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The concept of eclecticism as applied to the arts is well-established. The term “eclectic” as applied to design indicates use of a variety of styles from different eras or perhaps origins. Johan Joachim Winkelmann was the first person to employ 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.
Eclecticism in Modern Times
Eclecticism today can be defined as those interior designs that include elements from various styles or aesthetic groups, i.e., French country, post-modernism, retro styles such as midcentury, Neo-federalism, Empire, Louis XIV or several dozen others. Essentially, it can borrow from any aesthetic. However, 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: for example, 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, and this requires thought, creativity, and attention to detail.
Eclecticism in Architecture
Eclecticism is a universal methodology or approach to design and not a term used solely to interiors. 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 19th century 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
Eclectic Interior design infers that décor and furnishings are gathered from multiple geographic origins or evoke elements from separate styles, yet at the same time 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. Different and sometimes opposing customs and philosophies began to cross-pollinate and whether through academics, media, commerce or politics the social fabric of Western society began to take cues from countries around the world and the effects of that are obvious especially in certain environments that often pertain to entertainment, food, and fashion.
Industrialization and Colonization
From the 19th century on, a growing middle class began to have access for the first time to products that were previously out of their economic reach. This was do to innovations of the industrializated age, more specifically the advent of machine processes and automation. Production became cheaper. Furthermore, novel and cheap materials - like that of plywood and cast iron — meant that many people could afford to buy decorative elements like clocks, china, wallpaper, furniture, and rugs among other things.
For better or worse, colonization and advances in transoceanic transportation meant a greater influx of raw materials to the West. Manufacturers and merchants took advantage of the importation of exotic products, many of which were used in decoration — Chinese vases, Persian rugs, silk cloth from India, etc. Insofar as the middle class understanding and experience of the world, railroad and steamships gave opportunity to many to travel across the country or abroad. Books, magazines and newspapers described these distant lands, whetting an appetite for non-Western aesthetics.
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Incorporation of Historic Styles
The printed world also familiarized people with the wide variety of historic styles — the Beaux-Arts or Empire styles widely influenced French design and now those could be well understood in Chicago. The down side to mass production and the wide availability of goods was that they were coupled with a decreased quality that 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 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. Asian and Middle Eastern production methods and designs were used prolifically and have come to earmark certain decades of the 19th and 20th centuries - like Japanese lacquered surfaces or the introduction of 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 more generally 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 heterogeneously. Eclecticism is an unique aesthetic in that it allows for choice based on individual taste, necessity, and inclination. This in itself came to represent a more egalitarian society in which wealth became more evenly distributed, and was freed 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!