There is comfort to be found in clutter. A reassurance in the busyness: proof of people, of a life well lived, of objects treasured. Over the last few years, interior designers and Instagram influencers have begun to agree. We double-tap for rows of joyfully bright tiles, shelves stacked with chintzy crockery, patterned sofas cheerfully clashing with patterned carpets. We’ve begun to like things a little loud: a bohemian hodgepodge of objects and designs, boldly grouped together. It makes for an exuberant change to the past decade. The blank, clean walls and subtle colours of minimalism are on the out; curated clutter and maximalism on the in.
For the uninitiated, maximalism is a style of interior decor that involves packing a room. Packing it with pattern, with objects, with personality. It is the antithesis of minimalism’s bare walls and pared-back furniture: goodbye industrial-chic strip lights and tiny succulents, hello patterned lampshades and blooming bouquets of flowers. It is not a new phenomenon, by any means, and had never truly gone away: even at the height of minimalism’s ubiquitousness, a version of maximalism could be found within the pages of country home magazines. Yet in the last few years it has enjoyed a surge of mainstream popularity. Trendy hotels and shops are moving away from the now overdone minimalist style and embracing a maximalist celebration of objects and patterns. Maximalist style has flooded Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest boards.
Why now? One answer lies with the pandemic — neatly illustrated by a Google Trends search of the word maximalism, which began to steadily increase during 2020. Locked at home, people with sleek, minimalist spaces longed for a bit more stuff. Sparkling photos of empty white spaces ceased to appeal; we wanted activity, community, personality. A busier style of design to evoke a banished way of living.
And more than that: the style of maximalism has a particular nostalgia to it. Maximalist spaces often feature floral patterns, vintage frills and curves, and displays of crockery — details that previously felt dated, that made us think of older relatives’ homes. At a time when everything was uncertain, familiarity appealed. The style seeks to feel lived-in and loud; to many it is a fashion that offers cosy comfort, an idealised evocation of old-school bustling, lively homes, albeit in a styled and curated way. Cottagecore, another trend noted as surging in popularity thanks to the pandemic, offers a romanticised vision of simple country living. Maximalism similarly evokes a joyful mix of old-world-style and treasured belongings. The two indeed go hand-in-hand: the rustic style of classic European country homes has always been more maximalist than minimalist. A cottagecore interior is a maximalist interior, even if not all maximalist interiors are cottagecore. Crucially, both offered something escapist and nostalgic to a threatened, locked down population.
That maximalism (and particularly the on-trend British style of maximalism) evokes a certain nostalgia makes sense given its history. It goes without saying that the urge to surround oneself with beautiful things and show off wealth can be seen throughout time, but a particular penchant for it — and a startlingly familiar brand of maximalism — can be seen in the British Victorian period. So-called ‘exotic’ designs from Japan and India became extremely popular and filled English houses with patterns, and the relatively newfound mass production of affordable goods meant people could generously decorate their rooms with furniture and fabrics. Though William Morris and his wallpaper designs were a reaction against mass production, he too is a great example of Victorian maximalism: lavish patterns, full of detail, which still today decorate the upholstery and walls of country-style interiors. A perfect example of British Victorian maximalism can be seen in the design of Standen House, a stately home in East Sussex. A visit today feels a little remarkable: the rooms would not look out of place in a 2022 Instagram feed. They are full of loud floral patterns, bookcases, and curated objects on display. For a long time dated and ofits-era, Standen’s style has come full circle again. This brand of maximalism truly is like a snapshot of the past.
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Though Standen perfectly demonstrates how Victorian maximalism continues to shape our own ideas, most people haven’t heard of it. By contrast, the impact of the Bloomsbury style — that is, the particular aesthetic displayed by the Bloomsbury Group in the first decades of the 20th century — is still famous and talked of. Charleston Farmhouse, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (also, by coincidence, in Sussex) remains iconic in art and interior design circles. Packed with hand-painted murals, patterned carpets and furniture, unique wallpaper designs, it is a marvel of maximalist creativity: an elegant mix of muted colour and lively brushstrokes. There are paintings everywhere: hanging on the walls, swirled onto chests of drawers, splodged yet beautiful on the bookcases, the bed frames, the bath. The mantlepiece is painted with a distinct design of coloured circles, which you will often see repeated today. Much of British maximalist interior design, framed as timeless and bohemian, owes a hefty debt to Charleston.
Maximalism as we know it continued in the eighties. Bolder colour, bigger frills, a heavy hand with the chintz — this decade did nothing by half. It was the height of Laura Ashley, that purveyor of capital-r-Romantic clothes and furniture designs (tellingly very inspired by the Victorians). Here we intersect again with cottagecore, which has seen a vigorous resurgence of Laura Ashley dresses and blouses: frilly collars, floral prints, flowing shapes. The more contemporary styles of maximalism popular today, meanwhile, owe a lot to the curved edges and primary colours of the eighties, particularly The Memphis Group, an Italian design group that specialised in abstract, bright objects and furniture. Thus both styles of maximalism — Victorian and modern — can feel nostalgic.
Is it therefore any wonder that this form of interior design appealed during the pandemic? Loud and lively, inherently full of character and humanity, it offered a balm for boredom and loneliness. Pictures of maximalist interiors were deliciously escapist in their brash design, their excess of personality. And in their nostalgia, we saw glimpses of a long-fabled past: a mythical better time, a half-formed remembrance of childhood and comfort. The floral wallpapers and merry clutter spoke of old-fashioned interiors: be it kitsch eighties or turn-of-the-century bohemia. A grandmother’s sitting room, perhaps, or a childhood kitchen, altered to fit today’s aesthetic, yet recognisable all the same.
For this author, at least, the change in fashion is a relief. I have always liked things too much, always found pleasure in patterns. And though the commercial advantages of minimalism mean it is probably here to stay in public spaces, it seems that maximalism is only getting going. Now that we have let ourselves enjoy the bold and the brash, we are surely only going to get bolder, brasher. It is also arguably more accessible: rooted in past fashions, the style can be surprisingly affordable. Inherently, it allows for more creativity than the regimented look of minimalism. A tiny kitchen will always struggle to look minimalist for lack of counter space, but any space can be maximalist. So: roll out the carpets, plump the patterned cushions. May we find comfort in clutter for many years to come.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Isabella Palmer [Bio – Writing and Editing; University of York; Food and Fashion]
Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘Our Transformed Maximalist Homes – Now What?’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on 30.11.2022