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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Components Of Art

( Original Published 1935 )

The components that must be considered by everyone who is dealing with interior decoration, or with any of the other space arts, are line, form, color, and texture. Two additional components, pattern and light, are important factors in interior decoration. All these elements should be controlled by the decorator in order to produce desired effects.


Line is a very important element in interior decoration. Sometimes it is so much a part of form that it is difficult to consider it separately. The outlines, or contours, of either two-dimensional or three-dimensional forms are lines; but the areas, or the solids themselves are known as forms.

Lines have definite emotional significance depending upon their direction and their quality. Man has associated certain elementary ideas with certain lines because these ideas are associated with similar positions of his own body. When he lies down, he is resting or sleeping; therefore the horizontal line naturally suggests repose, steadiness, and duration. Since, when he is standing, he is at attention and ready to act, vertical lines suggest activity and life. Because he bends forward to run or to pull things, a diagonal line suggests decided movement and force. In relaxation and play the body takes positions that are curved, and so curved lines are thought of as being gracious and flexible.

In interior decoration straight lines are considered intellectual rather than emotional, classic rather than romantic, and sometimes severe and masculine. Curves are used to achieve a more joyful, subtle, and rich effect. Curves must be carefully designed and well used, however, or they tend to produce an appearance of weakness and instability. The curves to be found in an oval are varied and interesting, whereas the curve of a circle is considered by conventional designers to be obvious, and by the moderns to be strong. Diagonal lines are too active to be used much in the home, for they express decided restlessness.

A decorator who understands the use of line can do much to improve the appearance of a poorly proportioned room. For example, strong horizontal lines improve a room that is too high, and vertical lines add apparent height where it is needed. The lines of the window curtains can be made to improve the proportions of poor wall spaces and windows.


The term form applies to two-dimensional or three-dimensional objects. Good structural form is the most important quality any article can have, for without it, excellent color, texture, or decoration are of no avail. It takes some experience and training to recognize good form, but the most important test can be applied by a beginner, for it is only this: "Is the article simple?" If it is not simple it is probably poor in its structural form.

Two additional essentials of good form have been considered under separate headings. They are: first, that the form of an object should suit the function of the object; and second, that the form of an object should be influenced strongly by the material from which it is made.


The term surface pattern refers to any sort of extrinsic surface enrichment and applies to both two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects. In interior decoration it is well to use the word "pattern" rather than "decorative design," because decorators, sales people, and the public understand the meaning of the adjectives "patterned" or "figured" as opposed to "plain."

Surface pattern contributes liveliness and interest to a room. Many a dreary room owes its dullness to its lack of pattern, but a room that is restless and exciting usually has too much pattern.

The cost of an article is no indication of the quality of the decorative pattern used an it. Surface pattern adds to the cost of an object, so it is often true that the most decorated objects are the most costly. The finest designers, being high-priced, are usually employed only for expensive goods. It is well known, however, that their designs are often copied in inexpensive materials. Strange as it seems, it is true that articles having the least adornment generally have the best art quality.

Since many of the patterns in carpets, curtains, dishes, and wall paper are poor, it is necessary for women to discriminate. A course in design helps a person to judge patterns. Discussion of the points involved in good design might be useful at this point.


Beauty in surface pattern is produced by having:
1. Excellent design in the individual motifs.
2. Fine arrangement of the units in a repeat pattern.
3. Possession of definite character.
4. Honesty in technique.
5. Evidence of joy of the designer.

Units of Design. In the individual units of design the most important quality is fine relation of spaces. The shape of the design unit and the shape of the background spaces are equally important.

There are three general classes of motifs of design: naturalistic, conventionalized, and abstract (or geometric).

Naturalistic Motifs. Naturalistic motifs are those that look like pictures of flowers, fruit, animals, people, or scenes. Pictures are proper on walls, but not as decoration on articles. A picture of a bouquet of roses may be pleasing, but to see dozens of such pictures, on the wall paper, would be unendurable. In all good designs the foreground and background spaces are planned in careful relation to each other. When this organization of spaces is done well, the naturalistic motif is so changed that it has become conventionalized.

Sometimes in reproducing period rooms, it is justifiable to use naturalistic patterns that are true to the period, but usually better ones that are equally authentic are available. It is true that there are a few good naturalistic patterns, having a certain primitive, naive, child-like quality, but it takes an expert to recognize this type of pattern. Since a great many designs are naturalistic, it is a challenge indeed to find others.

Conventionalized Motifs. A conventionalized motif does not look like the picture of a natural object. The natural object that inspired the design may have been so changed that it is no longer recognizable. Both the form and color of a design are modified or conventionalized to suit the material upon which it is to be used, and the purpose of the article. Conventionalized design is not necessarily good by any means. It may be commonplace like most of the old-fashioned stencil designs.

Abstract or Geometric Motifs. Abstract motifs are not based on natural forms but are themselves pure form. Their beauty lies in fine shape and proportion. The Greeks realized the value of abstract form and developed it to a high degree. The Mohammedans, for religious as well as aesthetic reasons, for a long time used no natural forms in their designs. Today also modern designers prefer the impersonal, geometric motifs to plant or animal forms. The best designs procurable now are of the abstract type, although there are also many poor, freakish, geometric designs. Abstract motifs include stripes, dots, checks, and plaids, as well as the many less usual geometric forms. This type of design can express almost any idea desired, depending upon the size and color of the motifs and upon the material used.

Mixed Motifs. Sometimes a pattern is made up of different types of motifs, such as abstract and conventionalized. Such a pattern may be tested by noting whether its various parts have unity in form, size, and idea.

Arrangement of the Motifs. Beauty in pattern depends upon good arrangement of the design unit, in addition to good design in it. The units may be arranged in borders, stripes, checks, diamonds, and ogival, or irregular plans. Arrangement is so important that the same unit might appear insignificant when used sparsely, but distinctive when used in a compact scheme where the background spaces have the right relation to the size of the units themselves. Usually a compact arrangement of the units is desirable because then the individual units are less important than the entire surface pattern.

Possession of Definite Character. The most interesting patterns are those that have definite expressive quality. A design may have a feeling of dignity, quaintness, speed, restlessness, or whatever quality the good designer wishes it to have. The character of a pattern is determined by the direction of the lines and by the shapes and relations of the spaces.

Honesty in Technique. Proper regard for the medium insures honesty in technique. For example, patterns for textiles should look cloth-like. The process by which the pattern is applied to an article should also influence its design. A pattern to be carved in wood is necessarily bolder than one to be painted on silk.

Joy of the Maker or Designer. This quality is seen most commonly in the work of children, peasants, and primitive people. Their work often has naive charm, playfulness, directness, and apparent ease of execution. It is the opposite of work that appears to have been labored, over-done, and intellectually perfect, but dull, static, or lifeless. One feels that peasant costumes are often so expressive of joy that the exuberant maker could not possibly stop until they were decorated all over. Crazy quilts with hundreds of kinds of experimental stitches are expressive of the glad adventurer in color and pattern. Many designers of today produce results that speak of work done with joy.

Pattern Agreement. In different articles that are used in the same room, the types and sizes of patterns should harmonize. Unobtrusive, medium-sized stripes seem to combine well with almost any other designs. Semi-naturalistic forms harmonize with conventionalized motifs, but should never be used with abstract patterns. Highly conventionalized patterns, however, may be combined with geometric patterns.

The Amount of Pattern. Opinions differ as to how much pattern is desirable, but it is usual to plan that at least one fourth of the total surface areas of a room will have pattern. If the walls and carpet are plain then the draperies and two thirds of the upholstery material may well be patterned. If the floor covering is patterned, as with Oriental rugs or carpets of hooked-rug design, it is advisable to have plain walls, plain draperies, and plain material for about two thirds of the upholstery fabrics. If a room is occupied but briefly there can be more pattern in it than otherwise. A large room can support more pattern than a small one. If the occupant of a room is gay and young she may desire considerable pattern. On the other hand, a nervous person may want no pattern at all. Some delightful contemporary rooms show no pattern, but have such interesting form, color, and texture that pattern is not needed.

Unnecessary Use of Surface Pattern. It is the opinion of modern designers that a material which in itself has interesting local variation has already the ideal decoration. Surface enrichment is not necessary for beauty; in fact, it is often a detriment. If the structural form of an object is good, if the material of which it is made is suitable, and if the texture and color are pleasing, it does not need surface adornment. Unfortunately women are apt to consider undecorated surfaces bare and uninteresting. The truth of the matter is that so little decorative pattern is good, that the untrained person is wise if she buys plain things.


1. The decoration should be necessary for the complete beauty and expressiveness of the article; if it is not, it should be omitted.

2. The decoration should follow the same shape as the contour of the part upon which it is placed.

3. The decoration should be placed at natural structural points on the object decorated.

4. The decoration should never interfere with the function of the article, as would be the case with a carved chairback that left an imprint on the shoulders of the occupant.

5. The decoration should be simple. Often elaborate designs are vulgar.

6. A design should suit the process used in its production-a violation of this being fine detail in a linoleum-block print.

7. The design should fit the material it decorates and should express the same idea. For example, fine detailed design is not proper on burlap.

8. A design should have some definite character such as quaintness, dignity, etc.

9. The design should be of the right historic period if the article is period in feeling.

10. A design should appear to be a joyous expression of the creator, and not a labored, forced piece of work.

11. In an all-over pattern the motifs should usually be packed close together so that they are not seen as individual units.

12. The background spaces as well as the foreground motifs should make a fine pattern.

13. It adds interest to a design if background and foreground spaces interpenetrate so that the effect is reversible, and the background is definite enough to be considered as foreground.

14. A decorative design should not be pictorial or naturalistic. 15. The best designs are abstract or conventional, although abstract and conventional designs may also be poor.

16. The various parts of a design should be unified in shape and scale.

17. The coloring should suit the design: for example, bold colors are best for bold patterns.

18. Out-of-the-ordinary designs are most desirable.


The term texture was originally used only in connection with woven things, but now it applies to all visual objects, and is used by decorators as the class name of those tactile qualities which interest them. Accordingly, the idea has to do with roughness or smoothness, pliability or rigidity, and fineness or coarseness of construction material. Some writers consider that the idea involves qualities of the execution as well as the construction material of an article.

All visual objects have textural qualities which we first realize as children through the sense of touch, although later we are able to perceive the textural quality of an object without having to feel it. Textural quality is very much more important to some persons than to others. A keen sense of touch sometimes compensates for a less acute sense of sight or hearing. The sculptor is particularly concerned with texture, and often conveys his idea so well in his work that it is almost impossible for a sensitive observer to refrain from running his hand over sculptured forms, regardless of protesting guards. Sculpture should be felt as well as seen to be fully appreciated, both as to form and texture. Texture Harmony. To the home decorator, texture is extremely important because woods, metals, plastic materials, potteries, glass, textiles, and even flowers should be related in texture if they are to be used together. In furnishing a home, one of the first decisions to be made is about the wood in the furniture, as this affects the texture of all other furnishings. Obviously oak and mahogany can not be combined, because they speak different languages. Walnut is medium in texture and can be used either with mahogany or with a light type of oak. Each kind of wood seems to produce a different feeling in the observer. Pine, oak, and hickory suggest strength. Mahogany requires the delicacy of fine silk, satin, and velvet textiles, roses, Oriental rugs, and light-weight brass hardware to accompany it, whereas with oak, heavier materials such as tapestry, rep, large-patterned linen, iron, parchment, and sturdy flowers should be used. Early American maple and pine call for handmade, cottage-type furnishings, like hooked rugs, pewter, and pottery. Later it will be helpful to the student to analyze the significance of the materials that were combined in each of the great decorative movements presently to be considered.

Decorators, both professional and amateur, are becoming more aware of the importance of texture. There is still great need for improvements in this respect, however, for many women know nothing about texture. A woman who would be shocked to see a wash dress, a fur coat, satin slippers, and a straw hat worn together might not even be aware that the rough lava bricks in her fireplace, her fine Oriental rug, her ruffled Swiss curtains, and her iron lamp stands were equally inharmonious. In setting the dining table many problems arise in which texture is fundamentally concerned, because of the large variety of materials used in table service. This subject will be treated further in a later chapter. There are no rules about texture agreement, but the sensitive person feels when things are right or wrong. Cost is no guide in the matter. This standard test, however, applies here as elsewhere: "Do these articles express the same idea?"


Light is a very important element in the appearance of a home, both by day and by night. No plan of decoration should be made without considering the exposure, the number of windows, the amount of sunshine that enters the room, the trees or vines that shut out light, what season of the year the house is used most, and which effect is more important to the owner, daylight or artificial light.

Light stimulates, darkness depresses us. A sunshiny day makes us sparkle, and a dark day makes us dull. Those who are so unfortunate as to occupy north rooms in the winter time realize the gloom that results from lack of sunshine. On the other hand, light that is too brilliant exhausts us physically, and is as offensive aesthetically as loud noise. There should be plenty of large openings for light, but there should also be movable curtains to control the quantity of light, so that it can easily be changed to fit the needs of the occupants of the home.

Light as a source of decoration is just beginning to be realized. The modern theater has revealed its possibilities, and modern decorators are now experimenting with it and obtaining excellent results.

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