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Excellence In Design

( Originally Published 1922 )



WE have seen that in the perfectly furnished room the parts are so congruous in pro-portion and so harmonious in line and coloring that the room appears to be not a creation but a growth. Nevertheless it is purely a creation, made up of many separate units—of floor and wall coverings, furniture, hangings, and decorative accessories of many kinds. While the decorator does not in ordinary practice design these units, he must choose and combine them ; and since the organic excellence of the finished room will be strictly conditioned by the designs of the individual units, he must be able to recognize excellence or the lack of it in the designs of these units.

Excellence in design is not a simple quality, but rather a complex made up of many qualities, both esthetic and practical. Nor is it in practice a fixed and unchanging quality; for good decoration, as we have seen, is largely a matter of correct relationships, and a given design may be admirable in one situation and quite the opposite in another. The fact is that before a design can be accepted as excellent it must pass four tests : first, it must fit its particular purpose or function; second, it must be adapted to the material in which it is expressed; third, it must fit its decorative environment; and finally, apart from all considerations of fitness, it must be intrinsically good-looking.

Fitness to purpose is the first test of excellence in the design of any decorative unit. Through-out all the appointments of a house every background surface and every object of use or orna-ment must be adopted in size, shape, color, pattern and material to the purpose it is destined to serve. Important as is this test of fitness, neither technical training in design nor even a highly cultivated taste is required for its application, but only common which violate the requirements sense and an open mind.

It is a matter of common sense, for example, that draperies, in addition to the purely artistic value of their texture, coloring and pattern, ought to subdue or control the lighting of a room, to ensure a sense of privacy or intimacy to its occupants, and to soften and yet emphasize the structural lines of its openings. Draperies that perform none of these useful offices and are by nature incapable of performing any of them are bad in design, whether they appear as cheap and tawdry rope or leather portières, or as such elaborate and costly examples as the Louis XVI hangings illustrated in Figure 50. Common sense will likewise reject the writing desk too small or unstable for comfortable use; the lamp with no real power of illumination ; the easily-soiled and perishable pillow ; the lounging chair too shallow in the seat or low in the back or high in the arms to sustain in comfort the particular individual for whose use it is primarily intended; and the multitude of similar violations of this primary requirement of sound taste.

Care and common sense will also enable us to apply the second test of fitness. "Never forget the material you are working with, and try always to make it do what it can do best," cautioned William Morris. Manifestly sensible as is this advice, it has been and is today widely ignored, with a marked resulting loss in the beauty or fitness of many decorative materials. Thus the base of a floor lamp may safely be made of wood and carved into an elaborate Renaissance design; but the same design, cast in compo, is almost certain to be chipped and broken within a short period of time. Delicately-colored naturalistic flowers are unpleasant either in woolen floor coverings or in wrought iron table bases ; yet we find them in both situations. Many of the designs found in self-toned damasks are fitting and effective when reproduced in inexpensive papers; but the involved and multi-colored patterns of good brocades are dauby and ineffective when copied, as they frequently are, in wall papers. Even so great an artist as Chippendale frequently carved the backs of his chairs into delicate interlacing ribbon forms wholly unsuitable to a rendering in wood.

What the decorator must be most carefully on guard against, however, is the effect of pretentiousness and tawdriness that results from the use of things made from inexpensive materials and by cheap processes in imitation of costly things. When the design of a Savonnerie or Persian rug costing one hundred dollars a square yard is imitated in a machine axminster fabric costing five dollars a square yard no part of the excellence of the original can be made to appear in the copy, in spite of the fact that the axminster designer has practically an unlimited palette at his command; while the real excellence of the axminster fabric itself, which would be perfectly apparent in a simple design, is also lost. Unhappily there is a constant demand from the purchasing public for things which are at once cheap and showy, and the manufacturer is forced —sometimes much against his will—to bring out in cheap materials and by purely mechanical processes crude copies of designs by nature restricted to costly materials and slow and expensive hand processes. Thus our shops and our homes are filled with dreary imitations of filet or point de Vénise lace curtains, furniture machine-carved and ornamented with jigsaw or campo appliqué, and printed velveteen upholstery fabrics that look as little like the sumptuous old velvets from which their designs were taken as a chromo looks like a Turner canvas.

It is unnecessary to discuss at length the third test of excellence in design, since the whole course of our study has tended to emphasize its importance. Be-cause unity and beauty in decoration largely depend upon sound proportion and upon recurring forms and colors the designs of single objects to be used in a given room must harmonize, both in structural lines and ornamental details, with the predominant lines and forms of the room regarded as a unit; except, as noted in earlier chapters, where differences are introduced for the sake of contrast. Failure to appreciate the fundamental importance of this requirement is responsible for much bad decoration. There are for example many persons who, seeing the manifest beauty of some Oriental rugs and their incomparable fitness and excellence in certain situations, act upon the assumption that all Oriental rugs are beautiful and excel-lent in any situation; just as there are other people who, seeing the manifest ugliness of some Oriental rugs and their incomparable unfitness in certain situations, act upon the assumption that all Oriental rugs are unfitting in any situation. Of course, some of these rugs are intrinsically beautiful and some are not; but the point to be pressed here is that no rug, whatever its intrinsic merits, can be regarded as excellent in a particular room unless it is harmonious with the lines and coloring dominant in the room, and accordingly capable of concurring in the proper expression of the decorative motive. Thus the soft curves and delicate coloring of most Kashan and Kermanshah rugs make these weaves admirable for use in a drawing room filled with light, graceful furniture in which curves are more or less strongly emphasized, as in the styles of Hepplewhite or Louis XVI, and quite unfit for use in a living room furnished with Craftsman furniture, or with the heavy straight-lined types of the Renaissance; while the straighter lines, more angular forms, and darker and purer colors of a Bijar rug make it excellent in the latter situation and quite unfitting in the former.

The fourth test of excellence in a design is the test of beauty. Beauty in a rug, a table or a textile is like beauty in the room as a unit in that it is beyond definition and beyond convincing analysis. It is, how-ever, dependent upon unity in diversity, graceful and rhythmic line, good proportion, symmetry, and pleasing color. There is, of course, this obvious distinction : that the rug or the table or the velvet are but parts of the whole treatment, and as such may properly lack elements of beauty which are supplied by other parts of the whole. Thus a plain rug, like a plain paper or a plain taffeta, though it lack variety both in pattern and coloring, may be beautiful in a room where its plainness is required to set off the rich diversity of other decorative elements.

The best way to learn to recognize beauty in a de-sign is to observe and compare designs, of whatever sort and wherever they are to be seen; whether in the home, the shop or the museum. The next best way, and a way open to all of us, whatever our situation, is to study illustrations of designs in books and magazines. It makes no difference that many of the de-signs we see are bad, so long as we see large numbers of examples, and study them carefully and impartially, for the eye and the mind quickly acquire through practice and discipline the power to discriminate between bad and good. In fact we learn to know the good more quickly through comparison with the bad.

It is important to note that the student will profit most largely from the observation and study of individual designs, rather than from groups made up of many diverse units. When the layman looks at a furnished room, whether in a book or out of it, he sees too much and grasps too little. Individual excellence or the lack of it is obscured or lost in the effect of the whole. The study of complete rooms is of course an important and necessary part of the training of the decorator—the study of them, not mere hurried glances at them, which are of slight value; but this study must be supplemented by the study of individual units and of related groups. The value of a systematic study of period decoration lies in considerable part in the fact that it presents for comparison these groups of related units, points out their resemblances and their differences, and makes it easy for the student to detect and fix in mind the sources of their excellence.

Another very important source of help toward acquiring the power to judge soundly of excellence in design is a study of the principles of design. This does not mean that the decorator must become a practical designer. It means only that his perceptions will be sharpened and his taste notably improved by a real familiarity with the theory of design. Many helpful studies in this subject will be found in the works of Walter Crane and Lewis F. Day, in works on the principles of design by Rhead, by Batchelder and by Jackson, and particularly in La composition décorative by Mayeux, a book published in English as The Manual of Decorative Composition. This work, particularly the first or theoretical part, is invaluable.

Every design, whatever its character, consists essentially of a plan and details, and it cannot be a good design unless the details are kept clearly subordinate to the plan and help in its perfect realization. We have seen this to be emphatically true of the design of a room as a unit, and it is equally true of the design of a rug or a chair. The Barocco chair shown in Figure 49 is an extreme example in furniture design of this defect. In this chair the mass of over-luxuriant ornamental detail obscures the structural lines of the piece and thus prevents the possibility of beauty, to say nothing of fitness, in the whole. Similar examples of the loss of beauty through subordination of plan to detail are afforded by the use of wall papers of large, sprawling or over-pronounced design in situations where the pattern strikes the openings and corners of the room in such irregular ways as to make the whole effect of the walls confusing and meaningless. This defect is frequently found in rooms where fine and costly hand-blocked landscape papers are used.

The walls, as the principal background surface, are so important as to condition definitely the success of the room, and their design must accordingly be most carefully studied. A discussion of the methods of treating walls in modern decorative practice does not lie within the scope of this study. The student will, however, find plenty of material and innumerable illustrations of successful walls in every library. It must be remembered that paneled walls, whether done in natural woods or in canvas and paint, are absolutely dependent upon excellence in proportion, and that they must always be designed by a competent architectural designer. Paneling in natural woods gives to the walls of a room a marked effect of strength and stability—qualities which are, of course, desirable in large rooms of a serious character, but undesirable in large rooms of a lighter and gayer character, and in small rooms of any character. Painted walls, on which plaster or wooden moldings are used with canvas-covered backgrounds, can be used in rooms of any size, though it is clear that the note of restraint and formality with which they always invest a room will become more insistent as the rooms are increasingly smaller.

Concerning excellence in the design of wall papers and cloth fabrics, we have noted in earlier chapters that, in general, size of pattern, or effect of texture, or both, will increase directly with the size and structural emphasis of the room; that the amount of pat-tern and the number of colors in a wall paper must be decreased as the quantity and number in the other surfaces of the room are increased; and that while the ornamental detail in a paper may be drawn from nature, it must, except in the case of hand-blacked landscape papers, be highly conventionalized.

While a paper intended to serve as a background for pictures or for other objects of marked decorative value must have a pleasing texture, it will normally be; either plain or covered with an inconspicuous self-toned pattern. Water colors, pastels and etchings used in a small room will look best against plain walls. Large heavily-framed pictures in a large room will look better on a coarse or open texture, or, where the proportions of the room demand it, against a medium-sized and symmetrical pattern in a self-toned paper. In a room without pictures or other wall ornament the wall paper may, of course, reveal a more pronounced pattern and richer coloring; but even here it is to be remembered that in the background surfaces of any room to be used regularly and for long periods of time cultivated people can endure but a very moderate degree of stimulation. The gorgeous papers that one sees in the shops or reads of in the books can be hung successfully only in rooms used infrequently or for short periods; and even then they can be employed safely only by skillful decorators. In the hands of beginners the use of such papers is practically certain to result in unpleasant and inartistic rooms.

All wall papers, except the hand-blocked scenic papers so much used at the end of the eighteenth century, have of necessity a repeating pattern. Unless the repeat is wholly concealed, as in the case of shaded or blended papers, it should be clearly revealed and even emphasized. For this reason diaper patterns are likely to be far more agreeable when hung than detached figures in which the ornament, though constantly repeated, is set off by plain spaces. Such papers have a spotty effect, and an insistence of appeal that catches the eye and wearies the mind. It is to be noted that fairly small patterns, and ornament either purely geometrical in character or else very highly conventionalized, are best suited to repeating pattern design, whether in wall papers or carpets, and that in the degree that patterns are very large, markedly naturalistic in rendering, or of a strikingly exotic character—as. in the Chinoiseries so much the rage in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and so much copied in recent years—they become less well adapted to the requirements of repeating ornament and less pleasing when so used.

The number and variety of colors that can be effectively used in the design of a paper varies inversely with the size of the pattern. In small patterns the colors appear in such minute areas, and so closely juxtaposed, that the eye feels no sense of confusion. In large figures, on the other hand, the number of colors must be narrowly restricted, and the best effects are almost invariably produced in patterns limited to two or three tones of a single hue.

The esthetic function of the floor coverings is, in general, to provide a low-toned and restful base for the decorative treatment. It is a mistake to assume that the ideal floor covering is always the plain rug or carpet. Plain carpets affect the mind precisely as do other plain surfaces, and they are desirable only when they concur in the proper expression of the emotional character or motive of the room as a unit. The ideal floor covering, abstractly considered, is rather the one which is both low in tone and broken in hue, since such carpets yield the effect of stability essential in the base of the room, and at the same time make it possible to give a subtle interest to the color treatment by echoing in small and broken masses on the floor the larger masses of more brilliant colors appearing in the decorative objects placed nearer eye-height. On the other hand, the carpet must not in the modern room make an over-insistent demand for attention. In Persia and Turkey there are no pictures and but little furniture, and the rugs constitute the chief decoration of the room. With us the finest rug is but one part of a much greater whole, and the decorator must be careful to keep his floor covering, like every other individual element, carefully subordinated to the general scheme.

In the design of floor coverings the essential conditions are flat surface and uniformity of appearance as seen from any point of view. The first requirement definitely bars all effects of perspective or relief, which cause one or more elements of the design to seem to be in a higher plane than the others. Such effects appear when bright flowers or other ornamental motives are related to a darker ground by shading, as well as in shaded self-toned ornament. Flatness of surface is characteristic of all good Oriental rugs, and where rich color effects are demanded in the design of a domestic rug or carpet this essential flatness can be best ensured by using colors in the Oriental manner ; that is, by defining flat masses of color and relieving forms by means of narrow outlines of other colors, and by eliminating all effects of shading.

Violations of the second requirement are common, even among the finest domestic carpets and rugs. They result chiefly from the practice of copying successful wall paper and drapery patterns in floor coverings, and arise from failure to distinguish between the artistic requirements of vertical and horizontal surfaces. Every wall surface has a bottom and a top, and vase, vine, flower and tree designs are, if properly conventionalized, perfectly appropriate for wall work because no one can see them from the top. Floor coverings, on the contrary, must be seen from every point in the room, and a pattern having a pronounced direction will necessarily appear to be upside down when seen from one end of the room.

In the past fifteen years American manufacturers of floor coverings have made notable progress, both technically and in the character of their designs. They have not merely kept up with improving general taste; the best of them have kept well ahead of it. It is safe to say that nowhere in the world is there to be found such an extraordinary range of good fabrics in beautiful and suitable designs as in our own shops. Naturally the manufacturers have had to meet the demand for extreme and showy novelties, and even among the finest fabrics many hopelessly ugly and unfitting designs will be met with. However, no one is compelled to buy these things, and no one can blame either the manufacturer or the better class of dealers if his rooms are marred by commonplace and unlovely rugs.

Where the hangings are intended to have a structural value, and to give apparent support to the walls and ceiling, they must have ample fullness of material and be run to the floor. Ordinarily they will also have a lambrequin or valance. Full-length hangings will reveal the maximum effect of support when they are permitted just to touch the floor or are, for the sake of cleanliness, kept an inch or less above it. The old English practice, now followed to a considerable ex-tent in America, of permitting the hangings to rest upon the floor in deep folds, increases their richness, but diminishes their structural value. Many rooms are marred structurally by the use of insufficient material in the hangings. It is the depth and fullness of their folds that gives to draperies their richness and strength, and always in large rooms, or in any rooms where an effect of richness and dignity is aimed at, there must be ample material. This principle has always been observed in good decoration, as well as in the art of costume design. "Quantity, or fullness of dress," observed Hogarth in the Analysis of Beauty, "has ever been a darling principle. . . . The robes of state are always made large and full, because they give a grandeur of appearance suitable to the offices of greatest distinction. The grandeur of the Eastern dress, which so far surpasses the European, depends as much on quantity as on costliness. In a word, it is quantity which adds greatness to grace."

While a lambrequin, which seems to rest upon the side hangings as an architrave rests upon its supporting columns, is in general best adapted to the requirements of structural emphasis, this member may in the case of low windows or other architectural peculiarities be omitted, and the hangings can fall directly from behind a well-designed cornice board, as shown in Figure 51. It must be noted that even when a lambrequin is used it should be capped and finished by a cornice of some kind, however narrow. The practice—very common in drapery workrooms—of using lambrequins without this upper member violates the requirements of architectural composition and results in the creation of unconvincing and ugly windows.

It is to be noted that the words lambrequin and valance are used in this volume in their common rather than their correct sense, the latter to designate a lambrequin which is shirred, pleated, or otherwise made up to fall softly and without stiffness; the former to designate a lambrequin mounted on buckram and therefore possessing a flat surface and a sharply-defined outline.

Owing to the disposition of the mind to look to the top for the meaning of things, the valance, lambrequin and cornice board are sure to be conspicuous, and they must therefore be carefully designed. The folds of a valance yield an effect of softness and a play of light and shade that makes almost any texture pleasing and renders it unnecessary to pay much attention to the pattern, though in pleated valances care must be taken to see that a sharply-marked part of the pattern does not appear more conspicuously on one fold than on another. The bottom line of a valance should be defined by a piping, gimp, band or fringe, and usually a French-pleated valance is made more convincing by knotting a heavy cord, made to match the cloth or to contrast with it in color, along the valance at the points where the pleats are caught up.

A lambrequin lacks the effects of soft folds, and it must accordingly be made of a pleasing texture and set off by good trimmings. No inanity of decoration is uglier or more useless from every point of view than an ill-designed lambrequin, and none is more common. By its nature a lambrequin is structural in character and formal in effect, and there is no excuse for using one in a low-ceilinged and informal room. Lambrequins can be effectively made of figured fabrics only when the pattern is symmetrical, and so spaced that it can be followed roughly in shaping the bottom line of the lambrequin. Where the patterns of materials to be used for the side hangings do not con-form to these requirements it is in general best to make the lambrequin of a plain material which matches the ground color of the side hangings; as when a plain blue silk velvet or satin, embroidered in dull gold, is used with hangings of blue and gold damask. In the case of figured hangings having a light ground, like cream or pale gray, the lambrequin is usually chosen to match one of the darker and richer colors appearing in the pattern; if possible one which also appears in the carpet or rug.

The bottom line of a valance, and particularly of a lambrequin, is conspicuous in any room, and it must invariably be designed by a competent designer. Many rooms are seriously marred by weak or commonplace curves, by angles too acute, or by the absence of a dominant element in the profiles of the draperies. The depth of valance or lambrequin, since these elements possess a structural character, must be proportioned to the length of the side hangings. Valances that are too short appear to be trivial and inadequate ; those too long appear heavy, awkward and lowering. While in practice the proportions will be altered slightly according to the architectural proportions and the motive of the room, the ratio will vary from 1: 6 to 1: 8, with the latter more satisfactory than the former for rooms of the lighter and more livable type.

Where undercurtains are used their proper function is to soften the glare of the light, to ensure privacy, and to give to the occupants of a room the sense of being indoors. Normally undercurtains have no structural value and very little decorative value other than that of soft neutral color and pleasing texture. Curtains must never be allowed to complicate the background surfaces or destroy the unity of a room, or to exalt themselves as ornament at the expense of what the windows reveal through the effect of pattern too elaborate or too pronounced. Whether pattern is to be used at all in the curtains of a given room, and if so how much and of what character, are questions to be answered only after a study of the individual room.

It is obvious that curtains must be more pronounced in pattern or more heavy in texture, or both, as the size and structural emphasis of the room are increased; that highly figured hangings require relatively plain curtains; and that the more ornament there is in the other surfaces of the room, and particularly in its wall surfaces, the less there should be in its window curtains.

Nothing more will be said here concerning excellence in the design of furniture, since the subject is too broad to be treated within the limits imposed by the character of this study. In fact, both the fitness and the beauty of a piece of furniture are so largely dependent upon beauty of line and perfect proportions that few generalizations can be made on the subject. Finely and fitly designed furniture may be seen in the better shops of every city of importance, while illustrations of finely designed furniture are available in a multitude of books and magazines, and the student will make more rapid progress toward the acquisition of a sound taste by observation of examples than by the study of critical analyses.



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