visit in 1853, continued to inspire Western artists and designers who saw Japan as a society untouched by modern industrialization.

The Anglo-Japanese style was characterized by flat planes, stylized designs, and nature-inspired motifs. Chairs featured carvings of storks and owls, while silverware handles were adorned with beetles and spiders. Tiffany and Gorham created teapots with dragonflies, and stained glass incorporated cherry blossoms. This reformed aesthetic found its perfect match in house styles based on vernacular medievalism and the Modern Gothic, including Stick Style (known as Eastlake in San Francisco), Queen Anne, the Shingle Style, and late Victorian Tudor and Jacobean Revivals. Even Italianate and Second Empire houses from the 1860s and '70s often underwent redecoration in the popular Aesthetic taste.

The Aesthetic Movement eventually evolved into the Arts & Crafts movement in England and Art Nouveau on the Continent. However, in America, the craze faded away by 1890, and the last decade of the 19th century witnessed a nostalgic return to the Rococo style, cabbage roses, and mauve. The Japanese influence would later find new life in the work of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and their Prairie School designs, as well as in the bungalows designed by Greene and Greene.

The Hallmarks

  • Stylized, Abstracted Ornament: The Aesthetic Movement preferred flat and stylized ornamentation on walls, textiles, and carvings, moving away from the shaded, realistic depictions of flora and fauna popular in the mid-Victorian period.

  • Motifs: Motifs within the Anglo-Japanese style, such as cranes, swallows, bamboo, and cherry blossoms, gained popularity between 1875 and 1885. Designs were also influenced by medieval and Gothic elements.

  • Wall Treatments: Walls were divided into dado, fill, and frieze sections. The fill was often kept simple, following the Japanese style, to showcase framed prints hanging from picture rails. Wallpapers and ceiling papers frequently featured oriental motifs.

  • Tertiary Colors: The Aesthetic palette favored tertiary colors like olive, sage, ochre, terra cotta, russet, and peacock blue. These hues derived influence from William Morris's revival of medieval color formulas and the subdued yet clear tones found in Japanese woodblock prints.

  • Exotic Tastes: The movement also saw an Exotic Revival, particularly around 1880, with a fascination for Arabesque ornamentation. Moorish tiles, Persian furniture, and Turkish smoking rooms became all the rage.

Aesthetic Movement Interiors 1872-1889

In an 1882 Connecticut Queen Anne, the sophisticated music room has ebonized woodwork recalling lacquer. (Photo by Edward Addeo)

Aesthetes and Philistines

By the mid-1870s, the mantra of "Art for Art's Sake" had taken hold in England, propelled not only by serious-minded medievalists like Morris but also by a younger, more flamboyant group of Aesthetes, epitomized by Oscar Wilde. The "Cult of Intensity," also known as the Aesthetic Craze, reached its peak, characterized by symbols like the sunflower, lily, and peacock, and unconventional dress and behavior.

To be an Aesthete meant not just appreciating art but becoming a living work of art. Aesthetes aimed to embody artfulness in every aspect of their lives, exuding exquisitely intense feelings. Expressions of this era often used the word "too" to convey that whatever was being experienced or described was simply too exquisite, refined, and artful to be captured in words alone. It was beyond words—utterly too! Consummate too too!

In contrast, the opposite of an Aesthete was deemed a Philistine, someone crude, lacking culture, and bound by materialism. Being labeled "common" was the ultimate insult in Aesthetic circles. Gilbert & Sullivan faced accusations of being Philistines when they premiered their operetta "Patience" in 1881, a parody of the Aesthetic Movement:

"Though the Philistines may jostle, You will rank as an apostle, in the high aesthetic band, If you walk down Picadilly with a poppy or a lily, in your medieval hand."

Audiences were captivated by the beauty of Aesthetic costume. Increasing numbers of women gladly traded their uncomfortable whalebone corsets and tight bodices for light, flowing Grecian gowns with puffed shoulders, embracing the Aesthetic mode.

Interior Visits

18 STAFFORD TERRACE, the Linley Sambourne House, London, 1875: This house showcases Morris wallpapers, Eastlake furniture, an ebonized overmantel, Japanese prints, and stained glass.

CHATEAU-SUR-MER, Newport, R.I., 1852: Remodeled in the 1870s by architect Richard Morris Hunt, this mansion features an Eastlake-style billiard room and stairhall, stunning English Aesthetic-inspired bedroom suites, and an exotic Turkish room.

EMLEN PHYSICK ESTATE, Cape May, N.J., 1879: Designed by architect Frank Furness, this asymmetrical Stick Style house boasts strong geometry and surviving Aesthetic/Modern Gothic interiors, along with much of its original furniture.

EUSTIS ESTATE, Milton, Mass., 1878: Architect William Ralph Emerson designed this stone English Queen Anne house, featuring Modern Gothic details, rich woodwork, stained-glass windows, trussed ceilings, and metallic-paint wall treatments.

GLESSNER HOUSE, Chicago, 1887: Designed by H.H. Richardson, this house is furnished with goods from Morris & Co., while tiles by John Moyr Smith tell the story of Lancelot and Elaine. Isaac Elwood Scott's "art" furniture is also on display.

GREEN DINING ROOM, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: Decorated by William Morris with Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones in 1867, this room showcases Elizabethan and Gothic Revival motifs in highly decorated fashion.

MARK TWAIN HOUSE, Hartford, Conn., 1874: Architect Edward Tuckerman Potter redecorated this house in 1881 with a world-class Aesthetic interior by L.C. Tiffany's Associated Artists, featuring work by Candace Wheeler.

OLANA, Greenport, N.Y., 1872: Architect Calvert Vaux designed this exotic Persian Revival house for landscape painter Frederick Church. The house boasts an intact color scheme and Middle Eastern stencils by the artist.

PEACOCK ROOM, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1877: Decorated by James McNeil Whistler, this Aesthetic interior, moved from London, showcases intense colors and gold leaf in the Anglo-Japanese style.

The Aesthetic Movement, with its emphasis on beauty and artistic expression, left an indelible mark on the design world. Though its popularity waned by the end of the 19th century, it laid the foundation for subsequent movements and inspired future generations of artists and designers to embrace the power of aesthetics in everyday life.