Story: Home décor and furnishings

Page 3. Higher aspirations, 1860s to 1900s

All images & media in this story

Home comforts

By the 1860s there was growing anxiety about the influence itinerant men – rural workers and gold miners – and their rough life was having on New Zealand society. A comfortable home symbolised society’s preferred alternative – settled family life presided over by a woman. Often working-class people could only afford to rent substandard houses and had few comforts, putting up with battered second-hand furniture, walls papered with newspaper, and blankets for curtains. However, more people began to aspire to refinements that would make home life more attractive. Middle-class homes became larger, and particular attention was given to decorating the ‘public’ rooms – the parlour, dining room and study.

New Zealand-made

In 1881 Alexander Bathgate observed (and possibly exaggerated) how the rise of New Zealand manufacturing had influenced interior design: ‘We can rise in the morning from beneath the soft kaikorai blankets on a handsome bedstead made of New Zealand wood … in the evening, we light our Dunedin candles; our eyes rest with satisfaction on the New Zealand landscapes which adorn our walls; our ears are gratified by sweet airs played on a New Zealand piano.’1

Local manufacturing

From the 1870s local manufacturing industries provided better-quality, cheaper alternatives to the often shoddy goods that were imported. Timber mills began to turn out components, including interior fittings such as decorative moulded architraves, skirtings, fire surrounds and balustrades, for the villa – the most fashionable architectural style by the 1890s and 1900s. Nevertheless, many furnishings such as wallpapers, carpets and textiles, glass and ceramics continued to be imported from England.

Shaping taste

New Zealanders learned about English decorating trends through magazines and newspapers, but usually months after they were the rage. They often adopted just those elements they liked, resulting in eclectic interiors. In addition, many homeowners were conservative in their tastes. A central Victorian and Edwardian value – status consciousness – was influential in shaping taste. People showed off their rank by acquiring and displaying objects – giving many fashionable interiors of the period a busy look.

Heating and lighting

A grand fireplace was the central feature of the parlour, while the kitchen was dominated by a coal range or gas cooker. As coal became more common as a fuel, fireplaces, especially grates, became smaller and were situated in the dining room and bedrooms as well as the living room. Gas lighting, gradually replaced by electric lighting, brightened rooms.

Wall coverings

Wallpaper pasted onto the hessian ‘scrim’ tacked to the lining boards was an important aspect of décor in Victorian and Edwardian times. A common practice was to divide walls into three horizontal parts: the dado (lower), fill (middle) and frieze (top), with a different patterned wall covering for each.

Decorative finishes

Often each room had its own colour scheme, with elaborately patterned wallpaper in the living rooms and bedrooms, and plaster and paint in the kitchen. Rich or earthy colours were popular. Woodwork was painted or stained to represent oak or walnut, and kauri floors were stained black. Board-and-batten ceilings with decorative central ventilators gave way to patterned pressed-metal panels. From 1903 some homes had decorative plaster ‘Carrara’ ceilings.


‘Revival’ styles – for instance French empire revival, Queen Anne revival and Georgian revival – influenced home décor during the late 19th century. Several other styles were also fashionable.

Aesthetic movement

This movement of the 1880s arose from the idea that exposure to cultural activities could give a person a sense of the beautiful. Those who saw themselves as having cultured taste (namely the middle and upper classes) wanted to demonstrate it in their homes to differentiate themselves from the working classes or the nouveau riche. Principles included subdued lighting and colours. The natural world provided dominant motifs: flowers such as sunflowers and lilies featured in wallpaper, curtains and rugs, and vases were crammed with grasses, dried flowers and ferns. Eastern handicrafts and bamboo furniture jostled for room, and objects such as photographs were arranged in artful groups.

Art nouveau

Art nouveau, originating in France in the 1890s, featured stylised sinuous plant forms. These decorated wallpaper, carpets, fire surrounds, hearth tiles and leadlight windows. Art nouveau remained popular through to the 1920s.

Arts and crafts

The arts and crafts movement was led by English artist William Morris and was based on the mid-19th-century writings of English thinker John Ruskin, who believed that homes served a moral purpose as places of repose and should be decorated in a style that expressed the owners’ character, history and occupation. In England these views influenced the teaching of arts and crafts, and the manufacture of goods characterised by medieval simplicity and a handcrafted look. New Zealand followed this philosophy of teaching arts and crafts, and the style became increasingly apparent in home décor, especially around 1900.

  1. Quoted in Anna K. C. Petersen, New Zealanders at home: a cultural history of domestic interiors 1814–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2001, p. 64. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Home décor and furnishings - Higher aspirations, 1860s to 1900s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013