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A darker vision of Victoriana

An old look is hip again, minus the prim and proper. Eccentricity and macabre elegance are hallmarks of the offbeat revival.

October 26, 2006|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

QUEEN VICTORIA would not have been amused. The recent revival of Victoriana as hip Hollywood decor -- fainting chaises, nailhead-studded wing chairs, carved spider-leg and hoof-foot tables and vintage taxidermy -- would have sent the prudish monarch scrambling for smelling salts. They are the kind of parlor pieces that would make Morticia Addams and cartoon Goth tween Emily the Strange feel right at home. When we say stuffed animals, we don't mean the kind at Build-A-Bear.

What is old -- and odd -- is new again, and quickly creeping into American homes. Black crystal chandeliers, old-fashioned patterned wallpaper and fabric, heavily carved and tufted furniture and an explosion of antlers and other animal parts have brought an eerie elegance home. Take the recent ad campaign for furniture maker Maurice Villency, which flanked its sofa with two taxidermy peacocks.

In L.A., the New Victorian look -- modern updates of oddball antiques, vintage scientific equipment and specimens suitable for a natural history museum -- is its own decor genre.

"It's the antithesis of what people think of Los Angeles -- palm trees and pretty white furniture," says David Cruz of the L.A. showroom Blackman Cruz. The firm's Blackman Cruz Workshop line includes bronze bats and piranhas -- big sellers among producers and lawyers, Cruz's partner Adam Blackman notes -- and lamps shaped like human skulls and octopus tentacles.

"L.A. is paradise," Cruz says. "But on the other hand, it's the most polluted city in the country."

Aside from the smog, there are other parallels between 21st century Los Angeles and Victorian London: Both societies spent a lot of time examining and reinterpreting the past.

A century ago, the British industrial revolution made it possible to reproduce home furnishings from a world of styles and eras dating to the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese through the Middle Ages. Revivals included elements of Gothic, 17th and 18th century Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical periods of Louis XIV to XVI.

Similarly, 21st century manufacturing techniques make it easy to mimic elaborately embellished antiques. Plastic candelabras and mantel clocks can be etched with swirls reminiscent of 18th and 19th century detailing.

"Ornamentation is back," says Robert Willson of the L.A. store Downtown. He sums up the growing demand for the carved, the curved and the curious in one word: "maximalism." He says it's a reaction to the Modernism of the 1950s and the minimalism of the 1990s.

"People are collecting rocks and shells and specimens from nature and science," Willson says. "They are looking for unique furniture that goes beyond function to show the imagination and the hand of the artisan."

Whereas a short-lived Victorian revival in the 1960s emphasized the restrained and the respectable, today "it is done with more style and humor and a little bit of darkness."

Last month, Willson and partner David Serrano launched the Downtown Classic Collection, which includes a black lacquered reproduction of an 1830s bench reminiscent of a giant bat, a screen that resembles the gates of a Medieval abbey and a Victorian canopied wing chair that Lily Munster would curl up in.

Some see the trend in decorating as extension of popular culture: films such as "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," and all the TV shows obsessed with forensic science.

Ray Azoulay, who sells medical devices and framed 1895 Folsom Prison mug shots at his Venice store Obsolete, isn't the least bit startled to see Los Angeles, the sound stage for film noir, turn toward Victorian tastes.

"That was a very curious period in design," he says of the late 1900s in London. "People with money wanted to stand out and be obscure, and they were much more adventuresome than at any other period when it came to mixing the grotesque and the beautiful in decorative arts." The same, he says, holds true for Angelenos.

"We are, or live among, the people who create the theater of darkness in films and television, and that makes it OK. With what's happening culturally here from architecture to art, it seems that people in Los Angeles are more open to what is unique."

The New Victorian look is not some Frankenstein's monster stitched together for Goth poseurs who danced to the Cure at their prom. Though the trend may be dismissed by critics as an unattractive and pretentious fad, fans insist it is a stylistic evolution of other post-9/11 home-as-sanctuary trends and a reflection of concerns about security -- personal and global.

The ghosts of Victoriana live on in the taxidermy, antlers and horns that serve as wall sculpture, chandeliers and cutlery. Meanwhile the Chippendale chairs, chinoiserie, damask and other embellishments of the glitzy Hollywood Regency look have become a gateway to darker and starker furniture and accessories. Bed and bath designers Dransfield & Ross have created shower curtains with black and white damask scrolls and black beads fit for Miss Havisham's claw foot tub.

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