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The Treatment Of Walls

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The walls of a house hold a most important place in the order of things and their treatment requires much thought. The floor is the darkest color value in a room, as it is the foundation, and the walls come next in color value and consideration. What I have said in other chapters about the necessity of connecting rooms being harmonious applies of course to the selection of wall coverings.

The first question to be settled is: shall paint or paper be used?

If a house is new the walls are apt to settle a little making the plaster crack, and it is far better in such a case to allow the walls to remain white for a year. If the effect of plain white plaster strikes one as too cold one of the many water tints may be used as this will not interfere with any later scheme. In houses that have been built for a number of years the walls are often so badly cracked and marred that to put them into condition for painting would be more expensive than preparing them for paper. Estimates should be given for both paint and paper.

When the plaster has done its worst and settled down to a quiet life the work of covering the walls appropriately begins.

Plain walls, whether painted, tinted, or papered, are more restful in effect and form better backgrounds than figured walls. This is not a question of the beauty of the design or the expense of the material, but simply the fact that a plain surface is quiet, while a figured wall, even if only two-toned, will at once assert itself more, and so be less of a background. If many pictures and mirrors are to be used, or a figured rug and much furniture, by all means have plain walls. If one has some special object of great beauty and interest, it should be treated with the dignity and honor it deserves and given a plain background. A miscellaneous collection of lares and penates can be made to hold together better by having a plain wall of some soft neutral color rather than a figured paper, which would only make the confusion more pronounced. Small rooms should have plain and light colored walls, as they then appear larger. Plain walls give a wider scope in the matter of decoration, for, beside the possibilities of plain stuffs, chintz and various striped silks and linen may be used which would be quite out of the question with figured walls, more flowers may be used, and lamp-shades, always a bit assertive, take their proper place in the scheme, instead of making another distracting note.

The question of paint or paper has often to be decided by circumstances, such as the condition of the walls or the climate. With paint one can have the exact shade desired and either a "glossy" or eggshell finish. With paper it is often a matter of taking the nearest thing to the color wanted and changing the other colors to harmonize. Paint is better to use in a damp or foggy climate, as paper may peel from the walls in the course of time.

Walls may be tinted or painted, and paneled with strips of molding which are painted the wall color or a tone lighter or darker as the scheme requires. Also, the wall inside the moulding may be a tone lighter than the wall outside, or vice versa, but the contrast must not be strong or the wall at once becomes uneven in effect and ceases to be a good background. Paintings may be paneled on the walls. If one has only one suitable picture for the room it should be placed over the mantel, or in some other position of importance, making a centre of interest in the room. Using pictures and pieces of tapestry in this way is quite different from having the walls painted in two sharply contrasting colors, because the paint gives the feeling of permanence while the picture is obviously an added decoration requiring a correct background. I am speaking of the average house, not of houses and palaces where the walls have been painted by great artists.

Painted walls are appropriate for all manner of homes, from the elaborate country or city house all through the list to the farm house or small bungalow, but if, for any reason, one cannot have painted walls, or prefers paper, one need not forego the restful pleasure of plain backgrounds, for there are many beautiful plain papers to be had.

Personal taste usually decides whether paint or paper is to be used. Paint is thought by some to be too cold or hard in appearance (it is only so when badly done or when disagreeable colors are chosen,) or it is considered too formal, or, with the memory of New England farm houses in mind, too informal. For those who wish paper, the possibilities are very great if the paper is properly chosen. The reason why so many people are disappointed with the effect of their newly papered rooms is that they judged the paper at the shop from one piece, and did not realize that a design which appealed to them there might be overpowering when repeated again and again and again on the wall. When choosing a figured paper several strips should be placed side by side to enable one to judge whether the horizontal repeat is as satisfactory and pleasant as the perpendicular. When an acceptable one is found a large sample should be taken home to pin on the wall to show the effect in its future environment. Samples of the curtains and furniture coverings should also be tried with the sample of paper before the final choice is made. If a paper with a decided figure is chosen pictures should be banished, for their beauty will be killed by the repeated design. The scale of the design in relation to the size of the room must also be taken into account. A small room will be overpowered by a large figure, but often the repeat of a small figure is quite correct in a large room as it gives an all-over, unobtrusive effect. If the wall space is much cut by doors and windows one should select a plain, neutral toned paper. It would be a fatal error to use a figured paper, for the room would look restless and chaotic and probably out of balance. If the windows are in groups and the doors balance each other the danger is lessened, but not done away with. One of the beautiful features in fine old Colonial houses is this ordered position of doors, but in many a modern house the doors have a trying way of appearing in a corner, as if they were a bit ashamed of themselves ; and they have good cause to be, for a badly placed door is a calamity. If one is fortunate enough to plan one's own house, this matter can be taken care of properly, but in the average ready made house one has to try to make the doors less conspicuous by having them painted in very much the tone of the wall. With a gray wall, for instance, there should have a slightly lighter tone of' gray for the woodwork, with a white and gray striped paper white paint may be used, with a soft tan a deep old ivory, and so on.

If a room is badly proportioned it can often be improved by the simple expedient of using a correct paper. If the room is too high for its size the ceiling color may be brought down on the side wall for eighteen inches or so and finished with a moulding. This stops the eye before it reaches the ceiling and so makes the room seem lower. If the room is too low a striped paper may be used which will make the room seem higher by carrying the eye up to the ceiling where the paper is finished with a moulding. Vertical lines give the appearance of height, horizontal lines of width. Striped paper should not be used in narrow halls, for it makes them seem narrower and gives one the feeling of being in a cage. Two-toned striped papers of nearly the same color value, such as gray and white, yellow and cream-white, and white and cream color, are better to use than those of more marked contrast, although some of the green and white and blue and white are charming and fresh looking for bedrooms. Black and white is too eccentric for the average house; one should beware of all eccentric papers. There are a few kinds of paper which should be left severely alone, for they will spoil any room. One of them has a plain general tone but a suggestion of other colors which give it a blurred and mottled appearance which is singularly disagreeable. Another is plain in color but has a lumpy effect like a toad's back, and is really quite awful. Others are metallic papers, and there is a heavy paper embossed in self color with a conventional design which is apt to have a shining surface. Papers with dashes and little flecks of gold should be avoided, for the gold gives the wall an unstable and cheap appearance. Papers with small single figures repeated all over the surface are apt to look as if a plague of flies or beetles had arrived and are quite impossible to live with. Borders and cut out borders have a commonplace appearance and are not in the best of taste. And then there are papers with vulgarity of design. This quality is hard to define clearly, for it may be only a slightly redundant curve or other lack of true feeling for the beauty of line, or a bit too much, or too little, color, or a bad combination of color, or a lack of knowledge of the laws of balance and harmony and ornament, or a wrong surface of texture to the paper. But whatever the cause, a vulgar paper will vulgarize any room, no matter what is done in the way of furniture. It will assert itself like an ill-bred person. Luckily both are easily recognized.

But the picture is not all dark by any means, for some of the American made papers, as well as the imported papers, are very beautiful. The makers are taking great pains to have fine designs and beautiful colors which will appeal to people of knowledge and taste. The situation is much better than it was a few years ago. Some of the copies of old figured and scenic papers are exceptionally fine, and can be used with great distinction in dining-rooms or halls with ivory or cream-white woodwork and wainscoting, and Georgian or Colonial furniture. One should not use pictures with these papers, but mirrors are permissable and will have the best effect if placed on a wood-paneled over-mantel. These papers come in tones of gray and white and also sepia. Oriental rugs, if not of too conspicuous a design, may be used with them, but plain rugs are better with plain hangings and striped silk chair seats. These papers are very attractive in country houses. There are also colored scenic papers, an especially fascinating one having a Chinese design which could be used as a connected scene, or in panels, and would be lovely in a country house drawing-room or dining-room or hall. It could also be used in a city house with beautiful effect if due thought be given to the question of hangings, woodwork, rug, and furniture. Introduce a false note, and a room of this kind is ruined. These scenic papers come in sets, but the copies of the other old papers come in the regular rolls. Some of the lovely old "Toile de Jolty" designs have been used for wall paper, and these with other chintz designs, can be softened in effect by a special method of glazing which makes them very harmonious and charming with antique furniture or reproductions of fine old models. These old chintz papers are lovely for bedrooms or morning-rooms, with fresh crisp muslin curtains and plain silk or linen or chambray side-curtains. Either painted or mahogany furniture could be employed. A motif from the paper can be used for the furniture or it can simply be striped with the color chosen for the plain curtains. Some of the good and rather stunning bird design papers treated with this special glazing make beautiful halls with plain rugs and hangings and chair covers.

Papers cost from about forty cents to several dollars a roll, but the choice is large and attractive between one and three dollars a roll, and there are also excellent ones for eighty-five cents. It is almost impossible, however, to give a satisfactory list of prices as they vary in different parts of the country. The reproductions of old scenic papers of which I have spoken are expensive, costing about one hundred dollars a set, but they may go down again now that the war is over. The difference in expense between paint and paper is not very great, in fact, with the average paper at a dollar or a dollar and a half a roll, paint is about the same, or perhaps a bit cheaper if the walls are in fairly good condition. It is a mistake to use inferior paper, and there should never be more than a lining paper and the paper itself on the wall. In some cases where there is only one paper of soft color on the wall, with no lining paper, this paper may be used as a lining paper if it is absolutely tight and firm. The risk is that the new paste may loosen the old a bit and so let all come down. Old paper must be entirely removed if there are any marred places as they will show through the new and ruin the effect.

The amount of wall space and the quality and the quantity of the light are important factors in deciding the color scheme because by using them correctly we can brighten a cheerless, (lark room or soften the blaze in a too sunny one.

If the light is a cold dreary one from the north, the room will be vastly improved if warm, cheerful colors are used: warm ivory, deep cream color, soft or bright yellow without any greenish tinge in it, soft yellow pinks (there is a hard pink which is very ugly), yellow green (but not olive), and tones of golden tan. It is the dash of yellow in these colors which makes them cheerful and gives the impression of sunlight. Tans should never come too close to brown for a dark room, for nothing is more dreary or hopeless than a room done in that depressing color. The beautiful tones of old oak, or properly treated modern oak paneling, are quite a different matter. Small amounts of red or orange will do wonders, if used with discretion, in brightening a dull room, and are often just what are needed to bring out the beauty of the rest of the scheme; but it is a great mistake to think that red walls and a great deal of red in the hangings and furniture covering will make a cheerful or pleasant room. Red absorbs light and is also an irritant to the eyes and nerves, and, unless it is used with great skill, it is apt to look extremely commonplace and ugly or like an ostentatious hotel or public building. Few of us have large enough houses to make it possible to use red in great amounts, and it is well for the average person to shun it and remember that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a red wall will spoil a room.

Cool colors should be used in bright and sunny roomsóblues, greens, grays, grayish tans, and those delightful colors, old ivory, and soft deep cream color and linen color. Colors with a tone of yellow in them are easier to use than cold blues and greens and violets, for the yellow tinge, be it ever so little, brings them into relation with the majority of woods used in floors and furniture frames. Light colors make a room seem larger by apparently making the walls recede, and dark colors make it seem smaller, as they make us conscious of the walls and so seem to bring them nearer. Any very bright room may have dark walls to soften the glare, but if it has to be used by artificial light it will then be heavy and cheerless in effect ; and so a better choice would be some soft neutral color of medium or lighter color values, such as gray green, and use awnings and dark shades. This matter of color in relation to light is important to remember when planning one's house. There is also another question which has great influence on one's choice of paper, and that is the amount and kind of furniture to be used in the room. Georgian furniture calls for plain or paneled walls, or if a figured paper is used it should be one of the old-fashioned designs or one of the striped papers. Old-fashioned chintz designs are also appropriate for bedrooms with mahogany or painted furniture. Plain or paneled walls, striped paper, and some of the fine floral designs, which can also be used as panels, and the charming Toile de Jouy designs, are all appropriate when used with French furniture. Heavily made furniture like Craftsman or Mission needs the support of strong walls which may be rough-finished natural-colored or painted plaster, or grass cloth, or one of the many good plain papers of heavy texture. There are also figured papers which are appropriate. Wicker furniture will go with almost any kind of attractive paper which is correct for the room, but when there is much figure the cushions should be covered with plain stuff. All-over stuffed furniture when covered with chintz looks best with plain walls. Painted furniture looks well with plain walls and chintz. A motif from the chintz can be used on the furniture for the decoration, but if the wall paper is figured the effect will be more restful if the furniture is only striped.

In summing up : the important points which govern the choice and color of wall covering are the connecting rooms, the amount and quality of light, the size and shape of the room, its use, the furnishings which are to be used, the condition of the walls, and personal preference as to paint or paper. Do not be afraid of the idea that plain walls, whether paint or paper, may become tiresome, for one can stand well planned monotony year in and year out with a cheerful heart. If some rooms are to be papered with figured paper be sure the selection is made with care and with the idea in mind that a figured wall is in itself a decoration and should not have pictures crowded upon it.

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