Sofas became an essential piece of furniture in the stylish homes during British Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. Early designs consisted of a blend of revival styles, often based on medieval and Gothic handcrafted furniture. By the mid- and late-Victorian periods, reproductions imitated the look of French styles from the Louis XIV, Louis XV and Rococo periods. Expensive, handcrafted furniture was still available, although machines began to replace human labor in furniture production that caused a decline in quality. From the 1880s on, reactions against the excesses of Victorian design produced innovative new styles, such as those found in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Art Nouveau period near the end of the Victorian Age.
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Early Victorian Furniture
Early Victorian sofas showed medieval and Gothic design influences -- heavy, dark wood furniture with elaborate carvings and rich ornamentation. As social classes shaped Victorian taste, the landed gentry already had heirloom furnishings from the Jacobean, Elizabethan and 18th century periods. Working class people could not afford fashionable furniture. But the rising middle and professional classes sought furniture that would help identify their success and worth. Ultimately, this group defined the Victorian style, a combination of historic revivals with new demands for comfort and affordable luxury. The invention of the coil spring in 1828 forever changed the expectation of comfort.
An Expressed Love of Luxury
By the mid-19th century, the appeal of fancy French revival sofas from the Louis XIV, Louis XV and Rococo periods dominated Victorian style. Rococo revival sofas feature exaggerated curves, intricate wood carvings, gilded trim and richly colored upholstery. Button tufting created cushioned comfort for the back, while crowned pads over seats with coiled springs added seating ease. Tufting also controlled the extensive padding beneath heavy upholstery fabric. Velvet, velour and needlepoint represented typical plush fabric choices, further enhanced with elaborate braids, trims, fringes and tassels. Wood carvings featured themes from nature that adorned the borders of the sofa frames, and short curved or turned legs supported deeper seats to accommodate coil springs. The effect is dramatic opulence.
English Refinement: The Chesterfield
Chesterfield sofas have large, rolled arms the same height as their backs, a low seat base, deep button-tufting and nail-head trim. A legend says that the trendsetting fourth Earl of Chesterfield in the late 17th century commissioned the first sofa crafted in quilted leather to provide upright and comfortable seating for a gentleman without wrinkling his clothes. The design grew in favor, and during the Victorian era, the Chesterfield sofa became a key element in the living room, a spot where a gentleman could relax while the women sat in chairs doing needlework. The overstuffed luxury of a leather Chesterfield remains attractive and versatile even in modern interiors.
Simplicity and Craftsmanship
A survey of Victorian sofas must include styles affected by the Arts and Crafts movement that appeared in 1888 that expressed a rebellion against industrialization and the excesses of high Victorian style. The movement, led by William Morris in England and Gustav Stickley in America, attempted to reestablish a link between the artist, the craftsman and nature. Sofas from this period contained rectilinear designs with straight lines or simple curves in oak and comfortable cushions with tailored fabric covers. Simple, but fine craftsmanship created any decoration with function as the foremost consideration.
Art Nouveau Craftsmanship
Art Nouveau period craftsmen drew inspiration from both geometric and natural organic forms, such as plants and the human female figure to create complex, stylized flowing designs. Curving lines and exposed wood characterize this style, which sometimes includes detailed inlay patterns. The furniture is artistic and expensive to produce, requiring complicated manufacturing techniques and finishes. Upholstery, while soft, is smooth and understated, allowing the wood to shine. The Art Nouveau style arrived at the very end of the Victorian era and flourished for less than 20 years. Like the Arts and Crafts movement, these craftsmen expressed a rejection of mass-produced, poor-quality imitations of historical designs in favor of high quality original creations.
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