Just as turmoil led to Bridgeton’s exuberant interiors our current global situation will lead to designers embracing Neo Regency style, says Michelle Ogundehin.
The second series of Bridgerton, which streams tomorrow, will prompt a major new look for interiors. As I wrote in my trends report for 2022: “This sentimental recolouring of history will prompt a Neo-Regency as we freshly appreciate the uplifting potential of architectural adornment, both inside and out”.
This statement was about a lot more than the show being a Netflix winner — apparently, 82 million households watched season one in the first 28 days after launch in December 2020.
This was a historical moment that shares more than a hint of an echo with today
Bridgerton was indeed escapist, diverse and sexy, just what was needed in the thick of Christmas lockdowns. However, it’s the resonance of the 19th-century British Regency setting that makes it so influential from a style and cultural point of view. This was a historical moment that shares more than a hint of an echo with today.
And yet, the Regency was but a brief snapshot in time. When the sitting English monarch, King George III, was deemed unfit to rule his eldest son stepped in as proxy from 1811-1820. He was named the Prince Regent, hence the period moniker The Regency. In theory, he deputised as king until his father passed, at which point he himself was crowned King George IV, ruling for the next ten years. He died in 1830.
In reality, he had little interest in the responsibilities of governance or the previously admired piety of his father. Instead, he used his new-found influence to indulge his love of architecture to fashion. Such extravagance didn’t come cheap though.
He incurred a huge amount of debt and was bailed out repeatedly by the taxpayer via Parliament. It was a significant pivot point in English cultural history.
The Prince Regent, who spoke four languages, propelled extraordinary advances in the arts, design, music and sciences. New decorative styles burst forth inspired by everywhere from Egypt to India.
The steam-powered printing press was invented. He commissioned the exotically ornate Brighton Pavilion as his personal pleasure palace replete with hand-painted Chinese wallpapers and domed cupolas. He remodelled Buckingham Palace, initiated Regent’s Park as well as the National Portrait Gallery and hosted many a lavish party.
Romans de clef penned anonymously by aristocrats of the day captured the fervour (and provided much entertainment for the lower classes). For the upper echelons, life was fun, fashionable and frivolous. The antithesis of what had come before.
And this is the mood that Bridgerton, based on the books of the contemporary American romance novelist Julia Quinn, perfectly captures.
Ornamentation for the sake of it is everything
Thus, in this glossy televisual romp, as in the Regent’s time, we witness the pursuit of pure escapism via a highly stratified social scene where only the aristocracy enjoys the newly unleashed decadence. The upper-class ladies of “the Ton” attend balls and take tea, while the men debate the mores of the day safely ensconced in their gentlemen’s clubs, whiskey in hand.
Layers of pastel-coloured, heavily embellished silken clothing (for men as well as women) are mirrored in rooms adorned from floor to ceiling in delicately hand-painted idyllic verdant scenes, or exotic portrayals of the Orient – the imagined perfection of both near and afar.
Ornamentation for the sake of it is everything. Fragrant wisteria drips across perfectly symmetrical facades. Trims and tassels finish drapes and upholstery. Extravagant gilt frames surround flattering portraits while elegantly patterned dinnerware and fluted coloured-glass goblets adorn tables laden with food.
It’s ridiculously pretty, a word that’s not often used in design circles.
When the world is in extreme turmoil, creativity flowers
As such, the haute styles of the day epitomise an abject denial of the wider reality. For the backdrop to this flagrant profligacy was great political and economic upheaval following the American and French Revolutions. Not least the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with their legions of conscripted commoner troops battling to prevent France’s invasion of lands from Europe to Russia. Closer to home, poverty was also rife.
And yet it’s a truism that when the world is in extreme turmoil, creativity flowers. Those possessed of an artistic temperament, such as the Prince Regent, rail against the zeitgeist and drive it somewhere new. This is what happened n the Regency, and it’s the period I believe we’re entering now. Thus, the irresistible draw of Bridgerton reflects our need for a new aesthetic.
But, we see it blossoming already in the pattern and colour-infused parades of zingy flamboyance on the Spring Summer fashion catwalks (hot pink and vivid green seemingly the strongest hues after beige was hailed the “in” shade for 2020). It’s in the return of feathers, frills and flounces on frocks, even shoes, which translates to the home as richly adorned and embellished fabrics for upholstery and accessories
Large scale murals as wall coverings have been bubbling up for a while as homeowners tried to replicate green spaces within urban environments, but now they’ve hit the mainstream. And the look of hand-painted Chinoiserie gets a high-street outlet as British interiors brand Harlequin debuts a very timely first wallpaper and fabric collection from the British artist Diane Hill.
Traditional techniques like marquetry for furniture are seeing a resurgence too, following the growing trend for parquet floors. The ceramic mosaic tile market is predicted to rise by 8.3 per cent and DIY panelling as a means to add intrigue to walls is clocking 100,000 searches a month on Google.
The birth of a Neo Regency is simply a reaction to life being so relentlessly draining for such a long time
Tablescaping, the art of laying a decadent table, which came from tastemakers looking for ever more inventive ways to express themselves within the confines of their homes, is now a widely understood concept. Accordingly, sales of table linens and placemats are soaring, while vintage crocks inspire nostalgia and granny’s “best sets” are brought out for everyday usage.
As I wrote in my trends report, denial begets indulgence. Like the Roaring 20s after the horror of world war one.
On a wider scale, the birth of a Neo Regency is simply a reaction to life being so relentlessly draining for such a long time, the everyday battered first by hidden foes and now more painfully visible ones. Such a move, with its inherent decadence and delicacy, is a rebellion. A lurch from lockdown to levity, come what may. A forceful jettisoning of gloom and doom.
Except this time around, it’s not about ignoring tragedies happening “elsewhere” than fervently wishing to celebrate small moments of joy and unexpected luxury in any way we can, wherever we can. To decorate our nests is a primal instinct. It’s how we mark our territory, signalling that we have a personalised place of retreat to return to. It’s why losing your home, or homeland, is so incredibly traumatic.
The Neo Regency then is less a single prescribed look, or colour, than a dive into the “extra”. Or to put it another way, the previously deemed unnecessary.
Essentially, it’s do pretty, as you damn well please. No justification required
It’s outfitting a luxe laundry room or papering the kitchen ceiling in something fabulous, maybe respraying the units lemon yellow and painting the downstairs loo turquoise. According to Pinterest, searches for Rage Rooms have increased by 150 per cent, while on the other end of the emotional scale, home massage room searches have increased by 190 per cent.
Architecturally we’ll see a corresponding embrace of ornamentation. A revival of pergolas, porticos and decorative brickwork alongside the classical tropes seen on original Regency buildings in Britain’s heritage cities like Bath and Brighton.
Essentially, it’s do pretty, as you damn well please. No justification required. But without pastiche. This is Neo Regency, not faux Regency.
Michelle Ogundehin is a thought-leader on interiors, trends, style and wellbeing. Originally trained as an architect and the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Decoration UK, she is the head judge on the BBC’s Interior Design Masters, and the author of Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, a guide to living well. She is also a regular contributor to many prestigious publications worldwide including Vogue Living, FT How to Spend It magazine and Dezeen.
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