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Colonial & Traditional Style

20th Century Interior Design

1926 Colonial Sitting Room - Blabon LinoleumDuring the 20th century, two design philosophies, traditional and modern, competed for preeminence. Arguably, the traditional has won out in terms of numbers, but without a decisive victory.

Colonial, the most notable traditional style from 1900 to 1960, comprises two substyles, Early American and 18th Century Colonial. The sunroom (right), a Blabon linoleum ad, is a 1926 interpretation of informal Colonial style incorporating both formal and casual elements.

Without the long historical traditions of English and European cultures, Americans were able to pick and choose and innovate new design styles. The 1870s American Revolutionary centennial and later the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition with its striking classical buildings unleashed a huge demand for historically rooted furnishings. To the chagrin of late 1800s designers and architects, the Colonial styles were deemed derivative and lacking in imagination. But to a huge number of home owners, this style represented Mother, Patriotism, and the wafting scent of fresh apple pie.

18th C. Colonial

From the turn of the 20th century forward, the 18th Century Colonial interior style has been enormously popular. After all, all those Colonial Revival homes required suitable furnishings, so many classic styles were reinterpreted and manufactured to meet the market demand.

The 18th C. Colonial style was more formal with higher grade furnishings and materials. Fabrics included tapestries and brocades, velveteens, and linen. Carpets were likely to be good Orientals or Aubussons. The 18th C. style invariably leaned toward the English styles.

Whenever possible, homeowners acquired fine old 18th and early 19th century antiques. The mahogany secretary, antique wing chairs, and the pie crust or game table were sought after. Decorative accessories included such English imports as Staffordshire, especially the dogs, candle sticks and their electified cousins, candlestick lamps, and gold-leaf mirrors. Portraits and hunting scenes were particularly favored for wall decoration as well as laquered brass sconces and chandeliers.

Such furnishings were often found in larger Colonial Revival and Neo-classical style homes with their larger rooms and higher ceilings.

1951 Early American Dining RoomEarly American

Unlike the more formal style of the 18th C. Colonial furnishings, the Early American style is more casual and rustic. It was certainly considered to be much more comfortable, so was used in summer cottages and cabins as well as smaller primary homes.

For the Early American room, most early 20th C. designers favored painted walls and woodwork. Helen Koue of the Good Housekeeping Studio (1930) suggests painting the walls a deep ivory with wood trim to match and a lighter ivory for the ceiling. Ekin Wallick another popular and prolific designer favored soft grays (1916).

The home-made, traditional crafts had a place in the Early American style home. Rag and hooked rugs and hand-pieced quilts in traditional patterns were used to add color as well as comfort. Dozens of books and magazines were devoted to the American homemaker, who (when she wasn't busy tending to her 4.3 children, baking bread, and doing laundry in a wringer washer) was often engaged in crafts of one sort or another. The Modern Priscilla Home Furnishing book (1925) is filled with ideas for decorating the middle-class home from selecting and arranging furniture to sewing slipcovers.

Early American furniture tended to be a little heavier. Antiques were more likely farm furnishings including cupboards and blanket chests, arrow- and hoop-backed chairs built by the local cabinet-maker. Trestle tables and ladderback chairs with split ash or rush seats were common.

Fabrics were simpler and less expensive and were most often linen, cotton, and wool. (Polished chintz was a favorite material used widely in decorating both rustic and formal rooms.)

Rooms were often paneled in pine and decorative accents often included cast iron floor lamps. Stenciling, long a traditional decorating technique, was particularly well suited to the Early American room.


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