Monday, November 17, 2008

Empress Eugenie to the Prince of Chintz: a Short History of Furnishing with Antiques

Empress Eugénie (1853-1871)

Two members of the Arader Galleries team attended the American Decorative Arts Forum lecture on Tuesday, November 11, 2008. The topic was “Empress Eugenie to the Prince of Chintz: a Short History of Furnishing with Antiques.” Jared Goss, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, spoke with enthusiasm and, might I add, velocity on the interesting history of antique decorating. In today’s designer conscience world it is hard to believe that before the 19th century there was no such thing as decorating with antiques. The Renaissance marks the transition to a new type of collecting as people no longer sought out art and artifacts solely for their devotional purposes but for their intellectual, historical, scientific, nostalgic, or commercial significance, yet not for their aesthetic value.* Indeed, prior to the 19th Century people did collect old objects but generally only as a means of demonstrating their intellect.

Mr. Goss began his presentation by tracing the influence of the English Country Home on antique furnishing. The romance of the English Country House décor evolved from the incorporation of fashions from previous generations with current ones, which explains why it has such deep roots in the history of antique decorating. The idea of mixing the “old with the new” first manifested itself here. In 1897 Country Life Magazine was published which showed off Britain’s country homes and contributed to the advancement of country home décor. Nancy Lancaster (1898-1994) perfected and popularized English Country Home decorating with her signature swaggered curtains, large fire places, and upholstered couches.

The Industrial Revolution contributed to the phenomenon of antique decorating for several reasons. Firstly, the emergence of the nouveau riche from the cities, combined with advances in transportation systems (creation of railroads), made countryside homes less remote and therefore the décor more assessable and popular than ever. Secondly, industrialization drastically drove down the cost of furniture, allowing people of modest income the ability to afford new furniture for the first time. The rich, always wanting things that others couldn’t afford, looked to antiques as a means of maintaining their visual social hierarchy.

Accredited for incorporating her nostalgia for aristocratic France into décor, Empress Eugénie (1853-1871) is a classic example of someone using the “cult of the past” to assert her legitimacy. Married to Napoleon the III, the last empress of the France aligned herself with Empress Josephine and, above all, Marie Antoinette because like Marie Antoinette she was foreign at court—herself a Spaniard in the French Court as Marie was an Austrian in the French Court—in order to emphasize her stateliness. Famous for her restoration projects, Empress Eugénie refurbished the Petite Trion and Malmaison, among others, with period pieces. Her desire to align herself with the past was so great she even painted rooms blue due to the fact it was Marie Antoinette’s favorite color.

By the end of the 19th Century, the first design schools were founded during this time, including the Road Island School of Design and Parsons in 1877 and 1896, respectively. Education was crucial in differentiating between amateurs and legitimate designers. Furthermore, the first books on interior design were published in by the end of the 19th, early 20th century as well: “The Decoration of Houses” by Edith Wharton and Oyden Codman Jr (1897) and “The House in Good Taste” by Elsie du Wolfe (1914), which are still in publication today. The concept of interior decorating is a 20th century concept and Du Wolf has earned the accreditation as the first official decorator.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s caused many Americans to move to smaller living quarters as they could no longer afford servants. This event caused interior design to take a turn towards functionality. It follows then that contemporary interior design, Mario Buatta or the “Prince of Chintz” designs rooms that are full of chintz, color, classicism and, most importantly, comfort. Mr. Buatta incorporates elements from English Country Home décor with comfort and functionality, bringing the evolution of antique furnishings full circle.

All in all, Mr. Goss educated and captivated us from beginning to end. I hope our summation leaves you enlightened on the history of antique furnishings. The last lecture of the ADAF 2008 season will take place on December 9 at 8pm at the de Young Museum on “Pets in America: Their History through Portraits and Possessions.” Hope to see you there!

* Miles Harvey, “The Island of Lost Maps,” (New York: Random House, 2000) 70.

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