The look of old castles and churches built in the Middle Ages lent their detailed styling and embellishments to furniture designs of the 19th century. The first Gothic era occurred during the Middle Ages -- the 12th century -- in Europe, but its revival period came centuries later during the mid- to late 19th century in the Victorian Age. Gothic Revival furniture appeared as Victorian furniture designers began looking to older design styles for inspiration. Gothic Revival offered a welcome alternative to the prevailing Neoclassic style.
A Commanding Presence
Gothic Revival furniture echoed the architecture of the cathedrals, churches, castles and homes of the wealthy nobles the furniture was made for. It incorporated heavy woods -- rosewood, walnut or oak -- in dark stains and colors, and distinctive ornamentation into its design. Upholstery fabrics had to hold up to the heaviness of the wood and were chosen to do just that, as fabrics were equally as plush and rich with burnished, aromatic leathers, trefoil brocades or luxurious, thick velvets. Gothic Revival furniture commands the space and often shares a religious association with church architecture by including finely carved crosses or religious symbols into its designs atop high-backed chairs.
Turrets, Gargoyles and Rosettes
Characteristics of the furniture also favored the detailed and decorative patterns used in the architecture: ornate carvings, carefully machine- or hand-crafted finials, scalloping, vine-and-leaf motifs, rosettes, pointed arches, real and imaginary creatures, gargoyles and turrets. As more furniture makers employed machine methods of construction during this period on the heels of the first Industrial Revolution, there appeared heavily detailed lathe-turned wooden legs and arms on chairs with oval-shaped richly upholstered backs and square seats, and parts of the arms covered with expensive and padded floral brocade fabric. The wood frame on the chair's back reaches skyward, well above the sitter's head, in miniature pointed carved finials, turrets and spirals.
Shapes and Adornments
Designers often favored the three-lobed form, or Gothic trefoil; the contour of the quatrefoil, a four-petal flower design; or the cinquefoil, or five-arced shape. Designs ranged from uncomplicated to extremely fine and detailed. Another Gothic favorite included a bell in a hollow center encased by a floral theme with three or four lobes. Look for a lot of lacy gingerbread trim as accents to heavy, massive pieces. Furniture framework employed mortice and tenon joints, tightly fit together without glue. In large pieces, for example, panels were grooved into the framework. Square oak pegs, driven through round holes in the joints, kept the tenons secure.
Fit for a King
You will not find anything modest about Gothic Revival furniture. Tables and chairs are massive in size, dominating the room. But in simpler forms, you might find some chairs with backs that resemble the tracings of the intricately designed stained glass windows found in many of Europe's cathedrals. Bed frames -- typically single or double four-posters -- have elaborate carvings trimming the carved wood canopy. The furniture is usually uncomfortable, ornate and ostentatious, primarily designed for the nobility and wealthy of Europe. If you plan to decorate your home with Gothic Revival furniture, make sure you have a castle or at least a large house with big rooms. After all, Gothic Revival furniture is fit for a king -- or a queen.