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Grammar Of Decoration

( Originally Published 1922 )



WE have seen that interior decoration is an art of selection and arrangement, working under the guidance of the faculty of taste. In practice this faculty is first employed in a comprehensive process of elimination. The decorator, having familiarized himself with what is made in furniture, fabrics, and all sorts of decorative accessories, with local market conditions and costs, and with the requirements of the house to be furnished and the needs, tastes and means of its occupants, surveys the whole body of available materials and processes and eliminates from further consideration all those which do not promise to meet adequately the requirements both of the household and the house. There remains a second process, which is to choose from the relatively small body of materials and processes remaining after this twofold elimination those which seem to possess special fitness and beauty, and to combine and arrange them in such a manner as to create a harmonious whole.

This process of combining the parts of any work of art into a whole is called composition. It constitutes, of course, the real creative problem. Writing of the art of painting, Ruskin defined composition as the help of everything in the picture by everything else, and the definition applies with equal felicity to the other arts. Poetry combines words into phrases, lines and stanzas in such ways that each word and each phrase helps all the others. Musical composition combines tones into helpful relations known as chords, and helps these chords with rhythm, timbre and expression. Interior decoration takes lines, shapes, colors and textures—or, more concretely, rugs, papers, fabrics, furniture, pictures, statuary, pottery and lamps—and so arranges and combines them in a given space that each is helpful to all the rest.

What is meant by the statement that words or tones help each other? Clearly, it can mean only that each contributes, according to its nature and in the most effective way possible, toward the expression of a common idea. Clearly, too, the parts of a furnished room can help each other only in the same way. When we say that things harmonize, or go well together, we mean, whether we are conscious of it or not, that they possess in some degree a common significance and therefore concur in the expression of a common idea. Thus if we place a long, low over-stuffed sofa upon a arge, low-toned rug each will help the other because, while they do not look alike, each suggests to the mind the ideas of repose and tranquillity. On the other hand, a small Aubusson rug, or a little Kermanshah, with its light, gay colors and spirited design, could not help such a sofa, because by its very nature it suggests the ideas of animation and buoyancy. Used together rug and sofa would oppose or contradict each other, and only a meaningless confusion of ideas could result.

It appears, therefore, that in order to make the furnishings of a room harmonize, or help each other, the decorator must see to it that they concur in the expression of a common idea. Accordingly he must first of all decide upon a dominant idea to be ex-pressed by the finished room. Having done so, he must choose and combine in the room such things as suggest or help to affirm that idea, and keep out any considerable number of things that suggest an inharmonious or contrary idea. This is the beginning of every process of decorative composition. To undertake it successfully the decorator must know, first, what ideas, or what kind of ideas, can be expressed by his art, and secondly, how they can be expressed.

It is clear that interior decoration, being a part of architecture, can neither set forth an appearance of nature, as can painting and sculpture, nor tell a story, like poetry or the drama. Nor can it, like music or the dance, express complex and changing emotional states. It can, however, adequately express simple emotional ideas ranging through a fairly long gamut. Thus a room may be made bright or somber, grave or gay. Given a suitable architectural background, the decorator can create at will a restful living room, a gay and brilliant ball-room, a solemn church or lodge- room. Rooms may be made dignified. sumptuous, simple, informal. Their emotional quality may be varied from repose to animation, from stateliness to abandon, from rough homeliness to elegance or daintiness. Obviously the choice of the dominant emotional idea for a given room will be determined in practice chiefly by such considerations of fitness as the purpose of the room and the tastes of its occupants. The point to be pressed here is that, however chosen, some definable emotional idea must underlie and condition the decoration of every artistically furnished room. Good composition, in decoration no less than in the other creative arts, can never be fortuitous—never the product of chance or the play of circumstance. However simple or complex its processes, it must always result in expression. Every great composition in any art is thus built upon a motive, in the expression of which all its chief lines, colors or sounds concur, as the sweeping diagonals and vigorous curves of the Winged Victory of Samothrace concur in investing even the broken remnant of the figure with the idea of imperious and triumphant motion.

A room, however, unlike a picture or a sculptured form, is not complete in itself. It is complete only when there are people in it. and it is decorated not alone to make it harmonious and beautiful, but also—and primarily—to make it a sympathetic and pleasing background for the people who use it. For this reason its emotional quality must not be too strongly emphasized, lest there be lack of harmony with the changing moods of its occupants. Nevertheless every beautiful room, as the first condition of its being, must be built around a dominant motive, and a great part of whatever subtlety and charm its decorative treatment may possess for the person of cultivated taste will depend upon the skill with which this motive is expressed. The child is happy with his blocks ; delighted when he is able to find among two dozen strange and meaningless characters the big I or O or S that he has been taught to recognize; content to put the letters together into a meaningless jumble. But when he grows older he will want to see meaning in things. Letters will interest him because they are symbols with which words are formed, and words because they in turn are symbols which, properly grouped, give expression to ideas. It is the same with man and his house. A man may choose and arrange the furnishings of his rooms with-out reference to their significance because, like the child with his blocks, he does not understand their significance. But in so far as interior decoration is a real creative art it must be concerned with the expression of ideas; and in so far as a man has in his esthetic perceptions put away childish things he will be conscious of these ideas and keenly interested in the manner of their expression.

In literature ideas are expressed by words ; in interior decoration by form and color. Form itself, as a mode of expression, possesses an emotional significance, and so does color merely as color. Each hue has a peculiar effect upon the mind. The light tones of every hue differ in emotional quality from the dark. Pure colors differ from neutral, and simple colors from compounds. Each type of line tends to arouse a distinctive emotion in the mind, according to its character and its direction. Each of the elementary geometrical forms upon which decorative composition so largely rests possesses its proper emotional significance. The mind is affected by relative size and bulk, by proportion, by balance or the lack of it, by contrast, by every factor employed by the decorator in the practical processes of house furnishing.

These varying emotional values of form and color constitute the words of the language of decoration, and the science of their function and artistic employment constitutes what we may well call its grammar. Obviously the grammar must be mastered before the work of composition can be undertaken successfully. In order to select and combine decorative factors of like significance we must first understand the significance of each individual factor. When the emotional value of each type of line, form, hue and tone has been clearly grasped, whatever decorative motive has been chosen for the room will at once call up into the mind the particular types of form and color that best express or suggest that motive. In practice the decorator will then develop his motive artistically, according to methods to be studied in later chapters, by grouping with these types others more or less like them in significance.

Form and color, the two media of decorative expression, are essentially unlike. Form is intellectual, color emotional. Form requires a mental process for its apprehension. Color requires none, and therefore makes a wider, more instant, and more powerful appeal.

Man's attitude toward form and color has always been influenced by his philosophy. In the Orient color is dominant, because there the soul is regarded as the source of knowledge. In the Occident, where under the influence of Greek philosophy the mind is regarded as the source of knowledge, form is dominant. The Greeks attained to an incomparable perfection of form; they used color merely to outline and to embellish. The Orientals, on the other hand, though they have created forms of exquisite and imperishable loveliness, have in all ages used color not as the hand-maiden of form, but for the sake of its own beauty and the subtle spell it casts upon the soul.

Only once in historic times has color been dominant in Europe. During the Middle Ages, under the sway of early Christianity, man's soul became his chief concern, and the mysticism of the age found immediate expression in color. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries there was everywhere evident—in the dress of the common people, the gay costumes of the nobles, the gorgeous trappings of chivalry and the rich colorings of the medieval houses, as in the glow of stained glass and the red and gold of the cathedrals —the same passion for color that has in all ages moved the East. The passion passed, of course, with the religious and philosophical conditions which helped to create it. Toward the beginning of the modern period, with the approach of the Renaissance or re-birth of the spirit of the Greeks, mysticism died out, and with it color yielded place to form.

After the lapse of centuries the pendulum seems to be starting to swing in the other direction. Certainly two tendencies are everywhere evident in the western world to-day. On the one hand, we see a remarkable increase in the use of color, and of richer and more stimulating color; on the other hand, the decline of intellectualism, and the slow breaking-up of the purely scientific and materialistic ideals by which we have so long been actuated. The spirit of mysticism is coming back into the world ; not only contemporary literature, but contemporary music and painting are more and more tinged by it. And with mysticism there is coming a deeper and a growing love of color, not for what it reveals and embellishes, but for its own sake.

In its effect upon the mind, form is solid, hard, active and masculine; while color is fluid, soft, passive and feminine. Form is of course imperceptible apart from color, and the two media of expression are of necessity used together in every composition. The relative emphasis placed upon them, however, may be and certainly ought to be varied by the decorator in working out the motive of his treatment. Beyond doubt form has in the past been too much emphasized in our homes, with the result of giving them not only the obvious defects of over-ornamentation and complexity, but also a real though intangible effect of hardness and ungraciousness. The present marked tendency toward the freer use of color and the elimination of non-essential objects and patterns is there-fore a much-needed corrective.

However, the primary concern of the decorator is not with the separation of form and color, but with their convergent use in composition. Beauty and the expression of emotional ideas largely depend in all the arts upon the convergence of effects. Such a convergence is produced in symphonic music when a pastoral theme is announced in the high passionless voice of the oboe, and in the drama when a speech is uttered by an actor physically fitted and costumed for his rôle. Pope exemplifies the idea poetically in two couplets :

"Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows.

But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar."

This principle is of basic importance in decoration, and will be found, as we proceed with this study, to enter into every problem of composition. No room can be beautiful without a convergence of decorative effects, and any room will be more or less beautiful as the convergence is more or less complete. What-ever is said by the proportions of a room, and by its dominant lines and shapes, must be affirmed, not contradicted, by its coloring. Thus if we make low tones of olive, golden-brown or blue dominant in a long, low room filled with furniture largely characterized by horizontal lines and long low shapes, the mind is convinced and satisfied. But if we treat such a room in a gay scheme of azure, rose and ivory, or if we venture upon a staid and somber coloring in a room marked by light yielding forms and gay upturned curves, the mind, perplexed by the pull of opposing esthetic forces, is dissatisfied, and filled with the consciousness of confusion and hence of ugliness.

In the three following chapters we shall study the grammar of decoration, and shall attempt to develop, as fully as possible in so limited a compass, the emotional significance or meaning of the elementary factors of the art. With the completion of this task we shall be equipped to take up the principles of composition, which underlie the art of selecting and combining these elements into artistic wholes.



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