Under the exotic influence
Victorian design took cues from around the world for a rich, comfortable room
By Robyn Davis Sekula
Victorian Homes | February 2008
The Turkish or Moorish room was the family room of the Victorian household. Typically, it was the second parlor of the home, less formal and more private than the first parlor, and usually the coziest, meant for quiet conversation and reading by the fire on cold winter nights, and sometimes, as was the habit in those times, the occasional smoke. Furniture was cushioned, comfortable and soothing.
But most of all, this was the room that drew Victorians into a fantastical world of foreign lands. This was the place where Victorians could include souvenirs from trips abroad or objects that had that certain Eastern flair. It was a place that distinguished itself from the rest of the formal Victorian home by comfort, but also by design.
The Centennial Exhibition of 1876, held in Philadelphia, was mostly responsible for this new interest in all things exotic, according to the book Victorian Splendor: Re-Creating America’s 19th Century Interiors by Allison Kyle Leopold. Some 200,000 people attended the exhibit, which featured exhibits from 50 foreign countries, including the popular exhibits from Japan and Turkey. The Turkish Bazaar set the path for the creation of the Turkish, or Moorish, rooms in homes, Leopold writes. The Turkish Bazaar included brass trays, incense burners, piles of cushions and inlaid tables. Those who wanted to include this new aesthetic in their Victorian homes could choose to incorporate the design into one area, sometimes separated from the rest of the room by portiers, and call it a Turkish corner. Upholstered furniture covered in luxurious fabric, decorated with heavy fringe, became highly fashionable.
Victorians weren’t purists. They had no problem mixing in Japanese-influenced ebonized chairs with Egyptian-revival silver plate, and covering the floor in Turkish-style carpets.
“We speak of it being eclectic, which is many styles at once, which was not a problem in the nineteenth century,” says Dr. Barry Harwood, curator of decorative arts for the Brooklyn Museum. “They weren’t confused. If anything, it was a sign of high culture to mix all of these elements in a new and western interpretation.”
Among one of the best examples of a Moorish room is the Moorish Smoking Room donated from the former home of John D. Rockefeller in New York City that is now at the Brooklyn Museum. The house at 4 West 54h Street was built on speculation in the mid 1860s, and purchased by Arabella Duval Yarrington Worsham in 1877. Beginning in 1878 she transformed the interior that included the Moorish Room. She later sold it completely furnished to John D. Rockefeller whose son ultimately gave it to the Museum. It is layered from ceiling to floor with exotic elements, including an elaborate ceiling, a highly decorative cornice, ebonized woodwork and mantle, and ebonized furniture with aesthetic elements, according to Harwood. The Rockefeller family donated the room from ceiling to floor to a museum when the house was being bulldozed; it first opened to the public in 1953.
Harwood says almost every element in the room is original, including the textile on the wall that’s used above the dado, and the French garniture on the mantle, and the furnishings. The carpet was donated with the room and fits the style of the room, but was likely added later, Harwood says.
At another museum, Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Conn., one corner of the main parlor has a slightly Turkish feeling, with a cozy window seat running around the edge of the bay window and a velvet cushion covering the seats. A heavy velvet curtain can be pulled to shroud the area from the rest of the parlor. Richard Nylander, senior curator for Historic New England, which owns the home, said the portiers would be typical of the type of thing they could have draped Turkish corner in. Later plans call to recreate the carpet that was in the room and use it throughout the double parlor, including the nook. A sample of the carpet survived under a bookcase.
Creating a Turkish look from scratch is the task most Victorian homeowners face today. Lisa Klofkorn, who lives in a Stick-style Victorian in Alameda, Calif., chose a Turkish motif for her second parlor after finding a carpet with Middle Eastern accents that she loved. She found wallpaper, Alhambra by Burt Kallander, that she wanted to add to the room, and based most of the room’s design around that.
Klofkorn found a design she liked for a ceiling stencil in the book Grammar of Ornament, a textbook of Victorian design, and re-created the design in a computer program, blowing it up to the scale she needed. She pieced it together, section by section, taking into account the ceiling medallion and light fixture. The room’s frieze is a peacock design with an Indian flare that comes from the Stencil Library, an English source for stencil designs that’s become a favorite of Lisa’s.
Like the Victorians, Lisa blended pieces that are authentic antiques with Eastern influences and modern pieces that have an exotic look. She’s kept an eye out for anything that she thinks might work, and adjusted as needed. A Victorian hair wreath found a home in the Turkish parlor on an easel, and even a Craftsman style bench works in the room when it’s loaded with pillows and covered halfway with a throw. Lisa found an aesthetic chair that would have likely been ebonized but had received a coat of white paint at some point in its lifetime, so she stripped it, painted it black again, added back in its gold accents and recovered the back and seat with an Egyptian-themed fabric rich in dark red and gold.
The finished look of Klofkorn’s home rich and beautiful. It’s exactly what Klofkorn wanted, and something a Victorian homeowner of 100 years ago would recognize, and love. “Out of all of the rooms in our home, this is the one I like the most,” Klofkorn says. “I like the mix of influences in the room and the way it all came together.”
Essential elements of a Turkish room
Whether you call it Turkish or Moorish, if you want that exotic look, here are some elements that help create the look:
- Textiles. Think rugs, throws, pillows. You want the look to be soft and comfortable.
- Furniture with exotic influences. Ebonized pieces mix well in a Turkish room, even though ebonized pieces were more part of the Japanese-influenced aesthetic movement than anything Turkish.
- Accessories, both antique and modern. It’s easy to find accessories for Turkish-style rooms that have an exotic look. Even inexpensive, modern-day stores like Pier 1 sell decorative items that can mix into your room. Also look for antiques or collectibles with that influence.
- Pattern, and lots of it. Think of the highly decorated surfaces of the Alhambra. Every square inch of the fortress is decorated with terracotta and plaster ornamentation. You don’t have to go that far; wallpaper can stand in for that layered, textured look.
Alhambra: the beginning of Turkish design influences
One of the world’s most important buildings that illustrates Turkish design influences is the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The Alhambra is a fortress with origins that date back to sometime around the 9th century, according to the Alhambra’s official Web site, www.alhambrardegranada.org. Much of the Alhambra that can be seen and admired today dates to the mid-1300s.
The architects of the Alhambra had one concern in particular: to cover every available surface with decoration. The interior has arches throughout, though many are false arches that have no structure and only function as decorative elements. Because the Muslim faith forbids the use of people or animals in art, that feature is absent, but inscriptions are used throughout.
If you’d like to visit, see the web site for ticket information. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time for a visit to the grounds.