Iridescent jewel-tones, warm woods, patterned parquet floors, and marquetry furniture, Japanese-influenced patterns on walls and dishes, butterflies, peacocks and ginkgo leaves on many surfaces, and yards of velvet and other rich fabrics, the Eastern inspired, yet futuristic designs of Christopher Dresser, and the nature inspired patterns of William Morris.
These were all elements of the ideal Aesthetic Movement home, some borrowed from other design and social movements going on simultaneously. The Movement began around 1870 and lasted through the new century.
During that time, it became as much an important part of the decorative and architectural world, as of the literary, artistic and philosophical world, especially here in the United States. Our Brooklyn neighborhoods are still full of this influence, more so in our interiors, but also on our brownstone streets and suburban style neighborhoods.
Brownstones from the 1870’s, in the Neo-Grec style, with their Eastlake inspired incised patterns, are perhaps the strongest exterior manifestations of the style we have. One could, however, make the case that all exterior ornament that followed, especially the floral and geometric patterns of the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles, are still firmly under the influence of the Aesthetic Movement, even though they don’t look it.
The love of surface decoration for no other reason than its inherent beauty is a prime Aesthetic Movement ideal.
So too, is the use of stained glass, which peaks at this period. We sometimes think of the AM as decor only with an overt Japanese theme, but Anglo-Japanese designs were only one part of the entire movement.
One of the kings of the Aesthetic Movement’s decorative designer pantheon is Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as architect to the uber-rich, Stanford White. Their interiors epitomize the use of iridescent color, rich surface decoration, shiny surfaces along with Japanese influences, and the love of warm woods.
These trends, trickled down to the merely well-off, are seen in the houses of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, St. Marks, Bedford, Clinton Hill, and other wealthy neighborhoods, in homes designed by CPH Gilbert, Montrose Morris, Frank Freeman, George Chappell and many others.
For many today, these opulent tastes are too much, although some Brooklyn homeowners revel in the rich detail. Aesthetic Movement decor can mean hand printed wallpapers in archival patterns from manufacturers such as Bradbury and Bradbury, Mason and Wolf, and others, from the designs of Christopher Dresser, William Morris, and others.
Aesthetic rooms often had tripartite wallpapered walls subdivided by wainscoted, and dadoed panels, with wallpapered ceilings, and pattern or paper anywhere else it could be applied.
Peacocks were often popular, as in the home of painter James McNeill Whistler, appearing in stained glass, wallpaper and borders, or in the form of a large stuffed bird itself, with feathers trailing, perched on a stand.
Tile work was popular, with fireplaces decorated with beautiful glazed tiles, with patterns and figures portrayed, or simpler shapes and patterns, all in iridescent jewel tones. In the larger, more expensive houses, public rooms had elaborate built-in furniture pieces in rich woods, often with hooded fireplaces, or buffet cabinets with inset stained glass panels, or stained glass insets in pocket doors.
All of this formed a rich, sensuous opulence that was in direct contradiction to the stuffy Victorian model we think of today.
The Movement is too complex to go into in a few paragraphs, but suffice it to say that no upper middle or rich Brooklynite was immune to its influences. What started out as simplified design themes turned into a full blown consumer blowout, due to improved factory technology and boom times for the rich.
Inside what looked like relatively conservative row houses was a cacophony of color, texture, materials and merchandise galore. The end of the 19th century, the Gilded Age, was a time of great excess, much of it expressed in the homes of Brooklyn.
It still remains in some, which can often be glimpsed in visits and house tours. However, in time, this too, passed, and tastes radically changed, first to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and then to the classic styles of the Colonial Revival.
In Arts and Crafts, Japanese influence remained strong in both the architectural and decorative arts. In Victorian Flatbush, the most well known house from the end of this period can be found in the Prospect Park South Historic District at 131 Buckingham Rd.
Built in 1902, the Japanese House, built for Frederick S. Kolle, reflects the popularity of the Japanese Aesthetic, and helps understand the Arts and Crafts architectural style, most famously realized by Greene and Greene, in Pasadena, California, where it was perfected.
The Aesthetic Movement only lasted thirty years, but its influence still is felt in our materials and attitudes about how we use and decorate rooms today. Please check my Flickr page for more examples.
Note: I know who owns of the house with the peacock frieze. I didn’t print his name to respect his privacy.
[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]