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Middle Ages Modern Is a New Aesthetic for Our Increasingly Medieval Times

Oct 17, 2023

By Dana Covit

Last week, an early medieval burial site—since characterized as one of the most significant ever excavated in the UK—was discovered. Buried alongside its inhabitant from the Middle Ages was an intricate necklace of striking craftsmanship and complexity, made of wrought gold, garnets, and other semi-precious stones. It looked like something the popular jewelry brand Mondo Mondo might make. I’ve been taking note of a rising design trend that spans the realms of jewelry, fashion, and art. If you ask me, a major shift is afoot, and it appears to be taking us down an enchanting path, one far away from the Nickelodeon-ified postmodern and Peeps colored palettes that somehow managed to curdle the Ultrafragola in all its glory. (I won't say good riddance, but I dare declare I’m ready to move on.)

While I’ve never particularly wanted a canopy bed, lately I can't help but wonder if I might sleep more soundly, wake more peacefully, and make love more ravishingly beneath sloping damasks and tousled in sumptuous silks. Blame the change of seasons if you must, but I chalk it up to more than just a brisk breeze. Whereas cottagecore—an undeniable reigning trend of the pandemic era—might have pointed to our collective longing for cozy and pastoral vibes, the emergence of this new aesthetic points to a tougher, more dramatic, and even mystical turn.

TikTok, being the lightning rod of fledgling trends that it is, is already awash in the aesthetic, which has been dubbed "castlecore." The hashtag has garnered 43 million views, spanning candlelit goth intonations and glittering fairytale fantasies. #MedievalTikTok has commanded 4.4 billion views. I’ve settled on the term Middle Ages Modern (MAM) to define this aesthetic for interiors.

An installation view of ‘Distant Symphony,’ a show by Rooms Studio at Emma Scully Gallery, featuring pieces from the Wild Minimalism collection.

The medieval era, often referred to as the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages, is bracketed between the fall of Rome in the fourth century through the beginning of the Renaissance in the early 16th century, a dizzying sprawl of time. To make matters even more expansive, it's a particularly permeable period and genre within our collective imagination thanks to fantasy films and mythical tales. Where real medieval history ends and medieval myth begins can be hard for the average pleb to pin down. This intermingling impacts the way we experience and process a so-called medieval aesthetic. It might just be one of the few visual languages that someone without a background in art history can point out. (Suspending strict academic definitions, it's a bit of a "you know it when you see it" kind of thing.)

Larisa Grollemond, a curator in the Manuscripts Department at the Getty Museum who recently contributed to an exhibit called "The Fantasy of the Middle Ages," notes that Medievalisms—the remixing of aspects of medieval art, architecture, and literature—are "a staple of our collective cultural knowledge." Thanks to representations of the period in film, television, video games, and a huge variety of other media, this world is "easy to reach for" when we’re hungry for a new aesthetic. Within the collectible design space, a growing class of contemporary designers appears to be gravitating toward this world too, creating work that points to a longing for rawness and permanence, protection, and perhaps a bit of escapism.

The Bruises Gallery show ‘Ils bougent la nuit’ was held in an abandoned butcher's shop and included this primitive wooden table carved with an ax, metal chairs, and iron candle holders.

Metalwork, ornate detailing that evokes calligraphy and scrollwork, jewel tones, and darker woods—not to mention technologies borne of antiquity like forging, blacksmithing, and tin plating—are some prominent themes. Elsewhere, across fashion (look to the knit armored offerings from Isa Boulder, boned corsets from KNWLS, and Paloma Wool's ode to Joan of Arc) and jewelry (indie creators like Floating World, Grace Fforde, and CLARK), the mood is absolutely exuding Ren Faire realness.

I perhaps first caught the scent of this wind of change through Bruises Gallery, a Montreal-based gallery and interior design project curating found, antique, and new objects. Hardened raw materials, aged patinas, intricate and swirling iron lines, and pieces that seemed vaguely menacing yet still undeniably seductive, caught my eye. Their compelling curation remains decidedly mysterious.

Lane Walkup, a sculptural artist based in Brooklyn, has been working with metal for the past 11 years. Her practice hit a stride in 2020 with a series of life-sized flower vases made with exuberantly painted steel. These days, Lane has been finding her own taste—and that of her followers—changing. "[The colorful flowers] were being devoured during the pandemic, and it's interesting to see people are wanting something a little harder right now," she says. "I feel it too. I’m shifting as well."

Last month, Lane exhibited a large-scale barbed wire tapestry-like gate with a rusted patina. Another recent creation, an iron chair inspired by ornamental metalwork seen in railings and security gates, was shown in an NYCxDesign show curated by Pink Essay. She's still making the flower vases, but is looking more to left-of-center floral motifs, like ikebana and ivies.

Walkup's Pearly Gates (2022) chair was inspired by ornate security gates and decorative railings.

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Over in Oregon, the blacksmith Carson Terry makes forks, spoons, hooks, and combs topped with ornamental shapes and forged flowers. "I see my work as an interruption of the speed of modern life," he explains, being that "handcrafted objects allow us to reimagine a more sustainable life that connects us to ourselves, the environment, and our community." Barnaby Lewis, a designer who works out of London, uses relatively rudimentary tools to produce his sculptural designs, like a console table made from forged sheet steel and a burnt ash top, candelabras, sheet steel–fitted wardrobes, and gothic chairs. "I love the idea of a steel rose as it reflects such delicacy [achieved] through brute force," he notes.

Frank Traynor, the artist behind The Perfect Nothing Catalog, has developed a unique style of gem-encrusted tin-over-copper lattice work that transforms quotidian objects—lightswitch plates, bath faucets, and even trash cans and pepper mills—into relics of uncommon charm. Using collected shells, stones, and other glittering bits, the result is a Buried Treasure meets Met Cloisters meets Grimms’ Fairy Tales mashup. But for the New York–based designer Sophie Lou Jacobsen, whose wavy and colorful glassware can be spotted all over Instagram, the recent pivot toward silver and embroidered pieces articulates a new, or rather old, array of influences. "Personally, I’ve been feeling very drawn to Old World aesthetics," she explains in an email. "Rich colors, texture, layers, lots of ornamentation and decoration…astronomy and botany."

A gem-studded and tin-plated butter knife by Frank Traynor of The Perfect Nothing Catalog.

Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia of Rooms Studio turn to Georgian folk and artisanal vernaculars, "architectural forms of the orthodox churches," and "primeval" motifs to mystical effect for interior inspiration. Their Talisman Mirrors, whose forms unapologetically borrow from a religious and devotional iconography, were recently installed against a deep oxblood wall for Emma Sculley Gallery at Design Miami. The obsidian-hued Secret Cabinet made using the almost obsolete technique of pressing metal into molded shapes evokes Medieval body armor and features a chalice, rose, spears, and scales, and it would be at home as a particularly bewitching centerpiece in the halls of The Met.

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The furniture dealer Bianca Stillwell of Monte Visión has been a bellwether of this vibe shift. "I’ve never been into Scandinavian, really, so I’m particularly excited to see this darker stuff creeping in," she says. "These days I am more into esoteric-leaning, darker, moodier colors and furniture. I really care about seeing a human touch to stuff. I love stone, I love steel, I love wood, I love Old World craft." Whereas Scandinavian aesthetics are decidedly muted and light-of-touch, and postmodernism feels optimistic if a bit unhinged, medieval aesthetics are enveloping, immersive, and transporting. As we have reentered the world following a season of forced isolation, many of us have found our circumstances to be less than hospitable.

"I associate medieval times with the tension between poverty and extreme wealth exacerbated by plagues, which created an overarching sense of darkness and helplessness," Sophie notes. "But when you look at the aesthetics and artifacts of that time they are often full of whimsy and fantasy."

Panorammma worked with a local craftsman who specializes in medieval jewelry to artfully execute the 3,000+ hand-linked metal rings of the Chainmail Chair.

Sentient Beam, a one-of-a-kind candle holder hand-sculpted and cast in solid brass by A History of Frogs.

Isabelle Jusseaume, who began selling her personal collection of folk-inflected objects and antiques in 2020, wonders if there might be "something comforting about reconnecting to our past through art and culture" because "we have been living through great uncertainty, from climate change to a pandemic, and late-stage capitalism." For Chase Biado and Antonia Pinter of A History of Frogs, the element of fantasy is inextricable from their artistic vision. "We are deeply invested in the role fantasy plays in our daily lives, [and] we like to play with the past."

Their creations—most recently, an assemblage of bronze, brass, copper, and patinated aluminum sculptures and objects that are at turns lace-y, drip-castle-y, a bit primitive yet otherworldly—defy direct allegiance to a particular historical context. A History of Frogs has used evocative terms like Goblin Baroque and Marsupial Gothic that gesture toward, but ultimately reach beyond, a known history. They describe their work as "anti-modernism" because it's ornate and decorative, but also imperfect and idiosyncratic.

A custom metal fireplace by Rooms Studio, made using a nearly forgotten technique of pressing metal into molded shapes.

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But the draw to fantasy is more than a stylistic interest. "Our love of fantasy comes in part from a dissatisfaction with the world and a desire for more—more magic, more emotion, more imagination," Chase and Antonia explain. "[We] try to bring that into the world through the objects we make." Their use of metals also echoes a sentiment expressed by the other makers engaging with medieval aesthetics. "We have a desire to build something that is going to last a while, when so much seems disposable," they add.

For the Mexico City-based furniture atelier Panorammma, the colloquialisms of the medieval period—chainmail, for example—can be a jumping off point for reimagining an iconic form. Their Chainmail Chair takes a Middle Ages Modern eye to William Katavolos 1952's T-chair, fashioning the entire carriage with hand-linked metal rings. Jared Frank, an LA–based interior designer, also felt inspired by such motifs as "the elegant, gilded curving lines that appear in 15th- and 16th-century French paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and Flemish Unicorn tapestries" while designing his clean-lined De Loop daybed, with its crown motifs rendered in steel. "I am interested in establishing a playfully regal air and creating a modern throne—but one to sit on in the sunshine, not in a cold dark room," he clarifies.

If one thing is clear, it's that medieval is as much a container of human imagination as it is a period of history. It embraces a plurality of longings, tastes, impulses, and inspirations: a "dirty-footed ideal" for Traynor, "extravagance and beauty" for Carson, a slow and intentional creative physicality untouched by industry for Lane. The Middle Ages Modern aesthetic is both darkness and magical thinking; of the past yet also of our own imagining. Perhaps, after a shared transit through hardship, we’re all planting the seeds of a more hopeful renaissance to come.