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Interior Decoration - Line And Form

( Originally Published 1922 )

IF the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter," ob.' served Pascal, "the whole face of the world would have been changed." The power of line is indisputable. Yet it is clear that in itself line is a mere mathematical abstraction, and that the lines drawn by the artist are after all but marks. Their power to move us lies in something outside of them-selves, and the explanation of this power must be sought, not in lines and spatial forms as such, but in the nature of the mind.

Man is a creature who lies prone when he is asleep or at rest and stands erect in action. In a stern or resistant mood he stands stiff and straight; in a playful or happy mood he relaxes, and the lines of his body fall into easy curves. When he carries a load upon his shoulder his body bends into reciprocal curves—slight curves if the load is light, deeper and more angular as the load grows heavier; until finally he stoops upon one knee the better to bear up his bur-den, as Atlas stoops to bear up the earth. When a man is in motion he bends forward; slightly if he walks, deeply if he runs. When he encounters an opposing force he braces himself against it, and the greater the force the sharper will be the angle of his body and the straighter the line of it.

Because he has been doing these things for unnumbered generations—because certain emotional states always find expression through definite positions—man associates the emotions with the lines that define their accompanying positions, so that a given line in a work of art has the power to call up into consciousness, more or less vividly, its concomitant emotional state. Thus straight lines are always associated with the ideas of steadiness and force, and curved lines with the ideas of flexibility, buoyancy and grace. And be-cause horizontal extension is always associated with the idea of repose, and vertical extension always with the ideas of life and activity, horizontal and vertical lines, whether straight or curved, always call up, the one ideas of calmness and repose, the other ideas of activity and support. This contrast between horizontal and vertical extension is the original factor in visual esthetics, and all of what Professor Theodor Lipps calls the life quality (Lebendigkeit) of architectural and decorative forms grows out of the inter-play of these activities and is expressed by the inter-play and contrast of horizontal and vertical lines.

Our emotions are stirred by spatial forms, whether natural or artistic, because we project or "feel ourselves into" them. Not only do we feel ourselves running or straining with the athlete at the games ; we feel ourselves pushing upward with the column and striving upward with the tower. "The Discobolus of Myron," says Lipps, "bows his body, throws out his arm, turns his head. Not the marble of which the statue consists does these things, but the man that the statue represents. Of the man, however, nothing is present in the statue save the form—the man-resembling spatial form (die menschenähnliche Raumgestalt) ; it is simply that this spatial form is in our imagination filled with a definite human life. The marble is the material of the representation; the object of the representation is the life bound up in the form."

Lines as they appear in architectural and decorative design are in character straight, curved, or broken, and in direction horizontal, vertical, or oblique. In composition the emotional significance of each type tends to be affirmed and intensified by the repetition of like lines, and to be contradicted and neutralized by the employment of lines of an opposing type.

The first difference in significance between straight and curved lines, as Raymond has pointed out, is the fact that the latter suggest the results of instinctive action, while the former suggest the results of reflective action. Nearly everything in nature, from grass to man himself, grows in curves. It is only when man starts to reflect and to contrive-to build temples and tombs and engines of construction and destruction—that straight lines appear. Thus they are inevitably associated with what is thoughtful, serious, purposive and austere. For this reason straight lines are employed in designing the structural elements of a room, and are emphasized in the design of furniture, rugs and hangings in the degree that the motive of the decorative unit and of the room as a whole is serious or austere.

The Italian chairs of the early Renaissance owed their fine air of virility and thoughtful contrivance largely to their straight lines, as do our own Craftsman and Mission chairs; but the latter, by reason of their exclusive use of such lines, reveal a quality of hardness, ungraciousness and austerity from which the former were redeemed by the saving grace of carved finials, turned arm supports, and velvet or damask coverings. The same quality of hardness through over-emphasis of straight lines is apparent in Kazak, Bokhara, Afghan and many other rugs woven by primitive Oriental peoples, and in primitive ornament generally. As the worker in any art so masters his technique that he is able to work more or less instinctively he naturally chooses to express himself more and more through the freedom, buoyancy and grace of curved lines, and to restrict his use of straight lines to situations where the significance of his work or its structural requirements demand their steadiness and force. As men and races grow in their power of seeing the beautiful they demand an increasing degree of subtlety in all forms of art—subtler ideas, and subtler modes of expression—and because straight lines are by nature direct, unvarying and obvious they more and more give place to, curves.

Curved lines express the ideas of flexibility, softness, grace, and joyousness, and tend to impart these qualities to any composition in which they appear. When over-emphasized by too exclusive employment, as in Rococo ornament and in the decorative styles of the Regency and Louis XV, they yield an effect of over-luxuriousness, instability, and even of weakness. When their lines are short and much broken, as in Rococo ornament, they suggest the mutable and transient; when crossed and interwoven, as in Celtic and Arabic ornament, the complex, obscure and elusive. Sinuous or undulating curves, as they appear in the guilloche molding and in the running vine border of Persian rugs, suggest the idea of movement; and up-turned curves, particularly when their effect is intensified by repetition, the ideas of gayety, animation and delight, as the corners of the mouth turn upward in a smile. Wall papers and hangings in which such curves are emphasized are used to help in creating an effect of smiling animation in rooms that need it, and all festal decoration makes a very free use of loops, festoons and swags.

By the free employment of curves the decorator can avoid the stiffness and severity that result from over-emphasis of straight lines, and give effects of softness, grace, buoyancy and richness to his rooms. Beauty of form, in nature as in art, from the single leaf to the perfect human body, and from the unadorned simplicity of a vase to the complex loveliness of the Taj Mahal, depends first of all upon the power of curved lines. Moreover, it is impossible in decoration to ex press the full significance of things that are by nature soft, flexible or luxurious without the free use of curves. Thus velvet draperies look a little stiff when surmounted by straight-lined lambrequins; deep-pile rugs lack something of softness unless they reveal curved lines in either field or border; and the most luxurious of over-stuffed sofas appear bulky, ungraceful and a little stiff unless the long straight lines of their backs are rounded at each end into softening curves.

However, there is no virtue in curves merely as curves. A straight line is always to be preferred, at whatever cost of rigidity and obviousness, to a weak and meaningless curve. The decorator cannot hope to create beauty, or even to recognize its presence, until he is able to discriminate unerringly between curves that are graceful, subtle and yet vigorous, and curves awkward, commonplace and unlovely. Much has been written of curves and the laws of curvature, but a feeling for the beauty of curved lines must be acquired through long processes of observation and comparison, and can in fact be acquired in no other way. Nature offers an unlimited field for study. The petals of rope, iris or honeysuckle, the stems and branches of willow or birch, the leaves of jonquil or cattail or palm—all reveal curves of infinite variety and exquisite grace. The human body, as it is represented in painting and sculpture and in books illustrative of those arts, offers the most perfect examples of composition in curves. Books on architecture and historic furniture, and manuals of ornament and design are also valuable. The materials chosen for study and the methods of using them are relatively unimportant, provided only that they afford the eye such training as will equip it for instant and discriminating judgment.

It is especially important and especially difficult to acquire a sure feeling for beauty and vigor in the curves that define the weight-bearing elements of a composition; for it is to be noted that while horizontal curves may be employed freely and with wide latitude, vertical curves must be designed with great circumspection. Under the law of empathy the mind "feels itself into" the forms defined by curved lines. When these lines are horizontal, as at the back of a davenport, or dependent, as in a lamp shade or at the bottom of a lambrequin—in a word, when they are supported, not supporting—the mind regards almost any pitch or degree of curvature as reasonable and therefore as satisfactory; but when curves are bearing a Ioad the mind expects to find the curvature adjusted to the load, and is dissatisfied and perturbed when this is not the case. For example,. in a well-designed eighteenth century table the light top is supported by slender legs having but a slight cyma or line of beauty curve; and this the mind regards as suitable and beautiful because the body of a man bearing upon his shoulder one corner of a light platform would be similarly relaxed into slight but easy curves. There-fore light tables supported by slender legs which de-scribe a deep curve—and these are exceedingly common—have for the trained eye an exaggerated, strained and grotesque appearance, because the sweep of the curves appears to be out of all proportion to the load borne by the legs. On the other hand, the heavy tables of the Italian and French Renaissance were supported by end brackets revealing very deep curves, and this the mind regards as reasonable and beautiful because a man likewise heavily burdened would stoop, with his chest bent far forward over his knees. Nowhere in decoration is there more ugliness than in weak, exaggerated and ungraceful vertical curves. Only by long study of both the great and the decadent periods of decorative art can one acquire the power to know good from evil.

Broken lines, by reason of their sudden changes, suggest the ideas of life and animation. While such lines may appear as dentil moldings in cornice, mantel or reading table, or in the bottom lines of lambrequins, they have little place in the fixed decorations of a room—that is, in walls, openings, floor coverings, hangings and the large immovable pieces of furniture-which are by nature tranquil and relatively solemn.

Broken lines are appropriately used in chair backs, screens, book-blocks with a row of books between, and pillows that break the long back line of couch or davenport, because it is one of the functions of these light and relatively unimportant elements to give life and animation to a room. Broken lines are always to be used sparingly, since too many of them perplex and fatigue the eye, and particular care must be taken to avoid any appearance of arithmetical progression, which, as in the case of small pictures or photographs so arranged that they present a series of steps, inevitably catch the attention, lead it to the top, and there leave it suspended, thus destroying the poise and symmetry of the wall. It sometimes happens, particularly in small and inexpensively built houses, that the tops of windows in the same room are on slightly different levels, so that they present a disturbing effect of broken and irregular line. Whenever possible this defect should be corrected by the use of a valance hung far enough above the lower window to bring the apparent tops to the same level.

Broken lines may be made to suggest ideas of gaiety or gravity, in the arrangement of mantel, bookcase or table ornaments, or in the arrangement of groups of furniture, according to whether their tops form a V upright or inverted. The principle involved, which lies at the basis of expression in the visual arts, is illustrated in the curious old drawing of Humbert de Superville.

Horizontal lines express the ideas of calmness, quiescence and repose; vertical lines of support, activity and life. In the degree that either horizontal or vertical lines are long and straight they add to their primary significance the ideas of permanence and dignity. Straight horizontal lines give to any composition in which they are dominant an effect of quietude and duration; straight vertical lines of firmness, and when over-emphasized, of stiffness and even of sternness. The function and employment of horizontal and vertical extension, and of the lines by which they are defined, will be developed in the chapter on proportion.

Vertical lines tend to express as well as to arouse emotions of exaltation and inquietude. Owing to the relatively short length of any lines inside a room this effect is rarely perceptible except by abnormally sensitive persons, but it is clearly felt in monumental architecture. The Gothic cathedrals perfectly expressed the sentiments of inquietude and exaltation that possessed the soul of northern Europe in the later Middle Ages, and they tend to arouse the same emotions in the soul of the beholder to-day. The feeling that takes possession of one who from the Hudson river sees the shaft-like buildings of lower New York outlined against a twilight sky, or who stands at the foot of the Washington Monument or the Sather Tower at Berkeley and follows the seemingly endless verticals as they appear to erect themselves, by sheer force of aspiration, heavenward, is inspired by the same power of line.

Diagonal lines suggest movement an action. Because they are associated in the mind with motion or with the effort to counterbalance resistance they give animation to any composition in which they appear.

Over-emphasized, they are restless and fatiguing. Used sparingly, as when a small poised figure like the Flying Mercury is placed in a quiet corner of a room, they possess an extraordinary charm.

Unless too strongly emphasized by color contrast diagonals are often effective in rug design; partly be-cause they are there arranged symmetrically to form the medallion, partly because they are subordinated to and restrained by the straight lines of the border. They are objectionable in all-over carpets and especially objectionable in wall papers. Repetition of the same figure is a mechanical necessity in weaving or printing piece goods, and in the very large class of designs technically known as drop patterns each motive or figure comes above and to the right and left of the same figure in each of the adjoining breadths. Unless the pattern is very skillfully drawn and colored, this arrangement is likely to create a series of diagonals, more or less marked according to the size and character of the design and the vigor of the coloring. These diagonals give to any room in which they appear a quality of energetic and rhythmic movement always inartistic and tiresome and often almost intolerable. It must of course be noted that this objection does not lie against patterns formed by intersecting diagonals which result in a diaper of small diamond forms or rhombs, because the effect of movement created by the lines running in one direction is neutralized by the opposing lines.

In practice the decorator must also be on guard against inartistic diagonals in choosing upholstery fabrics. It is a common practice to use a boldly designed printed linen at the windows of a room and also as slip covers for some of the over-stuffed furniture. Many of the most strikingly decorative linens, especially those adapted from old Persian textiles, contain a sharply accented vine which runs obliquely from one side of the fabric to the other. This is of course unobjectionable in hangings, because the folds break the movement; but when the same pattern runs vigorously from the bottom of one side of a wide chair back to the top of the other side the effect is unpleasing, be-cause it destroys the atmosphere of repose which it is one of the functions of such a chair to create.

The three dimensions, height, width and depth, respectively suggest the ideas of spiritual elevation, stability and mystery. When the dimensions of a composition are normal they tend to neutralize each other, and the mind is conscious of no emotional significance. When any one is over-emphasized the value of the other two is diminished accordingly. It is almost never desirable to over-emphasize any dimension of a room; the more nearly its proportions approximate those that the eye regards as normal the more satisfactory the room will be. In the choice of individual units, how-ever, the principle is constantly employed. Thus it is impossible to produce through the use of short, high tables, chairs and cabinets the impression of stability produced by long low ones; impossible to create by means of a mantel clock the sense of elevation—of calm indifference to the hurries and anxieties of life---created by a hall clock impossible to effect in any room without draperies the slight but intriguing sense of mystery and charm possessed by a room with deep and carefully arranged hangings.

Shapes, whether they appear as simple geometrical forms, or as compositions based upon or roughly de-fined or outlined by such forms, possess emotional significances which depend in part upon the character of their bounding lines and in part upon their proportions. Thus the square suggests strength and solidity because it combines equally the firmness and support of vertical lines and the repose of horizontals. The straight lines which define it make it obvious, however, while the equality of its dimensions deprives it of subtlety and tends to make it monotonous and therefore of limited value in decorative design. Square rooms are for this reason relatively uninteresting, and so are square wall spaces, windows, and fireplaces, and square rugs, tables, chairbacks, bookcases and pictures. What is true of the square is of course equally true of the cube. Cabinets, stools, seats or stands cubical in shape are rarely good-looking, unless, as sometimes happens, their beauty of carving or surface ornament obscures their tedious forms; while the big cubical chairs so often seen are esthetically tiresome and physically un-comfortable as well.

The oblong is the commonest form in decorative art, where it appears in floors, ceilings, walls, doors, and windows, in rugs, chairs, tables, bookcases and books, and in fact in nearly every object of use or ornament. Like the square, the oblong combines straight vertical and horizontal lines, which tend to make it obvious, but its extensions are never in equilibrium and the form therefore possesses an interest lacking in the simpler form. The beauty and decorative value of oblong shapes depends chiefly upon the subtlety of their proportions, and will be discussed in the chapter dealing with that subject, as will the use of vertical or horizontal oblongs in the convergent expression of emotional ideas.

The triangle appears in decoration both as a motive and as a principle of composition. When resting upon its base it expresses a subtle quality of animation or movement in repose—the two diagonal lines contributing the idea of movement and its broad base, as contrasted with its pointed apex, the idea of repose. In the isosceles triangle the two lines of movement are equal, and the figure accordingly suggests a symmetrical or balanced activity. It appears in lamp-shades, mantel clocks, the pediments of bookcases and highboys, and the supports of benches and tables ; and as a principle of composition it is constantly employed by the decorator to give an effect of unity and balanced activity in the arrangement of mirror and console table, chair groupings, and in the disposition of pictures, pottery, or other small objects upon or above cabinets, mantels or bookcases. The isosceles triangle resting upon its point is occasionally employed in the design of fabrics and wall papers, where it yields an elusive effect of flame-like motion. The same motive is frequently found in Turcoman rugs, where it symbolizes the altars of an earlier faith, and the flame that anciently burned upon them.

Line and Form

Curved forms are easier to see than those of rectangular outline, and are therefore in general more agreeable. They vary in subtlety and in esthetic interest according to their outline. The circle, whose bounding line forever returns upon itself, suggests the ideas of completeness and finality. This quality renders it somewhat monotonous when used as a decorative unit, though it is of great value when used as the basis of repeating pattern. In the decoration of the dining room the table is of course the focal point —the motive to whose proper setting-out all other decorative elements are subordinated. And since a dining table is sufficiently large and massive to dominate the room it often happens that this very effect of completeness makes a round table more valuable decoratively than an oblong one. In the living room, on the contrary, large round tables are ordinarily objectionable, not only by reason of the lack of subtlety in their proportions, but also because they are out of harmony with the prevailing oblongs, being unlike them both in outline and in proportions. For the same reason circular mirrors, pictures and other wall ornaments do not compose well with the wall spaces. This objection does not apply, of course, to small occasional tables and other little circular forms which make themselves felt only as piquant accents in the general composition of the room; but in the design of larger units the circle is normally employed only as a device for securing emphasis through contrast.

The ellipse and the oval have a longer and a shorter axis, and therefore bear the same relation to the circle that the oblong bears to the square. They are more agreeable than the circle physiologically because, owing to the peculiar construction of the eyes, they are physically easier to see. They are far more agreeable emotionally, in part because of the subtlety inherent in the constant change of direction of their bounding lines, and in part because there is in the rhythmic alternation of these changes, and in the symmetrical swell and subsidence of the forms themselves, a hint of the mysterious dualism of life-of the flow and ebb, systole and diastole, inspiration and aspiration whence arises that sense of harmonious completeness which is the basic esthetic condition.

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