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A history of London interior design


Period rooms
Herb and period gardens
The Geffrye is Hackney's museum of domestic interiors. It's a real-life catalogue of middle-class London's most popular furnishings and ornaments, from the turn of the 17th century to the present day. The furniture, textiles, paintings and accessories are arranged in lifelike rooms, as if the residents have just popped out.
The exhibition is set in a row of 18th century almshouses. These charitable homes accommodated the elderly or infirm, who couldn't look after themselves. They were built by the Ironmongers' Company in 1714. The Master of this business, also a former Mayor of London, was Sir Robert Geffrye. It's his name the museum bears.

The row of almhouses
Photo Maryc
Two of the almshouse rooms have been restored to their original state, so the building's original purpose isn't forgotten. One, from the 1780s, shows the single space where an elderly couple would have both cooked and slept. Another, from the 1880s, belongs to a retired governess. It's filled with the hand-me-down furniture that was all she could afford.

An 1890s drawing room
Photo Cristian Bortes
The museum's other eleven rooms have been carefully transformed. Each one showcases a different time period or style. The oak panelling and sash windows in the 17th and 18th century sections were typical of the era. There are a few chinese ceramics, which were tremendously expensive, desirable rarities.
Styles in the Regency period became more colourful, with less regimented arrangements. Guests would play chess, cards or music. The Victorian parlours show a developing taste for more exotic, artistic decorations. There are 20th century rooms too, with central heating and electrical appliances. The most recent space is a modern loft apartment from the late 90s, filled with designer furniture.
Throughout the exhibition, real objects are used wherever possible. There are some replicas, but even these were made using the same methods and materials as the time period they originally came from.
Downstairs there's a separate area for non-permanent exhibitions. Previous displays have included studies of foreign design and local ceramics. In December the whole museum is decorated for the festive season, so you can see how traditions have - or haven't - changed. Here in the 21st century people decorate their trees, kiss under the mistletoe and deck the halls with boughs of holly, but they might not understand why. At Geffrye you'll see where these customs came from, and how they've evolved through the years.
Outside, round the back of the building, are a series of restored gardens. One contains 170 different species of herb; each with various cosmetic, medicinal and culinary purposes. There are four period gardens too, presented in the respective styles of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1600s the standard layout was functional, for the easy growing of herbs and vegetables. Over the years the garden became a place more associated with recreation. Exotic plants and greenhouses began to appear. The ordered layouts of the 18th and 19th centuries gave way to rougher, more informal designs.

Edwardian period garden
Photo Geffrye Museum
The gardens are only open in the spring and summer months, but there are lawns in front of the museum too. They're available for public use all year round, providing a rare respite from Hackney's urban sprawl.
Visitor Information
The Geffrye Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday (closed Monday), 10am to 5pm (from 12noon on Sunday). Entry is FREE. Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA. Tel: 020 7739 9893

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