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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Home Decoration And Accessories

( Originally Published 1935 )

The appearance of a home depends very much upon the accessories. In selecting them there is an important opportunity for creative expression, because it is possible to make very original choices in small decorative objects. In choosing furniture, one is limited to rather standardized articles and styles, unless one has handmade furniture, but with accessories the experimental attitude is not restricted. Designers feel free to play with designs for small objects, and home makers are willing to try unusual small things, because they are not costly.

Furnishings depend so much upon accessories for charming effects that it is possible for the very same furniture to appear uninteresting in the model apartment of a furniture store, but distinctive in a home when used with personal accessories. Personality is revealed in accessories much more fully than in furniture, as they show what the members of a family are like. Some of the telltale things are books, periodicals, plants, flowers, materials for work, and hobbies. Certain hobbies could provide decorative notes in homes, such as small, well-mounted groups of interesting stamps or coins.

Textiles, lamps, pictures, and flowers are such important accessories that they are considered in separate chapters. The minor accessories referred to here include books, bookends, bookshelves, periodicals, clocks, mirrors, smoking sets, fireplace equipment, footstools, bowls, trays, desk sets, boxes, baskets, waste baskets, small sculpture, wall plaques or bas-reliefs, wall brackets, globes, screens, birds and their cages, fish and aquaria. Certain other articles such as pottery, porcelain, and glass will be considered with dining equipment; wall hangings, table runners, cushions, and embroideries are to be found in the chapter on textiles; candlesticks, torcheres, and sconces are included under lighting.


The test questions for all accessories, as well as for all mar-made things, should be, "Do they have beauty?" and "Do they function?" Beauty is rather uncommon in the decorative objects found in shops and in homes where they have accumulated by chance. One glance at the articles sold at the concessions in a fair or exposition gives evidence of the prevalence of poor taste.

The different degrees of art quality in accessories are well distinguished by the following terms.

1. Knickknacks, which have no artistic merit and are often merely souvenirs.

2. Bric-a-brac, which may have some art quality but are not entirely good.

3. Objects of art, which are beautiful in form, color, and texture.

Most decorative objects can be placed in one or another of the classes corresponding to these terms. When a woman realizes that a certain cherished object is only a knickknack, she finds it easier to discard, even if it was originally very costly or a gift from some beloved person. Many a woman when buying a new decorative object might be saved from selecting something ordinary by stopping to consider whether or not it is just more bric-a-brac to clutter up her house.

Nearly all homes are crowded with small objects that have to be weeded out if the owner wishes to achieve beauty. It is far better to have too few than too many accessories, for there can be dignity and restfulness even in bareness, and these are two primary virtues in a home.

Accessories should never be allowed to dominate the home, for they are not so important as the essentials for living in comfort. The Japanese custom of showing only one beautiful object or arrangement in a room at one time contains a valuable lesson for us. Their decorative problem is very different from ours, however, because they do not require plenty of comfortable furniture as we do.


Books. Some of the most interesting and decorative of all furnishings are books in open bookshelves; however, there should be a limit to the number used in a living room. Books along one of the short walls are probably enough in a living room, unless there is a definite reason why the owner should feature books. Since very choice books have to be kept behind glass, it is well to place any large collections of them in a bookroom or library, because much glass in the living room is not attractive. A small collection of choice books in a glazed cabinet is pleasant in a living room, however.

Books should be arranged with thought. The largest books belong on the lower shelves and the darkest near the bottom and along the outside ends of the shelves, where they make a frame for the lighter ones inside. It is well to put some accenting darks among the lighter ones, however.

Built-in bookshelves are pleasing, and when a house is being built it is often possible to construct them flush with the wall by making use of the space that occurs in the thickness of the wall. Apartment dwellers should own the kind of shelves that can be taken apart when moving.

Clocks. Clocks are not used so much for decorating in this country as they are in some others, but perhaps this is just as well, because many of the clocks in the shops here are ugly. They are often too elaborate or too large, and they are made of mixtures of wrong materials such as marble, golden oak, brass, gilded metals, onyx, and porcelain. The best clocks are the simple, dignified ones of good structural lines and little decoration. Clocks are no more exempt than anything else from the rule that everything in a room must harmonize with the feeling of the room in style and in degree of simplicity or elegance.

A Pilgrim Colonial type of room should have a simple clock, perhaps like the wall clock in the kitchen of the Capen House in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. The tall clocks or grandfather clocks of mahogany, such as the Townsend clock in the alcove on the second floor of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, would be suitable in a home with eighteenth-century Colonial furnishings. The Willard banjo clock, also, suits the later Colonial things as it originated about 1800. With Neo-Classic furniture it would be well to consider using a French brass and glass clock. Patriotic clocks decorated with spread eagles and historical scenes were typical of this period too.

Usually a plain clock can be placed in almost any surroundings. If its color is not right it can be painted. Bracket clocks are good if the bracket is in harmony with the clock and if they both suit the room. Modern clocks are ingenious in design and material. Almost any sort of geometric form is used, as well as a variety of unusual materials. A cube of glass constitutes the frame of one modern clock. Electrification of clocks is very convenient for busy people but it has its drawbacks. In one home when the grandfather clock was electrified the family missed the cheery tick-tock to which it had been accustomed.

It is possible to use clocks in any room in the house, but clocks that strike are usually best relegated to halls or kitchens. Sometimes a clock that strikes is a real companion for an elderly person or for anyone who does not sleep well at night; it is comforting to know exactly how long one lies awake. Clocks can be so delightful or so hideous that it is worth while waiting and searching until the right one is found. If one is looking for an old clock of charm, it is not too much to seek it for ten years.

Mirrors.    There were hand mirrors in Venice as early as 1300, but they were small and crude and so precious that only kings and nobles possessed them. They were not used in England until the last quarter of the seventeenth century, which means that the Early Colonists in this country did not have them. However, for Early American and Early English rooms of today, mirror frames that harmonize with the furniture can be procured. In strictly period rooms the mirrors should be of the proper period.

Most mirrors in the shops are shaped and framed with hideous ingenuity. The elaborate gilt-framed mirrors with decorated glass produced by the thousands for general use should be carefully avoided. It is often advisable to have mirror frames made from appropriate picture moldings and finished to suit the furnishings with which they are to be used. Unframed mirrors are suitable in modern settings.

Screens. Screens may be very decorative as well as useful. They must not be intruders in scale, style, color, or degree of elegance or simplicity. Distinctive screens, however, are difficult to find. Oriental screens of good design are suitable in most rooms where Oriental rugs or articles of similar character are used; some of them, if they are decorated in a restrained manner, can be combined even with modern furnishings. Leather-covered screens are suitable for the Spanish type of house popular in the southwestern part of the United States. For Pilgrim Colonial rooms screens might consist of maple frames enclosing a surface covered with suitable chintz or paper. A screen that serves as a substitute for a coveted globe in one small apartment is covered with maps. A child's screen might be decorated with large illustrations from children's story books. One fine modern screen is decorated with an interesting design of silver papers of many different textures.

It is comfortable to have a screen to shut out glaring light, to interrupt drafts, to place in a doorway open for ventilation, or to promote privacy if two persons occupy one bedroom. In the dining room a screen is often placed in front of the door that opens into the kitchen so as to prevent diners from seeing beyond it. For this purpose a five-piece screen is desirable so that one section can be fastened to the wall in order to steady the screen. In a living room a screen may preserve the balance if there is a wall or corner that needs something high and yet a piece of tall furniture is out of the question. A screen can also form a secluded corner by a writing desk, or it can conceal the uninteresting back of a piece of furniture.

Small Sculpture. There is a place for small sculpture in the average home, not the white plaster casts of Victorian days, but delightful small figures in stone, wood, metal, ivory, pottery, porcelain, or glass. Those who can afford to buy originals should attend exhibitions of sculpture that has been passed by juries, and become acquainted with contemporary work. A person who wishes to be able to judge sculpture should read some of the excellent books on the subject and also the current periodicals. The Art Index and the Industrial Art Index are guides to the material in the periodicals.

Collecting small sculpture is a delightful hobby and one that helps greatly to decorate a home. A collection might well be limited to certain subjects such as animals, athletes, or peasants; or to certain materials such as ivory, wood, or bronze; or to certain styles such as modern, eighteenth-century French, or Oriental. The average householder, however, buys only the small sculpture reproductions found in the shops.

The following considerations are helpful in choosing either original pieces of sculpture or the least expensive reproductions.

1. Sculpture should have a heavy, stone-like quality.

2. Things delicate in texture such as chiffon, ribbons, feathers, flowers, and seafoam are not proper subjects to express in stone and metal, or in any sculpture.

3. Sculpture should be compact in design. There should be no loose ends or protuberances that would break off if it were rolled downhill.

4. Decided movement in sculpture should be avoided. A figure permanently leaping into the air can rouse in an observer no feeling any stronger than weariness.

5. Fine design is necessary in sculpture. Stylistic treatment of subjects is usually much better than naturalistic treatment. Definite geometric and conventionalized forms are very desirable. Early Chinese and early Greek sculpture, primitive sculpture, and modern sculpture are some types that are not naturalistic.

In sculpture as in painting, the small copies of things that are seen too often, such as Rodin's "Thinker," should not be used in a home. Requirements in color, scale, and style seem difficult ones to expect anything so free as sculpture to meet but nevertheless they should be met. Most of the small sculptured pieces available are far too small to be scattered around on tables and desks. The only possible way to use the tiny things is to place them in small hanging cabinets. Since sculpture must be in scale with whatever it is standing on, pieces between five and twelve inches in height are easiest to place, although smaller ones can be used in a group with flower arrangements. It is interesting to have many inexpensive pieces of small sculpture in the storeroom so that different ones can be brought out for brief periods. They can be found in Oriental shops, in decorators' shops, and in department stores.

Wall Plaques.     Bas-reliefs are interesting wall decorations and provide a change from pictures and textiles. Wood, plaster, porcelain, polychrome, and metal plaques are most common. Wall plaques should be large enough to be seen easily from across the room, about eight inches by eleven inches being a desirable size. The Italian Della Robbia reliefs are excellent, but are too well known to be hung in a home. Although the plaster and polychrome reliefs in low-price stores are apt to be gaudily colored and very poorly designed, it is occasionally possible to find some that are old Ivory in color and well designed. Pottery and porcelain plaques are often very pleasing, but are not so popular as they should be. Single odd beautiful tiles are sometimes hung with or without frames, or stood on edge. Some enameled metal plaques from the Orient are particularly brilliant. Carved wood panels are often especially interesting but they are hard to find. Amateurs and students can make satisfactory plaques of clay, plaster, concrete, cardboard, or wood provided they obtain good designs. For information about this work see page 383.

Desk Equipment.   Desk sets are often handsome, but variety is desirable even in desk equipment. Decorative boxes of metal and wood are useful on desks. The brilliantly enameled Oriental boxes are particularly attractive, and are useful to hold smoking things, cards, candy, pencils, or other small objects.

Wastebaskets should be plain, inconspicuous, and about as dark as the carpet. They should be so made that pencil shavings do not spill out. It is out of place to have landscapes, figures, ribbons, or flowers decorating them. Where there is not much waste it might be put in a covered box on the table or in a box in a drawer, because a yawning wastebasket is unsightly. Woven baskets are especially good in helping to express the handwork idea in a home. Interesting baskets are made by many different tribes of American Indians. Anyone can learn to make reed, raffia, or pine-needle baskets at home.

Period Styles in Accessories. If the furnishings of a home are strictly period in style the accessories should be so too. It is more usual to find a mixed-period effect, however, in which case there is even more leeway in the choice of the accessories than in the furniture. Anyone who is interested in a particular period can easily find out about the accessories of that time, because literature on the subject is plentiful, and there are many examples in museums. Foreign accessories used in any historical period should not be overlooked, because they lend interest and variety.

Oriental Accessories.   Oriental accessories are used with many types of furnishings. There is enough variety in them so that something can be found to suit any room. It is generally desirable to use some Oriental objects with Oriental rugs. Some of the more simple things are particularly effective with modified modern furnishings.

The Living Quality in Accessories.  The accessories that bring a living quality to a room are those with life or movement of some sort. Although there is no substitute for the cheerful flicker of a fire, plenty of lighted lamps help to take its place. Candle light has romance and charm all its own. Changing daylight produces fine varied effects, and curtains should be easily adjustable to permit the admission of the magic of sunshine whenever possible.

Mechanical pieces that go, like a clock, phonograph, or radio, add interest to a room. A piano that is used is a desirable feature. Mirrors, reflecting light and movement, are essential in a home.

Flowers or plants bring life to a room. Even the most humble home can have some branches or grasses in summer, and some plants or dried bouquets in winter.

Birds and fish add a living quality wherever they are used. Opinions differ greatly as to their decorative value. They are very interesting for their color and grace, but it is not easy to find pleasing cages or bowls. The artistic manner in which fish are exhibited in aquaria is having a good effect on the way they are shown in homes. One aquarium was set into the wall between the hall and the sunroom so that it showed from both rooms. Not even in placing the aquarium may it be forgotten that things that are used together should express the same idea. Fish and fish bowls are consistent with plants and sunporches, but not with velvet carpets and mahogany furniture. Fish would provide perfect decoration for a bath-dressing room, but possibly they require more light than most bathrooms have.

A Siamese cat of golden color with black nose, toes, and tip of tail, large green eyes, and ever-changing, graceful poses can be far more interesting than any static decorative object. Such a cat and her blond mistress were the inspiration for the decoration of a modern apartment, carpeted throughout in a soft golden color that made a perfect background for them. A small black and white dog can be a decidedly decorative note in any color scheme.

Gifts. Many women permit tasteless objects to spoil the appearance of their homes because the pieces are gifts, sentimental souvenirs, or merely bridge prizes. This is a great mistake; the home should express the taste of the owner, not of her friends. As we learn more about the relation of the individual to her surroundings, it becomes necessary to revise our custom of selecting gifts for our friends. It takes considerable assurance for one person to assume that her taste will satisfy another. There is but one perfect gift, and that is money which enables the recipient to buy something that she would like to have.

The following solution of the shower problem for the bride-to-be is clever enough to mention. The guest of honor received a basket of remarkable paper flowers, with peculiar green leaves, which when unfolded proved to be one dollar bills. This was one present that was not stored in the attic.

Humans are so cursed with acquisitiveness that they fail to discard the objects that do not agree with the feeling expressed in their homes. For this reason home furnishings should not be given as gifts or prizes.


The following plan is worth while for the home maker. Some time when she has a free day before her she might place all her accessories in the kitchen. Then she should take each article in turn and analyze it to see if it is worthy of the position it has had. Nothing should be returned to the other rooms unless it passes the test. Some of the living-room things might be put in the bedrooms, and the bedroom things weeded out. All poor things should be discarded, and the doubtful ones and extras should be put in the storeroom.

The following questionnaire might help in deciding whether an article is earning its place in the home by its beauty or utility.

1. Is the structural line of the object good?

2. Is the decoration upon it well designed or is it merely naturalistic?

3. Does the object express the same idea as the room where it is to be placed?

4. Does it agree in scale with the room and furniture?

5. Is its color suited to the room?

6. Is its texture suited to the room?

7. Is it necessary for pattern or color?

8. Is there a definite spot for it?

9. Is it necessary for someone's comfort?

10. Does it earn the space it occupies?

11. Does it express the personality of the family?

12. Has the owner outgrown it aesthetically?

13. Is it a sentimental souvenir without artistic merit?

14. Should it be retained temporarily?

15. Should it be put in the storeroom and brought out occasionally?

16. Should it be sent to the rummage sale?

17. Should it be put in the ashcan?


Careful thought is necessary in placing as well as selecting accessories. In a living room of average size the mantel shelf should have only three to five objects on it, preferably three. A pair of fine candlesticks is desirable, provided there is no lighting fixture on a near-by wall. In the center of the mantel shelf there might be a low object and possibly a smaller low object at each end of the shelf with the candlesticks between. A picture over the mantel interferes with placing a clock upon it, because they are both so attractive that they compete for attention and detract from each other. The same is true of a vase of flowers underneath a picture. A clock on a mantel shelf might instead have a textile above it.

The largest living-room table might be considered of next importance after the mantel shelf. If there is anyone in the family who likes to use this table for cutting, drawing, writing, playing games, or for any purpose at all, it is better to have a floor lamp close by than to have a lamp on the table. It should be possible to whisk the things off the table quickly. Therefore these few articles are sufficient for even a large table: a table runner, a few books between bookends (not a little set of pretty gift books, but those that are being read), some flowers or a potted plant, and an ornamental box to hold odds and ends. On a large, low coffee table a textile, an overlapping row of the latest periodicals, some smoking things, and a plant or cut flowers are sufficient. These can be removed quickly if the table is needed for serving.

The top of a radio or other cabinet should have only a few well-chosen articles on it; they should help to relate the piece to the picture or the space above it. A table desk should have almost nothing on it. A slant-top desk needs only one object such as a small piece of sculpture. A baby grand piano needs nothing on it, but if the owner thinks the wood effect must be softened, a small flat textile of such character as suits the wood might be used. Draped scarfs and Spanish shawls are confusing because there is already much variety of line in the piano itself. In a living room books in open bookshelves, a plain wastebasket, smoking things, cushions, and plants are almost necessary; but beyond that a policy of exclusion should be maintained toward accessories.

The dining room should not be considered a museum for china, glass, and silver. Tableware should be out of sight except perhaps three pieces on a buffet and possibly a few excellent things showing in a Colonial corner cupboard or in a hanging glazed wall cabinet. The buffet might well have a low bowl of fruit in the center and two tall pieces flanking it. If there is a plate rail it should be removed or at least painted like the wall and then ignored.

In a bedroom personal taste is usually the guide, but there also restraint in accessories should enter, as a cluttered-up bedroom is far from restful. It might be well to try putting away every decorative object which is not needed, in order to make room for things that add comfort. A small vase of flowers is much better on a dressing table than things that are not used.

It is well to have enough accessories in the storeroom so that plenty of variety is possible. After things have been in place in the home for several weeks they are no longer noticed. They should then be replaced by other articles, to keep up the interest of the family in the appearance of the home.

Where to Buy Accessories. The most unusual and artistic articles are likely to be found in small importing shops, such as the Swedish, Austrian, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, and Italian shops to be found in large cities. Sometimes the low-priced shops and department stores have accessories with art quality, but it takes time and good taste to find them.

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