Furnishing With French Furniture
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This is my Louis XVI drawing-room," said a lady, proudly displaying her house. " What makes you think so? " asked her well informed friend.
To guard against the possibility of such biting humor one must be ever on the alert in furnishing a period room. It is not a bow-knot and a rococo curve or two that will turn a modern room, fresh from the builder's hands, into a Louis XV drawing-room.
French furniture is not appropriate to all kinds of houses, and it is often difficult to adapt it to circumstances over which one has no control. The leisurely and pleasant custom of our ancestors of building a house as they wished it, and what is more, living in it for generations, is more or less a thing of the past. Nowadays a house is built, and is complete and beautiful in every way, but almost before the house-warming is over, business is sitting on the doorstep, and so the family moves on. We, as a nation, have not the comfortable point of view of the English who consider their home, their home, no matter how the outside world may be behaving. Their front doors are the protection which insures their cherished privacy, and the feeling that they are as settied as the everlasting hills gives a calmness to their attitude toward life which is often missing from ours. How many times have we heard people say when talking over plans —, " Have it thus and so, for it would be much better in case we ever care to sell." This attitude, to which of course there are hundreds of exceptions, is an outgrowth of our busy life and our tremendous country. The larger part of the home ideal is the one which Americans so firmly believe in and act upon — that it is the spirit and atmosphere which makes a home, and not only the bricks and mortar.
It is this point of view which makes it possible for many of us to live happily in rented houses whose architecture and arrangement often give us cold shivers. We are not to blame if all the proportions are wrong; and there is a certain pleasure in getting the better of difficulties.
If one is building a house, or is living in one planned with a due regard to some special period, and has a well thought out scheme of decoration, the work is much simplified; but if one has to live in the average nondescript house and wishes to use French furniture, the problem will take time and thought to solve. In this kind of house, if one cannot change it at all, it is better to keep as simple and unobtrusive a background as possible, to have the color scheme and hangings and furniture so beautiful that they are a convincing reason themselves of the need of their being there, but one should not try to turn the room itself into a period room, for it would mean failure. The walls may be covered with a light plain paper, or silk, the woodwork enameled white or cream or ivory, and then with one's mirrors and furnishings, the best thing possible has been done, and it ought to be a charming room, if not a perfect one. If one can make a few changes I advise new lighting fixtures and a new mantel, for these two important objects in the room are conspicuous and nearly always wrong.
It is almost impossible to give a list of furniture for each room in a house, as each house is a law unto itself, but the fundamental principles of beauty and utility and appropriateness apply to all.
The furniture of the time of Louis XIV, having so much that is magnificent about it, is especially well suited to large rooms for state occasions, great ballrooms and state drawing-rooms. These rooms not being destined for everyday use should be treated as a brilliant background; paneling, painting, tapestry, and gilding should decorate the walls, and beautiful lights and mirrors should aid in the effect of brilliancy. It must be done with such knowledge that there is no suggestion of an hotel about it. Console tables, and large and dignified chairs should be used for furniture. Nothing small and fussy in the way of ornaments should be put in the rooms, for they would be completely out of scale and ruin the effect.
Every house does not need these rooms for the elaborate side of life, and the average drawing-room is a much simpler affair. If both kinds are required the simpler one should be in the same general style as the great rooms, but not on so grand a scale. If the style of Louis XV is chosen for all, in the family drawing- and living-rooms the paneling, or dado, and furniture should be of the simpler kind, and beautiful, gay, and home-like rooms, evolved with soft colored brocades, Beauvais or Gobelin tapestry, and either gilded or enameled or natural walnut furniture. The arm-chairs or bergeres of both Louis XV and Louis XVI are very comfortable, the chaise-longue cannot be surpassed, and the settees of different shapes and sizes are delightful. There need be no lack of comfort in any period room, whether French or English.
A music room, to be perfect, should not have heavy draperies to deaden the sound, and the window and door openings should be treated architecturally to make this possible. In a French music room the walls may be either paneled, or have a dado with a soft tint above it. This space may be treated in several ways: it may have silk panels outlined with moldings, or dainty pastoral scenes painted and framed with wreaths and garlands of composition. The style of the Regency with its use of musical instruments for decorative motifs is also attractive. The chairs should be comfortable, the lights soft and well shaded side-lights, with a plentiful supply near the piano.
A piano is usually a difficulty, for they are so unwieldy and dark that they are quite out of key with the rest of the room. We have become so used to its ugliness, however, that, sad to say, we are not so much shocked by it as we should be, thinking it a necessary evil. If we walk through the show rooms of one of the great piano companies we shall see that this is a mistake, for there are many cases made of light colored woods, and some have a much more graceful outline than the regulation piano. Cases can be made to order to suit any scheme, if one has a competent designer. A music room should not have small and meaningless ornaments in it; the ideal is a restful and charming room where one may listen with an undistracted mind.
The modern dining-room with all its comforts is really of English descent. In France, even in the eighteenth century, only the palaces and great houses had rooms especially set apart for dining-rooms. Usually a small ante-chamber was used, which served as a boudoir or reception room between meals. To our more established point of view it seems a very casual method. At last, late in the century, the real ideal of a dining-room began to gain ground, and although they were very different from ours, we find really charming ones de-scribed and pictured. The walls were usually light in tone, paneled, with graceful ornamentation, and often there were niches containing wall-fountains of delightful design. The sideboards were either large side-tables, or a species of side-table built in niches, with a fountain between them which was used as a wine cooler. These fountains where cupids and dolphins disported themselves would be a most attractive feature to copy in some of our rooms, in country houses especially. The tables were round or square, but not the extension type which came later from England, and the chairs were comfortable, with broad upholstered or cane seats, and rather low backs. There should be a screen to harmonize with the room in front of the pantry door. We also add hangings, for, as I have said many times, our window-frames are not a decoration in themselves. Old prints show most delight-fully the manner in which curtains were hung when they were used; the very elaborate methods, however, were not used by the better class.
A morning-room should be furnished as a small informal living-room, and the simpler style of the chosen period used.
The style of Louis XVI is beautifully adapted to libraries, for they do not have to be dark and solid in style, as many seem to think. In fact a library may be in any style if carried out with the true feeling and love of books, but of course some styles are more appropriate than others. In a Louis XVI library the paneling gives way to the built-in bookcases which are spaced with due regard to keeping the correct proportions. There is usually a cupboard space running round the room about the height of a dado and projecting a little beyond the bookcases above. The colors of the rugs and hangings may be warm and rich as the books give the walls a certain strength.
There are also beautiful reproductions of bedroom furniture, chairs and dressing-tables, desks, chiffoniers and Chaises-longues, and beds.
Andirons, side-lights for the walls and dressing-table, doorknobs and locks, can all be carried out perfectly. Lamp and candle shades and sofa cushions should all be in keeping. The walls may be paneled in wood enameled with white or some light color, or they may be covered with silk or paper, in a panel design, with curtains to match. There are lovely designs in French period stuffs.
The rugs most appropriate for French period rooms are light or medium in tone, and of Persian design. The floral patterns of the Persians seem to harmonize better with the curves and style of furniture than do the geometrical de-signs of the Caucasian rugs. Savonnerie and Aubusson rugs may also be used, if chosen with care, and the plain carpets and rugs mentioned later are a far better choice than gaudy Orientals of modern make, or bad imitations.