Eastlake's Origins
By Karen Parr-Moody

The journey of aesthetic trends is rarely one taken in a straight line, but rather one that meanders before reaching its final destination. Such was the case with the rise of Eastlake furniture's popularity during the late Victorian period of about 1870 to 1890. The trend took some detours once it arrived in America — so much so that its founder, Englishman Charles Locke Eastlake, ultimately disavowed the very furniture that took on his name.

Locke, an architect and arts journalist — and, notably, not a furniture maker — kicked off this furniture movement when he wrote the book “Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details." Published in England in 1868, the book became a popular guide for discerning readers who wanted tips on how to decorate a home. In it, Eastlake rails against the style of mid-Victorian furniture, particularly the extravagant curves, which he deems “senseless” to the point of being “constructively weak … always rickety.”

Eastlake recommended, as replacement, the use of rugged woods, such as oak, and the elimination of excessive decoration. Furniture in this style was often called Eastlake or Cottage Furniture.

In the photo, upper right, is a room in a Victorian home that has been rehabbed by a young couple (featured on Apartment Therapy). Encircling the table are four Eastlake chairs with velvet upholstery, a common fabric for this style. Eastlake furniture is readily identified by the low relief carvings and incised lines in the wood. Addition, geometric ornamentation is often seen, which in this case are four leaf clover designs at the top of each crest rail.

 

In a moment of grand irony, such decorative chairs went beyond the style of the furniture Eastlake himself originally espoused. He championed William Morris' notions of decorative arts in the Arts and Crafts style, which was itself an exercise in simple hand craftsmanship.

 

By 1872, when Eastlake’s book was reprinted in the United States, it launched waves of imitators — most of them manufacturers of machine-made furniture. Their machines imitated the handiwork of the Arts and Crafts style and took it a step beyond: The result was furniture with many more flourishes than Eastlake appreciated. He publicly renounced such furniture — although it are those very pieces that now bear his name.


The bench in the photo, left, is one of the Eastlake styles currently found at GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall ($148; Booth B-106). Rather than the strict, utilitarian style advocated by Eastlake, this piece is more an amalgam of Victorian and the burgeoning Arts and Crafts style — a look Eastlake would likely have thought was still too ornamental. No matter. Now, as then, Eastlake remains the most popular style among Victorian collectors. Note that in the close-up photo of this bench there are the geometric designs and lightly incised carvings that are typical of Eastlake furniture.


While Eastlake may have deemed curves “senseless," they're integral to the design of a rocking chair, as seen in the photo, right ($185; Booth B-105). Made circa 1890, this chair has been completely restored and includes new caning. Details can be seen in the close-up photo (below right): Eastlake furniture often includes geometric ornaments, which in this case are disks.


The legacy of  Eastlake remains: The furniture bearing his name remains popular to this day. And while it doesn't fit the ideology of his strictest vision, the furniture has made his name live on in antiques stores and homes around the world.


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