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The Individual House
( Originally Published 1920 )
It is preposterous to think that there can be a class of set formulae given by which any and every room may be properly planned. One meets, however, those who want such formulae and those who are quite willing to give them. This creates a situation quite like that in which a patent medicine is put on the market with the assurance that it will cure every human ill, when, as a matter of fact, it is probably inadequately adapted to even one badly disordered state.
The house is an individual thing. Each room in it is individual, for the varied functions of the rooms and the personal differences of those who may use them all influence each particular element in the unit.
To say that a dining-room should be in this or that colour scheme, with this or that style of furniture, is not only absurd but entirely misleading as to what interior furnishing means. What is true of the diningroom is no less true of the living-room, the sleepingroom, the library, or other rooms in which the personal element is concerned.
What one can do, however, is to stick fast to the principles which govern all forms of expression, and then use his intelligence, and that of his advisory decorator, to make the elements that go to make up the room an expression of the personality of the one for whom the room is planned. When principle takes the place of fad or formula and impersonal qualities are seen as a media of expression, personality will find no difficulty in manifesting itself in any room under any conditions.
Each house is the natural expression of an individual's idea of functional fitness, beauty in environment and good taste. Function or fitness is the fundamental idea of the room. There is a tendency frequently to let other elements creep in which in themselves are not bad, but which destroy the functional idea for which the object stands.
For example, sentimental souvenirs, or decorative objects, are allowed to occupy space in the room that one can ill afford to give to such trash. These objects also are frequently placed upon tables, pianos, cabinets, dressers and the like in such a way that the real function of the object on which they are placed is completely obscured. Mirrors cannot be used, drawers opened or shut, pianos closed or opened, tables used for any practical purpose, without moving these senseless things.
How often lamps or other lighting features are so placed that it is impossible to read or sew by them. In the same way hangings and curtains are so placed that windows no longer admit light or serve to protect from outside observers; chairs bear no relation to tables so far as reading, writing or other work is concerned. In short, the acquisition or the placing of objects functional or beautiful in such a way that they do not fully express their use idea is in bad taste. To destroy the functional feature of an object by the addition of a less important one or by a bad placing of that one is neither sensible, economical nor artistic.
The first essential in the individual room is the judgment necessary to ascertain that every object in it is so placed that it does its own work in the most efficient manner. Until each object is so placed the room is not right, however individual it may seem. It must be clear that no formula can be given for this. A writer or author requires a table, perhaps a desk, chairs and other material in quite different relations to each other and to lighting than the person who uses the same type of room for visiting purposes or as a readingroom or library.
The dining-room in the moderate house is sometimes used for other purposes. In this case function demands quite a different arrangement of the table, chairs, light, sideboard and other articles.
It is well to raise the question as to whether every article in the individual room you have in mind meets as nearly as possible the criterion you have of functional fitness. If it does, it matters not whether you are a musician, an artist, an author, a seamstress, a lawyer or a doctor-the room is in harmony with your life work, which is yourself, and will become personal when you know how to express yourself in terms of colour, form, line and texture.
Beauty is the quality of harmonious relationships. A formula to produce it does not exist. But principles of harmony in colour, line, form, texture and arrangement do exist and no two people can interpret them alike. Nor will they do so if these principles become unconscious working elements of the mind. Accept, then, the fact that beauty is harmony. Learn next what things are harmonious. Use, in the third place, such elements as express your idea, personal and individual, of the function included in your room idea. As far as you can, demonstrate these principles; beauty will result.
It matters not in what field one works, conscious, constant right choice and right usage is good taste. Just as one improves in manners by habitual practice , though a tendency to these may be inborn or not, just so one improves his taste in colour by habitual choice and use of the best within his knowledge.
Let us not be satisfied, then, with any expression that happens to come along which rests the body, gratifies sentimentality or seems cheap. Be willing to go without rather than have a bad thing and one will grow in good taste.
Many who would not talk too loudly in public or parade their own personal grievances in conversation do not hesitate to do so in a living-room or dining-room. Further analogies might be given, but this is sufficient for any one to see that rooms, except very personal ones, like bedrooms or boudoirs, are not the places in which to exploit one's idiosyncrasies. Impersonal treatment of impersonal objects will seem personal enough to the varied kinds and types of people who must come and go in the ordinary room.
In every problem, however, there are certain things -we shall call them premises-that may well form part of the foundation plan for decorating any room. No one of these is more important than geography. Any room in Florida presents a different problem from the same room in the Adirondack Mountains. The town house with its imperfect light, coming, perhaps, from two directions, perhaps one, is quite another problem from the country house with its open fields and adequate light from all sides. The problem of the house on the hill and the one in the valley presents two different aspects in the matter of colour and form. Trees close to the house, dense shrubbery and other objects change the plan from the very outset.
In the hot, sunny South there is the problem of getting air and excluding the burning sun. In the extreme North there is the air to come in but cold to be kept out while the sun is admitted. This has a decided influence on the placement, size and number of windows, and the location and arrangement of doors, halls and the like, and also upon the shutters, hangings and window accessories.
The side of the house on which the room is located is also of importance. The south and southeast, with their almost continuous sun, call for a choice of cooler colours. The northwest, on the contrary, with its generally cold gray light, requires warmer and more luscious colour than the southeast, or even the southwest, of the same house.
This is a matter of function only. The Southern house must be comfortable perhaps the year round, with the temperature above normal. It must not only physically and structurally be so made that air can be easily circulated without admitting too much heat or light, but colour must be chosen which is an antidote or complement to the extreme heat of the atmosphere. Warm rich reds, oranges and yellows are inappropriate where the temperature expresses the same quality. Greens, blue greens, blues, violets and some yellows may be used in warm temperatures.
The reverse of this is true in the Northern house, in which the climatic conditions are directly opposite, and something of the same result is sought. Make colour do the work which the climatic condition does not; let it act on consciousness as a supplement to what is being forced on us through the senses. This is what colour is for. Its function is to stimulate certain ideas in the mind, either consciously or unconsciously. Thus it produces a pleasurable aesthetic sensation and also has a neutralizing effect upon other sensations.
The city house must be treated in colour in precisely the same way: the north side in warm colours, the south in cooler. This does not mean that full intense colours, or even half intense, in any of these tones must be used, but it does mean that if the cool colours dominate in the southern exposures and the warm ones in the northern exposures, there is a feeling of equality, consistency and harmony in the house unit that cannot be obtained otherwise.
This rule has many modifications. For example, some persons must have more intense colour about them than others. Some believe they cannot exist unless they have a blue, a red or a green room, believing that, temperamentally, they require something of the kind. There are many other things that influence this general statement but, in the main, the rule should be followed.
If one is to spend only the summer months in a country house, and if the climate during that time is warm, nothing is more helpful in obtaining comfort than rooms in light, cool colours. Let the blues, greens and their hues dominate; let the yellows be neutralized to an old ivory, and introduce only sufficient warm colour to give the personal and exciting note necessary to vitalize the room.
These general geographical situations are the first thing to consider in furnishing and decorating any room in the house. A decorator or an owner who attempts to select a trim, a wall paper, or a rug without first asking himself how many windows there are in the room, from what direction the light comes, how much sun the room gets, and what part of the day it gets it, has omitted the one thing which will help him to decide on a right background. On the other hand, it is as essential to know whether a room is to be used during the entire year or a portion of it, and whether sunlight is obscured by nearby bushes or other buildings, as it is to know whether it is a dining-room, a bedroom or a living-room that is to be furnished.
Geography, then, plays an important part, and affects even the choice of material out of which a house is to be built. If the house is to appear as a part of the landscape surrounding it, it must be built of something which seems to have some connection with that landscape. In some places white marble is out of place; in others brick and other kinds of stone are equally so. Sometimes a wooden house is remote from the idea of the landscape. Whenever this is the case, it is quite impossible to harmonize the house with the grounds and with the more remote accessories of which it becomes a related part. Harmony between the landscape and the house is fundamentally important from the standpoint of the exterior.
Another important premise is the function of the room. If one has decided to paper several rooms in his house, and he visits a wall-paper shop with this in mind, he will often find a salesman who displays his wares, declaring: " We are using these papers this season more than any others," or, "This colour is all the rage." Sometimes, too, textures figure as yearly fads. Japanese grass cloths, glazed papers, foliage, matted surface, etc., all have had their day. The function of the room is a question that is fundamental and has nothing to do with what is selling best or what is newest.'
If a paper is for a bedroom, let it express the bedroom idea of sleep and rest. The value of the paper, light or dark, is a matter of taste, sometimes a matter affected by the age of the occupant. It may also be modified in value by the amount of light in the room and by the fact of being a country house or a town house. But two things are essential in this room-rest and sleepand it matters not what the style is, these qualities should be present. If the hue is to be decided by the direction and amount of light admitted to the room, by the objects that are already there, and by the personal preference of the occupant of the room, there are three influences any one of which may be entirely antagonistic to the other two. Who shall decide which one to sacrifice? Rest and sleep comes first-then personal choice without doubt.
If the room has very little light, the colour may be a little more intense than it otherwise should be, but the background colour is fixed by the law of background, not personal whim. Neither southern exposures nor the vogue of the day will make a too intense background right for rest or sleep in any house.
Function, then, is fundamental wherever a room is, or whoever occupies it. What is true of one of a type of room is true of the others of the same type.
Another obstacle that often interferes with the selection of material has been somewhat discussed in the previous chapter. This is the fact that objects already in the room must be retained there as associates of the new ones. The study of historic periods shows one so clearly the quality value of every article of furniture that one should be familiar with furnishings as quality expressions. The straight-lined architectural features of an Italian chair or a Mission desk present a firm, unrelenting, yet simple quality effect which should immediately be recognized. The qualities of an object should be detected at sight. Everything in furniture and furnishing means something. This elemental meaning is the expression of an idea, and it is quite simple to find other ideas which in combination express a whole.
Some of us remember a game played with letters of the alphabet cut and pasted on small cardboard squares. One way of using these was to take a certain number of letters and see how many words could be made out of these letters. Another was to take a certain word and see how many other words could be made from the letters of that word. Each letter in each case expressed an idea. The word "simple," for example, contains six letters, each different in its meaning and form from the other five. If any four of these letters were given, and one were asked to make the completed word "simple," he would find no difficulty in supplying the other two letters from the collection.
This is precisely what should be done in interior decoration. Take account of stock before you paper the wall, buy new hangings, or add a chair, a desk or a table. Determine what you want your room to express when it is done, and then there are two different things to remember: first, buy the thing which you know supplies one of the missing letters in your word, and do not buy anything that does not supply it; in the second place, remember that when you have supplied the two letters, there are no more letters needed, and if you find a cheap object, or even a beautiful one, that is not required to complete your word, it is superfluous and never can be a part of your original idea. You decided that when you selected the word "simple" instead of " Constantinople" as your room idea.
If people would see this much, there would be no very bad rooms, so far as putting new objects with those already acquired is concerned.
Remember, then, that a scale quality which is ponderous and heavy must not be supplemented with an object which is light, informal and tiny, except there be some middle grounds in which a scale is found that relates these two different things. Great divergence in colour relationships in textures, size, shapes and line directions must be harmonized in the same way. This is done by remembering the Greek law and the subtle relationships which it makes possible. A reversion to principle is always safe in forming a critical judgment in the field of applied arts.
The room quality which causes most discussion is personality. It is hard to believe that another's personality is as important as one's own. It is still harder to believe that some one else may have a more pleasing conception of anything than we have ourselves. Remember that a room to live in and one to look at are two things and that you do not have to live in every room you see or create.
Many interior decorators err in supposing that because they have succeeded in developing a type of room which has been called beautiful and successful, they can apply the same treatment to any room. It is astounding how many decorators plan other people's rooms while thinking about themselves. This is analogous to the case of a physician who begins his diagnosis by introspection, determining first the state of his own internal organs. Then, having decided how he himself feels, advises his client what to take.
The matter of personality is more important than geography, functional fitness or old things which must be retained. It is more important because every person is more interested in himself than he is in anything else-try as he may to be otherwise. He wants something, and knowing what he wants, believes that he has a right to express that want. The skillful decorator finds out all he possibly can of the personal characteristics of his client, his likes and dislikes, natural tendencies and idiosyncrasies, before he shows him any wall cover or discusses the cost of furniture. By the way, this question of cost is the last thing to mention. A few moments' conversation will usually show whether a client likes red or blue, and should also disclose whether she ought to have it or not. Manifest antagonism is not the method by which to obtain the desired result, but a gradual elimination of one idea and the substitution of another. This is tact.
What is true of colour is apparently so in other fields. Some personalities are expressed in erratic motions; such persons, for their peace of mind, should be set in a perfectly balanced, well-held and consistent room. To so lead and influence the client that he believes the room to be arranged according to his own idea is the work of the clever decorator. When the right setting for the personality is attained, the client is, almost without exception, pleased, even though he may have rebelled during the process.
The essentials of a room are far too significant to permit a personal fancy to interfere with right usage. The matter of backgrounds, the method of hanging curtains, the consistent structural arrangement of furniture, modifications of this structure by the freer elements, the balanced arrangement for rest and the proper placement of decorative objects are not open to personal whim. They are governed by common sense and the laws of choice and arrangement which are fundamental in any right design. But the final hue choice in colour, how dark or how light the room shall be, or what shall be the dominating characteristic of the room, are questions for personal choice.
The personal touch, too, is shown, or should be, in the smaller articles in the room, which by their choice and placement indicate the character of the occupant. This personal touch is found in the selection, framing and hanging of pictures, although the way they are hung and framed is largely a matter of impersonal choice.
The personal touch again is felt in the selection and arrangement of flowers. Both these subjects will be treated later in detail, but a person who habitually selects and uses lilies is a very different person from one who uses carnations, or one who would chose American beauty roses-not to mention orchids.
A few photographs, too, if properly framed add a personal touch to the quality of a living-room. Pieces of pottery or other decorative objects sometimes give just the note that makes the room the visible expression of the inward thought of the person who occupies the room.
Personality should not interfere with the fundamentals of selection or arrangement which are necessary to good taste. The larger facts are not determined by personal preference, but the way in which they are interpreted varies with personality, and the smaller or more decorative objects in the room may be very personal if they are not ostentatiously displayed, or if there are not too many of them in too prominent a place.
The same thing is true of people. In the main, our friends are all alike. The fundamental facts of their structure, mental and physical, and of their decorative qualities, mental and physical, are the same. Personal traits do not change fundamental facts. It is, however, essential that decorators should understand not only their business but their clients. Those, also, who have houses should not understand themselves and their own whims alone, they should also understand the laws which govern choice and arrangement in all houses.