Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Aesthetic Movement (Aestheticism)

The Aesthetic Movement is a loosely defined movement in literature, fine art, furniture, metalwork, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, and wallpapers in later nineteenth-century Britain.

The Aesthetic Movement argued that art was not supposed to be utilitarian or useful in any practical sense. Instead, aesthetic experience is a fully autonomous and independent aspect of a human life. Thus, art should exist solely for its own sake.

Japonisme (the taste for the arts of Japan)

In 1853, after nearly 250 years of self-imposed isolation, Imperial Japan yielded to the cannon threats of American Commodore Matthew C. Perry and almost immediately let loose a flow of Japanese goods to the West which astounded Europe and America with unheard-of treatments of line, shape, and color that would inspire revolutions in fine art, architecture, and particularly interior decoration for decades to come. One of these trends, the Aesthetic movement, carried the appreciation for Eastern design ideas to new heights and set the stage for the Arts & Crafts era that flourished a short generation later (1900-1925.)

Part of the allure of Japonisme was the culture's different perspective on design. Patterns and compositions were often asymmetrical, the polar opposite of the mirror image symmetry familiar to Europeans and Americans still wrapped up in the Greek and Gothic revivals of the early 19th century.

Many Japanese motifs were based on conventionalized forms of the natural world, such as flowers (especially chrysanthemums), birds (cranes), and insects (dragonflies and butterflies). Most importantly, Japanese artisans were masters in the use of strong lines, open or undecorated space, and restraint and understatement in general, treatments that were utterly unlike the overcomplicated and profusely decorated furnishings in vogue during the Victorian era.


Between 1870 and 1900, these ideas came together in Britain in a new design philosophy called the Aesthetic Movement. Although it was a mixture of many styles, Aestheticism drew greatly from Japanese elements.

Aestheticism had its forerunners in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among the Pre-Raphaelites. In Britain the best representatives were Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, both influenced by the French Symbolists, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement tended to hold that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed the cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor in art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art.

See also: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones


With art for art's sake as their principle, Aesthetes emphasized art over everything else. They favored strong, simple colors: bright blues, greens, and especially yellows (which may explain their fondness for displaying stuffed peacocks). Those colors were used in interiors set off with black furniture, clearly inspired by the lacquered wares from Japan.

The sunflower was a popular motif because its bold color and simple shape could be stylized, much like the chrysanthemum of Japanese art.

(Japanese design was also an important influence on Charles Eastlake.)


As the movement swept through America, people started to believe that beautiful objects should exist for the enjoyment of everyone, not only the elite. It was thought that a beautiful environment could actually enhance one's quality of life. (Japanese design was an important influence on Charles and Henry Greene and the development of California bungalow).

The Aesthetic movement in the United States shows its strongest influence between 1860 and 1890. Forerunners were firms like Herter Brothers, Pattier and Stymus and Kimbel and Cabus.

The furniture is distinguished by:

A typical aesthetic feature is the gilded carved flower, or the stylized peacock feather. Colored paintings of birds or flowers are often seen. Non-ebonized aesthetic movement furniture may have realistic 3D renditions of birds or flowers carved into the wood.

Contrasting with the ebonized-gilt furniture is use of blue and white in porcelain and china. Similar themes of peacock feathers and nature would be used in blue and white tones on dinnerware and other crockery. The blue and white design was also popular on square porcelain tiles. It is reported that Oscar Wilde used aesthetic decorations during his youth.

Through his interior designs and mass production of beautiful glass objects, Louis Comfort Tiffany exemplified the spirit of the movement.

When it came to special lighting effects, Aesthetic interiors were as inventive as Hollywood movies. Tables, chairs, and plant stands stood on mechanistic legs and arms of shiny metals like brass, nickel-plated steel, and copper. On top of this, the metals might be patinated in wild tones that would glimmer from dark corners. Mirrors were framed in metal or gilt wood, and furniture was inset with brass stringing, ceramic plaques, mother-of-pearl, and lacquer panels, and fitted with metal hinges. Textiles interwoven with spangles or silver and gold threads would shimmer by the light of a coal fire. Even fire screens became opportunities to enhance firelight when they were fabricated from stained glass or wire mesh embellished with silhouettes. With so many reflective surfaces, an artistic room could almost generate its own light.

- Karen Zukowski, "Sparkle and Glow," January/February 2008 issue of Old House Journal

The artistic hearth was a multimedia extravaganza composed of materials such as wood, tile, glass, and mirror and furnished with objects valued for both their artistry and their personal associations.

The aesthetic movement prompted Americans to make the mental leap that beautiful surroundings, in and of themselves, would elevate the soul. This, women, who shouldered primary responsibility for domestic life, enlisted aesthetic forces as they shaped their houses, thereby shaping their families and the entire society. Creating a beautiful home was a moral act.

The British ceramics industry provided the world market with transfer-printed tiles featuring designs by well-known illustrators

American art tile manufacturers also produced fireplace tiles depicting subjects from mythology, literature and history, as well as multi-tile panels showing entire scenes.

The sunflower blossom was an emblem of the aesthetic movement; it came to symbolize connections between the sun, fire, and warmth - both physical and metaphorical

- Karen Zukowski, "The Artistic Hearth: The Fireplace in the American Aesthetic Movement," March 2008 issue of The Magazine Antiques

This era between 1870 and 1890 was called the "Aesthetic Movement," and it transformed daily life through decorative arts, furniture, art education in schools, museum collecting, the printed page and travel abroad. As noted in H. Weber Wilson's Great Glass in American Architecture, this was a time of great exuberance in decoration, and residential stained glass windows were increasingly found in homes.

As seen in the Kalamazoo-Peck situation, residential stained glass was becoming very complex - use of jewels, stylized plant motifs, exotic flowers, fleur-de-lis, Celtic crosses, fish and painted quarries - many of these motifs could be found in pattern or ornament books such as that published in 1877 by stained glass designer Charles Booth.

Many different birds were also used as decorative elements - peacocks, cranes and doves, and the occasional swallow. A photo on page 181 of In Pursuit of Beauty shows a swallow within a complex design from one of Booth's various pattern books. Other photos in this book illustrate swallows were used as a motif on diverse materials, such as an intricately carved wood bedstead from Cincinnati; a blown and enameled vase circa 1880-1890 at the Chrysler Museum in Norwalk, VA, and a brass door handle and escutcheon plate circa 1885 from Nashua, NH.

- Michigan Stained Glass Census: Kalamazoo Valley Museum, (Formerly of Horace Peck Residence), Kalamazoo, MI

Stained Glass and Christopher Dresser

The Aesthetic movement, in evidence in America during the 1870s and 1880s, continued the dependence on English styles ...

Patterned non-figural glass popular in ecclesiastic work entered the domestic market. The abstracted, two-dimensional nature of Aesthetic design owed much to the influence of Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), lecturer on botany and botanical drawing at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He stipulated that, even when working from nature, the artist should redesign the image so that naturalistic elements of shading and perspective would be eliminated...

The illustrations in Dresser's many texts developed hundreds of motifs abstracted from plant forms easily carried over into stained glass, as well as wallpaper, wall stencil pattern, or tile...

Domestic uses of of glass, which were then meshed with the overall interior furnishing, increased greatly.

- Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Stained Glass from its Origins to the Present. 2003, p. 226

Text sources on this page:

Examples in Buffalo:

Other examples:

Photos and their arrangement 2007 Chuck LaChiusa
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