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Damask, once restricted to drawing or other formal rooms, has today under that less ceremonious American practice which combines different fabrics and furniture forms in all rooms of the home come into much more general use than ever before in its long history. In this adaptation to our twentieth century life, two extremes of patterns have evolved. One is characterized by new color effects, the other simulates a fabric dulled and worn by age. And under good decorators or discriminating householders, damask covered furniture and window and other draperies are successfully associated with fine furnishings of many periods, including our own virile one.
The damask weave, as George Leland Hunter has pointed out in his authoritative book "Decorative Textiles," is a fabric on which the pattern is brought out by the lines of its weave running in a different direction from that of the ground. The linen damask tablecloths illustrate this simply. In modern damask there are incorporated with the traditional silk other materials, such as cotton, linen, wool and artificial silk, in order to produce new effects. The fabric is, however, made in essentially the same manner as in the twelfth century, when it got its present name from the city of Damascus, then famous for the beauty of its silks of this character.
Most of the designs used in damasks today are copies of those woven centuries ago in Italy, Spain or France. This varied background allows the damask-covered chair, couch or window draperies to fit into the prevalent vogue for Spanish, Italian, French or Georgian interiors. Though damask weaving was not an English art, the English decorators of the eighteenth century used large quantities of Italian damasks, both for furniture coverings and as hangings for walls.
In France, the period of Louis XVI developed many beautiful symmetrical designs, often with stripe effects combined with flowers and leaves. Large floral motifs were also characteristic of that period of dignified luxury. Most of the Italian weaves now reproduced hark back to Renaissance motifs, wherein the pomegranate, the apple of love of medieval times, surrounded by flowers and leaves, often forms part of the pattern. Wonderful. tones of color are found in some of these old Italian fabrics violet and crimson, or an old gold that has the Cinquecento charm.
While the best designs of damasks are derived from precious bits preserved in museums, there are also patterns inspired by the life of today. Some designs suggestive of Japan are in brilliant reds, like those employed in lacquer; the straight trunks of the bamboo are shown against misty mountains and violet clouds. Especially modernistic is a pattern of new flower forms that may have been inspired by roses, but it is removed from reality by diagonal rays of darker tones that slant across the pattern. :Delicate peach, jade or other hues, never used by the old Italian and French damask weavers, make these modern weaves distinctive.
New effects are also achieved by varying the color arrangements of old designs. In some patterns the background, instead of being of solid color, is made up of many minute threads of reds and greens and purples in light and dark tones. And the use of wool and cotton provides new textures to contrast with the silk. A few daring weaves in this mode have at first glance little resemblance to the smooth sheen of the traditional damask weave.
The vogue for the old has encouraged the weaving of damasks of old designs which have the appearance of age. A Spanish design in gold will have threadbare places on its thinly worn surface, with the dull though beautiful hue that good color assumes after two hundred years or more of wear wonderfully duplicated. Some of the fabrics thus antiqued are too thin for upholstery of chairs, but may serve admirably as window hangings. Others woven for furniture coverings belie their decrepit appearance by their durability, and the householder who buys a piece of furniture covered with this ancient looking modern fabric may expect as much service from it as if it did not simulate great age.
Although damask-covered furniture gives in the formal reception room an air of luxury and dignity that only a few other fabrics can achieve, pieces of damask covered furniture are not inharmoniously introduced into less formal quarters. Because of its use in the times of Charles I and Charles II in England, and also in the days of James II and later, a damask upholstered chair or couch may be associated with Georgian wood blocked chintz covered chairs as well as with Jacobean embroidered fabrics. Furniture covering of needlepoint also seems to have a special affinity for the formal eighteenth century weaves of damask. Chinese bowls and silver birds on a mantel or a piece of Chippendale or a Grinling Gibbons carving on a mirror frame help create a background for a piece of damaskcovered furniture, especially where one has a room suggestive of the Colonial.