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Interior Decoration - Nature And Method Of Art

( Originally Published 1922 )

WE all live in houses of one sort or another. Before these houses can be lived in they must be furnished. When furnished, whether well or ill, they constitute the environment in which we spend the great part of our lives, and as such influence us continuously and profoundly. In the degree that this environment is beautiful and comfortable it affects us favorably, making for repose, for quick recuperation from fatigue of mind or body, for cheerfulness, for wider and higher interests, and for a fuller and comelier mode of living generally. In the degree that it is uncomfortable and unbeautiful it makes quite as inevitably for the opposites of these desiderata.

It is therefore evident that a properly furnished house is, for each of us, a very important matter in-deed; and, as a necessary corollary, that a knowledge of how to furnish a house properly is also a very important matter. Unhappily no one is born with this knowledge.

It must be acquired, at some cost in time and effort, before it can be employed. Beauty and comfort in the home—and equally, of course, in the hotel, theater, or public room of whatever kind—do not result from chance or happy accident. They result from the proper employment of reasoned processes. That is, they result only from the practice of an art, using the word art to mean practice as guided by correct principles in the use of means for the attainment of a desired end. This art, for lack of a better term, we call interior decoration. Those who study and practice this art, whether as professionals or laymen, are here called decorators.

In a fine sense interior decoration is one of the creative arts. Transforming an empty house into a place of restful beauty is no less creative work than transforming a stretcher of white canvas into a picture, or a block of stone, into a sculptured form. There is, however, this very important distinction : that while the decorator creates an artistic whole he does not create the individual units by means of which that whole is built up. That is, he does not design and weave his own rugs, or print his own wall papers or cretonnes, or build his own tables or chairs. What he does is to select such things as he may require from stocks designed and made by others, and to combine and arrange the things so selected in such a way as to fashion a harmonious and beautiful whole. Interior decoration therefore is in an emphatic and peculiar sense an art of selection and arrangement.

It is obvious that such an art does not require dexterity of hand or skill in craftsmanship for its successful practice, but rather skill in selection and arrangement. Work of the highest order demands, here as in the other arts, that power of imagination and of vast artistic synthesis which we call genius. Work of a lower order demands, at the least, an unerring sense of what is becoming and appropriate, a clear perception of what is harmonious and beautiful in the relationships of form and color, and a considerable familiarity with decorative materials and processes. In a word, it demands precisely that complex of knowledge, appreciation, discrimination and judgment connoted by the word taste.

Taste, which Chenier happily characterized as a delicate good sense, is defined by the dictionary as the power of perceiving and relishing excellence in human performances; the faculty of discerning beauty, order, congruity, proportion, symmetry, or whatever constitutes excellence. The definition is inadequate, as the definition of any complex abstraction is sure to be; but the faculty itself constitutes the irreducible minimum in the equipment of the decorator. Lacking taste, no one can hope to do anything worth while in the art. Possessing it, any one can hope to do much, however meager his other resources. For the decorator the acquisition of a sure taste is therefore in the most determined sense a necessity.

There is, of course, no royal road. The distance to be traveled, as well as the difficulties of the journey, will vary for each individual. At the worst, we know that taste is a faculty which can be cultivated by any normal person who is willing to make the necessary effort. It is indubitable that different persons are differently endowed, and that the acquisition of a cultivated taste will prove more difficult for one than for another; but it is also true that the mind and the spirit, like the body, can be strengthened by exercise, and that for the person of normal endowment there need be no question of possibility, but only of means and methods.

The word taste is very commonly used in a second sense, to express individual fancy or predilection. This significance of the term is, in fact, the only one recognized by a great many people, with a resulting confusion of ideas which is responsible for much bad decoration. The saying that there is no disputing in matters of taste has come down to us from antiquity, and even to-day it is true that great numbers of house-wives do not admit the need for a cultivated taste because they do not recognize the authority, or indeed the existence, of any norms or standards of artistic judgment higher than their own preferences. Quite naturally the more unsophisticated among housewives of this class proceed to furnish their homes according to the promptings of their own sweet will, and remain happily unperturbed by the result. Among the more sophisticated we find on the one hand a tendency to imitate—to copy from the homes of acquaintances or from books and magazines, or, under the name of period decoration, to set up in their homes, with scrupulous fidelity to detail, one or more of the historic styles. On the other hand, there is a disposition to reject experience; to aim only at self-expression; and, mistaking mere eccentricity for originality, to create decorative environments which reveal neither beauty nor comfort, but only the vagaries of inept and undisciplined fancy.

It is clear that the real aim of interior decoration is as remote from mere imitation as it is from mere eccentricity; being, as we have seen, no other than the creation of a beautiful and fitting home. In these creative processes it can work neither blindly nor by fiat. Rather it must, like every other creative art, work in harmony with a body of definable general principles, and its products, whether imitative or original, can be excellent only in the degree that they conform to these principles. It follows therefore that taste, in so far as it governs the selective processes of the art, can be best and most quickly cultivated by the study of these underlying principles, and by the critical and long-continued examination of such examples of good and bad work as are necessary to their illustration and mastery. To deny that interior decoration has a basis in organized knowledge is to deny the possibility of intelligent progress in the art. Writing of the art of painting, Leonardo da Vinci long ago observed that "those who become enamored of the practice of the art without having previously applied themselves to the diligent study of the scientific part of it may be compared to mariners who put to sea without rudder or compass, and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished-for port. Practice must always be founded on good theory." What is true of painting is even more true of interior decoration. It, too, consists in a superstructure of practice resting upon a substructure of principle, and any genuinely productive study of it must begin with its foundation.

Interior decoration is a part of the whole body of architecture, an art which differs from painting, sculpture, music and poetry in that it has a practical aim. While the other arts have always served primarily to give expression to man's artistic impulses and to satisfy his esthetic needs, architecture, at first devoted to the erection of his tombs and temples, was soon made to minister directly to his comfort by providing him with habitations. And since it is the first business of a habitation to be habitable, architecture has always had to take due account not only of the esthetic factors which are the sole concern of the other arts, but also of the constantly varying factors of individual needs and preferences. For this reason, while sculpture has changed but little since the time of Greece, and painting has not changed greatly since the Renaissance, architecture has changed continually, both in methods and ideals, in the effort to adapt itself measurably to varying climatic conditions and building materials, and to changing social organization and racial, family and individual needs.

Herein lies the justification and the point of departure for the separate study of the art of decoration, which is concerned, far more intimately than is architecture proper, with the satisfaction of special needs and the expression of personal tastes and aspirations. In construction a house must conform, in a considerable measure at least, to the prevailing taste and to available building materials. In the choice and arrangement of its furniture and applied decoration no such necessity exists, and individual needs and preferences are rightly to be regarded as matters of primary importance. Thus interior decoration is peculiarly a practical art. Its actual problems are all individual problems, since each involves the adaptation of decorative objects, materials, processes and ideals to particular needs, and to the requirements of a particular house.

The extraordinary interest in housefurnishing every-where manifest to-day is a phenomenon of recent and rapid growth. Forty years ago the American people had slight conception of the cultural importance of the home environment, and cared relatively little about the way in which their houses were furnished. Public taste, which became debased here as in Europe after the close of the Napoleonic wars, was still at the ebb. Beauty itself, in any form, was regarded with suspicion, as submersive of morality, by a considerable number of our people, and with indifference by a vastly larger number. Even among the wealthy and traveled classes there were few well-furnished houses. In fact, it was an acquaintance with the homes of our wealthy and traveled classes that moved Oscar Wilde, who visited New York at about that time, to characterize American houses—with more truth than tact—as "illy designed, decorated shabbily and in bad taste, and filled with furniture not honestly made and out of character."

While it is possible that we could hardly expect to escape a trial if the same indictment were brought against us today, we could certainly make out a far better case for the defense. During the last three decades American life has been dominated by a deep-rooted universal determination to make that life more worth the living. This purpose has inspired and vivified every phase of national thought and activity, advancing education, altering old ideals in business and in society, shortening the hours and improving the conditions of labor, driving the boss and the machine out of the business of government, softening harsh creeds and emphasizing the ideals of brotherhood and service.

In nothing has the effect of this determination to make life saner and richer been more marked than in our changing attitude toward our homes and toward the home-making processes. And this growing desire for fitting and beautiful homes for their own sake has been intensified by modern science, which has taught us to see that our own well-being and the well-being of our children is conditioned by the factor of home environment as inevitably as the well-being of the flowers in our gardens is conditioned by the physical factors of sun and soil and rain.

For these reasons the past fifteen years have witnessed what we may well call a revolutionary change. No woman of intelligence is now indifferent to the beauty or the ugliness of her home. The economic, cultural and social importance of the art of interior decoration is widely and clearly recognized. And while it is unhappily true that multitudes of houses still exist which no sane man could call either beautiful or comfortable, their existence is for the most part due to ignorance or lack of skill rather than to indifference. Whatever we actually have, we all want attractive homes, and we therefore want to know how to create them.

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