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Eclecticism: Yesterday & Today

Updated on June 13, 2011

Eclecticism from the Nineteenth Century Onward

Eclectic design as we understand it today has been around as long as people have had options in the decorative arts. The term eclecticism stems from the Greek word eklektikos which is defined as “choosing the best”. This suggests a great deal of freedom untethered by convention, however, in the mid nineteenth century, just the opposite was true.

After neo-classicism came wave after wave of revival architecture. Architects and designers of this era interpreted eclecticism to mean an accurate historical representation of any chosen period regardless of context, which is why this period is also loosely defined as historicism. A designer was expected to follow the design cues set forth by the architect and remain true to the era that it represented. It seems the only thing that was not allowed was originality.

The conglomerate result was considered eclectic because of the patchwork effect it imposed on the neighborhood. A gothic church could stand next to a Palladian style bank which in turn was nestled into towns filled with colonial, italianate, georgian and mediterranean style homes.

By the late 1800's eclectic architecture began to integrate the various styles and resemble our modern understanding of the word.

Kelly Wearstler's Formal Ecclectic Style

The Royal Insurance Company Building in Philadelphia
The Royal Insurance Company Building in Philadelphia

A Break Down of Some Architectural Styles

The Royal Insurance Company Building in Philadelphia was built in 1882.The sunflower was a popular aesthetic motif that is also used here. You can also see classical columns and pilasters mixed with pointed Gothic arches and finials.

Victorian Gothic: Details emphasis vertical lines, sharply pointed gables, tall narrow windows topped with lancet arches.

Italianate Architecture Displays asymmetry and flexible floor plan with square and rectangular shapes with low-pitched or flat roofs. Elaborate cornices and brackets can be seen along with square pillared verandas.

Richardsonian Romanesque Architecture Named for Henry Hobson Richardson, a brilliant 19 c. architect (1838-1886). Distinguished by heavy Roman arches around doors and windows. The most elaborate of these structures include towers and turrets, while others feature rounded bays.

Queen Anne Architecture Features beautiful ornamentation, picturesque roof-lines, and a variety of surface variations. Their turrets, towers, high chimneys, and oriel and bay windows reflect the romance of the turn of the century.

These homes were all built in the mid to late 1800's and clearly demonstrate the patchwork quality that was created in neighborhoods all across the States and in parts of Europe. Eclecticism seems to be something that, over the years, zeroed in on individualism. Here, we can see an entire neighborhood had a very distinctive personality however, inside the homes was a different story. As more and more freedoms were allowed and even expected the individuality eventually revealed itself inside the structures as well.

How 19th Century Achievements Affected Style

Nineteenth century achievements in steel, electricity, internal combustion engines, and railways were all key factors in the progress of the industrial revolution. These new processes and technologies made it possible to recreate formerly unattainable decorative art pieces at a fraction of the original cost and time, making them obtainable to a much wider consumer group.

Suddenly buyers could choose from a vast array of design styles; all at affordable prices. These achievements helped to foster the attitude that nothing was impossible and free will as opposed to divine destiny was generally accepted. There was great optimism coupled with growth of individualism that freed people from convention. In addition, the general public was literate and had access to a wide variety of books, newspapers and magazines which further served to broaden their awareness of diverse styles.

Steamships and rail travel made far-a-way lands much more accessible and was no longer the exclusive domain of the upper classes. As more people strayed beyond the established route of the Grand Tour their travels began to influence their taste at home. Plus, Britain had immense imperial control over lands in India, China, the Pacific, and Africa so it was only natural that forms and motifs from these lands would work their way into the established decorative arts vocabulary of the West. The fascination for exotic items was further fueled by happenings like the Great Exhibition. In the words of the English explorer, linguist and writer, Sir Richard F. Burton (1821–1890) exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of "barbaric splendor".

The downside to all this progress however, was that Westerners began doubt the quality of their own mass produced items. Instead, they revered the decorative arts from pre-industrialized countries as being more pure, in both craft and creativity.

Eclectic Furniture

This chest created by Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) demonstrates perfect harmony between neoclassicism and Japanese lacquer techniques. It incorporates real Japanese panels into its front and sides and also employs gilt caryatid motifs, ormolu, and vernis martin to exquisite effect.

In the 13th century Marco Polo traveled to the Far East sparking a fascination for the decorative arts and culture that reached fevered pitch during the 19th century. Until then exotic and mysterious items were only attainable by the rich but the Industrial Age changed all that. By the late 1800's Eastern style furniture that was adapted to Western taste was being produced in Asia and exported specifically for the European market.

Late Victorian, Louis XVI style curio cabinet designed to house various collections of weird and wonderful objects.

Curiosity Collections

During the Age of Enlightenment people became obsessed with gathering new and interesting items to display to a curious world. The trend continued, reaching its peak in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The items collected were meant to represent a micro universe of the strange, exotic and wonderful and by extension show off the worldliness and education of the owner. Originally they were displayed in a separate room but by the mid eighteen hundreds, as the custom eventually trickled from the upper-class down to the middle class, the display of these items became much more modest. Our modern day curio cabinet is a direct descendant of the display cases that were built to house these collections as is the modern museum.

But more importantly, these all-embracing collections were harbingers of new directions in interior design.

Vase with cover, 1888–98 William De Morgan (British, 1839–1917); Manufacturer: Sand's End Pottery (British) Lustered earthenware

U-shaped vase, 1886 or 1889 Christopher Dresser (British, 1834–1904) Hard-paste porcelain

Bottle, ca. 1862 Attributed to Christopher Dresser (British, 1834–1904) Bone china

Dish, 19th century Joseph- Théodore Deck (French, 1823–1891) Earthenware with underglaze and enamel polychrome decoration ("Persian" faience)

An assemblage of some items that might have been found in wealthy collector's curio cabinet.

The Value of Eclecticism in Design Today

Our world is ever evolving and so it's appropriate that our environment should communicate this growth to become a reflection of who we are and what we hold dear. To me, the most interesting designs are well thought out mixtures of old and new, east and west. Eclecticism offers the most exciting potential and the possibilities are endless. As long as the elements are held together by a common theme, you can celebrate the original meaning of eklektikos and choose “the best.

The bathroom designed by Vicente Wolf successfully combines a number of styles that make this bathroom sophisticated and soothing.

Designed by Jonathan Adler
Designed by Jonathan Adler

At the same time, one could also be described as avant-garde if one continues to infuse designs with the evidence of knowledge garnered from growth, travel, education and curiosity. In effect, I think its important to maintain an avant-garde mindset in order to effectively pull off eclectic designs without seeming contrived. I don't see these two design philosophies as exclusive to each other but rather complimentary. One naturally follows the other.

This room was designed by Jonathan Adler. It has a bold graphic feel and combines whimsy, exoticism, contemporary lines and even the beloved Asian inspired mirror and is a perfect example of modern day eclecticism.

Get the look yourself by adding whimsical items like the ceramic owl umbrella stand to your more traditional pieces.

Eclecticism stands alone as a movement in design. At its best it is as individual who creates it, instantly identifiable like a signature. Unlike previous eras it can't be pinned down which makes it a trend that will continue to evolve. Eclecticism is characterized precisely by the fact that is not a particular style. And therein lies the beauty. Eclecticism is my style... or maybe its yours. Get used to it.

Article by Anne Alexander Sieder all rights reserved. For hardcore interior design fans, check out my blog

Crossing Boundaries: A Global Vision of Design
Crossing Boundaries: A Global Vision of Design

The acclaimed interior designer Vicente Wolf has written a book about his design philosophy entitled “Crossing Boundaries a Global Vision of Design” which embodies an avant-garde attitude and an eclectic style.



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    • whitton profile image


      8 years ago

      Beautiful Homes! I loved the bathroom. Gorgeous pictures.


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