Victorian design fell into pretty low esteem for a while. Like, the entire twentieth century. But since the turn of the millennium it has had something of a resurgence in the world of graphic design, offering a refreshing alternative to the sleek, sometimes antiseptic-feeling lines of Scandinavian minimalism and mid-century modern.
We became obsessed with this new world of Victorian-chic, and have assembled some of our favorite examples—especially book cover and packaging designs—for inspiration. But we also got to thinking that the actual history of Victorian design may have gotten buried during its century of disrepute. Let’s have a quick refresher.
Design in Victorian Britain
Permit us to state the obvious: Victorian design refers to the design styles developed in Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). This is complicated a little bit by the fact that design from 1901 – 1914 (the Edwardian era) is often lumped in there too. It is complicated more so by the fact that, during Victoria’s reign, there was far from one single, agreed-upon style of design.
On the contrary, this period was marked by some of the hottest debates in the history of design. Characteristically, the story can more or less be told through the development of floral wallpaper.
That above is chintz—a style of floral ornamentation originally sourced by Britain from its colonies in India. For many designers of the time, it represented the epitomy of what was wrong with design in Britain: an excessive dependence on naturalistic vegetal representation, and a reliance on other countries to produce it due to lack of skill at home.
In response to chintz and its ilk, the so-called reform movement, lead by the likes of Augustus Pugin, Henry Cole, William Dyce and Owen Jones, was born. These designers and theorists advocated for a more abstract, geometrical approach to design. Jones in particular sourced his inspiration from “oriental” (Islamic) design, like the mosaic ornaments of the Alhambra palace in southern Spain, which he reproduced in the image you see below:
Islamic abstraction didn’t exactly catch on in London as-is. But reform designers did take away certain lessons from it—for example the importance of repetition, rhythm and symmetry, now all cornerstones of design education—and above all the fact that a flower need not look exactly like a flower. The result was something like what you see below:
Victorian design, in all its rhythmic, pattern-loving floral glory, was born.
Flowers aside, Victorian design was also characterized by new advances in printing and the ability to pair various typefaces. Bold and ornate type was in high style. Look familiar?:
Obviously there is much more that could be said about Victorian design, and we’ll have a few more comments below, but we’re eager to move on to Victorian design’s modern day redux. We grouped the rest of our post into three design categories that have absorbed the Victorian impulse more than others: chocolate wrappers, book covers, bottles and prints.
We had to reproduce this photograph of Rick and Michael Mast, the brothers behind—wait for it—Mast Brothers chocolate, the beloved (though recently beleaguered) Brooklyn-based chocolatiers. Not only are they positioned in front of a Victorian-style textile design, but the guys look like they have just time travelled from 1861.
Recently, some connoisseurs have suggested that the company’s allure lies more in its packaging than its actual chocolate, which, considering the astounding quality of the packages, is not hard to believe.
Check out these beauties:
Meanwhile, the chocolatier Bahen & Co. takes a more Owen Jonesian approach:
The 19th century was the era of the novel—then a new literary form. Readers of the time took their book collections seriously, often binding them in astoundingly beautiful custom covers like these, the most spectacular of which incorporates actual mother of pearl:
Today, designers like Coralie Bickford-Smith at Penguin are continuing the tradition with fabric-bound classics:
These soft covers are also characterized by the repetitive, wallpaper-like Victorian charm:
If there is a mainstream poster child of the Victorian design resurgence, it is Hendrick’s Gin (though, come to think of it, they may have had the same logo since the days of Queen Victoria herself). They frequently expand their branding arsenal to include other Victorian hallmarks—illustrated, typographic and, of course, floral.
The trend extends well beyond Hendrick’s. All sorts of tinctures, tonics and tea leaves have embraced the Victorian look:
This last section covers a variety of printed products, from packaging to invitations, that prominently incorporate Victorian-style type: