multi cultural counterculture bohemian style

The Essentials of the “Bohemian Style”

Picture this:

You’ve arrived in a city, weary from traveling in some hooptie or another. Your legs, still shaky from the long ride, take you to the outdoor seating of a cafe. There is a distance to traverse before you find the pennies in your pocket. Enough for a cup of coffee, and the only thing you can afford. You’ve brought nothing on this trip except a handbag and the worn rags on your person.

Still, you’re content. You came to pursue art and beauty – and isn’t that all the trappings of a bohemian lifestyle? Art, freedom from materialism, and wanderlust. The tenets are so familiar, but where did they even come from? And how did they turn into a ‘style’ to follow?

The beginning of ‘la Boheme’

One quick note before we get started, there seems to be a difference between traditional bohemian and “boho chic.” The latter takes cues from other aesthetics, like zen and minimalism, to appeal to a greater and more contemporary audience. The former is a little less immaculate. It’s more forgiving, with room for experimentation, and it’s the focus of this article.

Before it was manufactured into a carefully crafted style guide for fashion and interior design, the term “bohemian” referred to a few things. Not all of which were as romantic as the current understanding. But, every bit as crucial to understanding the style as it exists today. So, strap in, we’re studying a bit of history.

First, “Bohemian” referred to the Roma, otherwise known as the “gypsies.” Both terms have some derogatory connotations. They both stem from the speculation of their origins. By necessity, they’re a nomadic culture that has traveled throughout Europe. They were called Bohemians because people thought they hailed from Bohemia within the Czech Republic.

Afterward, the term took on more romantic associations when “bohemian” became synonymous with the image of a starving, struggling artist – for a good reason too. The lifestyle that is ‘Bohemianism’ started in the 19th century as a counterculture.

Poets and artists alike found themselves living on lower subsidies. In cheaper establishments within Romani-dominated locales of Paris, they practiced voluntary poverty. All to escape the growing bourgeoise sentiments. Here, they mingled with like-minded folks, discussing freedom in life and love while engaging in overwhelming amounts of alcohol, almost to the point of hedonism.

“Bohemian style” explained

So, knowing what you know now about the movement’s history, there should be a few keywords that come to mind. “Freedom” is an easy enough word to toss around, but what exactly does that mean when it comes to decorating your living room? How are you supposed to achieve a ‘vagabond’ lifestyle when you have a permanent home, to begin with?

Well, good news – and maybe bad news, if you were really looking forward to specific tips – there isn’t one surefire way to achieve a Bohemian look. The Romantic Movement had its start entrenched within Bohemianism and, in the same way that the individual – that’s you! – is vital in those philosophies, so is it essential in styling your home.

So, deep breaths. As long as you’re taking your preferences and soul into consideration, there’s no way you can mess this lookup. Instead, we’ll run down the main ideas of Bohemianism and give quick suggestions of how you can capture the essence when you start decorating.

frugality and abandon bohemian style
Photo by Katie Emslie on Unsplash

Frugality and abandon

The determination to escape from the clutches of Industrialism and then losing yourself in indulgence seem like two much-opposed ideas. You need to remember that the bohemians were often anti-establishment, but that doesn’t mean they were anti-life. Instead, they thought it should be celebrated and cherished. Whether that meant merely enjoying the presence of nature or enjoying anything without shame.

What you get is an image of the bohemian as one who’s unorthodox, who lives as loud as they choose. How does this translate to interior design?

Well, first things first, the establishment they were working against was likely the entrapments of Industrialism and the bourgeoisie. That means anti-capitalist propaganda. If you’re aiming for a bohemian look, you can’t really achieve full authenticity with mass-produced furniture from large chain home stores.

Instead, you’ll just as likely stumble into a bohemian-themed home if you buy whatever catches your eye in antique stores and farmers’ markets. Then, let those dominate your interior.

You’re aiming for one-of-a-kind items, handcrafted whenever possible. This fits everything from authentic bizen pottery from Japanese Surplus stores to vintage boudoirs that you can refurbish into something that better fits your image.

the nomad as an outcast bohemian style

The nomad as an outcast

“Frugality,” of course, doesn’t mean bare. While you can be as subdued as you want, with some bohemian homes even incorporating a bit of minimalism in their design, you can go the opposite direction too.

While you can’t just up and leave your suburban life and job, there are a few ways to bring the nomadic lifestyle into your home. The bohemians might not have traveled for leisure, but you could.

Bring home souvenirs and trinkets from our travels and turn your home into a menagerie of memories. Fill your home with them if you want. They’ll make genuinely unique decorations for your home. Plus, what better way to start a conversation than to have your guests go: “Hey, what’s the story behind that mounted keris?”

Nomads tend to have a more intimate relationship with nature too. Thus, it’s not the worst idea to have leafy vines crawl their way up your walls, either. Or have a collection of various cacti and succulents to achieve the same effect, but with lower maintenance.

Last, being travelers, bohemian style often uses some “worn” fabrics. You don’t need to buy them at secondhand shops. Just pick materials like fringes and crochets that tend to look fuzzier, or distressed fabrics, and mix them with sleeker silks.

multi cultural counterculture bohemian style

Multi-cultural counterculture

While the Roma probably didn’t ‘originate’ from Bohemia, they might have stayed there before migrating to France, where the term and lifestyle started. The word “gypsies” tried to pin their origins to Egypt because of their skin and features. Now, we have a clearer idea from genetics that the Roma probably started in North India. 

Even just from this story, you can clearly see that so many different cultures make up their history. Their actual culture is the result of interacting with the cultures they came across, while still retaining a bit of the Sanskrit and Hindu influences from their starting point. 

Likewise, the creatives who found themselves in Paris during the larger bohemian movement, likely came from all over, collecting into this melting pot to exchange ideas. 

That’s why a mix of cultural influences is so essential to the overall bohemian style. This translates to an unabashed mixture of patterns and textures in the home. It’s what makes it possible to have both an Indonesian ikat dyed cloth hung over Moroccan trellis tiles.

artistic freedom bohemian style

Artistic freedom

Another facet of the bohemian era was the focus on artists and artistry. The widespread use of absinthe at the time was evident by its appearance in prominent paintings and poetry. The infamously potent drink served as the muse for some creators. Popularly, Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker shows a woman pondering another shot, even as she covers an arm over her body in an attempt to protect herself from the drink’s effects.

Thus, one of the ways these figures embodied the bohemian ideal was to experiment in their work. They forewent a conventional style to indulge in the French imagination and wild uses of color.

It’s easy to guess where this interior suggestion is going. Play with color. The palette you should be most familiar with is one that’s down to earth. And by that, we mean, use every shade of color you can find out in the wild. From the warm colors of the ground to turquoise and other jewel tones down in the mines.

For a more subdued effect, you can keep most of your room bare white, then throw the colors on the fabrics. Or have a double toned wall where the majority is a solid nude, and the lower half is a mural worthy of Van Gogh.

The instinct you have might be to limit one striking color or pattern to one corner of the room. Designate the couch as the more traditionally bohemian space and the rugs the more zen-inspired, things like that. But that’s limiting yourself to a precedent. To the idea that those concepts naturally don’t “go” together somehow.

Bohemian style is basically throwing that instinct out the window and not being afraid to layer styles. But it’s still your call. If you decide to lean into a more contemporary look, metallics make your room shine just as brightly.

No one can judge the right or wrong way to do a Bohemian-inspired look for your interior design. Anyone that says otherwise is abiding by a more mainstream idea of the term, looking at ‘boho chic’ instead of true Boheme. Instead, it’s about living as unabashedly and as loudly as you’ll allow yourself.

To paraphrase the tagline for Moulin Rouge, one of the most famous depictions of the bohemian movement in media: No laws. No limits. One rule. Be as free as your soul desires.

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