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Interior Decoration - Fitness To Purpose

( Originally Published 1922 )



ONE who sets out to furnish a given house for the occupancy of a given family faces a three-fold problem. He must select and arrange in the house such things as suit the age, sex and temperament of the individual members, meet their needs, express their tastes and aspirations, and fit their purse. He must, moreover, see that the things so selected and arranged suit the house itself, in scale, coloring and style. Finally, he must see to it that these things are not only suitable but intrinsically good-looking, and that they combine to form a harmonious and beautiful whole.

In other words, the treatment of every house, and of each room in every house, involves the interplay of three factors, which we may differentiate as the personal, the architectural and the esthetic. No decorative problem, however simple or complex, can be solved rightly unless each of these factors is rightly considered and given its due importance in the final result.

It is imperative to get this point clearly fixed at the outset, since it is basic. The decorator is in practice by no means a free agent. Rather he is rigorously limited in his choices by the requirements of suitability or fitness. Thus among the illimitable number of possible choices he is first of all limited to those things which are intrinsically good-looking, or beautiful. Among the wide range of possible choices that remain after this first process of elimination, he is again limited to such things as adequately meet the peculiar needs of a particular group. Among the somewhat narrow range of possible choices remaining after this second process of elimination he is again strictly limited to such things as fit the architectural requirements of a particular building and room. The actual range of choice is illustrated graphically in Figure I. Here the circle A represents the total of good-looking things, B the total of things that would fit the requirements of the family, and C the total that would fit the house. It is clear that ,only such things as lie within the small area D, where the three circles intersect, can be of direct interest to the decorator, and that his choices, when he begins the work of decorative composition, must, whatever his personal fancies and predilections, be strictly confined to this area.

All unfitting decoration, of whatever kind, is vanity and vexation of spirit. It involves the loss of comfort, the sacrifice of beauty, the waste of money. Occasion-ally, of course, it must result from lack of means ; but far more often it results from lack of taste, of energy, and of simple common sense. That large means are essential to the creation of comfortable and beautiful rooms, and that such rooms are certain to result when large means are employed, is a widespread notion whose unsoundness is exposed by multitudes of houses.

In point of fact, any one can furnish a home fitly and even beautifully with relatively inexpensive materials; provided only that he have the taste to recognize fitness and beauty in materials, the energy and patience to search out the right things, and the imaginative power necessary to combine them in harmonious wholes.

In setting about the decoration of a given house the architectural factor is properly the first to be considered, since the size and other physical characteristics of the rooms will of necessity largely condition the size, ornamental detail and coloring of the things that go into them.

The personal factor is, however, properly first in importance. A house is not, like a hotel, a temporary resting-place for all the world and his wife. It is a permanent dwelling-place for a particular group of individuals. Hence no decorative treatment, however admirably it may deal with the architectural and esthetic factors involved, can be considered good unless it makes adequate provision for the satisfaction of the individual and family needs, preferences and limitations of this particular group.

This is a matter of simple common sense; yet it is continually ignored both by professional decorators and by laymen. The professional, by virtue of his training, thinks first of the architectural and esthetic factors. He is rarely on terms of sufficient intimacy with his clients to be able to estimate accurately the personal considerations involved. Moreover, being human, he is likely to assume the professional's attitude of good-natured contempt for the layman's opinion in his own field, and to regard the decoration of a particular house or room as wholly a matter of creating a harmonious and beautiful interior, even though the process may involve a very considerable disregard of the real needs and preferences of his clients.

The layman, and particularly the housewife, very often reveals a more or less complete disregard for the personal factor. Sometimes this is due to failure to remember that the furnished room is, after all, simply background for the people who live in it; often to unwillingness to make the very real and sometimes prolonged effort necessary to the perfect adaptation of furnishings to individual needs ; usually, perhaps, to a desire to follow what is conceived to be the fashion.

We are all governed largely in our choices by the instinct of imitation. This instinct, which impels us to dress in the mode and to read the best sellers, impels us also to copy the latest mode in the decoration of our homes. But while this very natural desire to be au fait in all things results in much business for the dealer in decorative materials, as it does for the milliner and the modiste, it results also in much bad, because unfitting, decoration. Many housewives reveal an amusing eagerness to have their rooms done in the latest, rather than in the most fitting, manner—an eagerness based upon the widely-held but quite erroneous idea that there must necessarily be frequent and abrupt changes of fashion in house-furnishing as in dress, and that the latest mode must be the most desirable. This notion is peculiarly difficult to combat in our own day, when architecture and decoration are purely eclectic, and in our own land, where both the machinery of production and distribution and the absence of traditional models and of accepted standards of taste tend to emphasize the incidental and transient rather than the essential and permanent aspects of the house-furnishing art.

The decorator must, however, never forget that he who chooses to disregard the personal factor, or even to make it of subordinate importance, must pay in loss of comfort and of beauty. One whose chief concern is to work in the craze of the hour may experience an hour's satisfaction; but he will assuredly fail in achieving the dignity, the individuality and the fine flavor of distinction to be found only in homes whose decorative treatments are based throughout upon the studied needs and tastes of their occupants.

Making the furnishings fit the house is second in importance only to making them fit the people who live in it, and the decorator must in every instance consider the house to be done quite as carefully as he considers its occupants. He will, first of all, study the house as a whole—its general plan, its details, its style. Later he will take up in turn each individual room, observing its size and proportions, its woodwork and floor, the number, shape and location of its openings, its relation to connecting rooms, to the view outside, and to the morning and afternoon sun. Only when he is in possession of complete and accurate information can he undertake the business of choosing and combining furnishings with any assurance of success.

The bearing of these personal and architectural considerations upon the actual processes of decorative composition will be developed in later chapters. They are mentioned here simply to drive home the fact that from every point of view fitness to purpose is a principle of dominant importance in the art. Good deco-ration is not absolute, but relative, being essentially a matter of correct relationships. A house can be considered to be properly furnished only when it meets all the real needs, both practical and esthetic, of all its occupants. A decorative idea or material or process or object is good only when, in a given situation, it fits its purpose. Otherwise it is bad. Fitness to pur-pose, as a principle of selection, is at the beginning of interior decoration, and is in fact as fundamental to the processes of that art as the proposition that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points is fundamental to the processes of geometry.

Any creative work must start with an idea. Before we can do anything we must clearly understand what we desire to do. This fact must be accepted unreservedly by the decorator. He must not be so naïve as to suppose that vague ideals and hazy, undefined enthusiasms for beauty, fitness and distinction will get him anywhere in his art. Its effects are not produced by magic or incantation, but by definite relationships of form and color, no more mysterious than the relationships of words in sentences, and equally dependent for expression upon definite ideas. Rooms do not grow in repose or beauty or dignity. They must be invested with these attributes by studied creative processes. These processes, as we shall see, are not difficult to understand; but they can be successfully employed only by one who knows precisely what he is trying to do.

The first thing to be definitely determined is the purpose of each room—not the name by which it is to be designated, but the actual function it is to perform in the life of the household. It is reasonable to assume that the rooms of any house will be devoted to such special purposes as best satisfy the real needs and tastes of its occupants, and that accordingly the choice between a library, drawing room or music room, for example, or between a sewing room, den, or additional guest room, will be determined by considerations of fitness. Yet while this sounds too elementary to need reciting, it is a matter of common observation that many women are more strongly influenced in this matter by the conventions of their neighborhood,

coterie or class than by real needs or aspirations. Thus homes are equipped with libraries in which no one ever reads, with drawing rooms used but once in a blue moon, with breakfast rooms that never get the morning sun; and thus time and money are squandered, and precious space is worse than wasted.

Once the real purpose of a room has been determined, everything used in furnishing it should be chosen and arranged to concur in expressing that purpose. Thus the hall, which in the modern house is primarily a means of access to the other rooms, should have an atmosphere of welcome and good cheer, tempered, however, by dignity and restraint. We receive the stranger at our door with cordiality, but do not immediately admit him to the intimacies of family life, and the hall should be made to express this distinction. Its atmosphere of cheer and welcome can be insured by warm and cheerful coloring; its effect of dignity and restraint by the employment of few pieces of furniture, and these of a somewhat formal type, placed in carefully balanced relation to the room. Tall chairs and cabinets and long, narrow wall tables ordinarily best accord with the proportions of the hall, while richly colored textiles relieve and set off by contrast its bare spaces. Pictures, marquetry, and small objects which require, for clear perception and full enjoyment, wide spaces or a definite effort of attention, have as a rule no place in the hall, since the room is one in which but little time is spent.

Similarly, the living room, as the room in which all the members of the family meet for rest, reading or conversation, and in which they spend a great part of their time, must have as its first and absolutely essential quality an atmosphere of spaciousness and repose. This can be ensured through the use of a relatively low-toned and neutral coloring, background surfaces free from any hint of garishness, substantial and inviting chairs, long and low sofas, cabinets and tables, and adequate but properly shaded lights, and by limiting the very small or trivial and fussy accessories to a number incapable of destroying the serenity of the room. Such a room should never be overcrowded; nor can small, bright-colored rugs, delicate upholstery fabrics or fragile-looking furniture have any place in it, because these things cannot be made to concur in an effect of spaciousness and repose.

Like considerations of fitness to situation and use apply of course to the decoration of every other room. The things which enter into the treatment of a dining room should concur in making it a comfortable, restful, and yet a stimulating place in which to eat. Nothing can fitly find a place in a bedroom which tends to destroy its essential function as a place in which to rest and sleep.

Obviously these vague generalities are of slight value to the student. They will be restated more definitely and more scientifically in subsequent chapters. They are introduced here by way of reemphasizing the fact that fitness to purpose conditions the choice of all the furnishings of the room, as it conditions the choice of purpose of the room, and that comfort and beauty will remain forever strangers to a room in which this basic principle of all good work has failed of application.

The decorative materials, like other good things of this world, must be paid for. Accordingly, their cost must in every instance be determined by considerations of fitness. But while it is obvious that a house may properly be furnished either sumptuously or inexpensively, according to the character of the house itself and to the means and tastes of its occupants, it seems to be less obvious to the layman that it ought in either case to be furnished to a carefully graduated scale. In decoration it is unwise for artistic no less than for practical reasons to put all one's eggs into one basket. It is a serious mistake to mix the costly with the cheap, since both are thereby spoiled. Consistent adherence to a predetermined standard of excellence throughout the appointments of each room, and to standards not markedly different in connecting rooms, is absolutely essential to good work. The decorator must accordingly be on guard against the easy possibility of disturbing the decorative balance of a room by the use of single objects or materials too costly for the other furnishings, or of destroying the decorative consistency and air de famille of a suite of connecting rooms by making any one of them, whatever its character, too fine for the others.

All these considerations point to the need of a studied plan of procedure. As a matter of fact, a consistent plan, based upon a careful study of the rooms to be furnished and the needs, tastes and means of their occupants, is only less essential to good work in furnishing a house than in building it. While the proper scope of such a plan will become more clear as we proceed with this study, it is evident at the out-set that any plan ought to include a color scheme for each room, based upon a careful consideration of both the architectural and personal factors involved, and a list of all the important articles required for each room, as determined by the purpose and size of the room and the needs of those who use it. With this list the decorator will prepare a schedule of prices which will show the approximate cost of furnishing each room, and, by addition, the total cost of all the rooms. If this grand total proves to be too high for the available appropriation, the whole treatment, or at any rate the treatment of connecting rooms, must be revised and scaled down in order to preserve the effect of consistency which is an invariable characteristic of good work in decoration as in all the arts.

Fitness to purpose has a negative as well as a positive side, since it is quite as necessary to leave out the non-essential as it is to include the essential. Because of the increasingly clear perception of this fact, simplicity has become one of the watchwords of present-day practice. Properly used, the term means freedom from complexity; from too many parts; from artificial and pretentious style. It does not mean mere bareness or crudity or entire absence of ornament or entire innocence of style. There is no esoteric or peculiar virtue in calcimined walls, ingrain or oatmeal papers, scrim, burlap, extra weight denim, rag rugs or mission furniture, though each of these materials may be excellent in its proper situation. A room may be clothed with glowing colors and filled with sumptuous fabrics and richly ornamented forms and still possess the quality of simplicity, provided only that nothing is included which could have been left out without marring the beauty or impairing the usefulness of the room.

It must be admitted, however, that most American houses do lack simplicity. The American housewife is inclined to accumulate much and to discard little. Her rooms are likely to contain too many colors, too much pattern, too much furniture, too many pictures, particularly too many gew-gaws and gimcracks. It must be remembered that a multitude of little trivial things destroys the unity of a room esthetically and clutters it physically, fatiguing the mind and disturbing the serenity of its occupants. Decoration deals with large spaces, and the mind can grasp the details of small objects only as the result of effort. When it makes such an effort, only to find the object of it common-place and quite unworthy of attention, a sense of disgust is inevitable. Even when small objects are beautiful and intrinsically interesting they ought to be used sparingly, for their decorative value is in general inversely proportional to their number. It is far better to follow the Japanese custom, displaying these beautiful things a few at a time while the others remain out of sight, than to make all common by too lavish use.

Moreover, any work of art, whether large or small, must be regarded as objectionable in any room unless it is in a decorative sense more valuable than the space it occupies. A given room is limited in size and in floor and wall area, as the mind is limited in its power of attention; and since open spaces, an effect of atmosphere and repose, and freedom from too many stimuli are absolutely essential to beauty and comfort, the decorator must ensure this necessary simplicity, even though he may thereby be compelled to eliminate things of real excellence.

Most of the sermons preached on simplicity during the past twenty years have had for their text William Morris' admonition to have in your house only what you know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. The precept is perfect; yet like many others that have to do with conduct it is hard to live up to. Merely to know what is useful demands thoughtful consideration, while to know what is beautiful presupposes the possession of a taste which would render the advice superfluous. Moreover, to discard even the things we know to be useless or unbeautiful involves overcoming the primal instinct of possession which lies miles deep below our surface veneering of culture. To give up the things we own is to go against nature, and we can do it only as we learn to value what we gain by the process more highly than what we lose.

Finally, the power of sentiment is to be reckoned with. Many of the things which taste and judgment warn us to banish possess a sentimental value. They may be family heirlooms, the gifts of valued friends, the injudicious purchases of honeymoon days. Whether through fear of offending the donors, or because we love them, as Desdemona loved Othello, for the distressful strokes their youth has suffered, we are disposed to keep these things in spite of their manifest ugliness and the patent fact that they destroy the simplicity of our rooms. Into the precinct of these intimate considerations the outsider may not venture. What to keep and what to discard is manifestly a mat-ter for each household to decide for itself. But this is certain : If you would have simplicity and beauty you must pay for them. "Every sweet bath its sour; every evil its good."



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