How to Identify Antiques by Era

Not sure whether your lamp is Victorian or Art Nouveau? Not even sure what Art Nouveau is? This guide will give you a crash course in popular decorating styles of the last two centuries. Some of these styles are tied to particular time periods; others, to certain regions of the world.

1. Victorian

Romantic and ornate design defined the Victorian period (named for Queen Victoria's reign over England, 1837-1901). Few surfaces were left untouched in a proper Victorian home: walls were covered with fanciful wallpaper, tapestries and paintings in elaborately carved frames. Windows were covered with multiple layers, from delicate lace to heavy velvet or damask draperies adorned with fringe and tassels. Woods tended to be dark and richly carved; oak and mahogany were favorites. Even ceilings were covered with patterned tin and fancy plaster medallions around hanging lights. Colors tended towards the deep and dramatic end of the scale: from burgundy, red and rosy pink to vivid greens and blues, to black and grey. Silver and gold were popular metals; the Victorians delighted in creating new utensils for serving and eating as a way of showing off their wealth. The Victorian era also saw many revivals of earlier styles, including Greek, Medieval and Egyptian. Influences of these can be seen in the many different styles of furniture, architecture and housewares produced at the time. Authentic Victorian-era items aren't difficult to find; although many textiles have deteriorated due to age and improper storage, the furniture of that time was solidly constructed and many pieces are still in use today. For examples of Victorian design, see:

2. Art Nouveau

The Art Nouveau period (early 1900's) relied heavily on forms derived from nature: the fluid, organic shapes of flowers, trees, insects and animals were used to decorate everything from carved wooden chairs to cast metal hardware on doors and cabinets. Posters and books were lavishly illustrated with images of young women with long, flowing hair intertwined with flowers and birds. This was also the age of Lalique jewelry and Tiffany stained glass lamps. For examples of Art Nouveau design, see:

3. Art Deco

Streamlined shapes and mass production were the hallmarks of Art Deco design. From the early 1910's through the 1930's, Art Deco reigned supreme in the U.S. and abroad. Clean lines replaced the intricate ornamentation of Art Nouveau. The Bauhaus movement helped form the roots of Art Deco but unlike those austere designs, Deco pieces had more pizzazz. Strong geometric forms like circles, chevrons and zigzags adorned tables, chairs, building facades and wall sconces. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 lent a strong Egyptian influence to the design world. The Chrysler Building and Empire State Building, two shining examples of Art Deco architecture, were erected in the 1930's. Chrome, bronze, copper, frosted glass, mirrored accents and a variety of woods were commonly used. Rounded shapes were popular, especially in furniture and mirrors - a dresser or armoire with a rounded front is a classic example of Art Deco style. Also common were cast bronze lamps and figures depicting the female form, often in the style of classic Greek statues. For examples of Art Deco design, see:

4. Mid-Century Modern

The post-war years (late 1940's through 1960's) were a time of rapid growth and optimism in the U.S., and this was reflected in the new style of design. Mid-Century Modern swept across the country as people moved to brand new suburbs. In contrast to the heavier, fussier furniture and lighting they'd grown up with, young families adopted a new aesthetic that was heavily influenced by Scandinavian designers. Low-slung furniture was popular. Teak was the preferred wood, and pewter and chrome were typical accent metals. New materials like fiberglass were used to make lightweight lamps and chairs. Glassware and pottery from Finland, Sweden and Denmark (as well as West Virginia, Ohio and California) were popular decorative items. Many designer pieces of this era are considered collectible, so include the name of the designer in your listing title (if known). The websites listed here contain more information on Herman Miller, George Nelson, Charles Eames, Eileen Gray, Heywood Wakefield, Verner Panton and others. For examples of Mid-Century Modern design, see:

5. Eames Era

One of the 20th Century's most influential designers has become one of the most overused keywords on eBay today. "Eames" refers to Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-and-wife design team from California whose innovative style and playful forms made them leaders of mid-century modern design. Their best-known works include chairs made from molded plywood and fiberglass, done in sleek organic shapes, but they also created art, decorative objects and even films. On eBay, the Eames name is often used in titles for furniture, lamps and collectibles. Some sellers use it to convey a sense of the style (e.g., for items from the 1950s and 1960s), but sadly most sellers don't really know who the Eameses were or what their name means, which is why you'll also find it in the titles of 1970s harvest gold appliances and Elvis paintings on black velvet. Because the term is so overused, it's best to avoid it entirely (unless, of course, you're selling an actual Eames-designed product!) For examples of Eames design, visit the Library of Congress' online exhibition of their work:

6. The 1970's and 1980's

Mod and "space-age" styles from the late 1960's continued into the early 1970's, but soon gave way to other styles. Colonial American was popular in the 1970's, particularly around the time of the Bicentennial. Earth tones were also huge, as people filled their homes with shades of brown, rust, avocado and harvest gold. The inevitable backlash in the 1980's brought pink, aqua, gray, chrome and neon to the forefront. The Memphis design collective (in Milan, Italy) made a splash with their use of bright primary colors and playful post-modern forms. Furniture and housewares from these decades aren't nearly as popular as the other styles described here. Still, some pieces are becoming collectible (generally the more outrageously styled and "dated" looking items, like chrome arc floor lamps, shag rugs, psychedelic curtains and metallic wallpaper). For examples see:

7. Shabby Chic

Also called "Country Cottage" or "Romantic Cottage", this style of decorating was popularized in the 1990s by interior designer Rachel Ashwell. Her 1996 book entitled "Shabby Chic" set off a huge trend that lasted for years. The term describes items that have an old, weathered appearance but are lighter and more feminine than other styles. The essential materials include wrought iron and wood with chipped, peeling or faded paint, usually white. Popular fabrics include lace and sheer or opaque cottons that are embroidered or printed with delicate floral patterns; these should look worn but not dirty. Colors are light, with white, cream and soft pastels (especially pink) being the most popular. Popular decorating items include old linens (especially tablecloths and towels), chandeliers and candelabras (especially those with crystals or tolework), vintage vanity items (like fancy crystal perfume bottles), and fresh flowers in white or pastel colors (think of sweet-smelling old-fashioned varieties like hydrangeas, lilacs, peonies, and especially roses). Although the phrase is used to describe a particular style of decorating, it is a registered trademark belonging to Rachel Ashwell, and she has had auctions pulled in the past through eBay's VeRO program. Technically the name should only be used when selling a Shabby Chic-branded product, however thousands of items from other manufacturers are listed on eBay using this term. For examples of Shabby Chic décor, see:

8.  Paris Apartment (aka "Flea Market Décor" or "Thrift Store Style")

This is a charmingly cluttered style that, like Shabby Chic, was popularized in a book, "The Paris Apartment: Romantic Decor on a Flea-Market Budget". It consists of an eclectic mixture of items: Elaborately shaped mirrors, gold gilt picture frames and crystal sconces exist side-by-side with zebra skin rugs and pink satin slipper chairs. The unifying factor is glamour: fabrics are sumptuous and ornamental touches tend towards the elaborate. Wood and metal might be painted, gilded, distressed or disguised entirely, but almost never left alone. Satin, velvet and tweed are popular fabrics, and colors run the gamut from feminine pinks to shiny golds and mysterious blacks. This look is all about collections, the more unusual the better. And of course, collections are meant to be shown off so shadow boxes, cabinets, cupboards and other display cases are essential. For examples of Paris Apartment décor, see:

9. Country

Similar to Shabby Chic but uses a broader range of colors and patterns, and tends to look "busier" overall. Wood might be stained natural hues or painted; soft, muted colors like sage green and butter yellow are popular, as are bright red and deep blue. Fabrics often have plaid, gingham or floral patterns; lace is also popular. Ruffles and swags are common on curtains and pillows. Other popular decorative items include quilts and dried flowers (especially wreaths) tied with ribbons. Common motifs include farm animals (cows, pigs, sheep, roosters, geese, etc.) and "Americana" (vintage wooden toys, bottles, soda crates, patriotic art and knick-knacks). Provence (aka French Country) blends rustic woods and rusted metals with the rich colors of southern France: mustard yellow, red, cobalt blue and dark green. Patterned textiles and ceramics are typical pieces. Common motifs include floral patterns (sunflowers are popular), birds (especially roosters and chickens), and toile (a series of small scenes printed in one color, usually black, red or blue, on a white or cream background). For examples of country and Provence décor, see:

10. Rustic Lodge

This style is especially popular in upscale ski resorts and vacation homes throughout the West as well as Alaska. Key materials include wood, preferably in as natural a state as possible; leather and suede, tile, textured wool, pottery, and animal bone. The color palette is drawn from nature and includes rich, earthy shades like terracotta, salmon, turquoise, dark green, red, all shades of brown, cream and white. Popular decorative touches include taxidermy, chandeliers made from deer antlers, braided rugs, and heavy wool blankets with Native American patterns (such as those made by Pendleton). Wild animal motifs (particularly moose, bears, coyotes and fish) are also common. There are many variations on this theme: some are more "cowboy" in feel and involve items like saddles and branding irons; others are focused on colorful Mexican artworks or Native American pottery and artifacts. For examples of rustic décor, see:

11. Tropical

Tropical style evokes the feel of the beach and the jungle. Furniture is often made of wicker, rattan or seagrass and looks like it would be at home on a patio or deck; chairs and couches have patterned cushions and tables often have glass tops. Bright colors like red, hot pink and orange are reminiscent of tropical flowers and plumage. Whimsical accents like carved birds and monkeys or palm tree-shaped lamps are common. Tropical gets a retro twist in Tiki (vintage Polynesian) décor, embodied in torch flames and cocktail mugs shaped like Tiki gods and skulls. Nautical-, beach- and pirate-themed decor offer more kitschy twists on the tropical theme. For examples of tropical, Tiki and beach décor, see:

12. Asian (aka "Zen style")

Modern Asian style is quite popular right now and tends towards minimalism. Woods are either very light or very dark, metals have matte (rather than shiny) finishes, and fabrics are made from natural fibers and might have bold, graphic patterns or no patterns at all. Colors are usually soothing neutrals, particularly white and brown, accented with light green (think celadon or spring green) or other muted tones. Strong shapes with minimal ornamentation are common, as are large fields of solid color. Images of the Buddha and Asian lettering (Kanji characters) are also popular in artwork and as decorative motifs. Stone, bamboo, silk and other natural materials are favored. Older Asian styles were quite different: Chinese lacquerware, for instance, has a high gloss and is elaborately detailed. Antique vases from Japan and China are often highly decorated with flowers, birds or other motifs. The term "Asian" on eBay is widely used in auction titles. It's fine for both contemporary and vintage items, although it's even better to use specific country or cultural references, particularly when selling antiques because Asia encompasses many different cultures and styles. For examples of Asian décor, see:


  • When selling any antique, make sure the item has been properly authenticated first, since many popular designs were reproduced in later years.

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