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Period Decoration

( Originally Published 1922 )



IT will be apparent from the preceding chapters that the study of period decoration does not lie within the scope of this essay, which is concerned neither with individual nor epochal expression in interior decoration, but rather with the basic principles that underlie and condition all expression in that art.

Period decoration is in theory and in practice an at-tempt to employ in the decoration of present-day homes the ideals, forms and materials of an earlier day. We have, however, seen that interior decoration is properly an art having the distinctly practical aim of making homes beautiful and comfortable to live in; that to be beautiful a given house must conform to esthetic laws derived from the constitution of the mind itself, and therefore lying far below all that is changing and ephemeral ; while to be comfortable it must satisfy a complex of special needs, tastes and circumstances which of necessity varies with each household, and is in fact as unique as the complex of lines in a finger-print. Since one of the factors in every decorative problem is in the nature of things unique, it follows that every satisfactory solution of such a problem must also be unique, and that accordingly a man cannot live in his neighbor's house, or his father's or his grandfather's house, and find it in any accurate sense both beautiful and comfortable. How, therefore, can he expect to live in the homes of one or two or three hundred years ago?

Of course, no one really does. The most enthusiastic exponent of period decoration professes merely to adapt the historic styles to present-day needs, though it is to be noted that in practice he seeks to re-create the ideals of the past, and to reproduce its rooms with meticulous fidelity to detail. The ideal of a return to the past is however foolish and quite unrealizable. We cannot return to the past, either in art or in life, precisely because it is the past. The hour or the age that has been borne backward by the stream of time is gone, with its own ideals and aspirations, its proper modes of thought and action. It can never be called back or re-created or re-lived. Hence period decoration, in the degree that it is fully and accurately realized, is mere pose, theatrical and unreal. It is in fact only in the degree that an historic style can be so modified in practice as to adapt it to the requirements of comfortable modern life that it is properly of interest to the decorator of to-day. In the degree that it is too archaic, too ponderous, too sumptuous or too exotic for present-day homes it is properly of academic interest only, and the attempt to use it in practice in spite of its manifest unfitness can result only in actual ugliness and discomfort, however great may be the effect of magnificence or the merely pictorial value of the rooms.

Much of undoubted value can be learned through the systematic study of period decoration that can be learned in no other way, but the time required for such a study is prohibitive for most laymen, while the mass of descriptive and illustrative material essential to it has never been—and cannot be—condensed into a single volume. The student who has the time and energy to go ahead with the serious study of the subject will find an admirable literature in English and French, while several manuals are available which treat different phases of it superficially but helpfully for the general reader.

In all ages man has tried as best he could to make his home satisfy his needs and aspirations. If we take a quick glance backward over such of his at-tempts as have been made in historical times we will see that from time to time, at a given period and among a given people, architects, builders, designers and craftsmen of all sorts get into the habit of doing things in a certain way—of emphasizing certain types of line, form, proportions, ornamental motives and colorings. These ways will always be seen to have grown more or less spontaneously out of the ideals and customs of the past, and to be adjusted more or less perfectly to the ideals and customs of the particular period. And because these ways of doing things con-form to the prevailing social, economic and political conditions, and express the prevailing social and ethical ideals, they become general, then dominant, and thus crystallize into what we call a style. Among other peoples with different ideals and needs other styles become dominant. Everywhere styles wax and wane and are succeeded by new styles which more adequately express new ideals or meet changed conditions. Infrequently what we call the period styles have expressed the needs and tastes of a whole people : usually those of the court and the aristocracy only. Always they are in a state of flux, because they are merely the reflection in one medium—as literature is in another medium, and historic costume in a third—of life, which is itself always in a state of flux. Thus each style emerges slowly from an earlier one, climbs to the meridian of its purest expression, declines, de-generates and decays, following the universal law of life.

The civilizations of the ancient world made no important contributions toward the development of the modern house. Neither did the civilization of medieval Europe, with its feudal organization of society and its vast and gloomy castles. It was not until the Renaissance that the modern house and modern methods of furnishing it began to emerge. From the middle of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth—that is, from the Renaissance to the French revolution, when the old régime passed, and aristocracy began to yield place to modern industrial democracy—the tides of life flowed swiftly in Europe, and, as we would expect, frequent and relatively rapid changes took place in the manner of building and furnishing houses.

While the Renaissance began in Italy, it quickly spread to the north and west. In architecture and decoration the Italian ideas, forms and practice soon reached France, and, half a century later, we find them in England, where they displaced or fused with the Gothic ideals and practice. They became dominant in France with the accession of François I in 1515, and in England with the accession of Elizabeth in 1558.

The French styles developed smoothly and logically, that of François I being followed by those of Henri II, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. After the revolution the Directoire and the Empire styles were created, from foreign elements chiefly classical, by the fiat of Napoleon. In England, owing to frequent changes of dynasty, and to the constant interfusion of foreign ideas through political and commercial causes, the styles changed rapidly, beginning with the Elizabethan, followed by the Jacobean, the styles of Charles the First, the Commonwealth, Charles the Second, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and the Early Georgian, and by the late eighteenth century Adam style and the individual furniture styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton, and finally terminating in the nineteenth century in the so-called Victorian style.

During the nineteenth century decoration, like architecture, fell into a period of decline. Taste became debased, craftsmanship inferior, and in America, as in Europe, builders, manufacturers and housefurnishers alike gave over all attempt at serious original work, and contented themselves with poor reproductions and poorer adaptations of the work of the past.

Some forty years ago our wealthier people began to want more fitting and beautiful homes. These people had traveled in France, and they turned naturally to France for models, so that there was a period of almost two decades in which French ideas and practice were dominant in the furnishings of important American houses. Later the English styles began to be copied, and presently, almost over night, we had among us the phenomenon of period decoration. The thing went farther than mere copying. Whole rooms —woodwork, ceiling, fireplace, furniture; everything except the pregnant associations and the spiritual quality that made them significant and beautiful—were torn out of old English houses and French châteaux and set up, as in the bed of Procrustes, at what-ever cost of amputation or stretching, in the great American houses.

Decoration is an art that always works downward —from the king, through the aristocracy, to the bourgeoisie; from the rich, through the well-to-do, to the poor. Period decoration in America took the usual course. Those who could afford to buy and transport European interiors did so. Those who could not afford it bought European rugs, furniture and fabrics. Those who couldn't afford these things contented them-selves with cheaper reproductions of European originals. Those who couldn't afford reproductions bought cheaper adaptations of reproductions. Once period decoration became vogue, everybody went in for it. From that time on our progress in the reproduction of historic furnishings has been astonishing. To-day reproductions of the furniture, fabrics and decorative accessories of every historic style at all adapted to the conditions of modern life are offered in a variety nothing less than bewildering. In the fever of production no source has been left unexplored by the manufacturer or the importer. The decorator finds him-self the heir of all the ages. People with money to spend can buy and place in their homes reproductions or adaptations of every decorative object or material that ever was on land or sea. In fact, many of them do.

One has only to sit down with a good manual of period decoration, a history of architecture, a history of costume and a history of society, and to compare the furniture and decorative art of a given period with its houses, its clothes, its literature, its social organization and its political, artistic and ethical ideals in order to realize that decoration, historically, has always had a purposive aim. All that was vital in the housefurnishing art of any given period was fitting; and all that is vital in it to-day is fitting. The rest is dross—interesting to the student, to be sure, like alchemy or the paintings of the cave-man—but without practical importance. It is clear that we must use historic furniture until our own designers can give us something better; if, indeed, the thing be ever possible. But it is no less clear that anything used in our homes should fit our needs, and that to copy slavishly the decorative practice of any historic period is quite as absurd as to copy its clothes, its schools or its methods of transportation.

It must be admitted, however, that it is one thing to recognize the absurdity of an action, and another thing to refrain from the action, provided we think it to be the correct or the smart thing to do. Just at present no one thinks it the smart thing to have the floors of his rooms strewn with rushes, though this was the usual method of treating the floors of the great houses of Tudor England, even in the time of Elizabeth. On the other hand, it is now considered by many decorators, both professional and laymen, to be the smart thing to furnish a dining room with a refectory table and benches. Thus we find otherwise sensible people sitting on long, narrow and uncomfortable benches, and crowded at either side of a very narrow table which, as used historically, had diners on one side only—the side very near a wall, which offered protection against a surprise attack or a sudden knife-thrust from behind—while the other side was kept free for the movements of the servitors.

There is one safe way, and one only, to use in the homes of to-day the rich inheritance of the past. That way is to break things down into their essentials; to look to the meanings of things, and not to the time and place of their origin. What is a Louis XV chair? Essentially, a composition of curved lines of a peculiar type. Will it look well in a given drawing room? Assuredly, if the room contains in its architectural treatment and its other furniture and ornament enough lines of the same characteristic type to ensure an easily perceptible degree of likeness, and if the proportions of the chair accord with those of the room ; but not otherwise. What is a cinquecento damask? Essentially a composition of outline, color and texture, and as such it is well or ill adapted to our use in the degree that it accords with the other outlines, colors and textures dominant in the room to be decorated. The esthetic significance of a chair, a table or a cabinet depends in part upon its ornament, but chiefly upon its proportions and dominant lines ; and whenever the proportions and dominant lines of chairs or tables or cabinets belonging to different historic styles are markedly similar, and their ornamental detail not so dissimilar as to destroy the necessary unity of the treatment, such pieces can be used together in a modern room quite as effectively as if they were the products of the same style.

It is easy to gain from the popular literature of period decoration an impression that the period styles reveal a peculiar fitness and beauty, and that each possesses an esoteric significance, innate and beyond rational explanation. It is true that each style does re-veal a peculiar fitness—for its own period; and it is also true that the best rooms of any period reveal a peculiar beauty because they reveal those approximately perfect convergences of artistic effect in outline, proportion, coloring, texture and ornamental detail which, though necessarily characteristic of any finely decorated room, are more difficult to achieve by the purely eclectic method. As to their esoteric significance, the period styles possess none. Their significance depends, as the whole course of our study has served to point out, upon their elements ; that is, upon outline, proportions, coloring and texture. A Renaissance chair of the first period reveals a fine effect of virility; but so does a Doric column or a Kazak rug, and for the same reasons. The effect of slender proportions and soft, yielding curves is always the same, whether we meet with them in a Louis XV sofa or in a Greuze canvas. Indeed, a sufficiently skillful designer, though he had never so much as heard of the style of Louis XV, could create a room which would have the emotional quality of that style through the employment by purely artistic means of the emotional qualities of form and color.

Where the architecture of a house permits a general adherence to a definite style, many niceties of decorative expression are possible which are not possible in rooms furnished in a more eclectic manner. On the other hand, the common practice of doing adjoining rooms, practically without reference to their architecture, in different styles which are so far apart in structure and in ornament as to be not only unsympathetic but antipathetic, so that one passes from a Henri II hall to a Georgian living room, an Italian dining room or a Louis XVI music room, is a decorative absurdity which has given a theatrical character to many American homes, robbed them alike of beauty and of comfort, and made their owners unconscious contributors to the gayety of nations. The important thing, and the only thing that is absolutely essential, whether one adopts a period style or not, is to see that the furniture and other decorative materials in the room fit the room in scale, concur in expressing its emotional purpose in proportion, line and coloring, and harmonize with each other and with the whole by reason of the repetition of like elements, both in physical appearance and in emotional significance.

In matters of decorative practice we are too much concerned with names, which may mean much or little. We speak of the style of Chippendale, for example, as though it were sharply defined; whereas Thomas Chippendale was a popular designer who turned his hand to anything that pleased him and promised to be profitable, and who, in addition to his most characteristic work, introduced an extreme type of rococo ornament into England at one period of his career, and created a hybrid Chinese-Chippendale style at another period. Even the great style of Louis XIV was by no means homogeneous, for during the major part of the reign of Le Roi Soleil, a bitter struggle for ascendancy raged between the exponents of two schools of architecture. At the present time it is particularly unwise for the layman to attach too much significance to the names borne by many of the so-called period pieces. Designers to-day use the historic styles as a thesaurus from which to draw whatever ideas happen to meet their needs or please their fancy. Much of the period furniture now in use, especially the dining room and bed room furniture, can be identified with the historic styles whose names it bears only through its ornamental detail, and then only with difficulty.

This is just as well, for out of it will come eventually a characteristic expression of our own needs and aspirations—a style "made and moulded of things past," as every other style has been ; but one that will be shaped to meet the peculiar requirements of a modern, cultured and democratic age. In the mean-time, we who have homes to furnish will not take too seriously the claims of those who, on the one hand, urge the peculiar preciousness and virtue of the period styles, or who, on the other, decry any use of those styles. Having analyzed our own needs and fixed upon our own goal, we will approach it deliberately, taking the beautiful where we have the good fortune to find it, and concerned only with its fitness for our use. And in the degree that we acquire the power to read the meaning of the house-furnishing materials in their elements, the ability so to select and arrange them that essential likenesses result in unity and harmony, and the common sense to see to it that comfort and suitability are not lost in the search for style, we shall be able to create, each for himself, and out of the materials within our reach, the favorable home environment which is the chief end of the art of interior decoration.



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