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Bringing your Victorian home into the 21st century

by Cheryl Cook

If you own an old Victorian home, you know the work involved in this peculiar love affair. If you are thinking of owning an old Victorian home, have a coffee with someone who currently owns one. They will be happy to keep you there until closing time, detailing the aches and pains of being the owner of an old Victorian home.

But for those who have fallen under the spell of creaking, wide-plank floorboards and stained glass inserts, there’s no thought of moving into a gleaming new-build.

This doesn’t mean that if you have a Victorian era home, it can’t be modern. And it also doesn’t mean you have to settle into a life of dark rooms stuffed to the gills with flowered sofas. There is a way to have the best of both worlds in your interiors, both then and now.

First, let’s establish that Victorian isn’t a style of home so much as an era of home building. The Victorian era, rather obviously, occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. While there were some common characteristics of the period, there were many styles of homes built during this time, and establishing which style your older home belongs to can make a difference in how you approach the interiors. Let’s take a quick tour of some of the most popular.

Queen Anne homes in the Victorian era were a revival of styles popular during their namesake’s actual reign in the early 1700s, and in North America were actually a fairly broad range of building styles, all of which were ornate and very picturesque. Peaked towers, gables, eaves, second-story porches or balconies as well as ornate wall textures are all elements of the Queen Anne style.

Another popular revival style was Gothic Revival, with its characteristic pointed arches which were used in windows, doors, dormers, and gables—and pretty much anywhere else they could fit one. They also featured a distinctive, ornate trim that might lead you to describe a Gothic revival home as a gingerbread house. That said, if you were to stumble on one of these characteristic gingerbread houses on an isolated, windswept road overlooking the ocean, you might have occasion to let out a strangled cry of “everyone back in the car!” and boot it out of there before you and your friends became the short-lived stars in the next installment of some horror movie franchise.

On a safer architectural plane, the Italianate style featured a low-pitched roof on a two-three story home, with wide, over hanging eaves that featured large brackets or cornices, tall, narrow windows and often a square tower or cupola.

While these three styles were popular, this list is by no means exhaustive, and determining your home’s true style can be a fun task. Local historical societies are a wealth of information on topics like this and can give you more local context on variations or customizations that were popular in your area.

Once you have an idea of where your home sits, historically speaking, it’s time to think about where you sit, aesthetically speaking. You can approach the décor of your Victorian home from a very traditional standpoint, or you can drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century...or—and this is my favourite approach—you can do both. 

It’s entirely possible to have décor that is sympathetic to your home’s age and style, while still allowing you to exist comfortably in the information age. How do we do this? First, we’ll look at some of the traditional features of Victorian interiors, and then we’ll talk about the Modern Victorian style—a new approach to decorating old homes.

Ornate is a word you’ll see used again and again in describing Victorian style, and interior decor was no exception.

Photo Credit:Sony Ilce-7rm2/ pixabay.com

Flooring

If your home was occupied during the 60s and 70s, there is a good chance that someone laid carpet over what might be beautiful floorboards. If the carpet is still there, I encourage you to pull up a corner and see what you have beneath. If your floors were spared carpet, it may be that they seem too worn or damaged to be left in place. In this case, you should definitely get some renovation advice before deciding to replace them. If they can be saved, you won’t regret it.

But if you don’t have gorgeous old planks under the carpet, you can still install new flooring that will look every bit as beautiful as the old stuff. Before making your choice, consider the rest of the wood in the home, its colour and type, and allow this to guide your choices. Again, it’s about being sympathetic to the home’s original features.

Some Victorian homes also featured tile floors, and these were often laid in intricate patterns designed to mimic those seen in churches or cathedrals. These are part of the unique charm of the home, so again, consult a renovation expert before you decide to replace them.

Trim and moulding

Victorian homes are known for their use of ornate trim and moulding. If you are fixing, replacing, or adding trim or moulding, this is when you want to consider the style of your home, and do your best to match these up.

Moulding is the ruched dress of interior decorating. It hides a multitude of sins in corners and joins—and looks beautiful at the same time. If your home has beautiful mouldings or trim, or ornate ceiling medallions, make the most of them. Clean them, paint them and refurbish them.

Décor

Ornate is a word you’ll see used again and again in describing Victorian style, and interior decor was no exception. Minimalism was not a thing; Victorian style would leave Marie Kondo’s left eye permanently twitching. If you were to visit the parlour of a Victorian home, you would be visually assaulted by objects on every free surface or space in the room. These were designed to show off the homeowner’s social class, cultural tastes, their aspirations, their life experiences.

Furniture would be of a variety of styles and you’d never be short of somewhere to sit. Wallpaper was very popular and, again, the patterns and prints on this were elaborate and often floral in design.

Colour

Choosing colours for your interiors was not left to chance by Victorians. No one wandered down to the Olde Paint Shoppe and stared at 54 shades of yellow for two hours. Victorians loved their colour wheels and would often choose analogous colours (next to each other on the wheel) or often used contrasting colours (across from each other on the wheel). Halls and entries would often be plain greys so as not to compete with the main rooms. These might be done in rich, sumptuous and earthy tones to make obvious the importance of the space you were in.

With all that said, not everyone wants to live in a home that is a replica of another time. That’s where the Modern Victorian style comes in, allowing you to remain true to the beauty of your old home, while adding a fresh new twist to its interiors. It allows you to indulge in a bit of controlled maximalism; bringing beautiful, and often meaningful, objects into your home, and indulging in the Victorian love of prints, patterns, and trim, without tipping over the edge into, well, too much.

Subvert the style

Victorians loved patterns and prints, and put these on their walls, furniture, and window coverings. You can also indulge in this love of prints and patterns, but limit them to smaller pieces of furniture, wallpaper on a feature wall, or just the window treatments.

Heavy fabrics like velvet were popular, and they still are. But the Victorian love of tassels and ruffles in conjunction with heavy fabrics can be tamed by adding just a touch here or there. Think of a fringed lamp, or a tufted seat on a sofa.

If you love the idea of rich, deep colours, but don’t want to commit to this on the walls, flip the colour application and use the heavy colours on the trim, highlighting moulding and medallions, while keeping your walls light and white. 

Mix up your furniture and don’t be afraid to add a few modern pieces. The Victorians used a wide range of furniture styles, and so can you. If you have an ornate, Victorian sofa, juxtapose it with a pair of modern armchairs. If you are reupholstering antique or Victorian style chairs, try a modern print on the fabric.

Lighting is a great way to bring in a modern piece that contrasts beautifully with older features. Think of a modern, multi-armed chandelier in front of an old fireplace. Or try a modern, floor lamp contrasting with your antique wingback.

Finally, bring in your objects. Keeping the look too spare will work against the Victorian feel, but you want to ensure that you don’t end up on an episode of Hoarders. Rather than putting things on every piece of blank wall, consider small displays or tableaus. For each display, bring together three to seven objects (pictures, vases, mementos, etc.) that perhaps are related by theme or colour or sentimentality and make groupings of these strategically around your room. Use tables, shelves, walls, and mantels as homes for your well-curated exhibitions of things you love.

Having a Victorian home isn’t for everyone, but for those who love them, putting in the time and labour to create something unique that still represents the history of their home is part of what makes the experience so special.

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