Watch Your Names: There’s No Such Thing as ‘Victorian Style’

This is an extreme example of the Italian style from Italy, 1939. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Austin Auction Gallery)

Have you ever noticed that when it comes to names and descriptions of older and antique furniture, what you see, or what you hear, is not always what you get?

A sofa can be couch or divan, a settee, a love seat or a settle. A closet can be an armoire, a wardrobe, a chifferobe or a chifforette. A bookcase can be a lawyer’s bookcase, a barrister’s bookcase or elastic storage. A convertible bed can be a sleeper, a Murphy bed, a lounge or a cabinet bed. A china cabinet can be a hutch, a breakfront or a vitrine. A sideboard can be a buffet, a hunt board or a server.

You get the idea.

Of course not all of the terms I just used are exactly interchangeable, but since there are few if any antiques “name police” we can usually get away with calling anything almost anything as long as someone else understands us.

This is an entire waterfall bedroom set from the mid 1930s. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Cedarburg Auction Co.)

But then there are the few purists who tend to believe that the correct nomenclature of both forms and styles always helps to be more precise and avoid the misunderstandings that can arise when terms are loosely applied.

I admit to being one of those purists on certain occasions, when it won’t ruffle too many feathers or even sometimes when it does. I have been asked to leave a shop now and then after I disputed an owner’s description of a piece of furniture. His loss.

One of my favorite areas of confusion is the term Victorian. Look through almost any auction catalog and you are bound to see a number of “Victorian style” chairs or a Victorian bedroom set, not to mention Victorian jewelry, houses and clothing.

But truth is Victorian was a period of time, not a style. It refers to the period 1837 to 1901, when Victoria, the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, sat on the throne of England. No style in modern history has been maintained uninterrupted for 64 years.

And certainly not  “Victorian style.”

This is a scan of page 97 of the book “Furniture of the Depression Era” showing a variety of bedroom items from the 1930s and early 1940s in Art Moderne style.

Within that span of years, a number of prominent and very distinct styles rose and fell in favor—among them Empire, Late Classicism, Gothic Revival, Elizabethan Revival, Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival, Eastlake, the Aesthetic Movement (a combination of Eastlake and Oriental designs), Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts and even Golden Oak.

All could be considered to be styles of the Victorian era, but none can be said to be the “Victorian” style, although Rococo Revival is the longest lasting style and is the most frequently seen as Victorian.

There is another true style that is frequently mislabeled, but the error is so ubiquitous that few people realize the difference. That style is the resurgent modernistic style of the Depression era, which has regained enormous popularity in the last few years.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, or International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, was held in Paris in 1925. It was a sort of World’s Fair of decorative arts.

The members of the artistic-intellectual post-war generation were ready for something new—and they got it. They just didn’t know what to call it.

It wasn’t exactly “Modern,” as interpreted by the radicals after World War I who rejected all decoration as superfluous, and it certainly wasn’t traditional or slavishly historical. It was just “modern,” with a small “m.”

And it was modern with decoration—all kinds of decoration drawn from myriad sources, including African and Egyptian art, Asian lacquer, Native American art and architecture.

And while it definitely was modern, it had some of its roots planted firmly in the past, particularly in furniture forms.

This Art Deco set from the 1940s is a little more modern interpretation of the style. (Photo: LiveAuctioners.com/ Rachel Davis Fine Arts)

But, of course, no new style or movement could survive long, especially in the United States market, without a catchy name or a snappy handle. The name assigned to the new style was taken from the description. It was called Art Moderne. The extra “e” on the end of “modern” gave it a French flair, and it was pronounced “mo-DURN.”

And while there were some truly avant garde ideas expressed in furniture designs, some were based transparently on designs of the past. The idea that took the firmest grip was the “streamline” look.

Car design went from the stodgy, square-looking Model A to versions with flowing fenders and teardrop lighting of the 1930s. Homes and commercial buildings had rounded corners and wraparound windows. Even locomotives looked streamlined with rounded noses.

One line of furniture design also took the streamlined route. It involved the copious use of vividly striped veneers and rounded corners and edges. This was the ever-popular “waterfall” effect. Waterfall refers to the shape of the top front edge of the piece. The veneer on the top runs from back-to-front instead of side-to-side, as it does in most styles. As it goes over the rounded edge, it gives the effect of “going over a waterfall.”

The Streamline style with waterfall was popular from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s, with some spillover to the 1950s, and is readily available today, even though it has been maligned online by a seriously misinformed blogger who said it was poorly made and the pieces had no interior frame. Like any other style or period it requires examination of the individual pieces.

Today, the style of course is called Art Deco; a contraction of the Exposition’s original name, but it is a term that wasn’t coined until the 1960s. It was a name never heard by its original designers.


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail them to me at info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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