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It may come as a surprise that our ancestors were just as house proud as many of us are today. Despite living in harder times than our own, and without any of the technological advances we have today, people throughout history have gone to great lengths to ensure their homes were attractive and impressive.
The turf roof became fashionable in the 10th Century. Whilst practical, they were also aesthetically harmonious with the grassy landscape both in Scandinavia and here in England. The Vikings used turf blocks, 15 to 20 cm thick by about 50cm by 1.5m length and width which they cut with a scythe blade or a ‘rutter’. The best turf was made of about 60% vegetable matter and 40% mineral. After it was cut the turf was set aside to dry out. The blocks were then applied to the roof and walls and fixed with turf ‘stringer’ Sometimes, the Vikings even used the klömbruhnaus technique in which the turf blocks were arranged in a herringbone pattern.
The Vikings were also keen to incorporate their seafaring culture into their home design. When not covered in turf, the Viking Longhouse or Langhus, was made from a variety of woods, including oak and timber, which were gently bent and arranged vertically to resemble to curved prow of a ship.
During this period, interior artwork was not generally hung on walls but painted directly onto them. Interior walls were generally white washed, and in some high-quality chambers, an artist would draw red lines of paint on top of the white wash to imitate brick. Yet he could also create a range of religious and secular scenes; to do this he would first incise a drawing onto the dry plaster and then add the colour pigment, having first mixed it with ground white lead. Once the colour was dry, he would glaze over the painting with a translucent oil to set it.
Yet not all wall art was painted onto the walls. The interior design battle of this period was tapestry v wainscot, both of which provided less permanent wall décor options. Eventually wainscot won however, and wood panelling became a lasting feature of middle and upper class British homes throughout the latter Medieval period, into the Renaissance and beyond. With wainscot, sculpture was brought to life with painting and colour in a wonderful combination of the two arts.
The rush floor characterizes the Elizabethan residential decorations and styles from that period. Rush carpets required an incredible amount of skill to produce. Firstly, they had to be cultivated in about 8 to 10 feet of water and harvested in June or July. Having been extracted with sickles or scythes, they’d be washed and left to dry for 10 days bunched together in ‘stookes’. They would then be hung up on a wall beam and plaited. New rushes would be added to the plait when required yet great care was needed to ensure that the plait was seamless and no new rushes showed. The plaits were then sewed together into a carpet. Young girls were often given this task and, with great skill, a carpet of about 12 feet could be sewn in about a week.
Tented Rooms became wildly popular in the regency period. Inspired by the Empire and made fashionable by Josephine, wife to Napoleon, the tent effect was either created by carefully arranging luxurious fabric or by painting cleverly on the ceiling to imitate the movement of drapery. Firstly, a supporting structure had to be erected. The length and width of the room would be carefully measured and a clothesline like rope erected to match these proportions. Pilot holes would then be drilled at the measured point to fix the rope to the wall and ceiling. Material would be cut (up to three times the width of the room) and draped about the supporting structure in whatever fashionable style and fastened in place.
Of course, no tented ceiling would be complete without a chandelier. By the regency period, chandeliers were capable of being lit by either gas or candle. Because they were so heavy and precious, winches were used to pull them into place and installed in the void between the ceiling and the upper floor to keep them in place.
What’s really interesting is that, whilst the techniques have changed, many trends come back into fashion and are recreated with our modern techniques. For instance, turf and grass walls are being used in urban areas as part of an environmental effort and tented rooms are becoming an increasingly lucrative business within the wedding industry.
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