Welcome to the visual companion for the sixth episode of The Render. The Render is a podcast hosted by Modsy’s very own Alessandra Wood and Maddy Warner, and is all about the untold stories from the world of interior design.
In the sixth episode, Maddy and Alessandra give us a bit of a history lesson on Victorian lifestyles and interior design. This is a group of people whose lives were centered on their homes. As such, there’s quite a bit we can learn from the Victorians about how to shelter in place without losing our minds!Listen Now
We’re about six months into our COVID-19 reality that causes us to spend most of our time at home. While perhaps we’ve adjusted to this new reality more than we had in early April, most of us have probably had moments where we’ve lost it. And not just emotionally. There’s a frustration when your home—what was once your sanctuary from the stresses of life—has now become…well, your whole life. We can’t escape the reality that our modern homes weren’t created to house all these different uses and activities. But, as time goes on and there’s no sign of anything going back to “normal” any time soon, it’s time to fully embrace the season of life we’re in.
So, in our sixth episode of the Render, Alessandra and Maddy look at a group of people who knew a thing or two about spending the majority of their time at home: The Victorians. We’ll look at their lifestyle and how their homes reflected and served that lifestyle. And we’ll even learn a bit about how we can take some of their practices and implement them into our newly cloistered lives! Because, the longer we’re in quarantine, the more like the Victorians we become!
What is the Victorian Era?
What is commonly referred to as the Victorian era is the period of time that coincides with the reign of England’s Queen Victoria. She was queen from 1837 to 1901 and was quite the influential monarch.
Queen Victoria: The Original Influencer
In fact, Queen Victoria could probably be considered one of the original influencers. Whatever she thought was hot spread like wildfire across England and the rest of the Western world. Everybody was looking at what she was doing and copying it.
Queen Victoria’s Engagement Ring
One example? Her engagement ring. It was a serpent ring, given to her by her husband, Prince Albert. It was shaped like a serpent (nothing says romance like a snake, right?) and included small rubies and diamond, as well as a larger emerald. Actually, it was a bit more romantic that it may sound, as serpents were a symbol of eternity at the time—so, eternal, undying love and all that. This serpent-style ring became a very popular form of engagement ring at the time—and even today they’re actually making a comeback. Not as engagement rings, but as a piece of statement jewelry.
The Modern Christmas Tree
She’s also known for popularizing the Christmas tree as we know it today. There was an image of an evergreen tree decorated with candles in her palace, which sparked an adoption of this tradition across England and America and influences how we celebrate Christmas today!
A Cultural Shift
Culturally, the Victorian era came on the heels of the Georgian era—an era all about science and enlightenment. And the Victorians? They had a bit of a cultural reaction to all this advancement and pushed back a bit. As a result, religion—especially Christianity—sees a major rise in popularity. Victorians were very spiritual and emotional people who leaned upon the romantic and sentimental.
How Did Victorians Decorate Their Homes?
All of this emotion and sentimentality had quite the impact on interior design. When we look at Victorian interior design trends, we see a lot of dark patterns and intricate details. Detailed woodwork and carvings. Tassels. Lots of drapery and wallpaper. Bric-à-brac.
Bric-à-brac is a word that signifies small, decorative accessories. Other terms: trinkets, knick knacks, tchotchkes.
Victorians were collectors. In a Victorian home, you’d likely see shelves full of collections, whether that’s thimbles, Staffordshire dogs, collectible teaspoons, vases, you name it. Some people might collect a million of the same thing, others might find delight in a vast mix of objects. And bric-à-brac is the word—first coined in the Victorian era, actually—that encompasses these decorative collections of household ornamentation.
In addition to their collections of knick knacks, they also just tended to cover every surface. Tabletops were covered in tablecloths or doilies. Walls (and sometimes even ceilings) were covered in patterned wallpaper. Architecturally, ornate moldings were very popular. Essentially, especially among the upper middle class and upper class, a home was a place to really show off material wealth and personality.
Home As a Reflection of Self
We talked in episode 4 of the podcast that the French Rococo period of the late 18th century was when interior design as we know it first emerged, as a separate practice from architectural design. It was an era of opulence, when one could really show off their wealth through their home’s interior design.
We see this show up in Victorian architecture and design in a slightly different way. Yes, Victorians loved ornate design. But home wasn’t just a showpiece—it was a space that was really meant to be lived in. As a result, there was much more personalization to Victorian-era homes. With their penchant for collections and sentimentality, their homes truly became a reflection of self in a way that had never been seen in interior design before.
They used their homes to reflect their wealth, yes. But also to reflect their hobbies and interests, their culture, and their taste.
Home As The Center Of A Person’s Life
In the Victorian era and the time periods before it, a home was really the center of a person’s life, in a way we haven’t seen since then. (Until, perhaps, now as we’re all stuck at home!) If you had a farm, you were actually producing what you needed from your land. If you lived in a large Victorian house in a small town or a small city, you might have had a staff that was cooking and cleaning for you—and they were actually the people who might be going out for groceries and supplies. So, much of life centered on the home and the property around it.
Of course, people would certainly leave their homes for entertainment. This was the era of fancy balls, after all! But these weren’t overly common occurrences. By and large, people’s lives centered around their homes and social visits to other people’s homes.
If you’ve read Little Women or seen any of the movie adaptations, you’ve seen the way that home was the center of life for the March sisters. Yes, they went to balls and made social calls. But so much of their lives centered on being home. Home was where they cleaned and cooked, of course. But it’s also where they practiced their hobbies—like reading, needlework, playing the piano, writing, and painting—as well as where they put on “wild theatrics” for friends and family.
The Public Sphere vs. The Private Sphere
Out of the Victorian era was developed an idea of separation between the public and private spheres. The public sphere is everything that’s outside your home. The Victorian era was in a post-industrial revolution reality. More people in lower classes were leaving their home for work than ever before—spending long days in factories and mines. In an industrialized world, the public sphere suddenly becomes a scarier place—one that’s loud, scary, and dirty. Jack the Ripper is wandering around, murdering people at random for goodness sake! So, the public sphere begins to be somewhat demonized.
In this culture, where there’s a fear of “weaker people” (AKA women and children) going out on their own, the private sphere really developed as the realm of women. This is, in fact, when the idea of home becomes gendered.
The American Woman’s Home
Books and periodicals started to come out during the latter half of the 19th century that were guidebooks for women on how to live in and run their homes. The American Woman’s Home: Or, Principles of Domestic Science; Being A Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book, and others like it, was essentially a companion to what was happening in the public spheres as a place of work and professionalizing how women run their homes.
While, before this time period, architecture was a male-dominated industry, in the Victorian era the realm of “home” shifted to being a female sphere. Women took on the role of decorating their homes, which starts to become explicitly linked to the “women’s realm” and women really owning that home space.
Even today, we see some of those stereotypes continuing to exist, where interior design is viewed as more feminine. But, fortunately, our culture is redefining our own gender stereotypes and pushing against that notion.
So, with all this in mind, what can we learn from the Victorians about sheltering in place?
The Importance of Privacy
One of the key components of a Victorian home? Lots of room. (No open floor plans here!) During the Victorian era, privacy was a core component of the home, and there was this idea that private time really helped a person develop their own intellectual prowess. Having the opportunity for privacy and being comfortable with oneself was an important aspect of personal development that we see Victorians leaning into. And we see this value reflected in the way they constructed their homes.
Even in smaller homes—and certainly in larger homes—there were many separate and distinct rooms. So, a living space was separate from a dining room, which was most certainly separated from the kitchen. And the kitchen itself might have sub-spaces, with a butler’s pantry being separated from the main cooking area. And you’d never enter directly into a living space from the front door. Rather, homes had vestibules or entrance halls, and from there you could make an entrance into the living room or parlor.
All of this separation of spaces allowed for each person within the home to develop their own interests and pursuits, to have time for self-reflection, and simply to stay sane in a home occupied by so many other people.
The Lesson We Can Learn: Find Spaces Of Privacy In Your Own Home
Most of us don’t have this kind of built-in separation and privacy in our own homes. And this certainly isn’t a time that most of us are going to undertake major renovations. But there are a few things we can implement in our own homes that take that spirit and apply it to our modern lives.
We’re currently spending much of our time at home. As such, there’s a definite need for separation, especially between work and the rest of life. But within work, there’s a need for private space for being on calls and doing work that requires more concentration.
This has resulted in the rise of the “cloffice.” (AKA the closet office.) For those of you who have walk-in closets in your home, consider clearing out part of it for a workspace. At Modsy, we’ve also seen a lot more people request desks and workstations being added to their bedroom design. (Something people have been somewhat against the past couple years as they were looking to create more separation between work and sleep.) But, with the state of the world today, it makes sense for people to make use of a room that otherwise wouldn’t be used during the day—and to be able to work in a room that has a door you can shut to separate yourself from what’s happening in the rest of the house.
Don’t be afraid to make semi-permanent changes to your home to make it work for your life today. You can always change it when you go back to the office and your kids go back to school. But, until then, you should invest some time into creating spaces in your home that really work for your needs. This can have a really material effect on your well-being at home right now.
Different Rooms With Different Purposes
Connected to the idea of valuing privacy within the home is the idea of carving out distinct space for distinct uses. Of course, this was easier to do in a home with so many distinct rooms. But the idea was that each room within a Victorian’s home had a different purpose. Not only did they leverage different rooms for privacy and their own individual intellectual development, but as a family they leveraged different spaces for different uses throughout the day.
So, in a large home you would have a distinct front hall for welcoming guests, with a separate parlour for entertaining them. This is where you’d have all of your fanciest and most ornate decor, so as to thoroughly impress all who entered. You would also, perhaps, have a piano or organ in this room for some rousing musical entertainment. A drawing room, on the other hand, would be a less formal gathering space for the family when no guests were over. This is where a family would gather after dinner for games, music, and reading.
The gentleman of the house might have a study, where he could close the door and conduct business. In larger homes, each person probably had a dressing room in addition to their bedroom. While a bedroom was used strictly for sleeping, your dressing room would not only be for getting dressed and ready for the day, but might be where a young lady takes her breakfast and writes letters.
And then, of course, every home had a formal dining room, that was in a separate place in the home from your kitchen, butler’s pantry, and scullery. Some homes even had formal dining spaces and more casual dining spaces for different meals or occasions.
Essentially, Victorians had different spaces that truly had different uses—so, they ended up “travelling” through their home throughout the day, depending on what activity they were undertaking or who they were talking to.
The Lesson We Can Learn: Establish Realms and Zones
There are so many new uses being incorporated into our homes this year, which is causing us to have to expand how we use our space, even if our space itself is not expanding. Our homes are now not only where we eat and sleep, but they’re where we work, where our kids attend school, our gyms, playgrounds, libraries, movie theaters. We’re doing all these different activities in our homes—but the reality is that most of us probably aren’t like the Victorians, with a different room for each activity or need. So, how can we translate this idea into the modern home?
It comes down to identifying and carving out spaces and rituals within the space that you have. So, maybe you have a large, open-concept living room. In the pre-pandemic world, you used this space to watch Netflix a few times a week, and maybe it’s also where you hosted wine or game nights with friends. In our current reality, you might find yourself sitting at a desk in your living room during the workday, then sitting on the sofa watching more Netflix than you ever thought you could watch. Not only that, but it’s also become the space for board games or puzzles, your kid’s playroom, and maybe your home gym. That’s a lot of uses for one space!
You probably aren’t going to throw up a wall to create a few distinct rooms into one—but you can adjust your layout to create a more “zoned” space. Create context clues for your brain, so that when you move to a different space within your living room, your brain knows that you’re switching to a different task or activity. So, create a true workstation around your desk, and know that when you’re sitting at your desk, it’s work time. Then, when you transition to your sofa in the evening, your brain will know that it’s time to relax. Perhaps you want to add a reading nook to your living room that’s a screen-free-zone—and whenever you sit in that chair, you know it’s time to set your phone down and open up a book or magazine. Or maybe it’s keeping a bit of floor space cleared, so you know you’ll always have space to unroll your yoga mat, creating a lower barrier-to-entry to working out. You could also float your sofa and use that as a way to break up the space, or even add a room-divider screen to create some zones.
Routines & Rituals
Victorians had a lot of routines and rituals built into their lives. One major area we can see this is in how their sleep cycles were more aligned with the natural clock. They certainly used candles and lamps in the evenings, and wealthy families might have gas lighting, but since they didn’t have electricity, in general their lives were much more tied to when the sun rose and set.
There was also a sense of ritual in this; the Victorians were big on window coverings, so in the evenings they’d go around their homes and pull the drapes. THen, before bed, they’d have to blow out all the candles. In the morning, they’d upen up their drapes and shutters and let the daylight flood in since they couldn’t just turn on the lights. These little cues signified a rhythm and ritual of a day starting or ending.
The Lesson We Can Learn: Embrace Routines and Rituals
This is something we can learn from the Victoirans—especially during a time when we don’t actually have anywhere outside our homes that we need to be. Our normal routines have been completely dismantled. So, it’s easy to think we can just stay up later and then sleep in—but this can really mess with our body’s clock. With electricity and constant access to technology, we don’t have the same built-in clues to when we should go to bed and get up each day. So, it’s important to create them.
Try creating a routine for yourself where you go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, make that part of your morning ritual. Does your brain need help signifying it’s time to go to work? Putting on real clothes, or even putting shoes or lipstick on, might be a great way to signal your brain that it’s work time, even if you’re not leaving your home. If you’re using your dining room table as a desk or a homeschooling zone, consider packing everything up in a crate or tray each evening, and putting it away so you can mentally end your school and work days and also continue using your table for meals. Maybe, in place of a commute, you take yourself on a walk at the end of each workday.
All of these little rituals and routines help create mental boundaries for us which can help keep us sane when every day feels the same! Essentially, you’re using the visual space around you to train your brain that it’s time to shift modes.
Hobbies, Personal Development, and “Fun”
The Victorians desired to be a cultured people and spent a lot of time on personal development. Especially for the wealthier classes, there was a high value placed on learning languages, being able to hold your own in a conversation or discussion, and for women an ability to show domestic prowess through sewing, needlepoint, knitting, or crocheting.
Musical ability was also highly valued. Music—especially singing and playing the piano or organ, was not only a form of personal development but also offered a way for your family to come around and find entertainment together. Remember, they didn’t have TVs. But they had plenty of sing-alongs and musical performances to keep themselves entertained!
The Lesson We Can Learn: Take On a New Hobby And Learn Something New
Ok, so maybe you won’t end up learning how to play the piano forte with all this extra time at home. But, like the Victoirans, we can use this time for hobbies and learning—both for diversion and for personal development. Today’s equivalent might be taking a Masterclass or Skillshare course, or learning a new language. Perhaps is working through a new cookbook or learning to bake a fancy dessert. For you grandmillenials out there, it might even be taking up the very Victoiran hobby of needlepoint!
While there will certainly be days and weeks the mental strength it takes to choose a show to watch is all we can muster, there will also be better weeks. And there’s something gratifying about using that time constructively and feeling like you’ve really accomplished something.
The key to making these hobbies more a part of your routine is to make them more accessible. So, set up a recurring appointment in your calendar to tune into a masterclass. Keep a basket of knitting or needlepoint supplies by your sofa so you can pick it up while you watch TV or talk with your roommates. Or dedicate one night a week to trying new recipes. Making a ritual of your new hobby will help it to stick.
When you look back at the Victorians, “comfort” is probably not the first word that comes to mind. These were the days of corsets and hoop skirts, after all! But there was something about their overall lifestyle that was geared toward comfort—just in a very different way than we define it today.
In fashion, at the turn of the 20th century, restrictive clothing started loosening up so that people (especially women) became physically more comfortable.
You can also see the value they placed on comfort by how they filled and decorated their homes. As we mentioned earlier, their rooms were filled with knick knacks that brought them joy. And they loved drapery, and they layered their homes with upholstery and tapestries that added a sense of comfort and softness to their spaces. They wanted to create homes that were comfortable and inviting. In fact, in this time period, we do start seeing furniture that’s a bit more overstuffed and padded, that would allow someone to do a bit of lounging and relaxing. And even if a Victorian home doesn’t seem remotely comfortable to us, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t to them, in their cultural context.
The Lesson We Can Learn: Lean Into Comfort
Both fashion and interior design have become much more casual since Victorian times. But we can certainly take the notion that the Victorians valued—caring about creating a space that feels comfortable—and apply that to our own context. In spending so much extra time at home, you might be noticing parts of your home that aren’t comfortable for your current lifestyle.
Our advice? Don’t be afraid to make a few changes! Whether it’s incorporating more drapery for coziness, layering more throw pillows onto your sofa, getting a new rug for more softness underfoot, or upgrading your dining room chairs to something more comfortable. This is also a great time to consider if your current mattress is working for you. If not, consider investing in a new one, or getting a memory foam topper to make it more comfortable! You could also upgrade your bedding to make your bed feel more luxurious. It might even be time to get a real office chair for some lower lumbar support!
It’s all about finding little moments to introduce extra comfort into your daily routine.
Pomp & Circumstance
The Victorians sure knew how to make everyday feel special. Their lives were all about pomp and circumstance—AKA, infusing their days with a bit of luxury, that makes ordinary things feel more special. Victorians added this pomp and circumstance to their lives every day for dinner. (Or, at least, the more wealthy among them did.)
Looking at Downton Abbey is a great way to bring this picture to life. (Even though that show technically took place in the Edwardian period—but the idea still stands.) Every single night, the family gets dressed to the nines, just to have dinner. And this wasn’t because they were having guests over or hosting a party. No, it was just a regular Tuesday evening, but Lady Mary was wearing her very best dress and pearls.
The Lesson We Can Learn: Infuse Your Cloistered Life With Fun And Special Moments
Ok, so you’re probably not going to get dressed up in suits and evening gowns for dinner each night. But what would it look like to add more fun and even a bit more formality into your home to make each day feel more special? Today, the notion of pomp and circumstance can simply be the idea of breaking from the norm and layering on something exciting!
But what does it look like to make family meals feel more special? Perhaps you do want to dress up for dinner once a week and actually do your hair and makeup! (Maybe on the same night that you try out a new recipe as part of your new cooking hobby?) Maybe it’s creating the ritual of lighting candles for dinner every night and turning on some background music. And it doesn’t all have to revolve around the dinner table! It could also be infusing your home with hygge and splurging on a new candle or putting on a fancy outfit and popping champagne while watching reruns of The Office.
So, embrace the little moments of joy, because that’s all we can really do right now. And wear your mask!
Thanks for joining us for season 1 of The Render! We’ll dive back into season 2 this fall. So, if there are any topics you want us to cover, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a DM on Instagram @modsydesign.