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Decoration And The Significance Of Texture

( Originally Published 1922 )

THE statement that form and color are the two media of decorative expression requires qualification; for texture, although in an accurate sense simply form and color inter-woven, is in effect a distinct medium of expression, and one of great importance.

The word texture comes from a root meaning to weave, but its primary meaning has been so widened that the term is used in the arts to express structure, or the manner in which the parts of a material are united or interwoven. In this sense all decorative materials have texture, and their texture is the most characteristic and in some respects the most significant quality they possess. Through it form and color, essentially impersonal attributes, become individualized. Without it decoration would be meaningless and beauty impossible. Thus cinnamon brown, simply as a flat color, is uninteresting and unpleasant, being in fact little more than a dirty yellow-orange. But when it appears in an interesting texture, as in oak or walnut, in silk, wool or paper, in close or open weaves and flat or pile fabrics, it becomes significant and beautiful. Similarly the dead gloom of black and the dead glare of white are relieved and endowed with life and animation, as the heat of red, the cold of blue, and the brilliancy of yellow are tempered, by texture.

The esthetic value of texture lies first of all in the fact that it makes gradation of color possible. Flat colors are never beautiful. Broadly speaking, they appear neither in nature nor in good art. A flat tone is often useful in decoration, as when painted wood-work or furniture is employed to set off by contrast the gradated tones of rug, walls and hangings; but of itself it is monotonous and unbeautiful. Texture gives a surface unevenness, either actually, as in woven fabrics, flock papers, or wrought iron, or in effect, as in the grain of hardwoods, and this unevenness causes the surface color to be broken into an infinitude of minute gradations of light and shade, banishing its hard, lifeless, obvious quality, and investing it with the charm of vitality and subtlety. The importance of gradation in color is thus finely emphasized by Ruskin in the third letter of The Elements of Drawing: "And it does not matter how small the touch of color may be, though not larger than the smallest pin's head, if one part of it is not darker than the rest it is a bad touch; for it is not merely that the natural fact is so, that your color should be gradated; the preciousness and pleasantness of the color itself depends more on this than on any other of its qualities, for gradation is to color just what curvature is to lines, both being felt to be beautiful by the pure instinct of every human mind, and both, considered as types, expressing the law of gradual change and progress in the human soul itself. What the difference is in mere beauty between a gradated and ungradated color may be seen easily by laying an even tint of rose color on paper, and putting a rose-leaf beside it. The victorious beauty of the rose as compared with other flowers depends wholly upon the delicacy and quantity of its color gradations, all other flowers being either less rich in gradation, not having so many folds of leaf; or less tender, being patched and veined instead of flushed."

Because large areas of flat color are not only tire-some and unbeautiful in themselves, but also totally unsympathetic backgrounds for the people and things that appear against them, all background surfaces should reveal a marked effect of texture. Walls and ceilings ought not to be tinted with calcimine unless they have a relatively rough surface, and when smooth walls are painted they should be covered with canvas or muslin first and stippled afterward, or otherwise roughened in order to ensure the effect of texture and the beauty of gradated tones. The great decorative value of wall paper lies largely in the fact that it makes possible almost any desired effect of texture, and this at almost any desired price. Costly papers like the grass-cloths and flocks possess great individuality and distinction in texture, while such inexpensive pa-pers as the jaspés and imitation grass-cloths simulate it by the skillful use of dots, dashes and hair-lines of color printed upon a plain or embossed surface.

Quite apart from their hue and tone, textures possess emotional values due to the association of ideas. The decorator will accordingly seek to group textures with other textures, as he groups forms and colors, in such a way as to produce convergences of effect and to ensure decorative unity through likenesses either in appearance or in significance. Instinctively we associate the texture of oak with what is strong and vigorous and a little crude. Hence we group it in general not only with relatively low tones of color and relatively large and simple shapes, but also with textures which are relatively firm and heavy, as tapestry, velvet or leather. Similarly the texture of satinwood is associated by the mind with what is smooth and delicate and refined, and is therefore grouped in practice with textures like damask, brocade or taffeta, which are light, smooth and lustrous, as well as with light colors and relatively slight and graceful shapes. Instinctively the texture of silk is associated with what is rare and costly and that of cotton with what is common-place and inexpensive, as the texture of lustrous deep-pile weaves is associated with richness and luxury and of lusterless flat weaves with a strait simplicity. Doubt-less the emotional significance of texture has roots that lie below mere association, in states too purely metaphysical for discussion here. In any case it is certain that the consistent use of texture is for some reason felt to be even more essential in good decoration than consistency in ornament or style. Some textures, used together, are felt at once to be unsympathetic and even antipathetic; while others seem to be related by subtle affinities.

The choice of textures and their harmonious grouping is an important and difficult part of the decorator's work, and one for which no guides other than a few vague suggestions can be established. It is first of all clear that textures cannot be grouped according to their cost. Certain expensive basket weaves and block-printed Tussore silks, for example, would serve excellently as hangings in a simple living room furnished in good oak or French willow, where a far less expensive damask would be too formal ; as a plain dark wood molding would serve excellently to frame an etching which, however great its cost, would be ruined by a carved gilt molding. Nor can textures always be grouped according to surface likenesses, as rough with rough and smooth with smooth. A carved oak chair, in spite of the rough and open texture of the wood, will ordinarily look better covered in a smooth pile velvet than in a rough and open-weave wool rep; as a porcelain lamp will normally look better with a shade of silk than with one of glass. Textures must in fact be grouped according to their significance, and this significance will usually be found to depend in part upon their physical characteristics and in part upon association of ideas.

Thus the formality of the damask is due to the stiffness of its weave; to its close sheen, which seems to ward off familiarities as does the polish of the diplomat or the courtier; and to the fact that it has always been associated historically with a formal style of living. The basket weave, on the other hand, and the rough texture of Tussore silk, suggest openness and informality, like a gentleman in tweeds. The fine black lines of the etching suggest precision and hardness, and its broad rough lines homeliness and solidity; and both of these qualities are associated in the mind with plain dark wood but not with gilded ornament. Good carving, in oak no less than in walnut or mahogany, suggests a richness which accords better with the sumptuous quality of velvet than with the rough dullness of rep. The glaze and luster of porcelain and pottery associate these materials with the idea of light, and give them a fitness for use as lamp bases not possessed by ungilded wood or wrought iron; while the softly graduated tones of thin silk seem, better than the hard brilliancy of glass, to express the soft and permeating quality of light. Thus we associate leather—unless sumptuously tooled and colored—with what is commonplace and serviceable, and gold leaf with what is pretentious and superficial. And thus we place Sèvres and bisque in the drawing room because their very texture seems to have in it something of the transient, fleeting quality of youth and gayety; and Rook-wood and Grueby in the living room, along with age and strength and permanence.

In general lustrous textures are grouped with lus-trous, and dull textures with dull. However, exceptions to this rule of practice will frequently be made in the use of richly-colored fabrics. Thus dull, light, or thinly-colored cretonnes will appear to better advantage with lusterless rugs of the Brussels or Scotch in-grain type than with pile fabrics. On the other hand, richly-colored cretonnes or printed linens accord excellently not only with plain or self-toned axminster or chenille rugs, but also with fine wiltons and with many small-figured Orientals, like the Feraghans or Serebends; provided, of course, that there is harmony in color as well as in the character or spirit of the design. Similarly, cretonnes or linens of this type may be used in a colorful room with valances made of a velvet chosen to match one of the rich colors of the pattern; whereas a linen or cretonne of meager coloring would require a valance of the same material, or of a plain material equally lusterless.

So far as its significance is concerned, texture is employed by the decorator not to express new ideas, but to affirm those expressed by form and color, and his chief concern is therefore to emphasize the decorative effects produced by form and color through the convergent effect of texture. It cannot be too often stated that in the perfect convergence of effects lies the highest charm of good decoration. Not its forcefulness and convincing quality merely, but also its atmosphere of good breeding and decorum—and it is worth noting here that this word and decoration come from a common root meaning to be fitting or becoming—are largely dependent upon the avoidance of inconsistencies and esthetic contradictions.

The appreciation of significance and beauty in texture, as in color, line and form, must be cultivated, and this can be best accomplished through a close familiarity with the various decorative materials, together with the study of their use in the great decorative periods. These periods were great precisely because in them decorative art attained to approximately perfect convergences of effects. However, each such period was great at the time of its maturity, not in its adolescence or its decadence, and the student must see to it that he is studying the best practice. Even in the best practice many inconsistencies will be found, as in all things human; but it was in general based upon a deep feeling for harmony in texture and a keen appreciation of its importance in decorative art.

This concludes our study of the grammar of decoration and prepares the way for the study of the problems of composition. Brief and fragmentary as this study has of necessity been, it has at any rate served to point out that everything used in the art of interior decoration is instinct with meaning. The decorator may be unaware of these meanings, as the child may be unaware of the meanings of the letters printed on his blocks; but the meanings are there nevertheless, and are quite sure to find their way into the consciousness of any one who has eyes trained to see. And whether they will group themselves into a clear and pleasant thought or strike the mind as a meaningless jumble will depend wholly upon the skill with which they are combined.

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