Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

When, Where, And How To Decorate

( Originally Published 1920 )

The very term "interior decoration" is misleading, and is the cause of much of the bad interpretation of the decorative idea for which it stands. Love of beauty and the desire to create it is a primal instinct in man. The personal pride and pleasure one takes in his own house is too generally acknowledged to need comment. If, however, one desires to possess a so-called artistic house, the making of such a house involves an understanding of certain principles.

In the first place there are two quite distinct classes with whom one must deal: first that of the art connoisseur, or artist collector of antique objects. While every man of this type is individual, there are principles of choice and arrangement by which he must be governed, be his taste ever so fine. His room is a personal expression of his taste in the combining of things with different meanings, but it is quite impossible for the rank and file of those who live in ordinary homes to appreciate such an expression.

Because of this first class the general public has not grasped the difference between a museum or department-store collection of objects, such as furniture, hangings, carpets, etc., and a room in which to live. Only an artist can be trusted to attempt such house furnishing. By an artist I do not mean a man who paints pictures merely. I mean a man who possesses the art quality in such a degree that he may be able, not only to group art objects in any field, but also that he may have a sensitive appreciation of them in whatever combination they may appear.

The second class includes ninety-five per cent. of all people who use a house, and it is to them in particular that this book is given.

We find among these a lack of the remotest conception of what decoration really is, for there are many ways in which this term may be, and is, misapplied. One person believes that ornament, pattern, or art objects placed anywhere, in any relation one to the other, must be deco rative. Nothing is further from the truth. Be a thing ever so good, it may easily lose its charm through association with the wrong things. Another person believes that the more he buys and crowds his room with either new or expensive objects, the more decorative or decorated it becomes. This, too, is a fallacy. Not only is it not decorative to use too much or too many decorative things, but it prevents any one of the objects from having a decorative effect. Neither these things nor their cost, neither show, vogue, period, nor sentimental foolishness, are in the least concerned with an expression of the decorative idea.

Decoration implies, first of all, something to decorate. By this we mean some definite form or arrangement to which decoration is to be applied, and a reason for applying it. It is not because I have a room that I rush to pile something onto or into it. It is because I need some things in certain places in this room. This necessitates additions of a certain kind to make the room fulfill its function, and to make it a beautiful unit when it is finished. The room is, first of all, to fulfill its function. This matter of function is fundamental

in any applied art. The room, and most objects in the room, exist for use first. The quality of beauty is desirable and essential in fulfilling the highest ideal; but however beautiful the objects are, if the functional idea is not adequately and fully carried out, the art from the standpoint of house furnishing is but one-half expressed.

Take, for example, a dining-room. The first question to be asked is: what is the dining-room for-that is, for what idea does a dining-room stand? The only sensible answer is: this room exists to eat in, and to eat in in peace. Any object found therein which detracts for any reason from this idea is not only a non-essential, but a preventive of the realization of its ideal. When I enter a dining-room I expect to see a table of such size, proportion, scale, and arrangement as will not only attract my aesthetic sense, but will also bid me sit and eat in comfort. The same quality should be felt in whatever is on the table; also in the chairs, the sideboard, and other accessories essential to this room. If, however, on entering the room I find as the most prominent thing the embalmed head of an antique deer or a collection of stuffed birds, or other objects properly belonging to the Museum of Natural History, there is nothing present in these to bid me eat or permit me to do so in peace. A still more common and glaring failure to realize this functional idea is seen in the inordinate display of silverware, cut glass, painted dishes, and other indiscriminate acquisitions of family life displayed upon sideboard, serving table, and plate rack, or even hung upon the walls as decorative objects. Not only is it in bad taste to display one's private collections to public gaze, but it suggests in this case that articles designed for use, and requiring cleanliness as their essential quality, will need some personal attention before they can be placed upon the table, or used elsewhere. They are neither decorative nor related to the scheme of furnishing a dining-room.

If the problem is a bedroom, I ask myself what is the bedroom for, and the answer comes: the bedroom is a place in which to rest and sleep. If this is what the room is for, anything in its furnishing and decoration that interferes materially with these two functions should be avoided. The bed, dressing-table, chair, toilet articles, etc., in this sequence, seem to be the essentials for such a room. Spotted wall papers, floral carpets, scattered photographs, and the like, create a series of stripes and spots that are not only ugly in their arrangement, but unrestful, undignified, and perplexing in their effect.

In the same way, the living-room is meant to live in. We associate with this room objects which one needs to have about him for comfort, use, companionship, and personal enjoyment.

The drawing-room offers rather a problem of general use. It is the room in which not only friends but acquaintances and other guests make brief stays for purposes of formal social intercourse. Such things as stimulate conversation, arouse wit, and express one's general good taste belong in this room.

It will be clearly seen that the problems of the dining room, hotel corridor, the general reception room, etc., are individual ones. The dominating idea of function separates one from the other, and renders each case a problem for special consideration before taking up the question of decorative arrangement.

In eliminating from rooms already furnished a sufficient number of articles to make a beginning possible, it is necessary to discuss one universal quality. Every one normally made has what he calls a sentiment for certain things. This sentiment is primarily, of course, supposed to apply to persons or their characteristics, but unfortunately it has been allowed to extend to all sorts of material objects, wedding gifts, family heirlooms, Christmas presents, bargain-sale effects, and other_ things with which nearly every home is filled.

The first error to combat in this field is the one through which the object bequeathed by a relative is confused with the relative himself. Because one's uncle possessed a crayon portrait of himself, or a mahogany table ugly in line, bad in proportion, and disagreeable in colour, is no reason why these inartistic objects should be perpetuated in each generation until the family line is extinct. This same uncle-be he ever so perfect in moral, spiritual, and even aesthetic qualities-could not and would not wish to transfer the qualities of these objects to the consciousness of his descendants simply because, for some unknown reason, he used them while he was alive. The mahogany table and its qualities are quite apart from the qualities of the individual, and a person who connects these two or makes them one is not a man of sentiment, but one of sentimentality-which is quite another matter. The same thing is true where gifts and other ugly acquired objects are indiscriminately cherished. The only possible excuse for keeping such things about is the lack of money to buy new ones and, even in that case, better nothing at all than bad things where good ones ought to be.

Probably the most difficult thing for any person who truly desires an artistic home, is to acquire the courage to put forever out of sight those things which absolutely prevent the realization of his ideal.

The attributes of beauty are perhaps difficult to understand at first, but in subsequent chapters we shall see that the merest novice can be helped to produce this quality if he can grasp the element of function and eliminate sentimentality from his consciousness at the outset.

To return now to the question of decoration itself, some very elementary yet vital statements may be made here. Since every applied art object involves two ele, ments-use and beauty-it is essential that we see these in their relation to each other and in their relation to the decorative idea.

As has been stated before, with a useful thing, use is paramount. One of the old masters of the Renaissance said: "Decoration must never be applied where use is sacrificed in its application." To appreciate this is probably the first step in grasping the meaning of the decorative idea. How often do we see fruits and flowers painted in the centre of a plate upon which we must eat anything ranging from soup to dessert. If these do not appear, fish do, and this complicates the situation considerably. The sofa pillow-that muchabused decorative article is not decorative to most people if it is a solid colour or the colour of their divan. They must display prominently in its centre objects human, animal, vegetable, and sometimes mineral. The carpet and rug, with roses and lilies natural enough to demand respect, are trodden on without the slightest feeling as to the fitness of things in materials. Flowers appear upon our walls, and into them we drive nails, on them we hang pictures, and as they glaringly intrude themselves we are forever prevented from using hangings or other fittings decoratively upon them.

This question of applying decoration, it will be seen, is not only concerned with the objects mentioned, but with furniture and other art objects when they are intended for use, and the decorative idea interferes in the least with that use. The same authority has given us help by a statement like this: "Decoration exists to emphasize and make structure stronger, and also to add beauty to the object decorated." The first consideration here, it will be seen, is not the decoration, but the structure of the object to be decorated. Take for example the door and its trim. The casing is bordered on each of its edges by mouldings more or less distinct. They are greater or fewer in number, according to the scale of the door, but always extend in the same direction as the structure of the door; that is, each parallel to the other, with their angles always right angles. These mouldings, following exactly the structure of the opening, as well as the door itself, not only call attention by their lines to the opening, but serve to strengthen or make more emphatic the outline of this opening. At the same time they perform the second function of breaking up the surface of the woodwork casing. This breaking up relieves the monotony of the flat surface, making the casing more interesting and, consequently, more beautiful in most instances than a perfectly flat surface could be made to appear. .

The chimney piece with its mantel shelf frequently has classic mouldings or simple lines bordering and bounding it. In this case the moulding becomes a decorative idea because it has followed and strengthened the structural appearance, and has, through a modest display of variation in surface and arrangement, expressed beauty or the decorative idea. One may readily see how this can be applied to a rug. A plain border, two or three bands, a few simple lines following the edge of the rug conforms to this law and also to the first principle stated, since there is no reason why one should not step upon an abstract decorative line.

At this point further illustration is unnecessary, but one should test not only these articles each in itself, but their arrangement as decorative effects in the room.

A helpful suggestion may be given here. An English writer has said that the confusion between decoration and ornamentation has led to many abuses of historic ornament. This is just as true of any other ornament seen in its true relation to the subject under treatment. "Decoration," he says, "exists to strengthen structure and make more beautiful the object on which it appears. Ornamentation, on the other hand, exists to exploit itself at the expense of the thing upon which it is applied." This is food for thought. If the ornament becomes the end instead of the means, or in other words, if it becomes apparent as an addition, with the purpose of showing itself, it loses the decorative quality and savours of ostentation and, of course, proportionately, of vulgarity. It is well to remember this-that in any decorative question, decoration does not exist for itself, but for the thing upon which, or with which, it is used.

Another point must be discussed in order that we may begin at once to see material in its relation to decoration. Pattern or ornament must be adapted to the material in which it is rendered. For example, perfectly natural flowers cannot be expressed in woollen carpets nor in printed wall papers at so much a roll. Neither can vegetables, birds, and flowers be painted on china, glazed and baked, and still be real. Nor is this desirable. It is misapplied effort to attempt to copy nature exactly, and to reproduce all its qualities in anything excepting its own material.

Modern art thought has been almost exclusively influenced by the decadent Renaissance of France. Naturalism is not art, it is imitation, and when these two are confused, successful decoration is well-nigh impossible. In order that decorative motives may perform their function, they must be so conventionalized that they seem to be adequately and rightly expressed in the material with which or in which they are used. Only the greatest artists of any time are fit to handle naturalism in a decorative way, and then the conventionalization or modification of them to suit the material is a criterion of their decorative excellence.

Pictures, ornaments, and other objects, each perhaps decorative, may be so arranged on a wall, a table, or a mantel, as to destroy, for example, the rest quality of a room. Its dignity, too, or formality, may be absolutely lost in the arrangement of the furniture or in the placing of objects of ornament about the room. When this is done the decorative object, still decorative in itself, not only fails to perform its decorative function, but it destroys the fundamental idea, the use for which it is in tended. This is illustrated in the hanging of portieres at doors so that passage is well-nigh impossible, or placing window hangings in such a way that no light can come in or that persons outside are always able to look in. It will later be seen that there is a way to hang windows and doors decoratively, and still not interfere with their function. This way is, of course, the right way, from the standpoint of function, as well as of art and common sense.

It will be seen then that the problem of decorating a room takes into account its function and the function of each object used in its furnishing. It also includes such a choice and arrangement of these objects as will result in a decorative unit adequately expressed. It is really a question of seeing structure clearly in relation to its need for decorative treatment, and then seeing backgrounds in their relation to the decorative objects used. In our discussion of colour this matter of backgrounds will be considered.

There is one term the real meaning of which, in its relation to interior decoration, has become obsolete through long misuse. To attempt to go into the principles of colour, form, and composition without understanding this term would be futile. I refer to the term "art." This word more than any other has been played with, misapplied, and used for purposes of sentimental exploitation until it seems to have lost its significance. Perhaps even in a practical discussion of interior decoration it may not be amiss to consider this term in its relation to life.

I have said that man intuitively desires to create and. to possess beauty. This desire is equivalent in man's higher self to the appetite for food or drink or rest in the realm of physical existence. It is just as general, just; as clearly defined, and just as important to man's realization of himself. This is shown by an investigation of the savage, the barbarian, or the so-called civilized communities in their building of shelter and in its decorative treatment, their making of implements and utensils more or less ornamented, their use and misuse of paint, metals, and textiles in matters of attire and in all ways by which man expresses naturally his life activities.

Art is then, first of all, a state of mind, a condition of. consciousness growing out of a desire for beauty; or one might define it as an appetite for aesthetic things. The atrocities committed in any of the fields I mentioned are but sincere attempts to create the natural stimulus which the aesthetic sense of man demands. The reasons for these inartistic things are ignorance and over-zealous desire for beauty-not a wish to badly express the idea. Sir--e art is a state of mind or of consciousness, it may be described as harmony between the idea and its expression and between all parts of the elements through which idea is expressed.

The first division of this art quality is that of fitness or function, which we have discussed. This requires an element of intellectual ability on the part of the art producer. The aesthetic, or second part, refers to the knowledge and feeling regarding the relationship of forms, lines and colours that will by their combination excite an aesthetic emotion when presented to the sense of sight.

The response to the aesthetic or art quality is simply a question of becoming keen to what relations of colour, form, and line have in the best art expression succeeded in exciting the strongest aesthetic emotion. This response reveals what basic principles underlie the formation of these combinations, and, finally, determines the application of these principles to simple problems of choice and arrangement of the necessary things for any room under discussion.

Nothing is more helpful in sensing the art quality and securing a natural expression of it than to eliminate from one's mind some of the things that art is not.

First, it is not prettiness. Art is beauty, and beauty is "from within out," not "from without in."Its quality is eternal. Beauty of mind, if it exist, may express itself unconsciously in whatever one does. Some people with very homely and ordinary features are, when thinking and acting rightly, truly beautiful. Prettiness, on the other hand, is from without. It is ephemeral, and pleases the eye only. It takes no intellect and no aesthetic sense to appreciate prettiness.

Second, the inordinate and blind worship of the antique is not art. If a man at seventy has retained any charm, it is in spite of his age, not because of it. Time softens and accentuates good things because their qualities are permanent. It sometimes aggravates and makes unbearable ugly things for the same reason. If this difference can be seen in persons, it certainly can be perceived in things. Let the worship of pasted labels, telling how old an article is, cease to exist, and one obstacle to understanding art will be removed. Another and more deadly mistake is the idolizing of a particular man's work. "Is it a real Rembrandt?" "Is this truly of the fifteenth century?" "Was it done by Bramante?" "Are you certain this is an authentic Queen Anne piece?" No one has ever done well all the time. Much of the work of the very greatest artists has been unworthy of them. Some work of much lesser lights has been of an excellent character. Let us see the quality of art in the object, and not the man's name or the conditions under which he made it, and there is a chance that we shall know art when it appears in the work of others or in our own.

It is more difficult still to disassociate art from the idea of picture painting. In the past drawing and painting have been art education. If a man studied art, expressed art, or loved art it must be through pictures only, and they were expected to belong to the school of realism and naturalism, in which not a thing was left to the imagination of the observer except, perhaps, how long it took to paint them and how much it cost to buy them. To disassociate the art quality from pictures, drawings, statuary, or any one particular medium of expression, is essential to the realization of its quality in any field.

Any discussion, however simple, of these terms seems to establish the following facts: that art is an essential quality in human life and that it is the expression of a knowledge and feeling for functional fitness and for beauty in every made thing. It should further appear that decoration is the natural expression of this art quality in objects of use and beauty, with a realization of their relation to each other, and the possibilities and limitations attendant upon the problem of furnishing a house. It should seem clear also that the structural line or build of the object is the guiding idea in the application of whatever is to be used decoratively upon the room as a background. The decorative material must not only be in harmony with the idea for which each piece stands, but it must be used harmoniously in making up the room and so expressing a complete decorative thought.

Bookmark and Share