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Modern Period Furniture And Its Use
( Original Published 1917 )
There are a very few families at the present time where rare old furniture has descended from generation to generation in any considerable quantity, and the purchase of genuine antiques is often out of the question. Indeed, the seeker after old furniture must ever be on guard, for the manufacture of so-called antiques has come to be a most clever and flourishing industry. As with the antique oriental rug, antique furniture should be purchased only from a reliable dealer. Unlike the oriental rugs, however, which have never been satisfactorily imitated, the period furniture which is turned out in our factories to-day is in every way as beautiful as the rare old pieces of our forefathers. The designs are good, and true to type, and the wood is strong and beautiful in grain, while the masterful polishing which brings out the exquisite markings is far ahead of the ancient finish.
In the reproductions of old furniture, it is noticeable that the manufacture of the most beautiful and suitable styles is becoming greater year by year, while the types of lesser merit are gradually disappearing. The elaborate and heavily carved furniture of the early Italian and French days is not now often reproduced, and of the later periods, the most simple designs are retained. Each one of the old masters made many designs, a few of which were good, and many of which were poor. The finest furniture was usually built on 'plain, strong lines, and it is from these pieces that the manufacturer of today selects his models.
Furniture of different periods is adapted to various types of homes. The greatest sense of unity can often be obtained in a home by planning garden, house, and furnishings to conform to one certain period. The absurdity of a Japanese garden and a house built on the lines of a Swiss chalet and filled with colonial furniture is apparent at once, and yet mistakes equally great are often made. The landscape gardener of today is fortunately furthering a sentiment for unity between house and grounds, and the interior decorator carries that idea one step farther to the inside of the house as well.
Each type of furniture of the chosen period contains enough styles to furnish all of the different rooms of a home. There are heavy and more formal pieces which are suitable for the hall, dignified chairs and tables for the din ing room, and lighter furniture for the living rooms and bedrooms. There is the greatest economy in the purchase of furniture of one period for the entire house, because the pieces are interchangeable between the various rooms. Articles from the bedrooms may be used in the living room when desired, and the chairs belonging to the dining room suite, when not in daily use, may serve the purpose of straight chairs in living room and hall. The sense of unity given by similar furnishing also adds greatly to the apparent size of the house, as the observer passes from room to room. Some of the manufacturers of this country are making a specialty of designing period furniture for the entire house. The complete list of furniture may be purchased from the one firm with a minimum of expense and worry, and additional pieces may easily be obtained whenever desired. The same firms will also make special adaptations in design, woods, and stains to suit the needs of the particular house which is to be furnished.
To some people, however, the entire house furnished in one period seems rather monotonous, and more variety is desired. In this case different rooms may be furnished in the various periods. In large living rooms Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and Adam furniture may sometimes be used together, and chairs and tables of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI will often blend well, but any further mixture of furniture will usually produce results disastrous to unity and harmony. It is only styles which are so closely related that there are many points in common in their structure and decoration, which may be successfully placed in the same room.
In general it is best to use only one style in each room, and certain styles have been found to be especially well adapted to particular rooms.
The hall is the most formal room in the house, and, in even the very unpretentious home, should have a dignity which is given to no other place. It is the entrance to the house, and so should bespeak the character of the inner rooms to a certain extent, but should preserve an atmosphere of stateliness, suited to a room which is not intended for rest or recreation. Very little furniture is desirable in the hall, but that which is placed there should be suited to the character of the place so that it seems really a part of the architectural plan. Some of the early Italian and Spanish chairs, tables, and chests are admirably adapted for formal use in the modern hall, and the Tudor and Jacobean English furniture with the Flemish chairs of the same period are also suitable. Of the eighteenth-century furniture, the early types of Chippendale and Queen Anne have a certain air of stateliness, and the heavier pieces of colonial furniture are also built along lines of dignity. The hall is really a passageway used to form a connection between the various rooms of the house, and this should be remembered in selecting its furniture. It should be so furnished that it extends an impersonal hospitality to the person who enters, but gives only a hint of the spirit which is manifested in the privacy of the rooms beyond.
Next to the hall the dining room should be the most formal room in the house. It should be bright and cheerful and in harmony with the adjoining rooms, but should also have a certain dignity of its own in selection and arrangement of furniture. As there should be almost no attempt at decoration in this room, the table, chairs, and other necessary furniture stand out in strong relief and so perhaps should be the most carefully chosen of any furniture in the house. Flemish and Jacobean furniture are popular for dining room use because the dull oak used in these types is easily cared for. In mahogany the colonial furniture is most often used, but it is not as distinctive as the Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. Hepplewhite and Sheraton, being rather light in construction, should be used only in comparatively small rooms so they may not appear trivial in the formal arrangement. The furniture of the time of Louis XIV may also be used in dining rooms. Although it is rather elaborate, it is also heavy enough for this use, but especial care should be taken with the selection of rugs, wall decorations, and window hangings so that there shall be entire harmony.
There can be no pleasing harmony in a room unless the laws of balance are observed in the arrangement of the furniture and wall decorations. A room is only in balance when its furnishings are so arranged that there is an equalization between attractions. Balance may be divided into two general types - bisymmetric and occult. Bisymmetric balance is gained by a mechanical arrangement of like parts in like manner about a center. Occult balance is gained by aesthetic sense of proportion. The dining room is the one place in the house where bisymmetric balance is most important and where it may be used without danger of too great formality and stiffness. No matter how small the dining room may be, it always has greater charm when the furniture is arranged with dignity. To secure perfect bisymmetric form, the table should be placed in the exact center of the room and an imaginary line should then be drawn cutting the room into two equal parts. The chairs, serving tables, and buffets should then be arranged in like position on either side of the room, so that one piece of furniture balances another. This rule cannot be followed absolutely, of course, but adaptations may be made to conform to the architectural details. Where there are attractively curtained windows on one side of the room they may be balanced by an interesting buffet or a wall decoration placed opposite. Several chairs may be grouped formally to balance a large piece of furniture. In all adaptations and applications of this principle, however, it will be found that the simplest arrangements are the best. There is a greater sense of repose, of rest, in the dining room where there is to be found only the absolutely necessary pieces of furniture, formally arranged.
The living room, on the other hand, is that room in the house where a fine sense of occult balance is needed to create an atmosphere of rest and charm, reflecting the individual tastes and interests of the various occupants of the room, but preserving at the same time a unity of meaning. The living room, of all rooms in the house, should never seem formal, and yet, if the laws of balance are not observed, the greatest confusion in the selection and arrangement of the furniture is bound to result.
Colonial or sixteenth century English furniture is usually the most suitable for the living room. The modern colonial furniture of today is usually a quite faithful copy of the furniture made by our Puritan fathers. It was an adaptation and an outgrowth of the furniture made by Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton which was brought over to this country by the colonists. The Adam and Queen Anne styles were also adapted to the new use in the same way that the others were-by eliminating all unnecessary ornament and strengthening the lines and proportions so that they should fit into the plain and primitive life of the new world. For this reason colonial and sixteenth century furniture may easily be used in the same room. Their close relation in origin makes them fit in well together.
French furniture is not so suitable for living room use. It is too ornate, too elaborate in the early styles, and too delicate in the later productions, for the everyday life of a household. It is better used in formal reception rooms. French furniture is usually much more expensive than English and colonial furniture, for only the most expert craftsman can reproduce French motives and styles with a truly aesthetic accuracy. This again is another reason against using it in the living room. Good colonial furniture is comparatively inexpensive because of the greater ease with which it may be practically evolved.
Some reproductions of early Italian furniture are also very fine in the modern living room. There is a certain strength of line and solidity of structure found in the productions of the Italian Renaissance which partakes of the spirit of the present times, and gives promise of a more general use in our house furnishings in the future.
In arranging the furniture of the living room in order to obtain the result of occult balance, there should be, as in a room arranged in bisymmetric balance, an axis which centers the interest and about which the rest of the furniture is grouped. In a dining room, the axis of interest is always the table, which should be invariably placed in the center of the room. In the living room the axis of interest is very seldom placed in the center, but is at one side or at one end of the room. A well-proportioned fireplace is perhaps the most usual and most successful main point of interest for the living room. A large table with a reading lamp and an easy chair may serve equally well, or a piano in daily use may prove the dominant note to give occult balance to the point of interest in a room. All other furnishings should be subordinate to that interest, but should be so placed as to balance in seeming weight. If a grand piano is placed at one end of a room, there should be several groups of lesser interest at the other end of the room so that the weight of the piano will seem balanced. In a room which is poorly arranged in this way there is a feeling of tipping given, which is very unpleasant. A large tapestry or rug hung upon the wall opposite a heavy fireplace will often preserve a sense of balance, or even a single bowl of flowers properly placed in the room may give the secondary interest needed.
Comfort should be of the greatest importance in furnishing the living room. The chairs should be inviting and restful and should be so placed as to be equally desirable for reading in the daylight or evening hours. Wherever possible, table lights should always be used, as the glow of a reading lamp is second only in creating the homelike atmosphere to the hearth fire itself. Only big restful pictures which every member of the family enjoys should be placed upon the walls, and the draperies, rugs, and furniture should reflect the character of the people who use them. The best of its kind should be there, but nothing too good for daily use should ever be placed in a living room, for it should be the most used room in the whole house, with the possible exception of the library, if the house be the home of people much given to reading or study.
The library should have the same spirit of repose as the living room, but at the same time should be furnished in a manner to give greater dignity and solidity.
The interest in the room should center entirely about the books, for which the room exists. Unless there are many books it is ridiculous to name the room in which they are placed a library. If there is only one small case of volumes, it might better find its home in the living room. So, too, a library the walls of which are lined with many books behind locked doors is wrongly named. It is an affectation hardly better than the rooms of certain people of past times who filled their shelves with beautifully bound dummies. Indeed it is questionable if the glass-inclosed bookcases, even though the key be permanently lost, can ever equal the open bookcase in the spirit of ready companionship. The literary friends seem slightly removed and the slight effort of opening a door to reach them seems to place them apart to a certain extent. The glass-inclosed bookcase is, of course, much more sanitary, and the life of precious volumes is lengthened by the absence of the daily grind of dust, so there is a conflict between the practical and the aesvhetic in the minds of the householder who would have the best kind of a library in his home.
Bookcases which are built into the walls as a part of the house are of course always best. They should be of the same finish as the woodwork and take their part as a feature of the architectural construction. In many homes, however, a room is taken for library use which had been originally intended for some other purpose. It is then that bookcases as pieces of furniture must be used. There are many cases on the market both with and without doors which are built on lines of antique and modern de signs. Perhaps the most satisfactory shelves, however, are given by the sectional bookcases, of which there is now a great variety. They are manufactured after designs conforming to every style of period furniture and in all possible woods and finishes. Although the sections fitted together take up slightly more room than the single bookcases, there is the advantage that additional sections may be added from time to time as books accumulate. The architectural structure of the room may also be followed easily and sections may successfully be fitted underneath windows and in odd places where large cases could not be placed. Where cases of either kind are used in the library, they should, as pieces of furniture, be matched by the rest of the furniture in the room in wood, finish, and style.
Only the most dignified styles of furniture should be used in the library; furniture having rather strong and heavy lines. Sheraton and Hepplewhite pieces, for example, are too dainty, as is also furniture of the Louis XVI period.
The designs of the time of Louis XV are also unsuitable because of ornate decorations, but some of the heavier furniture of Louis XIV has been successfully used for this purpose. Chippendale, Queen Anne, William and Mary, Jacobean, and some of the Adam styles are all very well adapted for library use, and designs following the spirit of the early Italian and Spanish models are admirable. Colonial furniture is always correct, as indeed it is for almost any room in the house, because of its many variations in shape and style.
There should be great simplicity in the furnishing of the library. In the center of the room there should be a substantial table covered with a flat mat which does not slip, or, better still, with no covering at all. On the table there should be a good reading lamp, and to it there should be drawn up comfortable chairs placed so that the light will be good for reading in either daylight or evening hours. Beyond the addition of a foot rest or two and possibly one small side table and several straight chairs there should be no other furniture in the room. On the walls there may be one or two fine large engravings - the portrait of some noted thinker, or the replica of some great architectural triumph. Above the fireplace there might be the bust of one of the early philosophers, or something else which would reflect the interests of the persons who find their inspiration in the books which the room shelters. There should be no "pretty things," no bric-a-brac, to destroy the dignity of the room and to take away from its essential feeling of repose and seclusion.
The bedrooms of the home should also have a feeling of repose and seclusion, but here there need not be such an atmosphere of dignity. Gay-colored chintzes may be hung at the windows, the most frivolous of French furniture is often not too dainty or too ornate, and the individual tastes of the occupant of the room should be reflected in every detail of the furnishing until the room seems a personal part of its owner. To many older men and women of rather puritanical ideas, the colonial furniture of our forefathers seems most appropriate, the simple lines of the Queen Anne and the sturdy style of Chippendale may reflect the character of some other individuals, while the dainty carving of Hepplewhite or the dresden loveliness of Louis XVI seems often the very embodiment of the spirit of the daughter of the household. As a usual thing, each bedroom, being a distinct unit in itself, should contain onlyone type of furniture, that type selected with reference to the user.
When there are several guest rooms, they may each be furnished in different styles, styles to suit various types of personalities, but where the home is so small as to boast only one guest room, this room should be furnished in one safe style, such as -colonial or English, which would be fairly appropriate to any guest. The dainty white guest chamber with furniture of very slender lines may be lovely for the girl guest, but the man who is forced to spend a night in a room furnished in that fashion must feel sadly out of place.
The furnishings of the whole house should first reflect and conform to the spirit of the members of the household, but should then be planned with a certain amount of consideration for the guests and friends of the family. The home of the members of a family is the outward expression of their personality, a manifestation of their good will, cooperation with, and courtesy toward, each other as close relatives and toward those of the outside world who enter at times into the home circle.