The Victorian era was a time of restoration and prosperity for England. Peace brought great leaps forward in education, science, medicine, transport, communications, and social structure. In particular, the extremity of the social divide was reduced, and while the poor still had a hard time of things – this was the era of Dickens, after all – far more people were able to improve their lot in life than ever before.
The big change in design was the emphasis on luxury and decoration. Furnishings were built to be ornate, and to include maximum comfort or usefulness. Designers were influenced to imitate the styles seen in paintings of Continental nobility from earlier times. This was made possible by improvements in technology allowing larger scale production.
Neutral tones favoured for painted walls
The use of neutral tones was all the rage in Victorian times where paint was concerned. This may have had more to do with the difficulty of obtaining the materials for tinting and the difficulty of getting a consistent tint than for aesthetic reasons, however.
For wallpaper, it's quite the opposite
It's very interesting that wallpaper during the Victorian era was typically vivid and bright, with floral designs being highly popular. This may have been a decisive factor in the Art Nouveau movement that would follow.
If you decide to use wallpaper, it's good to go for the very intricate and bright floral designs. The wallpaper designs of William Morris, are among the very best examples of Victorian era wallpaper.
Go for ornate rugs and carpets
During this indulgent age, it was definitely a case of "more is more". There was very little attempt at restraint or understatement, possibly because in just about every other area of life there was quite a lot of repression necessary if one did not wish to be ostracised.
In paintings from the time it can often be seen that the householders would place carpets under tables. This custom was probably started as a way of showing off that the householder was so wealthy that they had no concern for stains caused by spilled drinks.
Another iconic carpeting custom of the era was the "hall runner", a long and narrow carpet that was used in long and narrow hallways. It is important that the hall runner should be not the precise width of the hall, or it will cease to be a hall runner and will simply be a carpeted hallway – not at all the Victorian era look you are aiming for.
Hall runners are also sometimes used for the carpeting of stairs. Again care must be taken that the carpet does not extend the full width of the stairs, as part of the intent (for the Victorians) was to place emphasis on the existence of the carpet, to show off the wealth of the homeowner.
The kitchen had once been the exclusive domain of servants, and where this was the case, kitchen furnishings tended to be very basic. In Victorian times there was a cultural shift, with more people having the means to furnish their homes but not to keep servants, and so the concept of creating more indulgent kitchen furnishings was born.
The main changes in design can be seen in the more generous use of carving, as well as the inclusion of opulent door and drawer handles.
Dining Room Furniture
The dining room had far greater importance in the average household during Victorian times than it does today. Chair designs of the era typically called for generous padding which was neither too soft nor too hard (Goldilocks should have lived during Victorian times). The chairs, as you may expect, also would typically feature extensive use of ornate carving and a tendency to have bowed legs. There are many examples from the Christopher Wray collection include the Clanfield, Elenore, Farlick, Kescott, Louis, Mag, Preston, and the Stanford.
Rectangular or oval tables were favoured over round, as Victorian era families tended to be large, and dinner parties were also popular. Typically the desire was to have very solid tables, usually with carving, and often with bowed legs, imitating the styles seen in homes of the Continental nobility. Examples from Christopher Wray include the Clementine and the Rocco.
For lighting, it's best to choose very ornate chandelier such as the Abbots, Achille, Anne, Barnstable, Bideford, Cannington, Daddon, Elora, Flauto, Lorraine, Oakenfall, Spruzzo, Thornton, Trident, and Yanine.
The most distinguishing feature of a Victorian era bathroom is the ornate claw-foot bathtub, and apart from this, it is difficult to go wrong with the furnishing in this room. Just think "ornate" when it comes to fixtures and fittings. For lighting, over-stated wall lights such as the Ashgrove are the best way to go.
The living room generally should use the same concepts for furnishing and lighting that are used in the dining room, although here there can be call for armchairs, chaise lounges, and other designs. You could also use carefully chosen table lamps to fill out your lighting and provide a more cosy atmosphere.
In the bedroom, opulent furnishings are just as important as in the rest of the house. Any kind of classic styled bed will generally do, though those with carved legs and elaborately carved headboards are most fitting to the era. A four-poster would be more regal, though perhaps not quite as authentic.
For bedside tables and chests of drawers, again bowed legs or elaborate carving is what you should seek out. For lighting, a mix of classic styled wall lights, table lamps, and possibly a pendant or chandelier will provide plenty of choice to match the lighting to the mood.