Eclecticism - Not for the Timid

Though the word "eclectic" has been around for a long time, it has relatively late become known as a decorating style. Eclectic style decorating got its start via the fine arts and architecture when pioneers prided themselves on the fact that they didn’t adhere to any particular style, then set about doing their own thing.

This change became widespread during the eclectic variations of the 19th century. Period style came under repeated attack, as academics yielded to the wild experimentation characterizing a century when no single style could claim preeminence.

Think of eclectic style as a borrowing of various styles while creating a cohesive look through colour, texture and/or shape. A good definition of eclectic style decorating is "a careful gathering of interesting elements that all work together". It's not just throwing things together, though the look may feature things that may usually not go together. The eclectic decorator knows exactly how to smooth out the bumps with oddball textures and furnishings so it looks "right".

It may be "olde" or modern, rustic or elegant, exotic or indigenous, town or country, cottage or mansion, empty-ish or cluttered, tidy or messy, but it must be one thing: bold.

Some typical characteristics of the eclectic style are:

  • Calm mix of periods and styles
  • Colours are bold, whether pastel or vibrant
  • Unexpected use of materials and/or items
  • Uniqueness in art and furnishings
  • A "pulling together" through pattern, shape, texture, finish or color
  • Everything has its place but it may look cluttered
  • Old easily mixed in with new
  • Handmade items or items with sentimental value
  • Celebration of contrasts.

Often, eclectic style will feature taxidermy (stuffed animals, one either loves or hates it), skins of wildlife, whether genuine or faux (zebra seems to be the favourite), oriental artefacts, collections, for example of coins and medals, of glass vessels or wooden carvings, or classical busts or sculpures, to name just a few.

In fact, "period style", so adored by interior decorators, is a very doubtful thing and so is eclecticism, now it has acquired official "style" status with its own rules and bounds. There IS no "period room" that isn't carefully and self-consciously put together. It's a very middle class thing, too. There isn't anything more depressing and dismal than a matching "suite" of furniture bought at a shop, however upmarket.

The interiour of any old house was assembled over generations, depending on the history and fortunes of the family, changing tastes and requirements. There may be "that certain something" of the period in which the house itself was built, but there it ends.

So, many of the modern examples of eclecticism are, although pretty, to my taste too "selfconsciously eclectic".  They have "interioor decorator" written all over it, which kills the spontaneity and sometimes even the boldness.

The Emperor of Eclecticism (King wouldn't quite do him justice), to me, is Gabriele d'Annunzio. And although many consider his style as oppressive and garish (and wasn't he a Fascist and all that?) I like it. I think it's glorious. I'd love to be that oppressed.

The following examples for eclecticism, achieved unselfconsciously over centuries, are from Althorp Park in Northamptonshire, ancestral home of 20 generations of the Spencer family.


To see a counterpoint to the eclectic style, go to this entry.