A Brief History of Tapestries in American Decor

The myriad details of restoring or furnishing a period house are enough to overwhelm even the most dedicated homeowner. Paint colors, wood finishes, floor covering, lighting fixtures; chosen wisely, these elements can combine to produce a satisfying authenticity. The selection of appropriate textiles can add a visual and textural dimension, a finishing touch of comfort and warmth. Tapestries, in particular, can be used effectively in almost any period home.

Tapestries have been important elements in American interior design both early and late. They were the height of fashion in the 17th and late 19th centuries, and maintained a more modest popularity during the intervening periods.

Early use in American decor

In the 17th century, colonists, as British citizens, were determined to be as refined in the Colonies as their countrymen in the Mother Country. The wealthy and socially conscious remained in vogue as much as time and distance allowed, importing English fashions and goods to the growing urban centers. European-made tapestries were often listed among the most valuable items in estate inventories of the wealthy. As either wall hangings or bed hangings, they were admired by visitors; during this period, the best bed, splendidly adorned with rich tapestry art, was found more often in the parlor than the bedroom or “chamber.”

From the early 18th century to the late 19th, rich fabrics, including tapestries, were used in parlors and “best rooms,” but less frequently on walls. The British artist Charles Eastlake, widely read in America in the mid-19th century, cautioned that wall tapestries may be at risk in homes in dirty, industrialized cities, where they lacked protection from soot, coal dust, and smoke, but their popularity persisted as furniture coverings.

A popular option for Americas wealthy

By the late 19th century, American industry had given rise to unprecedented wealth, held (and liberally spent) by families such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, and others. Perceiving themselves as the American aristocracy, they built both urban and country homes (the latter often referred to as “cottages’) modeled after European palaces and grand estates.

Tapestries were an important element in the decorative scheme of such grand houses as George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, the dining room of which featured two massive 16th century tapestries of Vulcan and Venus as the focal point. Like their Colonial counterparts, the 19th century American “royalty” sought to display their very new wealth even as they imitated the interior design fashions of centuries before.

The revival in tapestry art

In less luxurious homes, tapestries were literally off the wall, appearing more often as drapery or upholstery fabric, or as a decorative covering for a table, piano, or mantel. Portieres, lambrequins, and valences often used jacquard-woven tapestry fabric to enrich a decorative scheme, providing texture, color, and visual interest. William Morris and his cohorts in the Arts and Crafts movement re-introduced tapestry as both an art form and an element in interior design, and it was once again seen in homes on both sides of the Atlantic. The fashion was short-lived, however, and little innovation in tapestry design appeared for several decades.

A revival of interest in tapestry art began in the mid-20th century. As modern architecture became more austere, large, unbroken walls presented the opportunity for colorful and textural tapestry, executed in designs far removed from the picturesque motifs of centuries before. As an alternative to framed paintings, tapestry art was valued for its portability in an age of increasing mobility. Individuals and families moved from apartment to modest home to larger home as their circumstances changed; tapestries could be folded or rolled and easily moved, to be hung in a new setting.

Popular in any period home

While the popularity of tapestry as a design element has varied throughout American history, the wide range of available motifs and ways to use these intricate, often striking textiles allow for the homeowner to be creative with their use, resulting in an unexpected focal point, large or small, in any period home.

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