By Karen Parr-Moody
English architect and arts journalist Charles Locke Eastlake literally wrote the book that opened the floodgates for Eastlake furniture. Called “Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details,” this tome is still available – on Amazon, naturally – in paperback.
Published in England in 1868, the book was actually a popular guide for discerning readers on how to keep and 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.” To that end, he says, “this detestable ornamentation is called shaping."
There you have it. Out with these “senseless” curves, in with the straight lines. 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 1872, Eastlake’s book was reprinted in the United States. What he illustrated as the preferred style was soon widely imitated in the United States for another two decades. However, rather than the strict, utilitarian style advocated by Eastlake, the resulting furniture was more an amalgam of Victorian and the burgeoning Arts and Crafts style. It was a look Eastlake would have, in most cases, disavowed for still being too ornamental. Regardless, it caught on.
“His and her” parlor chairs were a popular Victorian style, often seen in mahogany or walnut, and carved into the sinuous curves so despised by Eastlake. In the photo, above right, GasLamp features such a pair of chairs done in the Eastlake style ($2,500), upholstered in deep green velvet. Both chairs have a pierced and incised crest rail and seat rail. Details can be seen in the close up photo: Eastlake furniture is readily identified by the low relief carvings and incised lines, seen here, in addition to geometric ornaments, which in this case are disks.
Another hallmark of Eastlake style is the rectangular and boxy shape, as seen in this love seat currently at GasLamp (photo left; $490). Flat, straight back and arm slats enjoyed great acceptance during this time period, and were hallmarks of a silhouette that became known as Mission Style. With his purist ideals, Eastlake meant for furniture to be hand crafted. However, because of the very straight lines of the resulting furniture, such designs were easily mass-produced. Eastlake was foiled once again. He publicly renounced any association of machine-produced detail, which strayed from his handcrafted ideology.
Note that in the close-up detail of this love seat, left, there are the geometric designs and lightly incised carvings that are typical of Eastlake furniture.
The chair in the photo, right, shows some of the naturalistic flora often seen in the Eastlake style ($255,B-219). Three carved flowers adorn the crest rail. Along the arms of the chair are lightly carved leaves, a pattern also repeated in the seat rail.
Eastlake furniture was popular from about 1870 to 1890, and is still collectible and often found at GasLamp. It is technically considered Victorian, due to its place in history. Its look, however, embraces the newness that was to continue with the Arts and Crafts movement.
Eastlake, the man, created a stir in his lifetime, and his legacy remains. He philosophically said that a "man's home was his castle where he returned to a moral environment after working in the evil world.” Those who love Eastlake furniture might agree that it feathers their castle with an unusual beauty.