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The Decorative Idea
( Originally Published 1920 )
The term "design" has generally meant the choice and arrangement of certain shapes or f orms to produce a decorative effect. It should include not only form but colour, or rather colour and form, for without colour there is no form.
If all objects were exactly the same colour tone it would be impossible to see where one object left off and the other began. In fact, there would be no shapes or forms to discuss. The greater the colour contrast in hue, value, or intensity, or any two or three of these qualities, the more clearly defined is the form arrangement which these objects produce.
The real recognition of form is a mental process, and it is sufficient to remark here that this is a comparison of previously acquired ideas. Form is not quickly perceived through the sense of sight like colour. This makes the study of form more involved and perhaps, in many cases, less easily understood at first.
Design or composition includes, then, the choice and arrangement of colours, forna and lines with a unit as the desired result. This unit may be the exterior of a huge cathedral, the interior of any room, the individual unit used in any one of these, or whatever in itself expresses the unit idea.
As has already been noted, the structure is the fundamental reason for all decorated things. The build or structure determines the form. The form, then, conversely, is the result of structural lines of certain kinds used in certain combinations to represent individual ideas. When we realize that everything depends upon the structural idea it is much easier to see relationships between shapes or forms in furnishing construction and the room in which they are to be used, than if we see parts of furnishing objects or colours or decorations only.
An Italian chair of the early fifteenth century is built on horizontal and vertical lines. Its construction is rectangular and for its beauty it depends upon its simplicity, its exquisite proportion, and its consistent decorative additions. In no field of chair construction has there been a result so dignified, formal, stable, consistent, sincere, and architecturally connected with the house as this beautiful expression of the early Italian Renaissance. The very lines or structure of this chair repeat the lines of room construction.
The same fine feeling for proportion, structural likeness, simplicity and consistency is found in the cabinets, tables, and other objects of furniture during this period of expression. With objects like these it is easy enough to recognize an element harmonizing with the structure of a room, its side walls, its floor and its ceiling.
On the other hand, with furniture of the period of Louis XV in France, where the boundary of every structural part is a curved line of the most subtle character, it is far more difficult to establish relations of harmony between it and the constructive lines of a modern house. It is the character, or kind of line which bounds these forms, that I ask you to notice particularly now.
Very often textiles, wall covers and other objects present exactly the same difficulty. A chair is to become a decorative motif in a room as a background, or a piece of ornament is to become a decorative motif on a textile rug or article of furniture. Either by placing or by its structural lines it must harmonize with the room, with the articles of furniture, and with the textile or other object upon which it is to appear as a decorative unit. Often harmonious motifs are wholly unrelated to the object upon which they are placed, and become glaringly undeeorative because their entire line or form effect has no common harmonizing elemental line in concord with the article which it purports to decorate.
It will be seen that the structure is the reason for the decoration, that the decoration must conform to the structure, and that there must be a common element of harmony between the original form and the decorative object used with it.
The first principle of form I shall call consistent structural unity. The fa(lade of a house is an excellent example for structural and decorative study. The vertical and horizontal lines bounding it at least on two of these sides are emphasized, supported and strengthened by cornices. There is a change in treatment at the edges, brought about by the introduction of doors and windows whose structures are in harmony with that of the side of the house, and sometimes with other objects related in the same way.
Not only, however, are these objects related by their general form to the house, of which they are a part, but they are, if pleasing, so placed, when seen in groups, that their bounding lines are horizontal and vertical. When this form does not obtain-for example, if there is one window, then another, and then another lower still-there is a feeling of incongruity and unpleasantness arising from an arrangement which does not harmonize with the general structure form of the facade.
Brought into the house the application of these principles is legion. Most persons see and feel quickly the violation of such a rule on the outside, but fail utterly to grasp the need of the same relationship on the inside.
Let us take first the floor of the room. This is an oblong or a square, infrequently modified by a curved window or some other curved line of unnatural growth. This establishes something of the line of the furniture, but something still more of the arrangement of this furniture as to its place on the floor.
Now let us consider the rug. A common error is to throw the rug-particularly if there are several in the room-upon the floor in an oblique or cat-a-cornered position so that no line boundary of the rug is parallel to or in harmony with the bounding lines of the floor. This immediately establishes a new decorative idea, built on top of the original one. Chairs, tables, divans and other furniture must be placed either with the structural suggestion of the rugs, or with the original structural arrangement of the room. Both lines cannot be followed.
One must dominate. The only sensible thing is to place the rugs in harmony with the structure of the floor; then let the tables, divans, chairs, cabinets and other articles of furniture be placed in the same horizontal and vertical structural relationship.
This does not mean that every article of furniture has to rest against the wall of the room, flat and straight. It means that many times the furniture had better so repose. For example, instead of placing the upright piano or the dresser across the corner of the room, find a place on the wall where it belongs and place it there, structurally, as if it were a part of the establishment. It then becomes a decorative feature.
Often a long table is best, as will appear in a later chapter, when its end touches the wall and its length projects into the room. On one side a divan may be placed, its back against the table. This conforms to the structural lines of the room, horizontal and vertical, and at the same time is perfectly practical.
Chairs-particularly straight-line chairs-when not against the wall may be placed parallel with tables, and grouped in such a way that their general structure lines are parallel with the original horizontal and vertical lines of the room. It is this matter of grouping wisely that makes a room effective so far as the form relations in the furniture are concerned.
This does not, by any means, imply that every article of furniture must be at right angles with the lines of the room and with each other. It means that the dominating furnishings of a room must be so related, or the principle of the room as a structural unit is violated. When this happens the foundation is laid for unrest, pandemonium and an ultimate destruction of everything pleasant in the way of a decorative thought. Chairs are often placed near other chairs or a divan, for purposes of conversation, or these are grouped near a light in order to make work possible as well as reading or writing. These deviations from structural unity are, however, made for a reason. It is because of some need that they exist and not because the arrangement is more "homey and cozy."
If everything is properly distributed on the floor it helps greatly in the treatment of the wall. The vertical lines of the wall when seen with the horizontal lines of the floor form a new problem of arrangement. The walls, too, are more nearly opposite the eye level when sitting or standing and, therefore, require even a stricter adherence to the principle of structural unity than does the floor.
Even if each article of furniture is properly placed, one must be careful to see that its contour or bounding lines do not create forms more erratic and likely to compel attention than do the objects themselves as a whole. If this is the case their bounding lines must be simplified somehow. Grills may be taken off, unpleasant carving removed. Expressionless curved bracketing, such as appears on piazzas, and much modern furniture should also be banished. In a room the objects themselves must be reduced to a consistent structural appearance before they can become in any sense a part of the wall.
A departure from this structural form if desired is easily made by using ornament, books, pottery, and other lesser forms of art expression upon articles of furniture or adjacent to them. The question of how many of these to use at a time and how many pictures, and what ones are appropriate will be considered in later chapters. Suffice it to say, now, that whatever is used should either be structurally in harmony with all the other objects, or there should be few enough articles non-structurally related to make it possible for one to grasp the feeling of the room and to remain content without a constant mental effort to fathom the mysteries of the maze into which he is thrust as he enters.
Perhaps the most flagrant abuse of the structural idea is the custom, so long prevalent, of hanging pictures by one wire, each end of which is attached to the frame, while both sides converge, at a point where the picture hook is attached to the moulding. Any line which is out of harmony with the structural idea of the unit should be so for purposes of emphasis. When any unusual line, unusual shape, or unusual direction is introduced it is for the purpose of calling attention to that line, shape or direction because of its beauty or its use. There can certainly be no other reason for calling attention to any particular thing in a room. Since the room will probably have no lines in harmony with the triangular one thus created, and since the picture hook is presumably less decorative than the picture itself (though this is not always true), there can be no reason why such a line should be introduced at the expense of the entire wall, to say nothing of the constructive value of the picture itself.
A single picture wire should be passed through two hooks about one inch from the top of the picture to be hung. This wire, passing through the two screw eyes, will leave the two ends free and the wire adjustable.
Use two picture hooks, tying one to each end of the wire and hang the wires vertically. They will then be parallel with the edge of the frame, with the casings of the windows, doors and other structural features of the room. In this way even ugly picture wires almost escape notice. If they do not they should be toned to the general wall colour.
Window curtains very much draped create many lines out of harmony with the windows. This is the reason why under present conditions the best decorators are modifying considerably the period methods of hanging curtains, and using them straighter, with straighter valance and less erratic line combinations in the making.
This principle of structural unity must be applied to the selection and arrangement of every article, and violations of the idea may-after the meaning of the principle is thoroughly understood-be considered far reasons of emphasis; but study how, and why and where before introducing any unrelated forms in matters of decorative structural arrangement.
A second principle of form is that shapes and sizes should be consistent. Its analysis has to do with the selective element in form and size as well as the problem of arranging these selected forms in the most harmonious and agreeable manner possible.
The bounding edges of forms or shapes are lines. These lines are made always at the junction of two colour tones or are formed by one colour touching another. Wherever this occurs a line is created. Every time colour tones change for any reason whatever, a new shape is begun or the shape considered begins to change and a lined condition exists.
Lines, as well as forms, are an important element in the consideration of composition. Good composition demands that these forms and lines should contain certain elements of likeness or harmony, and that they be so placed as to create this condition.
It is apparent then that too many colours, too much cut up in small areas, must result in, the creation of too many shapes and lines. This tends to involve the problem in such a way that simplicity and repose in a room is well nigh impossible.
The kind of shapes and the direction of lines are as important as the number of them. Straight lines, which mark the shortest distance between two points, by their very nature seem simple, direct, forceful and some what structural. These qualities are the ones which the straight-line formation or construction should suggest, and where the feeling for them is not acute it is because lines of arrangement, as well as of pattern design, meet each other at obtuse and acute angles in such a way as to create a disagreeable feeling of opposition in line direction. Patterns in rugs and textiles often do this, as, in fact, the objects themselves are quite likely to do in the room arrangement in which the first principle of form-that is, consistent structural unity-is not conscientiously followed.
This effect of straight lines running in a slanting direction into other straight lines excepting where the angles created are right angles-is ugly, non-structural and, consequently, usually uncomfortable in feeling.
Curved lines change their direction at every point. There are in general three classes of these lines, as follows:
The are of the circle changes its direction equally at every point. This is the most monotonous of curved lines, the simplest and most easily sensed. It lacks variety, and when used too frequently betrays lack of feeling for subtlety in line.
The arc of the ellipse, however, is more likely to change its direction at different points in the circumference, and presents a selective chance in line quite impossible in the arc of the circle. It is interesting, therefore, more subtle, and has greater aesthetic possibility.
The third class of curve is taken from the oval, and presents the greatest opportunity of all for fine relationships in variety of curve subtlety and in feeling for direction as well as for grace in line movement.
This curve of the oval appears in pottery and vase forms, in the general contour of ornament, and in other constructive curve-lined objects in the work of all nations where a fine aesthetic sense has been developed. The Greek, the Japanese, the High Renaissance in France, express their subtle relationships of curve in this type of line.
Mention of these three classes of curves is made here that one may become more sensitive to line as it appears in ornament and as it marks the boundary structural line of objects which are to be used as decorative motifs. The keener one's perception becomes in any field of expression the sooner will he realize the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, the aesthetic and the mechanical, the monotonous and the subtle. This perception is the key to the enjoyment of aesthetic relationships.