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Decorating with Mirrors

Martha Stewart Living, February 2008

See our gallery of mirrored decorating ideas.

In October 1789, a group of French revolutionaries stormed the gates of Versailles and immediately set about shattering the mirrors on Marie Antoinette's bedroom walls. This gesture was symbolic in more ways than one. On one level, it targeted the queen herself, disdained for the frivolity and self-absorption that her mirrors had, throughout her lavish reign, ostensibly abetted. (Marie Antoinette escaped her persecutors, but not for long. In 1793, while a prisoner of the new French Republic, she was categorically denied access to a mirror.) In smashing the queen's looking glasses, the insurgents revealed their hatred for a public figure too captivated by her own image to notice her subjects' poverty and suffering. Like Narcissus, she had fallen in love with her own reflection, and, like him, she would have to pay.

On another level, the destruction of the royal mirrors represented an attack on an entire aristocratic way of life. The mirror, at least in Europe, had long been associated with the refinement of the court. Although metal mirrors had existed in China and Egypt for millennia, the predecessor of today's glass mirror was developed in Renaissance Venice, where glassblowing techniques first inspired mirror makers to use glass instead of polished steel. With its superior reflectivity and its light-catching dazzle, the Venetian-glass mirror became a must-have luxury item among the European elite. In the late 16th century, Catherine de' Medici had 119 such mirrors installed in her palace apartments, in Paris; the resultant cabinet des miroirs (mirror chamber) set the new standard for interior decor in France and abroad. Its shimmering walls had the threefold benefit of seemingly expanding a small space, intensifying the brilliance of candlelight, and refracting ad infinitum the glitter of the queen's and her courtiers' jewelry. "In their enchanted chambers," wrote one poet of the cabinets des miroirs that soon graced countless noble abodes, "fabric no longer has a place. / On all the walls on all four sides / Encrusted mirrors here show their face."

The vogue for decorating with reflective glass reached its peak under Louis XIV, whose personal collection of treasures included 563 mirrors, and who in 1682 unveiled a new architectural wonder: the Palace of Versailles's Hall of Mirrors. There, 17 gigantic false window casements, each covered with 21 panes of mirrored glass, faced 17 real windows looking out over the grounds, thereby, one guest reported, "expand[ing] this hall a million times over so it seem[ed] almost infinite." The Hall of Mirrors was a supreme and irrefutable expression of the king's incomparable might.

Like mirrors today, those of the prerevolutionary era were not just decorative but practical as well: They enabled people to get a better look at themselves. "O sweet mirror, created in order to know that which our own gaze cannot see!" So declaimed one 16th-century author, marveling at how this new invention allowed man, for the first time, to view more of himself than his hands and feet. In the mirror, one could finally see, and try to control, what others saw. And so dressing for others emerged as an essential feature of civilized society. To well-born Europeans, a dedication to grooming and fashion showed a basic respect for their peers -- not to mention their sovereign.

When the mob decimated Marie Antoinette's mirrors, its target then was the self-involvement and superficiality of a whole regime. The revolution's leaders promoted a society based not on outward appearances but on internal qualities such as virtue, justice, and compassion. Accordingly, after 1789, orders dwindled at France's royal mirror manufactory, founded under Louis XIV, and it seemed as though a glittering era had come to an end.

This development was, however, incomplete and short-lived. Incomplete because by the end of the 18th century, technological advances had begun to make mirrors cheaper and more accessible. (The kindly maid who served Marie Antoinette in prison, for example, bought a tiny cardboard-framed mirror for a few pennies from a street vendor and smuggled it in to the queen.) And short-lived because mirrors soon became ubiquitous. Nowadays, decorating a room with a mirror and consulting its shining surface may seem essentially democratic activities, yet they belong to an age that was anything but -- an age when mirrors were as rarefied, rich, and coveted as the palaces in which they hung.

Looking At Mirrors
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Mirrors first appeared around 3000 B.C., in Egypt. They were often made of polished bronze, were usually slightly convex or concave, and were about the same size as modern handheld mirrors.

- Polished metals were used to make mirrors until the Middle Ages.

- Glassmakers in Germany and the Netherlands created convex mirrors that were exported to England as early as the 14th century. They were made from forest glass, a thick and slightly greenish glass blown into globes and lined with lead.

- A system devised by the French allowed for large glass plates. Until the 1770s, however, large mirrors in England and colonial America were composed of small plates stacked on top of one another.

- In the 18th century, the glass used for mirrors was handmade and tended to be rather thick and uneven. By the 19th century, modernized methods of production ensured thin sheets of glass for mirrors. (Below left, new mirror with beveled edge)


- Convex mirrors in English and American dining rooms let butlers view the entire room while remaining out of sight.

- As the metal backing on old mirrors oxidizes, the reflection becomes darker, giving them a softer look. (Below left, old glass with new mirror backing)


- Standard mirrors consist of clear glass with a backing of silver, copper, and paint and come in thicknesses of 3/32, 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 inch. The largest standard size is 65 by 84 inches; other sizes can be custom made.

- Ultraclear mirrors use glass with a reduced iron content and no tinge of green.

- Antiqued mirrors have coatings or tints applied to make them look as if they have deteriorated with age. (Below left, lightly antiqued mirror; below right, antique mirror with pronounced aging)

How to Clean Mirrors and Frames
1. Wipe glass with a microfiber cloth dampened with plain water.

2. For streaks, use a microfiber cloth dampened with a mixture of one part white vinegar and one part water, with one or two drops of dishwashing liquid.

3. Always spray water or cleaner on the cloth rather than the mirror. (If moisture seeps under the frame, it can create spots.)

4. Use a clean, dry natural-bristle paintbrush on intricately carved frames. Starting at top of frame, flick dust downward. For gilded frames, use a sable brush, which is softer than a regular paintbrush and less likely to damage gilding.