The Aesthetic Interior is one that old house enthusiasts really like, or, alternately, they simply cannot understand what all of the fuss is about.
Sometimes seen as too ‘strong’ visually, or even gloomy, by its detractors, the enthusiasts of the Aesthetic design movement, on the other hand, enjoy the overall result of the meticulous attention to detail, and by the similar design motifs used throughout the Aesthetic Interior, which give a harmony to a room or house decorated in the style.
The Aesthetic movement had its early origins in 1854, when Japan was opened up to the world after more than 200 years of seclusion. In 1638, Japan had expelled all foreigners from its shores, and entered a period of near total seclusion. During that time, Japan had neither war nor poverty, and its arts reached a great zenith.
Not until 1854, when American naval Commander Perry negotiated his way into Japan by a combination of gunboat threats, and negotiation, did Japan finally end its seclusion. To suddenly be able to see Japanese trade goods was like opening a marvelous treasure chest of amazing examples of craftsmanship and design. In effect, it was as if a new world had become miraculously opened up, as no one alive outside of Japan had seen Japanese art and design.
Trade of Japanese goods to the west coast of North America started as early as 1860, with the importing of porcelain, artwork and furniture. Later imports made their way to England and Europe . The influence of Japan was prominent through the 1870’s and 1880’s. London stores such as “ Liberty ” stocked and popularized the new, fashionable Japanese goods.
English designers, always on the lookout for new inspiration, quickly adopted (and adapted) traditional Japanese design elements to their own products. By the early 1880’s fans, flying cranes, asymmetrical designs and sprays of plum blossoms and bamboo soon were found on a wide variety of English and North American consumer goods.
These motifs found their way onto china, tiles and fabrics. Aesthetic-style furniture was made in black ‘ebonized’ finishes with gold touches along edges and in cutwork decoration, simulating the lacquered finishes of real oriental furniture. Fine spindlework, many small shelves, turned fine pillars and inset mirrors were all commonly found on Aesthetic furniture.
English manufacturers began using their own interpretation of Japanese design elements, using them on their own manufactured products. The resulting Aesthetic-inspired design movement was sometimes also known as “Anglo-Japanese”.
The Aesthetic movement started in the late 1870’s, and hit its peak during the early 1880’s, and lingered through the 1890’s. The most endurable survivor of the Movement easily found today is china decorated with Aesthetic designs. The massive popularity of blue and white transfer print china during that period has ensured that many pieces survive to be found in antique shops today. Although Aesthetic china was made primarily in blue and white colouring, it can be found in other popular colours as well – green on white; red on white; and brown on white.
Other Aesthetic designs are more rare and therefore harder to find. Original fabrics of the period, often with silk threads, have simply disintegrated over the years, and the few survivors are treasured.
Like any other popular craze, especially one embracing design, the general population could not fully understand the appeal of the Anglo-Japanese movement, though it indeed had wide popularity among the connoisseurs of the day in fabrics, wallpaper, tiles, hardware, book-binding and lighting.
American manufacturers were particularly adept at adapting the style to silver. The “Meridan” company was prolific in producing all sorts of tableware and decorative silver objects in the Aesthetic style.
As well as flying cranes, and birds in general, be sure to look for owls, aster flowers, apple blossoms, moons, sunflowers, sunbursts, and Japanese fans on items designed “in the Anglo-Japanese style”.
Peacock feathers were another popular symbol of the Aesthetic movement, and a vase of peacock feathers was “de rigeur” in the home of a fashionable Aesthete.
Cartoons of the day made fun of “the Aesthetes” – people who seemingly based their lives on how their teapots looked, or how much peacock feathers cost. Even sheet music poked fun at the Aesthetic movement.
Regardless of the period satire directed at the movement, the Aesthetic interior has much to offer people restoring their homes to the correct look of the 1880’s and 1890’s. Many original Aesthetic pieces – whether furniture, hardware, china, or light fixtures – can still be found in antique shops today.
Easily recognized by the knowledgeable collector by their design and decorative motifs, Aesthetic objects harmonize with each other to make a powerful design statement in any interior space. Compared to more usual Victorian objects, Aesthetic objects do not have to be used in quantity to make a design statement, and once they become familiar, can become favourite items in your home.
For Aesthetic wallpapers, please see:
Further Reading – Two of many superb books available:
Sweetness and Light – The ‘Queen Anne’ Movement 1860-1900
by Mark Girouard – Oxford 1977
(Aesthetic was part of ‘Queen Anne’ – this book gives a very good background to the period)
The Japan Idea – Art and Life in Victorian America
By William Hosley 1990