In one sense, the Georgian period (circa 1715-1840) of aesthetics, and by extension, interior design, can be said to bear a direct relation to the aesthetic commitments of the Renaissance period (circa mid-14th century to late 16th century). The Renaissance is commonly described as a return to European classical culture, thus to Ancient Greek and Rome. Approaches to interior design and furniture therefore took on this classical character. Although historically distanced from the Renaissance by approximately two hundred years, the Georgian period in a certain sense indicates a rediscovery of Renaissance ideas, which themselves were rediscoveries of classical ideas. In this regard, there is a direct continuity between the two. Nevertheless, from another perspective, the Georgian period contains its own interpretation of what is classical.
The uniqueness of this interpretation is perhaps above all demonstrated in the Georgian period’s simultaneous commitment to utility. In other words, classical concepts were not merely remembrances of the past, but could also serve a precise function. In this light, the comparison of an early Renaissance Savonarola chair with a chair designed by the key Georgian furniture makers the Brothers Adam demonstrates a shared central aesthetic concept, the commitment to classicism, which is nevertheless developed in each period in an original manner.
The Savonarola chair is a crucial piece in early Renaissance interior and furniture design, above all made distinct by its X shape, such that it is also commonly known as an X-shaped chair. This X-shaped design is a clear sign of Renaissance commitments to classical ideas, in so far as the X-shaped design was widely “used by the ancient Romans.” (Clark and Upton, 47) The choice of chair form thus reflects a Renaissance desire to directly transpose classical Roman aesthetic concepts into the time period. As the Renaissance sought to re-incorporate its classical, pre-Christian past into a post-medieval framework, this meant that aesthetic concepts were faithfully recreated.
The X-shaped design in its distinctive allusion to ancient Rome thereby eliminates any ambiguity as to what this piece of furniture referred to in terms of its artistic influences: the chair seeks to become a contemporary Renaissance instance of the classical. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the chair was a complete reconstruction. In terms of materials, the seat was predominantly made of wood strips, whereas ornamentation was commonly introduced into the chair’s back with “simple inlay work.” (Hinchman, 167) It is in this ornamentation that more individualistic interpretations could be made within a framework that was predominantly classical.
Arguably, the brothers Adam’s chair designs in the Georgian period were even more adventurous than those of the Renaissance. Although clearly informed by classical principles like the Renaissance, Georgian chairs also emphasized functionality. In this sense, the usage of classical concepts was not merely employed so as to evoke the past. Rather, classical concepts could be used as a basic aesthetic context, which also contained a practical element. Hence, while the brothers Adam were inspired by excavations of Roman art and interior design that were contemporaneously ongoing in Pompei, they also sought to “make the classical designs practical.” (Osburn and Osburn, 14)
This was at once a reaction to the previous William-and-Mary period furniture, as design was simplified and rendered pragmatic, for example, in the rejection of the “claw and ball foot…for the simple spade foot.” (Osburn and Osburn, 14) Further functional changes included how the furniture itself was made, with the incorporation of “metal rods which are still now being used in furniture making.” (styles-and-periods.interiordezine.com, 2014) Accordingly, what makes the Brothers Adam chair and by extension the Georgian period distinctive in its appropriation of the classical is that a wholly modern, pragmatic element was introduced into the design process, anticipating 20th century modern concepts of design, such as “form follows function.” The classical was not viewed at odds with the functional, but instead they were integrated in the Brother Adam’s chair designs.
Arguably, this marks the greatest difference between the Georgian and Renaissance approaches to furniture. The Renaissance period’s design, as the Savonarola chair indicates, above all were defined by historical commitments, wanting to evoke the past. In a certain sense, everything classical gained aesthetic value because it was classical: the X-shaped design therefore was not the result of some perceived superiority of design on the functional level, but rather this superiority lay in its archaic aesthetics. The Georgian period, as demonstrated in the Brother Adam’s furniture, also sees in the classical period an inspiration for design. However, the past is not valued simply for being ancient. A deliberate decision is made to render these objects fully functional, thereby suggesting that there is no necessary tension between form and function. In one sense, therefore the Brothers Adam’s furniture can be said to acknowledge the aesthetic value of classical art, much like the Renaissance period. However, this aesthetic value could at once be synthesized to more practical concerns. This is underscored in the aforementioned continued usage of Brothers Adam’s design concepts in the furniture of our era.
This comparison thereby demonstrates from a broader perspective how a shared inspiration in design aesthetics can also lead to different results. Designers of the Renaissance and the Georgian period, on the one hand, share certain aesthetic commitments regarding what is beautiful, as demonstrated in the Brothers Adam’s chairs and Savonarola chair’s source material. On the other hand, this shared aesthetic commitment does not exhaust what can be accomplished in terms of design.