If you live in the later brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant, Stuyvesant Heights, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights, chances are your row house or flats building was built during a time of great changes in the decorative arts, known as the Aesthetic Movement. From the mid-1870s through the 1890s this movement, often called the “Cult of Beauty,” mesmerized and then inspired great advances in all kinds of art, literature, music and culture including architecture and the interior decorative arts.
It was brought to life by Englishman William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Then the movement gained steam, drew in its other superstars and influenced craftspeople, architects and artists of all kinds as well as the popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. “Beauty for beauty’s sake” was one of the mantras, and what better place to show off one’s taste and love of beauty than in one’s home?
Like most things in the world of culture and the arts, there is no one moment where one style of anything ends and another is born. There is always a flow, an evolution of design that leads from one form to another. In Brooklyn architecture, the Neo-Grec brownstone, with its Eastlake-inspired, incised, carved lines, geometric patterns and shapes, was falling out of favor by the beginning of the 1880s.
Replacing it was the expansive massing of the Romanesque Revival, followed soon after by the freestyle Queen Anne period, which expanded on the Romanesque Revival themes. The Neo-Grec was order and line, Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne were imaginative and open, given to, well, more. In the house itself, more woodwork, more built-ins, more, and better, lighting, much more stained glass, color and texture.
A trendy homemaker had immense choices now for interior design. Before one stick of furniture was placed, there were decisions to be made for wallpaper and paint, floors and now even ceilings, and, of course, windows. And as has been the case in the past, one could choose to go simple or go big. Now there were even more choices than ever.
Every house had shutters with moveable louvers, at least in the front of the house. These shutters could fold back into their cases at the side of the windows. Natural wood, polished and unpainted, was the choice of this period, and shutters were usually natural wood themselves, although the magazines did advocate that you could paint the interior shutters to coordinate with the color scheme of the room. Most people left them natural, thank goodness. It was well known that strong sunlight could fade fabrics, so these shutters were usually extended most of the year, and most of the day, with the louvers adjusted to admit light and fresh air, as needed.
By this time, wire screened windows had been perfected in the tiny mesh weave we know today, and were highly popular to keep bugs, especially mosquitoes, out of the house in the hot summer. The screens were generally painted black or green, but many people bought screens that had decorative landscapes painted on them, or floral patterns. Upscale business establishments would often buy the screens painted gold for restaurants and stores. These screens fit into the window frames and were adjustable, like the ones you can still buy today. Their main function was not beauty, but if some beauty could be added to them, well, what’s the harm?
For windows that did not have shutters, there were roller blinds. Popular for over half a century, they continued to be the covering of choice for windows, at least the covering closest to the window itself. No matter what you chose to pile on above, over and around the shade, most people had some kind of window shade for privacy and to keep harsh sunlight out.
There was something new in window treatments during the Aesthetic Period: a resurgence in the use of ornamental stained glass in the home. The advances in mass production had made it possible for stained glass patterns to be ordered from catalogues, and it was popular for speculative houses and commissioned mansions of the period, both, to be outfitted with stained glass panels as transom windows, especially on the parlor floor, but also on bedroom floors, hallways and in formal dining rooms and libraries. The more expensive the home, the more impressive the stained glass. The really wealthy could afford Tiffany or his competitors, spec houses had much simpler and cheaper designs. Today, we find even spec house stained glass as a prized addition to any home.
In higher end houses, entire windows could be in stained glass, or even an entire bay of windows, especially in rooms like libraries and dining rooms, at the side or back of the house. Here, the window itself became the decoration, and these windows often had no other covering at all, or were framed by simple straight hanging draperies. If the window had a stained glass transom, the draperies were often hung below the stained glass window, in order to allow the play of light and color to flood the room. What good is stained glass if you can’t see it?
The Aesthetic Movement coincided with the West’s fascination with “exotic” parts of the world. Japan had been opened up to Western trade, and the public was fascinated by an entirely different cultural aesthetic. They wanted to see, and own a part of this new world, and Japanese products, and of course, Japanese knock-offs and Japanese-inspired goods began to flood the market. Some of them were very good, some were atrocious. Japanese design motifs such as the use of cranes, chrysanthemums, peonies, and other birds, insects and flora being to show up in wallpaper, fabrics, china, and other objects.
The Middle East was also a fascinating place for late Victorians. Well-heeled tourists came back from their Grand Tours with the best and worst objects gleaned from the souks and bazaars of the Middle East. Artists like Alma-Tadema painted scenes of harems and bazaars, with exotic and under clothed women, and mysteriously garbed men in sensuous scenes. They were both scandalous and exciting, and everyone wanted a little piece of it. , Soon, “Turkish corners” or smoking rooms were appearing in homes, and a large part of this décor involved lots of hanging, and swagging of velvet and damask draperies.
The Aesthetic Movement’s ideals were simplicity, in which moments of great beauty could be found. Beauty for beauty’s sake, remember? And much of what was produced for the home during this period was truly beautiful. The wallpapers of Morris, Vosey, and others, which were not just panels from floor to ceiling, but tripartite, and on the ceiling, allowing for pattern upon pattern to be utilized; the futuristic designs of Christopher Dresser, appearing in silver, china and other media; the wonderful inventiveness of Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose designs in glass exceeded his otherwise boundless talents for interior design. And the countless nameless people who designed and manufactured some very nice objects during this period, including the ornate woodwork, parquet floor patterns, stained glass, as well as furniture, fabrics, and everything else needed for the home.
But with all of this beauty, and the overabundance of goods to choose from had the opposite effect in décor. Too many people wanted all of everything, and could afford to buy it and the result were the High Victorian stuffed rooms overflowing with objects or pattern on every surface. And windows were not exempt from this philosophy, if fact, they were front and center.
Contemporary illustrations show the two extremes. On the one hand, you had the spare delicacy of the ideal Aesthetic Movement room, with a lot of pattern in wallpaper and furnishings, but subtly done, with a restrained hand. Here, draperies were simple, hung from poles, on rings, usually with contrasting bands of fabric at the top or bottom, but all in all, quite simple.
Then you had full-blown excess, with patterned and papered walls, lots of heavy furniture, heavily upholstered and trimmed, with parquet floors covered in patterned rugs, often layered rugs, with accessories everywhere, and on every surface. The draperies here are elaborate, with a heavy valance, layers of heavy drapery swagged and gathered, with under layers of lace, muslin and shades. There is trim on everything, tassels, bullion fringe, cording, you name it.
And if that wasn’t enough, there were draperies between rooms, called portieres, or doorway curtains, which were de rigeur for the period. Most of the brownstones built during the 1880s and after, have doorway curtain rods, many of which still survive, even though people haven’t used them for many years.
These portieres were inspired by medieval castles, and Middle Eastern romanticism, and were seen as important to décor. They were on the parlor level, usually between parlors, in addition to pocket doors, and in the entrances to parlor rooms, from the hallway. In many ways, these portieres were more complex than regular drapes, as they were two sided, and often were made in contrasting fabrics. They were seen as a perfect place for a homeowner to show off her embroidery skills, as fancy borders were quite desirable. These curtains usually hung from rings on a pole, but were sometimes draped and swagged in ways to suggest castle living, with spear poles and other accoutrement. A popular portiere for the period was also made with hanging cords and tassels, which were hung in graduated lengths, so someone could pass underneath easily.
When a fad or style is done to death, and the excess takes over from good taste, the backlash is usually quite the opposite. This series will conclude next time with a return to minimalism, in the form of the designs of the Craftsman period, the Colonial Revival, and beyond.