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Decoration And Design - A General Talk

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

When one faces the momentous question of furnishing a house, there are numerous things which must be looked into and thoroughly understood if success is to be assured. If one is building in the country the first question is the placing of the house in regard to the view, but in town there is not much choice. The architect being chosen with due regard to the style of house one wishes, the planning can go merrily on. The architect should be told if there are any especially large and beautiful pieces of furniture or tapestry to be planned for, so they shall receive their rightful setting. After all, architects are but human, and cannot tell by intuition what furniture is in storage.

It is sad to see how often architecture and decoration are looked upon as two entirely disconnected subjects, instead of being closely allied, playing into each other's hands, as it were, to make a perfect whole. To many people, a room is simply a room to be treated as they wish ; whereas many rooms are absolute laws unto themselves, and demand a certain kind of treatment, or disaster follows. In America this kind of house is not found so often as in Europe, but the number is growing rapidly as architects and their clients realize more and more the beauties and possibilities of the great periods as applied to the modern house. It is only to the well-trained architect and decorator with correct taste that one may safely turn, for the ill-trained and commonplace still continue to make their astounding errors, and so to have the decoration of a room truly successful one must begin with the architect, for he knows the correct proportions of the different styles and appreciates their importance. He will plan the rooms so that they, when decorated, may complete his work and form a beautiful and convincing whole. This will give the restfulness and beauty that absolute appropriateness always lends.

This matter of appropriateness must not be overlooked, and the whole house should express the spirit of the owner; it should be in absolute keeping with his circumstances. There are few houses which naturally demand the treatment of palaces, but there are many which correspond with the smaller chateaux of France and the manor-houses of England. It is to these we must turn for our inspiration, for they have the beauty of good taste and high standards with-out the lavishness of royalty; but even royalty did not al-ways live in rooms of state, for at Versailles, and Petit Trianon, there is much simple exquisite furniture. The wonderful and elaborate furniture of the past must be studied of course, but to the majority of people, then as now, the simpler expression of its fundamental lines of beauty are more satisfactory. The trouble with many houses is that their furnishings are copied from too grand models, and the effect in an average modern house is unsuitable in every way. They cannot give the large vistas and appropriate background in color and proportion which are necessary. Beauty does not depend upon magnificence.

If one has to live in a house planned and built by others one often has to give up some long cherished scheme and adopt something else more suited to the surroundings. For instance, the rooms of the great French periods were high, and often the modern house has very low ceilings, that would not allow space for the cornice, over-doors and correctly pro-portioned paneling, that are marked features of those times. Mrs. Wharton has aptly said: " Proportion is the good breeding of architecture," and one might add that proportion is good breeding itself. One little slip from the narrow path into false proportion in line or color or mass and the perfection of effect is gone.

Proportion is another word for the fitness of things, and that little phrase, " the fitness of things," is what Alice in Wonderland calls a " portmanteau " phrase, for it holds so much, and one must feel it strongly to escape the pitfalls of period furnishing. Most amazing things are done with perfect complacency, but although the French and English kings who gave their names to the various periods were far from models of virtue, they certainly deserved no such cruel punishment as to have some of the modern rooms, such as we have all seen, called after them.

The best decorators refuse to mix styles in one room and they thus save people from many mistakes, but a decorator without a thorough understanding of the subject, often leads one to disaster. A case in point is an apartment where a small Louis XV room opens on a narrow hall of nondescript modern style, with a wide archway opening into a Mission dining-room. As one sits in the midst of pink brocade and gilding and looks across to the dining-room, fitted out in all the heavy paraphernalia of Mission furniture, one's head fairly reels. No contrast could be more marked or more unsuitable, and yet this is by no means an uncommon case.

If one intends to adopt a style in decorating one's house, there should be a uniformity of treatment in all connecting rooms, and there must be harmony in the furniture and architecture and ornament, as well as harmony in the color scheme. The foundation must be right before the decoration is added. The proportion of doors and windows, for instance, is very important, with the decorated over-door reaching to the ceiling. The over-doors and mantels were architectural features of the rooms, and it was not until wall-papers came into common use, in the early part of the nineteenth century, that these decorative features slowly died out.

The mantel and fireplace should be a center of interest and should be balanced with something of importance on the other side of the room, either architectural or decorative. It was this regard for symmetry, balance, proportion, and harmony, which made the old rooms so satisfying; there was no magic about it, it was artistic common sense.

The use for which a room is intended must be kept in view and carried out with real understanding of its needs. The individuality of the owner is of course a factor. Unfortunately the word individuality is often confounded with eccentricity and to many people it means putting perfectly worthy and unassuming articles to startling uses. By individuality one should really mean the best expression of one's sense of beauty and the fitness of things, and when it is guided by the laws of harmony and proportion the result is usually one of great charm, convenience, and comfort. These qualities must be in every successful house.

In furnishing any house, whether in some special period or not, there are certain things which must be taken into account. One of these is the general color scheme. Arranging a color scheme for a house is not such a difficult matter as many people suppose, nor is it the simple thing that many others seem to think. There is a happy land between the two extremes, and the guide posts pointing to it are a good color sense, a true feeling for the proportion and harmony of color, and an understanding of the laws of light. The trouble is that people often do not use their eyes; red is red to them, blue is blue, and green is green. They have never appeared to notice that there are dozens of tones in these colors. Nature is one of the greatest teachers of color harmony if we would but learn from her. Look at a salt marsh on an autumn day and notice the wonderful browns and yellows and golds in it, the reds and russets and touches of green in the woods on its edge, and the clear blue sky over all with the reflections in the little pools. It is a picture of such splendor of color that one fairly gasps. Then look at the same marsh under gray skies and see the change; there is just as much beauty as before, the same russets and golds and reds, but exquisitely softened. One is sparkling, gay, a harmony of brilliancy; the other is more gentle, sweet and appealing, a harmony of softened glory.

Again, Nature makes a thousand and one shades of green leaves to harmonize with her flowers; the yellow green of the golden rod, the silver green of the milkweed, the bright green of the nasturtium. Notice the woods in wintertime with the wonderful purple browns and grays of the tree trunks and branches, the bronze and russet of the dead leaves, and the deep shadows in the snow. Everywhere one turns there are lessons to learn if one will only use seeing eyes and a thinking mind.

A house should be looked at as a whole, not as so many units to be treated in a care-free manner. A room is affected by all the rooms opening from it, as they, in turn, are affected by it. There can be variety of color with harmony of contrast, or there can be the same color used throughout, with the variety gained by the use of its different tones. The plan of each floor should be carefully studied to get the vistas in all directions so that harmony may reign and there will be no danger of a clashing color discord when a door is opened. The connecting rooms need not be all in one color, of course, but they should form a perfect color harmony one with another, with deft touches of contrast to ac-cent and bring out the beauty of the whole scheme : This matter of harmony in contrast is an important one. The idea of using a predominant color is a restful one, and adds dignity and apparent size to a house. The walls, for in-stance, could be paneled in white enameled wood, or plaster, and the necessary color and variety could be supplied by the rugs, hangings, furniture, and pictures.

Another charming plan is to have different tones of one color used a scheme running from cream or old ivory through soft yellow and tan to a russet brown would be lovely, especially if the house did not have an over supply of light. Greens may be used with discretion, and a cool and attractive scheme is from white to soft blue through gray. If different colors are to be used in the different rooms the number of combinations is almost unlimited, but there must always be the restraining influence of a good color sense in forming the scheme or the result will be disappointing, to say the least.

A very important matter in the use of color is in its relation to the amount and quality of the light. Dreary rooms can be made cheerful, and too bright and dazzling rooms can be softened in effect, by the skillful use of color. The warm colors, cream white, yellows but not lemon yellow orange, warm tans, russet, pinks, yellow greens, yellowish reds are to be used on the north or shady side of the house. The cool colors, white, cream white, blues, grays, greens, and violet, are for the sunny side. Endless combinations may be made of these colors, and if a gray room, for example, is wished on the north side of the house, it can be used by first choosing a warm tone of gray and combining with it one of the warm colors, such as certain shades of soft pink or yellow. We can stand more brilliancy of color out-of-doors than we can in the house, where it is shut in with us. It is too exciting and we become restless and nervous. No matter on what scale a house is furnished one of its aims should be to be restful.

There is one great mistake which many people make of thinking of red as a cheerful color, and one which is good to use in a dark room. The average red used in large quantities absorbs the light in a most disheartening manner, making a room seem smaller than it really is; it makes ugly gloomy shadows in the corners, for at night it seems to turn to a dingy black, and increases the electric light bill. Red is also a severe strain on the eyes, and many a red living-room is the cause of seemingly unaccountable headaches. I do not mean to say that red should never be used, for it is often a very necessary color, but it must be used with the greatest discretion, and one must remember that a little of it goes a long way. A room, for instance, paneled with oak, with an oriental rug with soft red in it, red hangings, and a touch of red in an old stained glass panel in the window, and red velvet cushions on the window seat, would have much more warmth and charm than if the walls were covered entirely with red. One red cushion is often enough to give the required note. The effect of color is very strong upon people, although a great many do not realize it, but nearly everyone will remember a sudden and apparently unexplained change of mood in going into some room. One can learn a deal by analyzing one's own sensations. Figured wall-papers should also be chosen with the greatest care for this same reason. Papers which have perpetual motion in their design, or eyes which seem to peer, or an unstable pattern of gold running over it, must all be ignored. People who choose this kind of paper are blest, or cursed, whichever way one looks at it, by an utter lack of imagination.

A room is divided into three parts, the floor, the walls, and the ceiling, and the color of the room naturally follows the law of nature; the heaviest or darkest at the bottom, or floor; the medium tone in the center, or walls; and the lightest at the top, or ceiling. It is only when one has to artificially correct the architectural proportions of a room that the ceiling should be as dark, or darker, than the walls. A ceiling can also be seemingly lowered by bringing the ceiling color down on the side walls. A low room should never have a dark ceiling, as it makes the room seem lower.

Walls should be treated as a background or as a decoration in themselves. In the latter case any pictures should be set in specially arranged panels and should be pictures of importance, or fresco painting. The walls of the great periods were of this decorative order. They were treated architecturally and the feeling of absolute support which they gave was most satisfactory. The pilasters ran from base or dado to the cornice and the over-doors made the doors a dignified part of the scheme, rather than mere useful holes in the wall as they too often are nowadays.

Paneling is one of the most beautiful methods of wall deco-ration. There are many styles of paneling, stone, marble, stucco, plaster, and wood, and each period has its own distinctive way of using them, and should be the correct type for the style chosen. The paneling of a Tudor room is quite different from a Louis XVI room. In the course of a long period like that of Louis XV the paneling slowly changed its character and the rococo style was followed by the more dignified one that later became the style of Louis XVI.

Tapestry and paintings of importance should have panels especially planned for them. If one does not wish to have the paneling cover the entire wall, a wainscot or dado with the wall above it covered with tapestry, silk, painting, or paper, will make a beautiful and appropriate room for many of the different styles of furniture. A wainscot should not be too high; about thirty-six inches is a good height, but should form a background for the chairs, sofas, and tables, placed around the room.

A wainscot six or more feet high is not as architecturally correct as a lower one, because a wall is, in a way, like an order in its divisions, and if the base, or wainscot, is too high it does not allow the wall, which corresponds to the column, to have its fair proportion. This feeling is very strong in many apartment houses where small rooms are overburdened by this kind of wainscot, and to make matters worse, the top is used as a plate-rail. A high wainscot should be used only in a large room, and if there are pilasters arranged to connect it with the cornice, and the wall covering is put on in panel effect between, the result is much better than if the wall were left plain, as it seems to give more of a raison d'etre.

Tapestry is another of the beautiful and important wall coverings, and the happy possessor of Flemish or Gobelin, or Beauvais, tapestries, is indeed to be envied. A rare old tapestry should be paneled or hung so it will serve as a back-ground. Used as portieres, tapestry does not show the full beauty of its wonderful time-worn colors and its fascination of texture. It is not everyone, however, who is able to own these almost priceless treasures of the past, and so modern machinery has been called to the aid of those who wish to cover their walls and furniture with tapestry. Many of these modern manufactures are really beautiful, thick in texture, soft in color, and often have the little imperfections and unevennesses of hand weaving reproduced, so that we feel the charm of the old in the new. Many do not realize that in New York there are looms making wonderful hand-woven tapestries with the true decorative feeling of the best days of the past. On the top floor of a large modern building stand the looms of various sizes, the dyeing tubs, the drip-ping skeins of wool and silk, the spindles and bobbins, and the weavers hard at work carrying out the beautiful designs of the artist owner. There are few colors used, as in mediaeval days, but wonderful effects are produced by a method of winding the threads together which gives a vibrating quality to the color. When the warp in some of the coarser fabrics is not entirely covered it is sometimes dyed, which gives an indescribable charm. Tapestries of all sizes have been made on these looms, from the important decoration of a great hall, to sofa and chair coverings. Special rugs are also made. It is a pleasure to think that an art which many considered dead is being practiced with the highest artistic aim and knowledge and skill in the midst of our modern rush. This hand-woven tapestry is made to fit special spaces and rooms, and there is nothing more beautiful and suitable for rooms of importance to be found in all the long list of possibilities.

The effect of modern tapestry, like the old, is enhanced if the walls are planned to receive it, for it was never intended to be used as wall-paper. It is sometimes used as a free hanging frieze, so to speak, and sometimes a great piece of it is hung flat against the wall, but as a general thing to panel it is the better way.

Another beautiful wall covering is leather. It should be used much more than it is, and is especially well adapted for halls, libraries, dining-rooms, smoking- and billiard-rooms, and dens. Its wonderful possibilities for rooms which are to be furnished in a dignified and beautiful manner are unsurpassed. It may be used in connection with paneling or cover the wall above a wainscot.

Fresco painting is another of the noble army of wall treatments which lends itself beautifully to all kinds and styles of rooms.

Amidst all the grandeur of tapestry and painting one must not lose sight of the simpler methods, for they are not to be distained. Wall-papers are growing more and more beautiful in color, design, and texture, and one can find among them papers suited to all needs. Fabrics of all kinds have become possibilities since their dust-collecting capacity is now no longer a source of terror, as vacuum cleaners are one of the commonplaces of existence. Painting or tinting the walls, when done correctly, is very satisfactory in many rooms.

There is no doubt that in many houses are wonderful collections of furniture, tapestries and treasures of many kinds, that are placed without regard to the absolute harmony of period, although the general feeling of French or Italian or English is kept. They are usually great houses where the sense of space keeps one from feeling discrepancies that would be too marked in a smaller one, and the interest and beauty of the rare originals against the old tapestries have an atmosphere all their own that no modern reproduction can have. There are few of us, however, who can live in this semi-museum kind of house, and so one would better stick to the highway of good usage, or there is danger of making the house look like an antique shop.

To carry out a style perfectly, all the small details should be attended to the door-locks, the framework of the doors and windows, the carving. All these must be taken into ac-count if one wishes success. It is better not to attempt a style throughout if it is to be a makeshift affair and show the effects of inadequate knowledge. The elaborate side of any style carried out to the last detail is really only possible and also only appropriate for those who have houses to correspond, but one can choose the simpler side and have beautiful and charming rooms that are perfectly suited to the average home. For instance, if one does not wish elaborate gilded Louis XVI furniture, upholstered in brocade, one can choose beautiful cane furniture of the time and have it either in the natural French walnut or enameled a soft gray or white to match the woodwork, with cushion of cretonne or silk in an appropriate design. Period furnishing does not necessarily mean a greater outlay than the nondescript and miscellaneous method so often seen.

Whatever the plan for furnishing a house may be, the balance of decoration must be kept; the same general feeling throughout all connecting parts. If a drawing-room is too fine for the hall through which one has to pass to reach it, the balance is upset. If too simple chairs are used in a grand dining-room the balance is upset, the fitness of things is not observed. When the happy medium is struck through-out the house one feels the delightful well-bred charm which a regard for the unities always gives. It is not only in the quality of the decorations that this feeling of balance must be kept, but in the style also. If one chooses a period style for the drawing-room it is better to keep to it through the house, using it in its different expressions according to the needs of the different rooms. If one style throughout should seem a bit monotonous at least one nationality should be kept, such as French, or English. If several styles of French furniture are used do not have them in the same room; for instance, Louis XV and Empire have absolutely nothing in common, but very late Louis XVI and early Empire have to a certain extent. It does not give the average person a severe shock to walk from a Louis XVI hall into a Louis XV drawing-room, but the two mixed in one room do not give a pleasing effect. The oak furniture of Jacobean days does not harmonize with the delicate mahogany furniture of the eighteenth century in England. The delicate beauty of Adam. furniture would be lost in the greatness of a Renaissance salon. A lady whose dining-room was furnished in Sheraton furniture one day saw two elaborate rococo Louis XV console tables which she instantly bought to add to it. The shopman luckily had more sense of the fitness of things than a mere desire to sell his wares, and was so appalled when he saw the room that he absolutely refused to have them placed in it. She saw the point, and learned a valuable lesson. One could go on indefinitely, giving examples to warn people against startling and inappropriate mixtures which put the whole scheme out of key.

I am taking it for granted that reproductions are to be chosen, as originals are not only very rare, but also almost prohibitive in price. Good reproductions are carefully made and finished to harmonize with the color scheme. The styles most used at present are, Louis XIV, XV, XVI, Jacobean, William and Mary, and Georgian. Gothic, Italian and French Renaissance, Louis XIII, and Tudor styles are not so commonly used. We naturally associate dignity and grandeur with the Renaissance, and it is rather difficult to make it seem appropriate for the average American house, so it is usually used only for important houses and buildings. Some of the Tudor manor houses can be copied with delightful effect. The styles of Henri II and Louis XIII can both be used in libraries and dining-rooms with most effective and dignified results.

The best period of the style of Louis XV is very beautiful and is delightfully suited to ball-rooms, small reception-rooms, boudoirs, and some bedrooms. In regard to these last, one must use discretion, for one would not expect one's aged grandmother to take real comfort in one. Nor does this style appeal to one for use in a library, as its gayety and curves would not harmonize with the necessarily straight lines of the bookcases and rows of books. Any one of the other styles may be chosen for a library.

The English developed the dining-room in our modern sense of the word, while the French used small ante-chambers, or rooms that were used for other purposes between meals, and I suppose this is partly the reason we so often turn to an English ideal for one. There are many beautiful dining-rooms done in the styles of Louis XV and XVI, but they seem more like gala rooms and are usually distinctly formal in treatment. Georgian furniture, or as we so often say, Colonial, is especially well suited to our American life, as one can have a very simple room, or one carried out in the most delightful detail. In either case the true feeling must be kept and no startling anachronisms should be allowed; radiators, for instance, should be hidden in window-seats. This same style may be used for any room in the house, and there are beautiful reproductions of Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton furniture that are appropriate for any need.

In choosing new " old " furniture, do not buy any that has a bright and hideous finish. The great cabinet-makers and their followers used wax, or oil, and rubbed, rubbed, rubbed. This dull finish is imitated, but not equaled, by all good furniture makers, and the bright finish simply proclaims the cheap department store.

In parts of the country Georgian furniture has been used and served as a standard from the first, and it is a happy thing for the beauty of our homes that once more it has come into its own. It is the high grade of reproduction which has made it possible.

The mahogany used by Chippendale, and in fact by all the eighteenth century cabinet-makers, was much more beautiful than is possible to get to-day, for the logs were old and well seasoned wood, allowed to dry by the true process of time, which leaves a wonderful depth of color quite impossible to find in young kiln-dried wood. The best furniture makers nowadays, those who have a high standard and pride in their work, have by careful and artistic staining and beautiful finish, achieved very fine results, but the factory article with its dreadful " mahogany " stain, its coarse carving, and its brilliant finish, shows a sad difference in ideal. The best reproductions are well worth buying, and, as they are made with regard to the laws of construction, they stand a very good chance of becoming valued heirlooms. There are certain characteristics of all the eighteenth century cabinet-makers, both English and French, which are picked out and overdone by ill-informed manufacturers. The rococo of Chippendale is coarsened, his Chinese style loses its fine, if eccentric, distinction, and the inlay of Hepplewhite and Sheraton is another example of spoiling a beautiful thing. Thickening a line here and there, or curving a curve a bit more or less, or enlarging the amount of inlay, achieves a vulgarity of appearance quite different from the beautiful proportions of the originals, and it is this which one must guard against in buying reproductions. The lack of knowledge of correct proportion is not confined to the cheaper grades, where necessary simplicity is often a protection, but is apt to be found in all. The best makers, as I have said, take a pride in their work and one can rely on them for fine workmanship and being true to the spirit of the originals.

There is one matter of great importance to be kept in mind and practiced with the sternest self-control, and that is, to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. 'Walk into the center of a room and look about with seeing, but impersonal eyes, and you will be astonished to find how many things there are which are unnecessary, in fact, how much the room would be improved without them. In every house the useless things which go under the generic name of " trash " accumulate with alarming swiftness, and one must be up with the lark to keep ahead of the supply. If something is ugly and spoils a room, and there is no hope of bringing it into harmony, discard it ; turn your eyes aside if you must while the deed is being done, but screw your courage to the sticking point, and do it. She is, indeed, a lucky woman who can start from the beginning or has only beautiful heritages from the past, for the majority of people have some distressingly strong pieces of ugly furniture which, for one reason or another, must be kept. One sensible woman furnished a room with all her pieces of this kind, called it the Chamber of Horrors, and used it only under great stress and strain, which was much better than letting her house be spoiled.

A home should not be a museum, where one grows exhausted going from one room to another looking at wonderful things. Rather should it have as many beautiful things in it as can be done full justice to, where the feeling of simplicity and restfulness and charm adds to their beauty, and the whole is convincingly right. The fussy house is, luckily, a thing of the past, or fast getting to be so, but we should all help the good cause of true simplicity. It does not debarone from the most beautiful things in the world, but adds dignity and worth to them. It does not make rooms stiff and solemn, but makes it possible to have the true gayety and joy of life expressed in the best periods.

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