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The Modern House
( Originally Published 1920 )
The problem of the modern house involves something more than merely providing a pretty, healthful, physically comfortable place to satisfy man's demand for shelter and rest. It is the criterion of a man's taste, the visible response to his instinctive call for beauty. It furnishes the environment in which are born and nurtured the early impressions of those who are to set the taste standards in the generations that follow.
This consideration dignifies interior decoration by placing it among the serious professions. No longer a mere matter of collecting and housing like a department store or a museum, or of providing a place in which to sleep and eat, it is destined to become, as man realizes more fully the power of environment, one of the strongest and most scientific of the educational factors in our generation. The time will come when its power in the evolution of race consciousness will be appreciated at its true worth.
Though realizing fully the importance of sanitation and the difficulties arising from financial limitation, it is not our purpose to deal with these questions. It is rather our desire to emphasize here only the func tional and artistic phases of this great problem. More books have been written and more has been said on the subjects of hygiene and economics than any of us can apply, but the principles that govern the choice and arrangement of materials, colours, forms and lines as they relate to common usage or as they appeal to the artistic sense, have been practically overlooked.
To stimulate the reader to think before buying, to have a sensible reason for his purchase, to know the power of colour and form, and to see how men of other nations in the past have expressed their personal and racial ideas, is our aim.
The aesthetic sense is instinctive and expresses in man his desire or appetite for beauty. What a man selects in response to this demand of his nature and how he arranges what he has selected, determines his taste. A man's taste improves as the aesthetic sense becomes refined or sensitized to the point of responding to the more subtle combinations of forms and colours. This matter of taste is not a fixed quality. One may have the gift or natural tendency to refined choice, but no man has by divine right a monopoly of good taste. Our standards are constantly changing during life as affected by study and by environment.
Every time a colour is seen, a sound heard, or an odour perceived, a new sensation is recorded in consciousness, or one previously recorded is made more permanent by repetition. This is true of all sensations received through the senses. These numberless sensation records accumulated since birth represent the part environment has played in the evolution of our consciousness. In other words, it is what one really is, for out of consciousness comes one's acts, and his thoughts and acts affect his personality and his use of all material objects. Seeing this psychological truth clearly is the foundation for recognizing the importance of the interior of the house. This, briefly, then, is the status of environment as a factor in character building and as a power in the evolution of a national civiliza tion. It is even more lasting in its results than hygiene for the body or money for selfish purposes. It is this that determines the standpoint of taste and may become the stepping-stone to a higher plane of living both for the individual and the nation.
What, then, can be more important than the house, especially its interior? Is it not here that the child first sees colours, hears sounds, touches textures? Is this not the place where first impressions are received? These impressions should be of the quality one would have the young mind make permanent as standards for future judgment. They will represent what the owner of the house regards as good taste in the gratification of his desires. As the aesthetic sense quickens, the taste for greater subtlety grows, and a changed environment is the result:
The artistic home should not be regarded as a luxury. Its possession should be regarded as a duty to the cause of civilization as well as a response to the normal desires inspired by the aesthetic sense. It is essential to the general taste standard of the future and to the full appreciation and enjoyment of beauty.
The obstacles that stand in the way of a realization of this ideal environment are numerous. There are so many questions arising in each individual problem, so many apparently insurmountable difficulties, and, worst of all, there are so many people who are willing to give up anything that does not come with perfect ease. It may be well to look into some of these complications.
In any discussion of a personal problem, outside of a limited number of wealthy people, the first difficulty raised is: " I cannot afford to buy good things. If I had the money I should certainly do so." Then: "I have bad things and why should I be so particular when I must put the new with the acknowledged bad which I already have?"
To the first of these objections it may be answered that all expensive things are not good; nor are all cheap ones bad. Of course we must allow that there is a greater field for beautiful things where unlimited means are at the command of the designer, but we must also remember that unless the designer thoroughly understands what is good and what is not, the field for his caprice and ignorance is increased in proportion to the amount of money he has to spend. Often the money limit is the saving thing in the selection of articles as to their kind or their number. The question of selection is one of colour, form, line and texture and of the principles that produce harmony. It is not a question of the kind of wood, how much it cost, and how much it is carved, nor is it a question of how brilliant the bronze is, nor how gorgeous the velvet. When one looks at any object from the standpoint of the principles of harmony, which should control its structure and its decoration, he has the answer to the objection "I have no money," for money is not the standard of judgment.
As to the second objection given, it may be said that it is never too late to begin to do right. The first ray of light as to what is good in furniture or fittings should be followed. Have definitely in mind what your ideal of the room would be if you could have everything new and have it at once. A mental picture of a result is essential before the first step in the solution of a problem in interior decoration can be successfully taken. Buy each article with the finished whole in mind, and as fast as a bad thing can be eliminated procure another in its place that harmonizes with this mental picture. The house will turn out better than one expects, and the best of it all is that the individual grows with it.
If the available money is limited start with the background of the room. If $25, $50, or $100 be used, let that be expended to make the woodwork, the walls, the ceiling and the floor a suitable background. The quality of rest will find its way into the room and right relationships of colour be easy to establish the moment the backgrounds are satisfactory.
If more changes can be made let them be in the hangings and rugs for, next to the background, these are the most important things in any room.
Having disposed of background, rugs and hangings, furniture and decorative material can be dealt with very easily, very simply and quite gradually with a continued feeling of satisfaction that the room is growing better every day. The mistake made by most people, including many decorators, is in trying to make things appear moderately satisfactory against impossible backgrounds.
Do not buy sideboards until the wall paper and floor are suitable. Never mind what your furniture is until you have something to put it against. Do not be distressed about vases, fancy clocks and other unnecessary and distracting objects until your furniture is right and the more important decorative ideas are well looked after. In other words, build from the bot tom up. The background is the foundation upon which all things must rest.
Another objection has been made, something like this: "There are the old inherited pieces of furniture" (usually mahogany) "which have belonged to the family for generations. These, of course, are not good, but how can I part with them since they are family heirlooms?" If one is not handicapped by these things he usually is by wedding presents, holiday gifts or senseless purchases made without thought or because they were believed at the time to be bargains.
Heirlooms, gifts and foolish purchases are either a matter of sentimentality or of supposed economy. Aunt Jane may have been a good woman. She may, however, have had some misconceptions as what constitutes the most artistic combination of colour, line and form in a chair or table. In this state of Aunt Jane's consciousness she probably bought the table which you now have. Now that she is probably in a state of consciousness in which she realizes how bad the table is, neither you nor I can be expected to accept this table as our idea of what a table should be. The fact that one disposes of Aunt Jane's table in the wood pile or the attic in no way interferes with one's respect and love for Aunt Jane.
Until it is possible to disassociate tables, chairs and other objects from human beings, and particularly from human beings in other states of existence, it will not be possible to deal successfully with family heirlooms in modern houses. Let us judge the table, the chair, the chest or the bed, on its merits as an abstract idea, disassociated from whoever had it, and be big enough and broad enough to take a stand against anything that is not good and right, be its associations ever so closely connected with family or friends. This is the only possible way in which one can be in a frame of mind to consider the disposition of such articles as he knows to be unfit for further use. It may be well to remember that there is a difference between that noble and highly spiritual quality called sentiment and the weak, sickly counterfeit of it which we call sentimentality.
What to do with these things, provided one is willing to part with them, is willing to risk family criticism, the friendly questions that arise when the occasional visitor finds his gift missing from the top of the piano, is a serious question. The habit of giving furniture that is unfit for use to the poor is deadly, if one considers at all the establishment of a taste standard. Why should the poor have things in worse taste than anybody who is not poor? A man has a right to good things, and the practice of giving half-worn bad things in clothing and in furnishings to somebody who is supposed to be grateful for anything on earth is perhaps responsible more than any other one thing for the present way of regarding the interior of the house.
Better for a man to have a pine table, chair, bench and bed, decently stained, with respectable lines and well placed in his room, than a Queen Anne table, a marble-top black walnut dresser, a Morris chair and a Mission bed, any one of which may or may not be an atrocity beyond words. There is always the wood pile, the unspeakable attic, and as a last resort, if the house is large enough, a special room set apart for idols.
Again we constantly meet the objection, particularly in rented houses, that the landlords refuse to do anything. If there is no landlord to refuse and the man owns his house, then it is, that he cannot afford it or does not like to destroy or mar anything that has been so for a length of time.
Let us first deal with the landlord. In many houses or apartments built twenty-five years or even fifty years ago are found grills over doors, plate rails anywhere, abnormal growths on and around the chimney piece and set mirrors. There are also atrocious stair balustrades, garish tiles around the chimney piece, wedding-cake decorations about the ceiling and impossible varnished or grained wood surfaces in the trim. These things have made such places not only uninhabitable but dungeons of misery to all persons of feeling or intelligence.
It is sometimes hard to get the landlord to tear these things out. There can be no background until every one of these things has been changed. The grills, the abnormal growths, the wedding-cake decorations and the balustrades must come out, while the trim must be redone. Almost always this can be, at least, painted old ivory or gray, which, though a last resort, is under most circumstances the thing to do. The tiles can also be painted and should be the colour of the trim, for they, too, are an essential element of the background idea which is the fundamental one in the whole conception. The elimination of these stumbling-blocks is quite as necessary to carrying out any scheme of furnishing as the purchase of any number of new things or the arrangement of these things after one has acquired them.
The assertion is often made that it is impossible to find good things in the trade. Frequently one hears a remark such as: "There are no wall papers except flowered ones to be bought in our town." "There are no one or two tone rugs nor other types whose ornament figures do not stand out and offend the sensitive eye." "Cretonnes, printed linens and other textiles are much too bright and too floral in their pattern and good, dignified, unobtrusive patterns cannot be bought." Furniture, too, comes in for its share of criticism along exactly the same line.
In answer to this let me say that demand always has and always will govern the supply; that the supply will be furnished when there is a demand, and that the trade has in stock exactly what people want. When people demand better things, manufacturers will make them and tradesmen will sell them. It is the public taste that is at fault and not the trade.
After twelve years of intimate acquaintance with every branch of allied interior decorating trades in the largest city in America, I am convinced that one thing is true: that there is no one class of persons in this country more anxious to learn, more ready to respond or more loyal in their efforts for better things than the trade. This statement applies to wholesale and retail men, to those managing the textile shops, wall-paper shops and furniture shops. It is a very general and clearly defined feeling. When the consumer raises his standard of what is good the producer will raise his, and the middleman will respond naturally and quickly.
The greatest hindrance to our realization of what is best in house planning is found within ourselves. Do you not frequently hear people say: "I like it. I do not care whether it is right or not; it pleases me, so what difference does it make? It was good enough for my day and I guess it is good enough for yours." Or, "I love nature and therefore want it as much as possible about me in the house." These personal whims are responsible for more than is at first apparent. Is it not well to ask ourselves: why do I like it, or why am I pleased? Is it because it conforms to the laws of beauty and arrangement, or is it because I do not know whether it is good or not? Does it please me because it does not please somebody else, or because I have a reason for being pleased? Some who in their day made long journeys on horseback instead of a steam train, or went to bed with a candle instead of an electric light, may have changed their attitude of mind in respect to these conditions while they have not changed them quite so radically in other matters equally important. To deal with nature as nature and to deal with a defamation of nature as interior decoration are two radically different matters.
Let not the nature lover believe that anybody is likely to translate nature into carpets, wall papers, brass ornaments and plaster of paris, and do so successfully. Let him go on loving nature in nature's place. It is meet and right so to do. At the same time let him wake up, and wake up now, to the fact that whatever of nature is translated into material must be conventionalized so as to be consistent in that material, or it loses all its art value and becomes a cheap attempt to imitate something which it is impossible to imitate.
There is a difficulty, too, with persons who are entirely wedded to some one historic period and believe that no other is worthy of expression, or that no other national one is fit to use for any kind of individual expression. Some people are essentially French in their manner and form of expressing themselves. Others are English. Some are so individual as to be Louis XV or Jacobean, and a few, I regret to say, are still Queen Anne. But people are indeed rare that are adequately expressed by any one period idea, and the growing tendency is to ignore the exactly reproduced period and to accept, adapt and use objects from related periods to express a mixed national life.
The chapters on historic periods have been given principally to show the qualities for which they stand and our need to assimilate these qualities, whatever their period name is. This does not mean that a person should not be individual in his colour choice, and personal in his likes and dislikes, as well as quite natural in his selection of forms and decorative effects. It means that the more he knows what others have done, the more he will know what not to do, as well as what to do, and it also means that the less he limits himself to one colour scheme, one furniture style, one decorative idea, the broader becomes his concept, the wider his experience and the more versatile and refined his expression.
It is true, we have emerged from the Victorian Era and its black walnut, marble-top offspring. But many of the objects which we, as Americans, associate with the Victorian period are still with us, or cheaper representations of them are, even though we have said fond farewells to the marble-top chamber suit and the plush parlour chairs.
It is not an uncommon thing to see in rooms otherwise quite possible an accumulation of small articles supposed to be decorative or useful, ranging all the way from dried grass and cat-tails to knit tidies and piano covers. These aggregations include unnecessary and undecorative vases, statuettes, hand-painted objects and other sentimental belongings.
Since this field of unnecessary personal objects is unlimited, since the affection and regard in which these objects are sometimes held is so sacred, and since people positively intelligent in most things refuse to show a sign of common sense where these are concerned, the only thing we can do is to arouse those who are responsible for such things to a thoughtful consideration of their qualities. No two persons being alike, no two methods will apply to any one person. Each person must, however, look about and see what things he has that are useless, inexpressive of anything except himself, and capable only of collecting and harbouring dust. When he has decided this let him eliminate what he will and start anew. Thus a decorative scheme may have its birth.
Out of repeated right experience comes knowledge. Knowledge is power, and power to use external material things to express ideas is the end and aim of material life. To choose an article without a knowledge and feeling for its fitness and beauty is unwise. To choose it without considering it in its relation to its background and to each of the other objects with which it will be used in a room is worse. The failure to test one's arrangement by the principles of form is often the cause of a failure to make the most of whatever one has. Knowledge grows as one demonstrates what he has already learned. Nothing is thoroughly understood until it can be consciously demonstrated.
It has been the purpose of this chapter to call the reader's attention to the wonderful opportunity that the interior decorator and the house maker has to create an environment which will be the means of a higher state of aesthetic appreciation in the generation that is to follow. It has also been our aim to point out the stumbling-blocks to a full realization of an aesthetic ideal in furnishing and to incite a determination to make a beginning in the direction of overcoming these obstacles. It is further designed to arouse a desire to investigate the fundamental principles which govern form and decoration, and to use these principles daily in our selections and in our arrangements until, unconsciously, what we touch shall express a new state of personal consciousness in which good taste is not a thought-out act but an unconscious, irresistible impulse in all we do.