A collector’s guide to Maximalism: transforming interiors from ‘one-note’ to ‘more is more’
Discover the eras and figures that embraced a layered aesthetic, as well as decorating tips to make rooms feel eclectic and grand today
Throughout history, societies have often conveyed wealth and power through conspicuous consumption. Periods, such as the Baroque and the Gilded Age, saw Maximalism reach a crescendo with their grandiose expressions of affluence, however, demonstrating the cyclicality of tastes, these styles were later met with subsequent eras of understated elegance. After decades of beige, boutique hotel-like interiors reigning supreme, the pendulum is starting to swing again in Maximalism’s favour, though its applications are far less homogenised.
‘When I started in this business 30-plus years ago, every New York apartment on Fifth and Park Avenue either looked like Marie-Antoinette had just moved out, or George III was coming for dinner,’ recalls Richard Nelson, Christie’s Senior Generalist Appraiser, Americas, and long-time decorative arts specialist. Whereas clients and friends once bought antique treasures to compose a historically accurate interior akin to a period room, an eclectic mix of objects is typically preferred today. ‘To me, the most interesting and thought-provoking interiors are the ones that have a personality to them, not those that are static where everything is correct.’
With ‘grandmillennials’ on the rise, discover how Maximalism has evolved and how achieving a layered, collected look in contemporary interiors is easier than one may think.
A brief history of maximalism: pure interpretations of style
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baroque made a powerful statement across Europe with its overscale characteristics, as illustrated by the highly ornamented and commanding designs of Louis XIV’s court. This period gave way to the softer, yet equally all encompassing, Rococo, followed by Neoclassicism, marked by its global influences.
While these periods could be called Maximalist in terms of their sweeping, more-is-more approach, it would not be until the mid-19th century, as the Victorian era was underway, that the upper echelons achieved a Maximalist look by means of mixing art and objects from various locales and across time periods.
British architect and designer Owen Jones, as well as British theorist and designer Christopher Dresser, were two 19th-century figures whose recordings of international patterns and ornamentation continue to influence Maximalist design today.
‘When a movement begins, its designers tend to preach a purity of form. It’s only when there’s been enough time to dissect a movement that people feel comfortable enough to combine styles,’ says Nelson. Rather than the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, which sought to evade prevailing tastes by introducing entirely new, holistic expressions of their style, the Gilded Age, for example, shifted to society valuing perceived worldliness and appreciation of history in their homes.
During the 20th century and the rise of postmodernism, Maximalist expressions became more varied. In the 1980s, for example, the Memphis Group created a new visual language prizing bold colour and geometries, while in stark contrast, other designers, such as American Mario Buatta, embraced a plush, English cottage aesthetic marked by pastels and chintz.
Cabinet of curiosities
One of the concepts that has shaped generations of Maximalists is the kunstkammer or wunderkammer, German for cabinet of curiosities. Popularised in the 16th century, these cabinets, or in several instances, rooms, housed rare and ‘exotic’ artworks and artifacts from around the globe. Marvels ranged from the ecclesiastical to animalia and natural specimens.
The idea of an international mix of objects intended to provoke awe and spark conversation naturally translates into maximalist design. Personal touches, such as meaningful mementos and souvenirs from travels, give layered interiors substance while leading to unexpected vignettes that surprise and delight.
The allure of the English country house
In contrast to some of the decorative styles previously mentioned, great English country houses emit a Maximalist look of nonchalance. ‘A family could live there for 300 years, so you end up with many different categories together,’ says Nelson. ‘These collections have grown organically, so to emulate the look, it takes someone with a very sophisticated taste level who can understand and visualise all these disparate items working well together.’
Embracing patina without being overly precious, the resulting environment is comfortable and inviting — grounding generations of art and objects with a plush sofa from which to view them simply adds to the effect.
Mid-century American decorators
While Europe has spawned numerous Maximalist styles, the 20th century saw many American designers become arbiters of the more-is-more approach. ‘Billy Haines started out as a silent film star, and then he really changed the way people lived in California,’ says Nelson of the designer who counted screen siren Joan Crawford, Warner Bros. Studios executive Jack Warner, socialite and philanthropist Betsy Bloomingdale, and the media magnate Annenberg family among his clients. ‘Haines was brilliant at combing historic pieces, such as 18th-century mahogany furniture and English porcelain, with furniture he designed.’
Additionally, Chicago architect David Adler and his sister, notable interior designer Frances Elkins, were the forces behind many of America’s famous houses. Elkins, who frequently worked with French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, inspired a generation of designers with her ability to mix unexpected works. ‘She loved Chinese 18th-century wallpaper, but then she’d also have a gentlemen’s reception room in a library completely done by Jean-Michel Frank with plaster lamps by Alberto Giacometti,’ says Nelson. ‘This combination of the best of the 18th and 20th centuries was very cutting edge.’
Another key Maximalist designer was Tony Duquette, whose designers for the stage and films translated into theatrical residential interiors. With an affinity for saturated colour and natural materials, such as coral and turquoise, Duquette also had a successful career as a jewellery designer.
The influence of pop culture
In recent years, the resurgence of Maximalist style has been attributed in the media to ‘grandmillennials’ and ‘neo-Victorians.’ ‘Cluttercore’ has also been coined. Maximalism’s modern-day virality is in part due to wider pop culture phenomenon inspired by shows, such as Downton Abbey, Bridgerton and The Gilded Age.
‘These moments that are rallying around historic styles are really supporting fresh-to-the-market collectors and making them more confident in their design choices,’ says Casey Rogers, Christie’s International Specialist and Head of 19th Century Furniture & Sculpture. ‘More and more people are learning how antiques are usually better made than contemporary mass-produced furniture. They make great statement pieces, are sustainable and last longer.’
Deck the walls: texture and textiles
In Maximalist interiors, every surface counts. Wallpapers and coverings, as well as mouldings and trims, offer a wealth of possibilities, from grand statements to eye-catching details. The salon-style hang is quintessential Maximalism, and even Minimalist interiors often boast a ‘gallery wall’ to add interest to a space.
The many benefits and applications of textiles should also not be overlooked, adds Rogers. ‘Textiles add warmth to a space and can instantly transform it. Textured papers and wall hangings or tapestries play beautifully with a multitude of objects,’ says the specialist. ‘From a furniture standpoint, there’s nothing better than a Louis XV fauteuil that has been reupholstered in contemporary fabric to elevate an interior and bring it into the 21st century. Throw in a Persian carpet, and you’re in good shape!’
Collect what you love and mix it up
Like Nelson, Rogers finds that over the past decade, people are increasingly conceiving maximalist interiors with a range of art and objects. ‘When I joined Christie’s 20 years ago, our clientele came into the salesroom knowing that they were going to do an entire salon in the Louis XV or Louis XVI style, and they would buy 10 or 20 lots just in that particular style,’ says Rogers.
‘We’ve really seen a movement away from that behaviour, and more decorators, as well as traditional buyers and a younger clientele, are looking to have a wonderful cacophony of various styles, rather than a one-note interior. With their layering effects, these interiors can be very intimate, approachable, and comfortable, while still exuding opulence and luxury.’
Unsure where to start? Nelson recommends seeing as much as you can. ‘Look at books and publications featuring historic interiors, and see what gives you that frisson of excitement. As long as it makes you feel comfortable and happy, you can mix and match however you like because there are no rules anymore,’ he says, emphasising collectors and interior designers like Ann Getty, who was also a voracious reader with a staggering reference library.
‘Mrs. Getty's style was indeed maximalist, but her approach was very sophisticated. She didn’t buy something to fill a space; she only bought what she truly loved, and then she would find the space for it. Don’t be afraid to experiment and trust your own judgment.’