Unless you're well versed in historic preservation or antique furniture, you may not be familiar with the Eastlake Movement, or if you've heard the term, you may not know what it means.
When you think of the Victorian era, you probably think of incredibly ornate, elaborate, and often overly ornate carved furniture, and heavy upholstery and drapes. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, a reform movement had begun to take shape throughout both England and the US. A growing belief that these heavy fabrics, deeply carved and embellished woods, etc, kept out healthful light and kept in dust and germs sparked a change in style and attitude in many.
Around the same time, in 1872, Charles Eastlake, an English architect and writer, wrote Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details, which spoke to all manner of style in the home, and urged a simplification from the over decorated to a cleaner, simpler style, more focused on fine design and quality and skilled manufacture, whether by hand or machine. He felt that objects in the home should find their beauty from their craftsmanship rather than excessive ornamentation, and believed that this overly fussy decoration often hid shoddy workmanship.
With the popularity of his book, furntiture manufacturers and craftsmen as well as builders and other craftsmen used his ideas as a springboard to create a new style. Eastlake style was born. Eastlake furniture, architecture and hardware, then, tends to have smoother, more geometric lines, more incised carving and less relief, and an overall simpler silhouette. The furniture pieces are often crafted of more rugged woods like oak or mahogany, and tend to have very little applied decoration. While a great deal of what you'll find in this design movement did, as Eastlake implored, harken back to a time when more care and craftsmanship were given, there were (as now) plenty of factories getting the look but not the spirit, and selling lower quality goods.
Many of the pieces that have survived have stood the test of time (as Eastlake predicted) and remain quite timelessly beautiful. He planted very important seeds that helped grow the Arts and Crafts Movement, and grew the notion that William Morris had of "Having nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." Though not terribly well known, he was hugely important to the course home styles took in the late nineteenth century and beyond, and still important today.
What to look for in Eastlake furniture and architecture?
- Quality craftsmanship, first and foremost. The emphasis is on quality first, then decoration.
- More geometric style than what is offered considered "Victorian," but it often still has a very intricate, somewhat ornate, details.
- Smoother silhouettes- more incised decoration, very little to no decoration in relief.
- In wood pieces, little staining, and finished often with just oils. Eastlake had a great disdain for "varnished" pieces, believing them to be the easy way out.
- Flat surfaces that were easy to keep clean.
A couple of great examples are above, showing the incised detail on the door hardware.