I have an MA in social science from the New School for Social Research in New York City and formally worked as a writing professor.
The concept of eclecticism as applied to the arts is well-established. Johan Joachim Winkelmann was the first person to apply this term as a description of the work of Baroque-era painter Carracci, whom he interpreted as combining classical and Renaissance elements alike into his paintings. The term “eclectic” as applied to design has indicated a use or combination of a variety of styles from different eras or perhaps origins.
Eclecticism in Modern Times
Eclecticism is still applied today to interiors that include elements from various styles or aesthetic groups, i.e., French country, modern, retro styles such as American Southwest, or several dozen other styles. Interior design that pulls from more than one style must strive towards cohesiveness and balance even when incorporating multifarious aesthetics.
This can be done in many ways, like through color, motif, materials, textures, and shapes. It is an instance when a designer may have more freedom to choose elements to include in a space yet must pay close attention to how each element connects to the whole and other pieces, which requires thought, creativity, and attention to detail.
Eclecticism in Architecture
Eclecticism is really a methodology or approach to design. It was during the 19th century that the eclectic took shape in architecture, one that manifested out of the emergence of revival or historicist movements in Britain. Eclecticism simultaneously forwarded the Gothic revival headed by Welby N. Pugin, the Neo-Grec, French Second Empire, Romanesque and Renaissance Revivals, Jacobethean, Queen Anne, and Italianate, among others.
It was even more extensively and enthusiastically embraced in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century when Victorian variations on these historic styles included Carpenter Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, Shingle, Stick-Eastlake, and Mansardic or “General Grant,” among others.
Eclectic architecture also permeated aesthetics in Australia in the late 1900s and early 20th century. The term was generally applied to exteriors, whether domestic, commercial, or ecclesiastic, but could also be applied to Victorian interiors.
The crux of eclecticism was a devoted adherence to whichever historic style a design was meant to mimic. By the turn of the 19th century, Eclecticism was popular enough to come to define the interiors of movie theaters and ocean liners.
Victorian Interior Design
Interior design, insofar as it relates to the term eclecticism, means that décor and furnishings are gathered from multiple geographic origins or evoke elements from separate styles, yet are integrated and cohesive on one palate or within one space.
This design methodology, honed during the Victorian era, is in fact a natural reflection of modernism. The 19th and 20th centuries in the West, unto an era of the post-modern, were years of profound technological advances, exploration, and discovery culminating in globalism, prosperity, and literacy.
Industrialization and Colonization
First, the general public of whom were part of a growing middle class had for the first time access to products that were previously out of their economic reach. Also, industrialization, the advent of machine processes, and cheaper production and innovation—like that of plywood and cast iron—meant that many people could afford to buy decorative elements from clocks, to china, to wallpaper, to furniture, to rugs, because they were cheaper.
Second, exploration and colonization of far-off places like Asia and Africa meant the importation of exotic products, many of which could be used in decoration—Chinese vases, Persian rugs, etc. Furthermore, the introduction of the railroad and steamships allowed many to travel across the country or abroad to view the world for themselves, and reading about these distant lands in widely published books, newspapers and magazines whetted their appetite for alien aesthetics.
Incorporation of Historic Styles
The printed world also familiarized people with the wide variety of historic styles in use—the Beaux-Arts style or Louis XIV revival in France could be well understood in Chicago. Unfortunately, mass production and wide availability of products were coupled with a decreased quality in manufactured goods which often added a sense of kitsch or tackiness to popular decorative art.
The Victorians came to decorate their homes and other spaces in accordance with this newfound worldliness and cultural discovery. Curiosity cabinets—those that would become what we know today as curio cabinets—were a reflection of this. The wood and glass storage pieces had shelves that could house a variety of objects exotic, strange, and novel, a quaint, interactive addition to a room that piqued the interest of visitors.
Eclecticism extended to furniture design as well. Oriental production methods and design were used in some pieces, such as Japanese lacquer or Jappaned metal, or the ottoman (Turkish divan). The Victorian Era meant fair use of multiple types of design in furniture production.
Victorian Gothic, Elizabethan, and French Renaissance Revivals, and Louis XIV Revivial/Second Empire were popular styles for chairs, commodes, beds, tables, benches, and settees. However, the materials from which they were made were native to the 19th century. Paper-mâché or cast iron were popular materials with which to make furniture.
The Innovation of Eclecticism
Eclecticism was not a definition of a specific aesthetic but a description of a sensibility towards design that borrowed from historic example and chose from them or integrated them eclectically. The innovation of eclecticism is that it allowed for choice based on individual taste, necessity, and inclination. This in itself represented a society freer than before, with more wealth distribution, from the restraint of class and aesthetic exclusion.
From hence came the emergence of many more artistic and stylistic movements and by the 20th century, the Avant-Garde, that would prove to be innovative, experimental, and sometimes shocking approaches to art and aesthetics that contrasted greatly with that produced by and for the status quo.
Sylvia Szucs on June 04, 2020:
Very interesting! I have been a Victorian Eclectic in every sense of the word.
MZG on November 22, 2013:
Very interesting article about eclecticism!!
Miss Lil' Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on June 26, 2012:
Ahhhh the victorian era, my favorite era in all of fashion. I have an entire room in my house dedicated to victorian style!