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How To Be A Decorator:
Principles Of Decoration
Painting Points
Wallpaper Points
Wall Points
Floor Points
Colonial Living Rooms
Veneered Paneling
The English Room
Spanish-Italian Living Rooms
The Living Room Without A Mantel
Living Room Points
Dining Rooms
Dining Rooms Points
Combination Living Room - Dining Room
Living Room - Dining Room Points
Halls, Sun Rooms And Porches
Points For Halls, Sun Rooms And Porches
Colonial And Modern Bedrooms
Bedroom Points
Colorful, Comfortable Nurseries
Nursery Points
New Fashions In Draperies
How To Make Curtains And Draperies
Drapery Points
Slip Covers
Slip Cover Points
How To Make Slip Covers
How To Paint Furniture
Finishes For Natural Wood Furniture

Principles Of Decoration

( Originally Published 1930's )

If you are to be your own decorator one of the first things to realize is that the qualities of livableness and charm are not intangible but the result of two plus two. To make a room look livable to you-and to your neighbor-it must have in it the things that pertain to the life which you lead and which we all more or less lead.

What is "Interior Decorating" but turning an unfurnished house into an attractive place in which to live? This you can do for yourself, with a little guidance-often far better than can a professional decorator, as you may express your own individuality. Every woman, or perhaps I should say almost every woman, wants her house to have charm and personality. Since there are now so many good sources of information this is far easier to accomplish today than it used to be. There are not only good illustrations in periodicals and books to follow, but the better stores throughout the country, as well as the museums in the larger cities, show authentic rooms of different periods, which may be of real help to the amateur. With some study of this sort, and the knowledge of a few simple principles, every woman can decorate her own house.

Five Principles as a Foundation

As a foundation, let us consider the following five principles: Choice of type, that is, the sort of house or room you would like to have; Background; Color; Scale; Individuality. To begin with type; before you furnish a room, or remodel a room, decide in your own mind what type you wish it to be. If you have no very definite idea, do not furnish your room until you have studied and determined the type that you want. You may say to yourself: "Oh l I just want a modern room." This is not enough. You must have an ideal to work toward. A modern room, like every other sort of room, if it is really attractive, has some motive back of it that has made it so.

Briefly speaking, in America today the houses, and the rooms in them, fall into Colonial, Georgian (the more formal Colonial), English, English Cottage, French, Italian, Spanish, and nondescript. The truly American house is that of Colonial, Georgian, or English type. By adapting these types to ourselves for the past two hundred years, we have made them our own, and we need but look back over our past history or that of England to find the inspiration for them. In the houses and interiors inspired by France, Italy, and Spain, there is much that suits us, especially for certain sections of the country, and again much that does not.

In this book we shall not make a study of "periods," but try to define what puts charm into a room or a house. To do this a knowledge of these types is helpful in determining what you want or do not want. Even though a room is not strictly true to type, there should be some guiding influence in the making of it. This is largely determined by the type of the house. The rooms naturally should follow it in general character-in a Colonial house, Colonial rooms, or rooms in the Colonial feeling; in an English house, rooms with an English feeling, and so on through the various types.

The Choice of Type

Even for the inexperienced, it is no longer difficult to determine the type of house or type of furniture, as both real estate agents and shops of all sorts very frankly advertise type as well as quality and price. Therefore, determine what type you want. The picture at the beginning of this chapter shows a modern room with the Colonial feeling, while the one opposite page 49 shows a room in the English feeling. On page 58 is a glimpse of a Spanish room, while the photograph opening Chapter II shows a modern room with I8th century furniture, and that opening Chapter V a modern painted type. Each room is quite different. Back of the making of each of these rooms, there was a distinct motive. Each one is either a picture of Good Housekeeping Studio or a room created by The Studio for exhibition elsewhere.

Considering the Background

Having determined the type of room that suits not only the house, but the environment, the way to make it is to build the background. Background varies in different types of houses. In a Colonial house, for instance, walls may be gaily papered or painted white, cream, gray or a delicate color. Today reproductions of many of the Colonial patterns are obtainable. In an English house we find paint and wallpaper again, but instead of light woodwork, dark woodwork is rather a distinctive characteristic, or plaster and woodwork, as shown in the plate opposite page 49. In a Spanish room the walls are of rougher plaster and little if any woodwork is shown around window or door openings. In the French houses, paneled walls painted soft grays or putty color prevail as background. For each type there is a different style of background which, though it may be varied, must have some of the characteristics of the type to which it belongs to obtain a distinctive effect.

If the walls, woodwork and floor, which are the background, are not right in a room, no amount of beautiful furniture will overcome this defect. There is, of course, a very close relation among walls, floor and woodwork. The woodwork should be considered a part of the wall surface. Today, in Colonial, Georgian, French and modern houses, the woodwork is painted the same color as the walls, or a color which matches or harmonizes with the background of a wallpaper, if the wall is papered. The style today, as it has been for the past few years, is to use some of the delicate tints for walls, either in paper or paint, such as cream, putty, gray, pale green, apricot, and even blue.

With any of these colors the floor should be darker in value. A very satisfactory floor color to live with and to take care of, is a walnut tone of brown. Any wood flooring, be it soft wood or oak, could be stained this color (except in a strictly French room where the floor is somewhat lighter) and waxed. Later on the technique of floors will be considered.

The ceiling in such rooms should be cream or a very much lighter tint of the color of the walls and woodwork. In other words, we can look to nature and follow what she teaches: the brown or grass-covered earth affording the darkest tones, the greens of the trees lighter in value, and the blue sky lightest of all. So in houses, there should be the dark floor, lighter walls, and light ceiling. A dark floor gives stability, which every room needs. Sometimes the floor and the wall may be of the same value (as in grass and trees) but the floor should never be lighter than the wall. Modifications of this are many, of course, to suit type, but as a general principle it will help you in doing your own decorating.

It is, of course, essential to choose the right furniture, for the right background. The mahogany and painted furniture of the 18th century are appropriate against light woodwork, white, ivory, or any delicate color, just as is much of our modern furniture which is inspired by this period. With oak or walnut furniture, the woodwork should be stained and waxed the same color, and the walls may have a rough plaster texture. The same is true in an English room . of paneled oak or walnut which has been stained and waxed to look like old wood. Modern oak is too yellow in tone.


Happily, today, there is an increasing appreciation of color and knowledge of how to use it. A few years ago our houses were in monotones of white or cream-colored paint. This was a natural reaction from the abuse rather than the correct use of wallpaper. Today we are using plain-colored wallpapers as well as charmingly patterned papers, paint, wall coverings, and wall textures of all sorts unknown ten years ago.

A question asked constantly about backgrounds is: "Shall I paint or paper all the rooms in my house cream color?" In the modern house, which is of no particular type, and which happens to be small, by making the background of one color an air of spaciousness is created. If a number of small rooms are finished in different colors, it has a tendency to make the house seem cut up. On the other hand, it is a great pity not to give some variety to the rooms. Therefore, my suggestion is to keep the rooms of a similar color value, but of different tints. For instance, the entrance hall could have ivory woodwork with ivory-painted or papered walls. The stair treads and hand rail could be of mahogany or a wood stained in a brown tone. This accent will give character to the entrance and is very satisfactory. The dining-room, on one side of the hall, could have the woodwork of a pale gray tint with possibly an attractive gray scenic paper on the wall. The living-room, an the other side of the hall, could be in either the most delicate apricot tint or a very delicate green, with either paint or paper for the walls, and with woodwork to match.

Color, however, applies to everything in the room, the background-including walls, floor and ceiling the hangings, the rugs, furniture, and last of all the accent or the ornaments.

There are a few very simple principles to lay down: If the walls are in a plain color, the roam will be colorless unless there is pattern elsewhere in the room-"colorless" in the sense that it looks void of color values. Therefore, chintz with gay color in it may be used for hangings, for a chair or two, while a large piece of furniture and a larger area of space, such as a rug, may be darker and plain.

No color scheme can be really successful that does not use three or more colors. Fortunately for us all, the days of "the brown room" or "the pink room" are past, and women are beginning to realize that they may take a bit of chintz or a piece of wallpaper and from the colors in them work out the color scheme for room or house. For instance, in an allthe-year-round living-room, which The Studio made, the walls were painted the softest apricot tint, scarcely a pink, something just deeper than a pink-cream. With this as a background curtains were chosen which had a very pale bluegreen ground with flowers that repeated the apricot tints, as well as deeper ones, running all the way to red in fascinating birds which perched amid gay foliage on branches of trees. The bit of brown in that chintz was repeated in the mahogany secretary desk, the piano, and some bookcases, which gave weight to the room. The rug of brown-taupe covered a large area of the floor space. The sofa and chair were covered in dark green, the shade of green in the curtains, only darker. Accents or ornaments were found in bits of vivid yellow, a lamp shade of deep rose, a stand of ivy that repeated the deep green of the sofa and chair, books with bindings in different colors. Summing up the color scheme, we find five predominating colors: apricot, for woodwork and walls, brown-taupe for the floor covering, green for furniture covering, delicate blue-green and bright red in the draperies, besides all the gay tints of a bunch of summer flowers, repeated in lamp shades, books and ornaments.

There is no better way to work out a color scheme than to use a bit of patterned fabric, paper, or even a picture that appeals to you. Study the colors which go into it and the areas which they occupy in that picture or pattern, and apply them in somewhat similar relation to a room. For instance, it would be a terrible mistake to cover the entire walls of a room with the red or orange, which in small quantity was used as an accent in a design. Though such things have been done in the past, modern decorators, except in the case of sun-rooms, do not use very vivid colors for large areas. Choose the soft delicate tints, or the softer tones of wood paneling for wall surfaces, and put vivid color into draperies, sofa pillows, and lamp shades. Even if you make a few mistakes it is worth while to be bald in the use of color.

The Relationship of Pattern and Color

With plain walls use pattern in the curtains. With a patterned wall, plain draperies are the wiser choice. A chair or two may show pattern, but a number of the chairs should be in plain fabrics. It is also true that if a lamp shade happens to be placed near figured draperies, that lamp shade should be made of plain silk, parchment, or paper. The reverse is also true. Against a plain curtain or wall, a patterned shade is charming. Again, as to color values, it is necessary to be very careful to have the density of the color or the lightness of the color in the lamp shade a contrast to its background. For instance, there is a lack of charm in putting a tan-colored shade against a tan-colored wall. There is no color contrast. Whereas a parchment shade tinted with red, with a colorful flower print set in it, gives color and contrast against a plain tan wall.

Technically much could be said about analogous color, which is the use of various tones of the same color, and complementary color, which is the use of contrasting colors. But unless familiar with a color chart, it is somewhat involved. A far simpler way for the woman who is her own decorator, is to follow the colors already grouped by an artist in the design of wallpaper or chintz. Of course, in the selection of the latter, care must be taken, as there are many chintzes and wallpapers on the market that are hard and garrish.

There is, however, one other very important consideration in choosing the color for a given room, and that is its exposure. A room with southern exposure has a great deal of light and warmth, and therefore its background color may be cooler or darker than a room with less light and sun.

Exposure in Relation to Color

A room with a northern exposure may have light, but it is a cold light and will need the warmth of yellows and reds. Sunlight frequently can be suggested (though never imitated) by using yellow gauze curtains. Strong light through them does give a glow that helps a room. In rooms fortunate in having many windows with a south-east or south-west exposure, colder tones can be used, as the sun will add the warmth of yellow.

In dark rooms all the light warm tones should be used exclusively. Cream with much yellow is perhaps the most satisfactory tint. Gray or blue are very gloomy in such rooms, although charming in south rooms. Gray is gloomy in a north room no matter how much is done to warm it up. The use of color to help exposure is quite logical and reasonable. With a little experimenting you will find yellow and rose and orange give greater warmth to cold or dark rooms, and green, blue and gray cool an over-bright room. Green is not an intense color, as red is, and so shades of it are cooling in a warm room. The same is true of blue, which is close in value to green. There are many tones of the colors I have mentioned, and the successful rooms are those in which the loveliest shades are used, with just enough contrast to make the whole interesting.

What Is Meant by Scale

Scale is the relation of one thing to another in building, or of one article of furniture to another in a room. Perhaps the easiest way to express it is to bring to your mind a very small room in which there is a large piano, a large sofa, a large arm chair, and an over-powering book case. The room seems all furniture with no place to sit or move around. The trouble is, that the scale of the furniture is wrong for the space it occupies. The same number of pieces of furniture, made on a small scale, could be put into the same space comfortably. It is a safe rule to put furniture of a small scale in a small room and large furniture in a large room. In a small room there should be as small a piano as possible, and since there is that one large piece, the sofa should probably be one to seat two people instead of three. The arm chair should be on a small scale, though it may still be comfortable, and the book cases perhaps omitted altogether or book shelves built into the room in a way which does not take up too much space.

The reverse of this is equally true. Think of a room with high ceilings rough plastered, cold wall spaces, in which there is a delicate-looking chair, a small sofa which leaves great gaps of wall space on either side, and a table in the center of the room which seems a long way off. The room seems empty. Here is a case of a large room which should have massive pieces of furniture, some of them rather high, occupying wall spaces, and some perhaps long and low to balance them. If there is a table set out into the room anywhere, it should be a large one; if there are pictures on the wall, they must be large. The right sense of scale and color are the qualities that add livableness and attractiveness to the room.

Before buying any piece of furniture consider whether or not it is in a scale-lightness or massiveness-that will suit the space in which it is to be used. It is sometimes possible, where there is already furniture perhaps a trifle too heavy or a trifle too light for the place, to counterbalance it by the use of some heavy or some light pieces, as the case may be. For instance, in the small room that has a piano and an arm chair that are a bit large for the room, by having a small sofa, a delicate standard lamp, a small table and chair, the effect of heaviness is overcome. Unconsciously a motive back of a room, based on a definite period, helps the sense of scale. For instance, an Italian room, which is built with plain rough plastered walls, dark woodwork and high ceiling, instantly suggests large massive furniture, solid chairs, iron work and rather large pieces of pottery for lamps and ornaments; while an American Colonial room with low ceilings, whether spacious or otherwise, suggests the more delicate Windsor chair, small rugs, a not over-large desk. A comfortable modern davenport may be used in such a low-ceilinged room if the floor space is adequate, bringing in a note of solidity and modern comfort.

The table, chair, and lamp which are grouped together should be in scale. A lamp and lamp shade should also be in scale. A lamp base with a shade too deep and too large is utterly spoiled, just as a large round base with a small-sized shade looks a bit like the funny man in the circus with a tiny straw hat on the side of his head. A small lamp on a large table, and a large lamp on a small table are equally ridiculous, and neither appears to advantage.

With a figured fabric scale is also important. In a large room a big pattern in chintz is attractive, in fact often necessary. In a small low-ceilinged room one of smaller pattern is far more attractive. Instinctively the eye helps us, and there is no wiser way to determine whether the scale of a thing is right, whether furniture or fabric, than to try it in the place. A chair might seem just right in the shop but when put in a living-room will instantly seem wrong. A simple rule I have often followed is-when in doubt do not buy. Wait until the thing is found which seems just right.

Scale in Pattern

There is, however, many a roam, let us say average in size, in which fabrics or wallpapers of moderate-sized design find their right place. This also is true of furniture. Again gradations in the average room are attractive. That is, use one or two heavy pieces with some light pieces. In no room do you want all heavy pieces unless the room is extremely large. In an extremely small room, although all the pieces should be small in scale, a secretary desk, for instance, that is massive on a small scale gives character to the room. This is very well illustrated on page 20. In this room, which was a small one, the furniture was all small in scale, but the sofa and secretary desk had a massive quality. The wallpaper was not too small in scale. It had an open pattern which gave a feeling of space. The pattern itself was not small, but delicate and graceful. Such an open, airy-looking pattern is excellent for a small room. The plain rug which covered the entire floor and harmonized with the walls and curtains was unobtrusive.


"What's one man's meat is another man's poison" is true of houses as well as of food. To one man or woman, a cozy low English cottage type may spell livableness and charm. A stately, spacious formal house may spell the same to another. Here is where individuality comes in. Perhaps the house is only an average one, neither cozy nor stately, but whichever is your preference, you can soon stamp that upon it. There is nothing more important in making the home out of the house than to be able to put into it the qualities that mean livableness, restfulness and your own individuality.

Let us take the American living-room, for instance; it is not a formal reception-room, it is a room to live in, therefore, throughout most of the year its center of interest is a fireplace. If you are to enjoy that fireplace and enjoy other people at the same time there must be more than one or two places to sit. Therefore a comfortable chair on one side of the fireplace and a comfortable sofa or davenport an the other instantly suggests itself. When you are sitting in that chair you frequently want to read and a light next to it is necessary. It is but logical to put the light on a table.

On the other side of the table, is another chair where a second member of the family may sit and enjoy both the fire and the light. On the table are the books you want to read, the magazine you want to look at, a plant perhaps that you are fond of, or, if the season is summer, a bowl of flowers. Back of the sofa on the other side of the fireplace, if the room is large, may be a long sofa-table, again holding a light and again having other things pertaining to your life-a basket perhaps with a woman's sewing, a box for cigars or cigarettes, a picture or a photograph.

Or, should the room not be large enough for a table back of the sofa, then the favorite end-tables may take its place, one perhaps holding a lamp, the other some books, a bowl of flowers, and a cigarette box. On another wall space may be a desk, either of the secretary or the flat-top type, a comfortable chair in front of it, a light to see by, necessary writing materials,, a dictionary, an address book, and a book of reference between some attractive book-ends, completing a group which is livable because it is useful. On still another wall space between some windows where the sun comes, may be a Boston fern or possibly some potted ivy falling over a metal stand. Next to it place a comfortable chair or two not far from the window, and by the chair a low stool which may hold an ash tray or a cup of tea. If you analyze this, you will see that the arrangement suggested is just what common sense would require of the room to make it comfortable.

The same principle may be applied to a hall, a dining-room or a bedroom. In a dining-room the arrangement is for eating three meals a day. The necessary furniture is a table in the center of the room, a screen at the pantry door, a sideboard or console table. The room from a livable standpoint must ful fill its purposes. Individuality is put into it, in the color, the type of furniture chosen, and to a less important degree, in arrangement. The person with a feeling for formality will unconsciouly give a formal atmosphere to the room, possibly by eliminating small things, possibly by a certain austerity of color. Whereas, a person loving warmth and color will give that quality to the room, although the furniture remains in the same place, by using amusing ornaments on the mantel, a screen that is gay rather than austere, chintz at the windows, and a colorful, rather than a colorless, painted wall.

There are some halls we enter which seem most hospitable and others which have a forbidding atmosphere. The hospitable one has soft lights, warmth in the rugs, and a picture or two inviting you to linger. The forbidding one is. scantily furnished, adequately but not charmingly lighted, and has no stick or hat or gloves in sight. They are rather too carefully put into the drawer of the hall-table or the closet.

Order is always to be desired, and "a place for everything and everything in its place," but if there are to be no walking stick and gloves in sight, then be sure that there is color in a bowl of flowers, a nice picture, and a warm rather than a cold light. Another quality to put into a hall is comfort. A chair or two, a long sofa, a clock, a colorful screen, and possibly even a fireplace are all elements which go toward making it a pleasant place to enter and to pass through slowly rather than hurriedly.

In bedrooms, individuality may equally assert itself. To make them attractive consider how the room is to be used, just as you would consider how a living-room is to be used, and again assert your preference for what you like. If delicate walls appeal to you with gay chintz curtains, have them. If, on the other hand, a flowered wallpaper with lots of color charms you, have it, and make your curtains and slip covers of a solid color. Arrange the furniture where it is comfortable.

Put the beds so that they do not face the light in the morning. Put a dressing-table or bureau where it will get a good light from the windows and where either an overhead light or side lights will not only give an adequate dressing light, but will have a decorative place in the room as well.

Your sense of comfort will not be exactly the same as your neighbors so, by following what spells comfort to you and by having what gives charm to you, you will have asserted your individuality and made that room something which belongs to you rather than to your neighbor. We do not want to have all our rooms, whether they are living-rooms or bedrooms, of a stereotyped sort. Take a few liberties with your room, and your pictures and your ornaments, and try them here and there. Move your furniture around in this place and .that and see what looks well. Do not leave a chair in a certain place because you think it ought to be there or because you have a preconceived notion that it should be there. Try it in different places. In this way you will find what is best for the room as well as what gives the greatest comfort. And as I have said before, make the room sympathetic.

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