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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Art Objectives Of Interior Decoration

( Original Published 1935 )


The supreme achievement for which we strive in home furnishing, just as in every other art pursuit, is beauty. Although difficult to define or explain, "beauty" might usually be considered to be "that combination of qualities that is pleasing to the eye or ear." Philosophers do not agree upon the meaning of the word, and neither do artists, especially those of different times and different lands. The Orientals say, "One man's beauty is another man's ugliness." A helpful discussion of the meaning of beauty is presented in Chapter 2 of a book entitled "Art for Amateurs and Students" written by George J. Cox.

The philosophy of beauty is known as aesthetics. Aestheticians have studied objects made by man, and by determining what qualities are common to all beautiful things, have established certain laws and principles that help us to recognize and appreciate beauty. These principles form a basis for judging the art quality of any object. An understanding of the components, principles, and aims of art helps to clarify vague ideas about beauty, partly by providing a standard terminology relating to it.


One way to approach the subject of selecting, decorating, and furnishing a house or apartment is to seek to express some definite idea in it. The most interesting homes, large or small, are those which are consistent throughout. For this reason, the expressiveness of houses and their furnishings deserves careful study.

There are similar terms more commonly used than expressiveness, such as the character of a home, or the personality of a home. The word expressiveness is preferable, however, because it implies the power to excite emotional response that is lacking in the word character, and it avoids the suggestion of human attributes which is contained in the word personality. Talbot F. Hamlin uses the word expressiveness in regard to exteriors and interiors of houses in his book "The Enjoyment of Architecture." He says, "All good architecture should have this gift of expressiveness. Every building, every well-designed room, should carry in itself at least one message of cheer or rest or power.... In the buildings which seem alive with some message the architect has succeeded; they are true works of art."

The following are some of the ideas that are expressed in homes, consciously or unconsciously: repose, animation, naturalness, sophistication, intimacy, formality, warmth, coolness, delicacy, strength, freshness, antiquity. Since it is not possible to consider in detail all the ideas that may be expressed in homes, some of the typical ones are used here to illustrate expressiveness. Whether one lives in an apartment or in a house, the home may express formality, informality, modernism, or naturalness.

Formality. A home that expresses formality usually also expresses dignity, strength, reserve, and impressiveness. Features which contribute to this effect in a house are unbroken lines, large spaces, and a symmetrical facade, that is, a house front in which the two vertical halves are alike. In an interior, formality may result partly from conservative color of subtle or austere quality. The furniture is usually traditional in style though not necessarily so. The family that creates a home of this type usually lives a conventional, dignified, ordered life made possible by efficient service. A house which expresses dignity is not a mere lifeless representation of that quality but an active thing influencing the emotions and behavior of all who enter it. Informality. The informal home usually expresses friendly hospitality, intimate charm, and coziness. A house that has asymmetrical balance expresses the idea of informality through its varied design, its broken lines, and sometimes by its picturesque features. Its livable interior is often the result of using bright, warm colors, and simple, comfortable furniture. The family that selects a home of this type is usually unpretentious, somewhat unconventional, and often dependent on self-service.

Modernism. The modern home expresses the spirit of this machine age. Le Corbusier's famous definition of a house as "the machine in which we live" indicates the importance of functionalism in a modern house. Modernism expresses the directness and speed of the youth of today. This effect is achieved by stripping off all non-essentials in designs for furnishings and houses.

The families that choose modern furnishings are usually young, courageous, experimental, impersonal, and logical. They are interested in a style which is expressive of their own day.

Naturalness (Primitiveness). A natural or primitive type of home may express the following things: simplicity, handmade quality, sincerity, thrift, naivete, playfulness, rugged force, unpretentiousness, originality, or protest against artificiality.

Among the things which contribute to the attainment of the natural effect are the use of native materials and native styles, handwork showing natural irregularities in structure, direct treatment, inexpensive materials, and peasant or primitive colors. Labored effects, fine finish, and imitations are avoided.

Houses of this type are not numerous but they are to be found in every part of the United States. Many families in the Southwest have shown their appreciation of the native art of that section by creating homes inspired by rather primitive AmericanIndian, Mexican, and Spanish forms of art. Along the Atlantic there is appreciation of the vigorous, natural quality in the primitive Pilgrim houses and furnishings that are reproduced today. Many farm homes in various parts of the United States are fittingly furnished with simple furniture some of which is handmade. It seems wise to explain the meaning of the word primitive as it is used in interior decorating today. In the words of a dictionary primitive may mean "simple or crude, old-fashioned, characterized by the style of early times." The word crude in this connection is not used in a derogatory way. It means merely "in a natural state, unrefined, unpolished, unfinished; showing lack of skill in workmanship." The words primitive and crude are used in describing the quality of sincerity that is today prized in many forms of art, from Negro sculpture to peasant wall painting.

Persons with highly trained taste often prefer articles of primitive and peasant construction because such products usually have satisfying realness, whereas the products of more highly organized society are too often artificial. It is amazing to see the contrast between the high art quality in the primitive textiles in museums and the lack of art quality in many of the textiles for sale in the shops of today. The unsophisticated artist knows better than to imitate nature exactly in his patterns. His feeling for suitable design is partially due to the fact that he alone is responsible for the entire object on which he works. Therefore he plans, makes, and decorates each article to suit its construction material. But his good taste is as unstudied and innate as his joy in his work.

The average home maker is not interested in a primitive or natural effect in her own home. Some artists and other creative persons, however, have found that the simplicity and realness of this type of furnishing are expressive of their own ideas. They believe that the creative spirit does not thrive in luxurious surroundings or among sophisticated reproductions of other periods. The artist Paul Gauguin who fled from Paris to Tahiti provides an extreme and famous example of this attitude. His feeling about "civilization" was so intense that he spat whenever he spoke that word.

The four different expressive ideas explained here are usually not used in their most extreme forms. These ideas and others are often combined and modified.

Unfortunately one often sees an effect that is the result of expressing an unworthy idea in home decoration and furnishing. Some owners seek to impress others with their wealth or importance, and so select highly ornamented and polished palatial furniture, not realizing that this is mere ostentation. Very often families of small means make the mistake of trying to imitate the furnishings of people of wealth, and succeed only in being pretentious and insincere.


It is the personality of the owner and his family that determines the idea to be expressed in a home. Qualities sincerely characteristic of the family that is to live with it should be the basis for the home furnishing. An interest which has permanent significance, and not merely a passing fad, should provide the inspiration for a plan of decorating and furnishing. It is true, of course, that the income, as well as the taste of the family, must help to determine the type of home to be created.

If a family likes to do things in a formal way with careful regard for the conventions, that attitude should affect its choice in architecture and in home furnishings. On the other hand, if a family has an informal, domestic, stay-at-home attitude, it should select a more picturesque, but simple, type of house and garden and furnishings. A modern artist might create a distinctive effect by making his own furniture at small cost, using a plain type of modern furnishing corresponding to his own simple way of living. The historian's family naturally inclines toward antiques. The carefree and casual family that spends summer out-of-doors and lives in a remodeled stable in the winter wants heavy, indestructible, and rough furniture. A traveled lady of sufficient means and love of elegance may have her apartment done in a sophisticated French fashion. An old-fashioned bride might like the quaintness and simplicity of the Early American style.

A certain writer of American Indian songs uses rather crude, simple furniture with Indian rugs, baskets, and pottery. One celebrated flower-lover has a vine-covered house that is close to the ground so that she can step right out among the flowers. Californians who love the romantic Spanish style use it to build charming homes. Many a recluse who does not wish to be disturbed has a high hedge, an uninviting house with few windows, and furnishings of a restrained sort and sober color. The indefinite or capricious type of person generally has a collection of things that expresses her confused state of mind.

The fact that a family may contain several conflicting personalities may often make it necessary to effect a compromise as to the idea expressed in a home. Therefore there would have to be modifications and combinations of ideas to suit particular cases. Common sense is a good guide in this as in all other applications of theories. Imagine the background that a dainty mother might create for her sons if she were lacking in taste.

It is not difficult for any family to decide whether it is more formal or informal in its tastes. Usually it is also easy to determine whether a family leans more towards natural, subtle, or modern effects. With these decisions made, the selection of a suitable house and appropriate furnishings is simplified.


Another important objective in home furnishing is unity. Unity means an organized interrelation of parts producing singleness of effect in form, pattern, texture, color, and idea.

Unity of form results from likeness of shape. In any scheme enough of the surfaces should be similar in shape and size to result in the domination of one form. In a rectangular room, a rectangular dining table, and a rectangular rug, carry out the same form idea and help to produce unitv.

Unity of pattern results from using patterns which are harmonious in type and size. Unity of texture results from the use of consistent textures. Unity of color is considered fully under color harmony.

It is possible to obtain such color, form, pattern, light, and texture that they affect the mind in the same way and produce unity in emotional effect. For example, if a cheerful, but reserved, masculine effect is desired, it could be achieved by using brown and red colors, large angular forms, abstract patterns, architectural light, and such textures as are found in oak, crash, iron, parchment, and leather. All these elements express the same decorative idea, and each one adds to the others, so that the effect is heightened and unity assured.

A room that has organic unity seems complete and gives the impression that nothing could be taken away or added without interfering with the wholeness of it.


Orderly arrangement is essential to beauty because the human mind desires order. Logical placing of furniture to suit its purpose and to harmonize with the lines of a room forms the basis for order in home furnishing. A room that is overcrowded with furniture can not seem orderly, however. Too many pictures and too much bric-a-brac produce a restless, disturbing effect. In a home there should be empty spaces for the sake of order alone.

Disorder in a home effectually prevents beauty. No better suggestion can be made than "to have a place for everything, and everything in its place." Many closets, plenty of furniture with drawers, and a storeroom are conducive to order. Orderliness in a home is a matter of habit, which the members of a family should acquire.


Honesty is an important consideration in the furnishing of a home, and it appears in several connections. In the first place, the owners should choose deliberately a type of furnishing suited to themselves and their income. Families with small incomes should expend their money to achieve comfort, not show.

Honesty forbids the use of any imitations. The surface of one material should not be treated so as to make it resemble another one. For example, metal beds painted with wood graining are in poor taste. Plaster beams and wall paper that imitate wood, and cheap wood painted to look like expensive wood, are insincere. Some common examples of imitations are linoleum with the markings of marble, artificial flowers and fruit, and fireplaces that are not intended for fires. On wood furniture, imitation carving that is pressed in by machinery is dishonest.

Materials themselves should be honestly used, that is the form of the article should be consistent with the material used in making it. If an object is made of iron, it should express strength and durability. Therefore lace-like designs are not desirable in an iron railing. Wood should not be carved into deep convolutions and high peaks as if it were no more solid than snow. Fine detail is not consistent with heavy marble, for stone should express strength and weight. The modern designers are particularly skilful in making materials and forms harmonize.

Honesty of workmanship is perceived most easily in handmade articles, because they are direct expressions of human hands and brains. These articles have particular genuineness because they bear the marks made by the craftsman and his tools. Among these are handmade furniture, rugs, textiles, pottery, glassware, and metal objects.

There is also a sincerity about good machine-made articles that have been especially designed to suit machine production. Honesty is most apparent in objects made by simple, direct processes.

Honesty enters into the producer's attitude as well as into the consumer's. From the manufacturer and the dealer, the consumer has a right to expect honest statements about the quality of furnishings. She also is entitled to much more consideration in the matter of price than she has had in the past.


Any object that does not function is a failure. The home that does not permit its occupants to find peace, comfort, and relaxation is not functioning. The needs of the family form the basis for the selection of a home and its furnishings.

A living room so fine that the men of the house do not feel free to lounge in it does not serve its purpose. A room so cluttered with bric-a-brac that one has to be on guard against upsetting things does not function. Curtains that shut out the view in daytime, lamps that throw light in the reader's eyes, vases that are tippy, and pitchers with spouts that do not pour well are examples of failure in function. Some of these illustrations show the close relation between form and function.

The wrong kind of material, color, or decoration may be a handicap to functional quality. Carvings in wood so deep that they are impossible to dust, light rugs and upholstery that have to be cleaned often, and perishable silk curtains are not functional in the home of a family of modest means.

Modern designers have especial respect for functionalism. They have concluded that beauty and utility are partners, not enemies.

Some of their new ideas are so logical that we wonder why they were not used long ago.


Needless to say, fine space relations are essential to beauty. They are the result of' fine use of line and form. It seems best to omit a discussion of them at this point as it is given under line and form, and proportion.

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