Medieval and Gothic Influences in Interior Design.
Tessa Kennedy from The Bedroom, 1995, Abbeville Press
After the D-Day commemorative celebrations, the next big event on Bayeux’s calendar is its annual Fêtes Médiévales. Taking place this year the 6-7th of July, the festival is a fun family event featuring lots of reenactments, expositions and spectacles de rues all enhanced by the ambiance and beauty of the town’s Medieval Norman Romanesque architecture.
This year’s theme is particularly cool: Medieval builders. In tune with the festival’s theme, I thought it would be fun to do some research to see if there were any design inspirations from the Middle Ages we could use for our Tour without going full Game of Thrones.
Renzo Mongiardino, House & Garden Best in Decoration, 1987
Unfortunately, when I perused the chapter on the Middle Ages in my copy of A History of Interior Design by John Pile, I wasn’t too inspired. What I learned was that Medieval dwellings were sparsely furnished affairs even in the most noble of homes. Furniture was very limited and mostly consisted of three-legged stools, trestle tables and benches. Even chairs as we know them today were very rare during the Middle Ages and served in part as a status symbol of the importance of the person sitting in it.
So where did our idealized notions of Medieval interior design come from? I believe they mostly came from the design movement known as Gothic Revival.
Alexander Jackson Davis’ Lyndhurst Mansion, Tarrytown, New York, circa 1940
Gothic Revival, Victorian Gothic or encore Neo-Gothic was a popular design movement that started in the late 18th century and continued till the early 20th. Previously during the Renaissance, the term “Gothic” had been used pejoratively as a connotation of ignorance and all things Medieval were held in particular disdain. In contrast, the Gothic Revival mirrored a new interest in the Middle Ages as architects like Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (later succeeded by his son EW Pugin) in England and Alexander Jackson Davis in the United States, revisited the visual themes of Medieval architecture by applying them to new constructions, furniture design and home decor. Thus, Gothic Revival interior design borrowed inspiration from the central motifs and lines of high gothic architecture such as castles and cathedrals and not from real interiors of the Middle Ages.
Alexander Jackson Davis, wheel-back side chair, 1842-45 via NY Times | A pair of Victorian Gothic side chairs circa 1880 from Christie’s | Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Glastonbury chair, 1839, V&A Collections | EW Pugin, The Granville Chair, 1870 via Arts & Crafts Org.UK | 19th century Rustic French trestle coffee table from Ancient Point | Pair of Canadian rustic Gothic Revival Benches, circa 1880’s via 1stdibs
What I find so interesting about the above examples of furniture is the variety of styles that exists within the genre. From the intricate high design and production of Davis’ wheel chair to the rustic folk pieces pictured at bottom, Gothic Revival was deeply entrenched in the public psyche and influenced designers and craftsman of all backgrounds. The two chairs featured in the middle column are particularly interesting. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin created the Glastonbury chair based on designs of one of the rare known chairs in existence during medieval times, while his son EW’s Granville chair is a combination of Grecian and Gothic lines suggesting more of a fusion of styles. The Gothic Revival greatly influenced the later Arts & Crafts design movement and the Granville chair reflects both.
Modern designers are continuing to use the same design elements used by those during the Gothic Revival. Once again, the most popular motifs are weened from high architecture of the Middle Ages: Trefoil (three-lobed) and quatrefoil (four-lobed) shapes, pointed arches and intricate gilded details.
Collapsible Cathedral Side Table by Nobu Miake of Design Soil | Mahogany wood mirror from Bate Furniture Industries | Wallpaper by Wall & Deco | Tubular steel bed by Tim Barron | Chair of peeled maple branches by Daniel Mack Rustic Furnishings | Quatrefoil mirror and glass shelf from Restoration Hardware
In the end, a little Gothic goes a long way. We already have some stump wood three-legged stools and I wouldn’t mind a gilded pointy arched mirror or two. Maybe just one very Gothic-y piece like this Neo-Gothic chair at Maison Jean Cocteau (next to the fabulously over-the-top panther print walls it almost looks subdued!).
Maison Jean Cocteau by Madeleine Castaing
- Bayeux Fêtes Médiévales. 6-7 July. Full program here.
- Feudalism and Medieval life by David Ross from Britain Express.
- Gothic Revival Architecture from Ontario Architecture.
- The Age of Revivals: Gothic Revival Furniture from Art Etc.
- Style Guide: Gothic Revival from Victoria and Albert Museum.
- “The American Gothic Revival Is Explored at Hirschl & Adler” from the New York Times.
- Gothic Revival Victorian Home Decor by Chazz from Squidoo.