Upholstery Choices Giving “Victorian” A Bad Rap

by John Werry on July 9, 2009

 Upholstery Choices Giving Victorian A Bad Rap
Victorian-Era Furniture has gained a bad rap over the past 100 years for it’s “garishness” and I think that there is no potential end to that reputation, and thus, it’s lack of mainstream appeal.  I think there is one thing we can do, however, to improve on that and it lies in the upholstery. Nothing makes an already ornate sofa stand out and smack you in the face than a FUSCHIA color or scarlet red or any of many other colors that belong in a Hawaiian sunset.

Obviously, upholstery is a matter of personal taste and needs to match the overall decor of the room, but showing restraint in color and texture with upholstery choice can accentuate the beauty and craftsmanship of the furniture and not turn it into a caricature.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the whole painted-lady color palettes that have adorned Victorian homes (hello, San Francisco).  Colors used externally on Victorians were originally more subdued with earth tones and not combined to shock and awe.  Fluorescent paint colors is a later invention of which I am unaware of it’s origin for use on Victorians.  A quick read of the good book, “Nineteenth Century Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth-Century American House Historically” by Winkler and Moss will demonstrate this.  Love that book, by the way.

I “get” the concept of “picking out” the carved details on exteriors of homes with contrasting colors.  This can be done with elegant and historically compatible color choices.  I say “compatible” because I am not saying we need to stick to historic color palettes, only that we follow the spirit of how they were assembled.  I plan to do it on my roof brackets when my house is painted the next time but will not be doing it with pastel yellow and lime green next to one another.

This carries through to the choices in furniture upholstery.  Individuality makes the world go ’round and to each his own.  For my money, I want to complement the wood and show off the work of the craftsman.  I want my visitors to say that the furniture is beautiful and not stop, squint, and exclaim, “whoah… my eyes” as they enter the parlor.

It’s not the silver bullet to reverse the bad rap that “Victorian” has with many people, but maybe we can leave the bordello colors alone for a while and restore a perception of elegance and achievement that is true of Victorian design and craftsmanship.

Speaking of design and craftsmanship, the rosewood sofa at the top of this post is currently for sale and does indeed demonstrate some excellent carving, but I would prefer it in another color.  More at it’s listing.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Marnie July 9, 2009 at 11:22 am

People need to stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and do what they like. Why upholster for the next owner’s taste?

I’m in my 30’s and my friends were horrified when they saw I had put up wallpaper in my period house. I was told “No one will want to buy it if it has wallpaper instead of ‘Pottery Barn’ colors.” If everyone else is too ignorant to realize wallpaper is appropriate in my house, too bad for them. Please shoot me if I ever care what the mainstream thinks.

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1881victorian July 9, 2009 at 11:53 am

I think that my wife would recommend the book “Mauve” (link below).

Although the previous owners of our house selected the “Razzle Dazzle” (pink), “Naples Sunset” (purple), and “Spring Lilac” color combination, we have opted to maintain the colors. The black-&-white photos from the 1890s show a similar level of contrast, sanding the siding down reveals a more-or-less similar body color (hard to tell, really), and the Victorians did seem to have a love of color (even if not universally-loved on the exterior of their homes).

As for upholstery choices, I have yet to go the way of fuschia, but I am certain that this would be a good match for the exterior colors of the house (if we ever felt the need to match the exterior of the house).

http://www.amazon.com/Mauve-Invented-Color-Changed-World/dp/0393020053

– Jason

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monkecmonkedo July 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I agree that historical exterior color schemes were more muted. I am not an expert in this area of Chemistry, however; I believe this resulted from a general lack of vibrant inorganic pigments (most were sourced from nature and hence are more “earthy”) and the use of lead oxide as the paint base. Chemistry has come a long way since then; we now have vibrant colors that can withstand the elements. This is because we have a broader range of raw materials and our processing capabilities are much better. For example, titianium oxide yields a much whiter white.

When it comes to fabric, I believe there is historical precedence for bright and muted colors. Take a look at the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Hunzinger pieces that retain their original upholstery: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/artists/6872/George_Jacob_Hunzinger you see earthy greens, but also crimson and pink. I think the difference with fabric is linked to the use of organic dyes for color. These brightly colored compounds historically came from plants and animals. Such materials would never survive outside, but when protected in an inside environment, they can last for centuries.

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English Classics July 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I’ve never heard of any popular aversion to Victorian styles of furniture, although that fuschia does look, in my opinion, horrendous. As far as architectural painting goes, I live in a neighborhood with many Victorian houses, and they tend to have muted or earthy colors. Even those that do have pink and other vibrant colors are rather calm; I can’t imagine that the Victorians had either the taste or the capability to produce some of the irradiated colors we see today.

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mw July 12, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Do you know who the maker is of this couch?

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John Werry July 13, 2009 at 9:34 am

Sorry, do not know who made this one.

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quantumcat July 19, 2009 at 4:01 pm

That couch color does look a bit…intense but I’ve seen that color mellowed in context with an oriental rug with touches of grenadine and other jewel-toned accessories.

If done properly,the overall decor can take an otherwise garish element and make it synergestic rather than overpowering.

The wear of time and a bit of solar bleaching can also mute a nuclear fusion fuschia into an elegant rose’.

Tastes do vary but a certain respect for style and workmanship will help those appreciative of Victoriana avoid acid green in favor of more subtle choices such as absinthe or olive.

While bright hues and heavy ornamentation are not to be feared or despised,they should be executed with sufficient confidence that they don’t stray into being aggressive or cloying but succeed in being part of an authentic whole.

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