Monday, May 8, 2017

VICTORIAN DESIGN WAS FAR FROM HAND-CRAFTED

Forerunner of the punch card, Jacquard looms were the
first machines to be automatically controlled
to produce complex patterns. Automated woodworking
machines were not far behind.
I always hear people waxing nostalgic about the hand craftsmanship found in Victorian houses. But the truth is practically the opposite: Victorians, with their incredibly ornate detailing, were largely made possible by technical advances that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Far from being showcases of hand craftsmanship, they represented the stylistic leading edge of the machine age.   

By the mid-1800s, steam-powered machines, some controlled by rudimentary punch-card systems much like those found in player-pianos, were already being used to mass-produce many consumer items cheaply. Among those products was what we nowadays call “gingerbread”—architectural ornament such as moldings, brackets, and balusters.  


"Hand-carved" Victorian ornament?
Not likely. Everything on this
Victorian millwork catalog
was cranked out by machine.
In the past, only the very wealthy had been able to afford such ornament, since its manufacture demanded a great deal of skill and hand craftsmanship. Mass production suddenly put ornament within reach of the middle class as well, spurring the Victorian mania for decorated surfaces. 
  
We’re entering a similar architectural zeitgeist today.  A number of manufacturing innovations, both high-tech and otherwise, are making ornament both more available and more affordable than it has been for decades.  

Not coincidentally, these developments dovetail with the current trend toward traditional architecture.  As a result, we’re seeing a lot more ornament both outside and inside buildings. Here are a few examples:

•  Architectural features such as columns, balusters, and urns are now widely available again, not only in traditional cast-stone form but also in high-tech materials such as glass-fiber reinforced concrete and fiber glass. The latter are often used to replace original cast-stone detailing where seismic considerations make the weight of the real thing impractical.     
Victorian gable ornament.
After 1840 or so, you could
buy them by the boxful.
•  New kinds of wood-based composite materials are replacing expensive exterior trim materials such as redwood and cedar.  Most of these new materials are more stable than solid wood, and are free of defects such as knots and warpage. And because they’re cheaper than high-quality solid wood, builders often use them more generously for cornices and the like. 

•  Highly ornate hardwood floor inlays are now manufactured using lasers, making inlaid borders and decorations—once astronomically expensive—much more affordable.  They’re available as stock items, and can simply be integrated with standard hardwood flooring for a custom look. 

•  Victorian interior moldings such as cornices, medallions, and brackets are now being reproduced in plastics and other composite materials.  They’re cheaper than plaster, and also much lighter and hence more earthquake-safe. They can frequently pass for the real thing once they’re painted.  


Nowadays, we use automation to create incredibly intricate
ornament., such as the laser-cut  inlay in this hardwood floor.
 But is more ornament necessarily better?
•  Molded plastic or Masonite panel doors can be cheaply produced in virtually any pattern.  The 6-panel molded door, for example, had already supplanted the flush doors of the Modernist era decades ago; it’s only a matter of time before even more elaborate styles come into favor.

Just as in Victorian times, there’s a potential danger in all these ornamental products: You may be tempted to use them simply because they’re available, not because they make for better architecture. As always, you should rely on your own taste—not trend-watchers such as design magazines—to decide how much is too much. The Victorians had a hard time knowing when to stop.  We’ll see how our own generation fares in a decade or two.

2 comments:

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