If the harsh complexities of today’s technology-driven, globalized world make you long for the delicate simplicity of the Victorian era, you’re not alone. The beauty of Victorian architecture, lace, furnishings and even clothing harks back to an age of both innocence and luxury — and royal luxury at that, because the Victorian era coincides with and gets its name from the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901.
A Little or a Lot
The Victorians were not so delicate, not so simplistic, and definitely not so innocent. The Victorian era was actually marked by intense exploration into science and invention, religious doubt and questioning, and political and social upheaval, reports George P. Landow, professor of English and art history at Brown University, on the website The Victorian Web. And the “era” really covers several periods, each with its own distinct style.
But when most people think of Victorian style, Landow says on the website, they think of high Victorian — a lush, abundant and highly ornate look that is characteristic of the mid-to-late Victorian era. And it can be re-created — in one room or in an entire house. Whether you want to immerse yourself in that other time or maintain the modern while adding touches of Victorian elegance, a few decorating ideas can bring Victorian virtues to your 21st-century villa.
Start With a Backdrop
If you have money to spare — and many people in the Victorian era did — start by preparing a backdrop for your Victorian-themed rooms. This might include anything from dark walnut floors and varnished woodwork to floor-to-ceiling windows.
“If you’re talking about Victorian, you’re talking about varnished woodwork, not painted,” said Jim Peiker, owner of Castle Marne, a bed and breakfast in Denver. Castle Marne is located in a Victorian stone castle that is designated as a landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Structures. Many of its Victorian virtues are still intact, and visitors can simply look around to find decorating inspiration.
Other wood to consider for walls, floors, woodwork and furnishings are mahogany, cherry and golden oak. But one of the problems with all this varnished, dark wood is that it is just that — dark.
“A room needs more light to have a soul,” said interior designer Debra Worthington of Worthington Interior Design in Boston. “You need to exaggerate the light in such a dark space. One of the best assets of these [Victorian] homes are tall windows, so use them.”
With a complete remodel, you can extend your window space and shed some light on your Victorian parlor (call it the living room when you’re in modern mode). And if you must paint or wallpaper — patterned wallpaper was all the rage for many Victorian do-it-yourself decorators — Worthington cautions to match window frames with walls so the frame doesn’t stop your eye before it moves to the window glass. “In this way, you bring nature and light inside,” she said.
Peiker agrees that Victorian decorating is all about flow. “Everything was done in flowing lines,” he said, “to keep the eye continually occupied, continually looking.”
From woodwork and moldings to draperies and other decor, smooth movement was king — or maybe queen.
Add Some Accents
“Everything in the Victorian era seemed to be a matter of showing off,” Peiker said. “Too much decorating was never enough.”
So even if you don’t have the funds or the desire for a complete home redo, there are so many extras to add that your home will never be void of Victorian charm.
Because windows are so valuable, the Victorian style is draped in … well … drapes. Heavy, sumptuous fabrics such as brocade, lamé and satin are hallmarks of period drapery, and these drapes can be adapted to other types of windows. Add drapery hooks to hold them back and away from windows, and use lace curtains underneath, not only for ambiance, but also to let the light shine through.
Chandeliers are another period prop, but the fact that most of them were centered in a large room and dropped down from a high ceiling often prevented them from casting a useful light. Worthington recommends creating conversation areas in your Victorian parlor, with groupings of four chairs around a 30-inch-high table for tea service or card games. A chandelier can be placed over the smaller area to add light. Groupings can also be created near a window, fireplace or piano.
But don’t overdo it. “Just because you have space,” she said, “you don’t have to fill it.” Those who veto the Victorian style often disdain the clutter, so to keep a more modern decor mix, allow for some open space to move in.
Oriental rugs are another Victorian-era favorite, so add some to protect your varnished wood floors and to liven up a room. Peiker says that rugs were sometimes placed one over another, so use one or two as a base and choose smaller rugs as accent pieces to go on top.
Cut Costs, Save Style
The Victorian era was an age of consumption, with the Industrial Revolution churning out less-expensive, machine-made goods, and consumers packing their parlors with books, knickknacks and other newly discovered must-haves. But you can still enjoy the era’s flair without emptying your bank account.
Worthington recommends hitting the flea markets for Victorian-type treasures. An end table or long coffee table can be raised by adding to the legs for a tea-service table in the parlor. A modern dining room table can be paired with one or two Victorian chairs — “The chairs don’t need to match,” she said — for a Victorian feel in the dining room. Add a stained-glass lamp in the parlor, transform a modern kitchen with Victorian-style cabinet knobs and drawer pulls, and replace household doorknobs with flea-market finds.
The residents of the time also loved their art and photographs. “To my mind, there’s nothing more Victorian than a picture rail,” Peiker said. A picture rail, which displays photos and art along a wall through the use of ornate hooks hung on picture-rail molding, was a Victorian-era staple, and many homes built through the 1940s are already equipped with the molding — all you do is add the hooks. If your house doesn’t sport picture-rail molding, talk to your hardware store staff about do-it-yourself possibilities.
Tassels are another piece of Victorian-decades decor, so look for tasseled picture hangers or table runners edged with tassels that drip over the sides of your newly raised Victorian-style table.
With a little imagination and a penchant for time travel, you can bring Victorian virtues to your home, no matter when it was built. And be sure to set a place at the tea table for the queen.