Eastlake Furniture: History & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Modernism was a major movement in the arts, but it took a long time to build up these ideas. In this lesson, we'll see how the Eastlake style of furniture helped get the ball rolling.

Eastlake Furniture

The modern world didn't just appear overnight. In the arts, modernism is the early 20th-century movement that rejected ornamentation and reduced the arts to their simplest elements of shape, line, and color. It was a big change, but one that took time to generate. In fact, a lot of the earliest glimpses of modernist ideas were still fully entrenched within the arts of the Victorian era in the 19th century.

That's where we find Eastlake style furniture. Popular from roughly 1870 into the 1890s, this was a Victorian mode of home furnishing. Yet, there was something different about it. Although these changes seemed relatively minor, the Eastlake style predicted major changes to the arts. The world was starting to change, and thanks to the Eastlake style, so were the chairs.

History of the Eastlake Style

With a name like ''Eastlake'', you've probably guessed that this style is named after either a person or a place. Go ahead and make a guess - you've got a 50/50 shot. It's a person. Pat yourself on the back if you got that right.

Charles Eastlake (1836-1906) was an English architect and designer of the Victorian era. In 1868, he published a book on home furnishing called Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details. The book was tremendously popular in England and made its way to the USA around 1872, where it became tremendously popular there as well.

In his book, Eastlake presented a vision for home furnishings that rejected the strong curves and high relief carvings of Victorian furniture, particularly those attached to the French Baroque Revival and Second Empire styles. Instead, Eastlake presented furniture that was angular, rectilinear, and reduced to simpler geometric shapes. At the same time, he did not disavow ornamentation completely as in some country and mission styles, but reduced it to low reliefs that created less dramatic shadows. Most of the decorative elements in Eastlake's style were through geometrically shaped brackets, spindles, trestles, and other elements.

Cabinet by the New York-based Herter brothers, whose designs were strongly influenced by the ideas of Charles Eastlake, as seen in this rectilinear, simple adorned piece

Charles Eastlake's ideas were closely connected to the Arts and Crafts movement of the time, which rejected the increasingly mechanized process of architecture and design in favor of handmade and artisanal products. Eastlake himself saw his style as being one of sturdy and simple craftsmanship. He personally hated machine-made furniture, but he was not a furniture maker himself. He was an architect, so Charles Eastlake never made any Eastlake furniture.

That task fell to professional cabinetmakers (a catchall term for expert furniture makers), who turned the designs in his book into actual products. Unfortunately for Charles Eastlake, they didn't share his distaste for machine-made furniture. In fact, those geometric brackets, spindles, and other components could be easily made on new turning machines, scroll saws, and other marvels of the industrial age.

Defining Characteristics

When we talk about Eastlake furniture, we may look at a variety of objects, ranging from the handmade products that most directly mirrored Eastlake's vision to the machine-turned and produced variations. It's worth noting that Eastlake himself was not a fan of many of these, and even said of some American variations that he would be ''sorry to be considered responsible'' for inspiring them.

So, what are the definitive traits that let us define Eastlake furniture regardless of where and how it was produced? The most important feature is the reduction of furniture in simple, geometric, and generally rectilinear shapes. When viewing Eastlake furniture, squares and rectangles are generally visually prominent.

Eastlake-inspired chair by the Herter brothers

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