Decoration And Proportion
( Originally Published 1922 )
A FURNISHED room does not grow as do the lilies of the field. It must be fashioned by studied creative processes. Yet it is the distinguishing characteristic and highest excellence of a perfectly furnished room that it appears to be not a creation but a growth. In every such room each part is so subtly related to all the other parts and to the whole that the relationship appears to be organic. As a result of faultless calculation there is no evidence of calculation. The completed room seems to have grown spontaneously to a perfection to which nothing could be added and from which nothing could be taken away.
This organic harmony is dependent first of all upon proportion. Indeed proportion, or the relation or adaptation of one portion to another, or to the whole, as respects magnitude, quality or degree, is the dominant element in interior decoration, as it is in all the arts of design. Not only the beauty of every form in nature and in art, but its essential character and significance as well, is conditioned by the relationships borne by each of its parts to all the other parts and to the whole. The oak tree is beautiful, and so is the birch, and each has a fiber that is hard and enduring; yet we think always of the oak as sturdy, vigorous and indomitable, and of the birch as graceful, delicate and yielding. Similarly, the body of a perfectly developed athlete is always beautiful; yet no one expects the proportions of the wrestler or the weight-thrower to be the same as those of the runner or the vaulter. Each is beautiful in his own way, because the parts of his body are adapted not only to his stature, but also to the requirements of the game in which he is trained to compete. We can admire both; but we could by no possibility admire a form in which the great shoulders and torso of the one were joined to the slender hips and legs of the other. Inevitably such a form would appear grotesquely ugly in appearance and monstrous in significance.
The sense of proportion derived subconsciously from long familiarity with growing things, and particularly with the human body, conditions our artistic judgments. We expect to find things together which seem capable of having grown together ; that is, things characterized by relationships analogous to the relationships existing among growing things. Thus we are best satisfied when the column or pilaster has both a capital, or head, and a plinth or foot; or when the ratio of valance to side hangings is the same as the ratio of head to body. And because the tree, fixed and immovable, has a trunk that tapers from bottom to top, while the animals, moving at will from place to place, have legs that taper from top to bottom, it happens that in the design of furniture the billiard table, which is fixed and immovable, may have legs that taper from bottom to top; that heavy sofas, chairs and tables which though not fixed are not easily movable, may have legs that do not taper either way ; but that light and easily movable pieces, to satisfy the subconscious judgments of the mind, must have legs that taper from top to bottom.
The attempt to formulate laws of proportion was first made by the Greeks, through whose unique genius the whole realm of human thought and emotion found expression. Observing that the human body—to them the most admirable and beautiful object in the world —is characterized by fairly definite proportions, or relationships among its parts, they set about it to reduce the design of buildings to a similar basis. Taking the size of a single architectural member—usually the semi-diameter of a column at its base—as a module or unit of proportion, they established ideal ratios between this module and every other part of the building. Having decided, in the case of a particular building, upon a linear value for his module, the Greek architect could construct his whole building, whatever its size, according to the laws of proportion, as the anatomist can reconstruct an entire body from a single bone.
The progressive development of Greek architecture, typified most clearly in the three orders, offers an admirable field for the study of proportion as it conditions both the creation of beautiful forms and the expression of emotional ideas. Thus the Doric column—to speak, most incompletely, of the column only and not of its entablature—reveals the characteristics of the race that created it, a race vigorous, proud-spirited and grave, of rigid morals, an austere and solemn religion, a passionate love of warfare and of the mimic combats of the gymnasium. The Doric column seems to spring directly and powerfully from the rock of its foundation. Its height is less than six diameters. It tapers strikingly from base to top, has but slight entasis, and is channeled with flutings deeply cut and acute. Thus the order is characterized, particularly in its earlier monuments, by a massive solidity, a virile emphasis upon constructional forms, and a rude and solemn majesty. It was refined and softened as it developed, but it never lost its essential character, which is inherent in its proportions. In the Parthenon, at once the most perfect example of the style and the most beautiful building of the ancient world, there is little of softness or of elegance; but throughout and above all there is a sense of immense strength, of immemorial repose, and of calm and noble majesty.
The Ionic order, born of another racial stock and a later age and employed in the design of temples consecrated to divinities less austere and virile and more gracious, yielding and lovely, reveals the change to-ward these qualities chiefly through changes in pro-portion. The Ionic column has a height of from eight to nine diameters. It is slender, graceful, springs from a base composed of subtle curves, is channeled with flutings more slightly marked and separated, and completed by a volute capital which combines superlative grace and beauty of curved line with chaste and delicate ornament.
The Corinthian column is still more slender in proportion, having a height of ten diameters or more. Its flutings are separated by fillets terminating in curved forms, its capitals richly embellished with rows of carved leaves and elaborately constructed ornament. Thus for the severity of the Doric and the svelte delicacy of the Ionic the Corinthian order substitutes a quality of richness and magnificence.
The changes exemplified by the Greek orders are characteristic of the development of all the arts. Always they emerge vigorous, forceful and austere; always they become more delicate, more elegant, more graceful; always in the end they achieve a style rich, pretentious and florid. The arts change with changes in society, and in the degree that they are real arts—that is, real expression, rather than a foolish striving to put new wine into old bottles—their works are adapted in proportion as in everything else to the needs and aspirations of the people who create them.
It is manifest, therefore, that excellence in proportion, like excellence everywhere else in interior decoration, is first of all a matter of fitness. We cannot use a Doric column in the architecture of a Louis XVI salon, nor can we use an overstuffed sofa or a Renaissance table in its decoration. That is, we cannot use massive furniture, or large, heavy and strikingly ornamented accessories in a small room, or in any room which is designed to be dainty, gay or elegant. For just as the draft horse, beautiful as he strains at his load, would be absurd and ridiculous on the race course; and as the powerful shoulders and barrel-like chest of the wrestler would be unfitting and hence un-beautiful in the hurdler, so the proportions of a living room—using the term as defined to mean the adaptation of one part to the others and to the whole as respects magnitude, quality and quantity—could never be precisely the same as those of a drawing room, be-cause these rooms do not have the same purpose or meet the same needs, and hence cannot have the same significance or express the same idea.
We have seen that the fundamental principle of decorative composition is to put together things which, either in appearance or in significance, are more or less alike. This principle conditions the choice not only of lines, colors, patterns and symbols, but also of shapes and sizes. All the parts of a furnished room must be congruous. That is, they must appear to the mind to have grown together in the process of expressing a common idea. Thus the idea of repose, for example, is as we have seen inevitably associated with horizontal as opposed to vertical extension. Accordingly the proportions of the room to be furnished, as well as of its principal decorative units, must re-veal a marked emphasis upon length as opposed to height in the degree that an effect of repose is aimed at. Similarly, because the ideas of strength, heaviness, immobility, importance, permanence and dignity are inevitably associated with large size, the room itself and the important decorative elements used in it must be more or less large in the degree that these ideas are to be expressed, and more or less small in the degree that the ideas of delicacy, lightness, mobility, triviality, transience or grace are to be expressed.
It is obvious that in setting about the creation of a room which shall adequately express a given emotional idea we must begin with the proportions of the room itself, since to select and arrange furniture characterized by horizontality in a room which was itself characterized by verticality could make only for confusion and ugliness. But while the decorator can determine the size and proportions of the units that he places in a given room, it usually happens in practice that he has nothing to do with the proportions of the room itself, but must take them as he finds them. When, as frequently happens, they do not accord with the motive of his projected treatment, he must either change his motive to fit the actual proportions of the room, or else he must change the apparent proportions of the room to fit his motive. That is, he must, through the employment of a variety of decorative artifices, increase or reduce the apparent height of the ceiling, make the room seem longer or shorter, wider or narrower, larger or smaller.
Let us take as an example the case of a living room which it is proposed to characterize by a marked effect of tranquillity and repose. Here, as always, the decorator will seek to achieve his purpose through a convergence of artistic effects. He will accordingly, other factors permitting, place a marked emphasis' throughout (a) upon the unity as opposed to the diversity of the treatment; (b) upon low tones of color as opposed to high values; and (c) upon horizontal extension as opposed to vertical extension. A long low room, with broad windows and a wide fireplace, will of course present no difficulties. Where the ceiling is high, however, and the openings narrow, the room must be treated skillfully if the motive of re-pose is to be convincingly expressed. In such a room the ceiling must be brought down in appearance by the use of a color as dark as the lighting of the room will permit—preferably only a few tones lighter than the wall. A rough surface, like coarse canvas or sand-finished plaster, will help to bring down the ceiling, as will plaster relief or beaming. Reducing the amount of light thrown upon the ceiling through the use of direct light fixtures and of lamps properly shaded will have the same effect. Where there is no cornice the ceiling color may be carried down on the side walls to the height of the windows, or to a distance equal approximately to one-eighth of the total wall height, and its juncture with the wall color covered by a narrow molding. Horizontal divisions of the wall by a dado or frieze, or both, tend to reduce the apparent height of the ceiling, provided, of course, that the dominant lines of the frieze are horizontal or diagonal and not vertical. The walls can also be made to seem lower through the use of a paper or other wall fabric designed upon the circle or hexagon as a basis. The horizontal lines of the windows must be emphasized, usually by means of valances or lambrequins, and it will frequently be found desirable to extend the hangings a few inches beyond the casing on each side in order to increase the apparent width of the opening and thus to emphasize the horizontality of the treatment. The hangings should be caught back in order to break their straight vertical lines, which would tend to increase the apparent height of the room. Couches, tables, bookcases and other important objects will of course be relatively long and low, and vases, lamp-bowls and shades relatively wide and squat; while the rug, which to be most effective in a room of this sort ought to be relatively large and to approximate rather closely the proportions of the room, will be low in tone and either broken in hue or of thick pile or coarse texture in order to strengthen the base of the decorative treatment, and to emphasize the floor as opposed to the walls. In order to make the large pieces of furniture which are placed against the walls appear sufficiently high to harmonize with the proportions of the wall spaces and at the same time to pre-serve and emphasize their horizontality, it will be necessary to select pieces which are actually long as compared with their height, and then to place above them wide low pictures, mirrors, plastic friezes, or other similarly shaped elements. The mind, regarding each group of this sort as a unit, will be satisfied with the total height of the group as related to the wall height, while at the same time it will be strongly conscious of the dominant horizontal lines of the individual pieces. In this connection it is to be noted that because the eye moves more easily and quickly from side to side than up and down there is a constant tendency to over-estimate the length of vertical as opposed to horizontal lines—a fact that the decorator must take into account in planning any treatment in which horizontals are to be emphasized.
When on the other hand the ceiling is too low to accord well with the other dimensions of the room, or when the ceiling of a room of normal proportions is to be raised in appearance in order to decrease the tranquillity and increase the animation, buoyancy and gayety of the room, nearly all of these processes must be reversed. Here the ceiling will normally be made very light in tone, relatively smooth in texture, and well illuminated both by day and by night. No heavy cornice can be used, and the ceiling must be kept free from cross-beams and even from ornamental plaster in deep relief. Horizontal divisions of the wall spaces will as far as possible be eliminated, while verticals will be emphasized in the background surfaces as far as practicable, providing always that they stop short of the point where stiffness begins. In practice this means that while vertical paneling or fairly pronounced stripes, which tend to push up the ceiling and pull in the walls, can be used happily in large rooms, the treatment of small rooms must be limited to relatively narrow and indistinct stripes. As far as is consistent with their proper function, the principal pieces of furniture will be relatively tall and narrow, and these proportions should be repeated and accented in the selection of pictures, vases, lamps and other accessories. The hangings will normally be made to in-crease the apparent height of the room by falling straight or almost straight. Where their texture is not too light or the distance from floor to sill too great they should be run to the floor, except in the case of markedly informal rooms, and it is very often desirable still further to emphasize the verticality of the hangings by the use of a valance, cut or pleated so that its bottom line describes a concave curve, and hung above the casing at a point just high enough to cover with its lower edge the top of the glass.
When the length of a room is too great to accord well with its width, means must be adopted which tend to restore the apparent proportions to what the mind regards as normal and therefore as pleasing. The first step is to arrange the long axes of the rugs and the large pieces of furniture, as far as possible, to run in the short axis of the room, since it is a principle of design that straight lines enclosed within a space in-crease the apparent dimension of the space in the direction of the lines. Two rugs of the same size and shape may be used, or three rugs, one approximately square in the center and one relatively long and narrow at either end. Orientals, or patterned rugs with many border lines, are better than plain rugs for this pur-pose. Choice between the use of two or three rugs will of course depend largely upon whether the furniture is to be arranged in two principal groups or kept more closely together in one. It often happens that a long and narrow room has a fireplace at one side, with the hearth projecting two or three feet or even farther into the room. To use a single long and narrow rug in such a situation would not only require a rug of unpleasing shape, unsymmetrically placed, and so different in proportions from the floor as to arouse a disagreeable consciousness of lack of harmony; but it would also further accentuate the length of the room as opposed to its width. Where for any reason the use of two or three rugs in such a situation is not considered desirable it is in general best to have a large plain or self-toned rug specially made to lie within fifteen or twenty inches of the walls, and either woven or cut to fit snugly around the hearth. A single big rug will give repose and balance to the room, and if' large enough it will not affect the apparent proportions adversely, though it will of course do nothing to correct them. When this treatment is adopted for the floor it will therefore be even more necessary to emphasize the lines running across the room by proper choice and arrangement of the furniture.
The proportions of a long and narrow room can sometimes be helped by the use of large architectural mirrors, which when placed on the side walls appear to double the apparent width of the room ; and also by placing the larger pieces of furniture farthest from the principal entrance—a method which, through the effect of linear perspective and the inveterate disposition of the mind to regard large things as near and small things as remote, causes the room as seen from the principal entrance to seem shorter. Finally, the walls may be covered with a paper in a light, neutral, and if possible a cool color and a shadowy or indistinct design, while a picture, cabinet or chair having a sharply defined outline and fairly bright coloring is placed in a conspicuous position at the remote end of the room, since the mind, through processes of association, always conceives of things with sharp outlines and bright coloring as being near at hand, and those with indistinct outline and neutral coloring as being far away.
In order to increase the apparent size of a room which seems to be unpleasantly small the decorator can increase the amount and intensity of the illumination; use on the walls and ceiling light grayish tints, and especially tints of the cool colors ; keep the walls plain or cover them with an indistinct and relatively small pattern; use furniture relatively small, of light and slender structural parts, and so graceful in out-line as not to appear bulky, whatever its actual size ; reduce the diversity of the whole decorative treatment by limiting the colors to tones of but two or three hues; keep the furniture in the same or closely related styles; and eliminate all superfluous detail and all sharp contrast of hue and tone.
To diminish the apparent size of a room which seems too large these processes will be reversed. Darker and less neutral tones of the warm colors can be used on the floors and walls ; larger and more pronounced pattern on the background surfaces; larger and more bulky furniture and accessories; and, provided always that its essential unity be not imperiled, the variety of the treatment can be increased in hue, tone, line and form.
The important decorative elements of the room must be chosen to accord with the proportions of the room. That is, they must seem to the mind to be like the room, either in physical appearance or in emotional significance. For this reason as a general rule of practice the scale of all forms—rugs, furniture, pictures, lamps, vases, textile patterns, and so forth—will be increased directly with the size of the room. Thus a large room will normally look better with a large rug than with several small rugs because of like significance, since the large room necessarily affects the mind with a sense of heaviness, immobility and permanence, while small rugs necessarily affect it with a sense of lightness, mobility and transience. Moreover, the mind is better pleased with the large rug because of its easily perceptible physical resemblance to the floor ; and this sense of pleasure increases, as in the light of our fundamental principle of putting like with like we would expect, directly with the degree of likeness in size and in shape, up to the point where these likenesses are easily but not too easily recognizable. For example, in a room fifteen by twenty feet, whose width is to its length as three is to four, the mind would demand an oblong rug, and its pleasure in such a rug, other things being equal, would increase as the proportions of the rug approached the ratio of three to four. It would not, however, accept a small rug of these proportions, as 6' x 8', 7'6" x 1o', or even 9' X 12', because the edges of such a rug would lie so far from the edges of the room that the likeness in proportion could be perceived only as the result of mental effort, which is always inimical to esthetic pleasure. On the other hand, a rug 14'3" X 19' would be too nearly identical with the floor to interest the mind, which would prefer a resemblance easily recognizable but of some subtlety, such as would be afforded, let us say, by a rug 11'3" x 15'.
It is most important to note that where small rugs are used, the floor itself, and not the rugs, serves as the base of the decorative treatment, and the small rugs serve merely as ornament on that base. In this situation the floor must be toned to a depth which seems to the mind heavy enough to support the room, while the small rugs must, like all good ornament, be related to the structure by definite and easily perceptible relationships. Not only must their coloring and design harmonize with the other things in the room; their structural lines must conform to the structural lines of the room itself. That is, they must be so placed that their primary axis parallels either the primary or secondary axis of the room. To place a rug obliquely on a floor is in effect the same thing as to hang a picture or to carve the ornament of a chair back obliquely.
The same thing is true of the arrangement of furniture, in direct proportion to the size, bulk and structural emphasis of the individual pieces. While the subject will be discussed in the chapter on balance, it may be noted here that almost invariably the important units in a room—piano, reading table, davenport, bed, dresser, and so forth—must be made to parallel one or the other of the walls, no matter how far away from that wall they may actually stand. The idea that a room can be freed from an effect of stiffness or over-formality and invested with a quality of lightness and personal charm by placing heavy pieces of furniture askew in it is as erroneous as it is widespread.
In the choice of furniture, lamps and pictures the decorator will be guided by the general requirement for congruity in scale. Of course this is not to be interpreted as meaning that every piece of furniture and every textile pattern must be big in a big room, or small in a small room; it means simply that the principal pieces, the really significant objects that together constitute its organic structure, must be of a shape and bulk that is consonant with the shape and size as well as with the purpose of the room, as the thigh or torso of the athlete must be proportioned not only to his height, but also to the requirements of the game in which he is trained to compete. This analogy makes it easy to understand that even in the case of two rooms of the same floor plan a difference in the character of the rooms will necessitate differences in the proportions of many of the decorative units and in their relation to the whole, since it is only through the proportions of its parts that the true character of any whole can be constituted and revealed. Thus in the degree that a drawing room is to express the ideas of animation and gayety, as opposed to those of tranquillity and sobriety, it must be filled with relatively small and light pieces of furniture and decorative objects, even when the room itself is large. In this situation the decorator must depend for the effect of size and bulk necessary to accord harmoniously with the size of the room upon careful grouping. Two light chairs and a small table, for example, grouped for conversation or tea, affect the mind as one rather than as three units, and therefore satisfy the esthetic requirements of consonance, while the small size of the individual pieces accords with the function and decorative motive of the room. The mere fact of grouping will satisfy the esthetic requirements ; the constitution, placement and arrangement of the various groups must of course be determined in practice by such considerations of suitability as the purpose of the room, the lo-cation of fireplace, windows, doors and lighting out-lets, and the tastes of the people who use the room.
It is to be remembered also that actual size and apparent bulkiness are by no means the same thing. Slender structural parts and graceful lines reduce astonishingly the apparent size of a piece of furniture. A finely designed sofa in one of the eighteenth century English or French styles appears to be a third smaller than a present-day over-stuffed sofa of the same actual dimensions ; and the same differences in mere bulkiness and in apparent as distinguished from actual dimensions mark the French fauteuil and the American tub chair, Hepplewhite and Craftsman tables, Pompeian and Renaissance floor lamps, and so on throughout the whole range of furniture. Thus the decorator may choose furniture consonant not only with the size but also with the character of any room, making the pieces increasingly less bulky and more light and graceful as the motive of the room becomes increasingly more animated and gay, and emphasizing the effect thus produced by the use of textures of closer weave, greater power of reflecting light and lighter and more delicate coloring.
This point is worthy of further emphasis. For reasons which it would be tedious to attempt to analyze here there is a very widespread idea that mere bulk is in some way essential to comfort in furniture. Thus many women feel that a living room, to be comfort-ably furnished, must, regardless of its size, have a big davenport and two or more big chairs. When these pieces, together, usually, with a reading table and a piano, have been installed in a small room there is very little space for anything else, and to the mind there seems to be none at all. Living in such a room is like living in a crowd. The room is hopelessly out of scale, and its bad proportions are aggravated by the physical necessity of keeping such other pieces as are essential to the uses of the room as much smaller than they ought to be as the big pieces are larger than they ought to be.
The same effect of incongruous proportion is often seen in the bedroom, where for the sake of more drawer space or larger mirrors, or by reason of a singularly inept preference for mere mass, furniture is chosen of a size that dwarfs the room; in the dining room, where a table so large as to destroy the organic harmony of the treatment is chosen because the doily service will look well when there are eight for luncheon; and especially in the den. We have all seen this tiny den, so popular a few years ago, with its one big Turkish chair and its big reading table, around which one must thread his way gingerly in order to avoid knocking over the smoking table, the magazine rack, and the one small remaining chair. Of course no one with the slightest feeling for form or fitness could be comfortable in such a room. As a matter of fact no one ever tried to be ; for such rooms were no sooner furnished than they were deserted, to remain of no more value in the economy of the household than an unused closet.
While we are here concerned with the individual decorative units only as they help to form an organic whole, it must be noted that the same general principles of proportion apply to their design. The legs of a table, for example, or of a chair or sofa, most be of a size that seems to the mind such as would naturally have grown on a piece of its dimensions and weight. Undoubtedly short straight legs two inches in diameter would be sufficient to support the largest davenport ; yet such legs would appear grotesquely inadequate and ugly. When we see such a piece supported by bun legs four or five inches in diameter, however, we are satisfied. A small light-toned picture in a very heavy frame is as unsatisfactory as a large dark-toned picture in a very light frame. A nine by twelve rug with a border twenty-seven inches wide lacks beauty of proportion, as does a rug of the same size with a nine-inch border.
Figure 30, taken, with its accompanying comment, from Mayeux's "La composition décorative," page 153, perfectly illustrates the principle involved. The panel A, one of the fanciful decorative subjects much employed during the Renaissance and later, shows a figure resting upon a bracket supported by two foliated con-soles. These consoles also support two little columns which serve to hold up the canopy. Although the design is a work of pure fancy, and the actual strength of the scaffolding is of no importance, nevertheless the mind is perturbed and dissatisfied if any element of the composition appears to be too light or too heavy, too narrow or too wide, for the whole, as in B.
Thus if the bracket is too narrow (a) the figure appears uncomfortable and constrained in its attitude; while if it is too wide the figure appears (b) to hate too much room and thus to lose its fixed place in the composition. The consoles, designed too thin (c) in connection with columns too thick, seem to bend under the burden they bear; inversely, at (d) they appear clumsy and of an exaggerated weight and strength in connection with the load they bear. Similarly, the relationships between the columns and the canopy must be congruous ; so that the latter will be neither too heavy (e) nor too light and narrow (f).
Not only the size but also the structural emphasis of all important forms is in general increased directly with the scale of the room. The contrast in tone between trim and the wall is slightly intensified; textile patterns are made slightly bolder; moldings, picture frames and table tops are given more projection; and the weight-bearing and strength-revealing lines of the furniture are accentuated. Moreover, since the mind associates dark colors with the ideas of bulk, heaviness and strength, the tonality of the room is progressively lowered.
It is manifest that no formulas can be deduced sufficiently specific to be of value in this matter; nor are any necessary. Careful and continued observation and analysis of good and bad examples of furniture, rugs, picture frames, lamps and other objects, and of their employment in particular rooms, together with the study of buildings and of architectural drawings and photographs and of the human body in painting and sculpture, will be enough to train the eye to perceive niceties of proportion. For the decorator there is no escape from these slow processes of growth. Here, as elsewhere in the art, there is no substitute for a sure taste.
Up to this point we have been concerned with pro-portion as expressive of significance and functional fitness, and with the adaptation of the various members of a decorative treatment to each other and to the whole. But the question very naturally suggests itself as to whether there may not be such a thing as intrinsically pleasing proportions, apart from any considerations of fitness or significance. May there not be some ideal ratio which we can accept as a norm by which to judge excellence or the lack of it in decorative composition?
This question was answered affirmatively by the artists of the Renaissance as the result of their study ,of proportion in classic art, and their conclusions were elaborated and set forth in the early part of the last century by Xeising in a treatise in which he urged as the ideal proportion what he called the Golden Section, or a division of any whole into two parts in such a way that the whole is to the larger part as the larger is to the smaller. Thus in the line ac, in Figure 31, ac : ab :: ab : bc, while in the rectangle the sum of the two diameters is to the longer diameter as the longer is to the shorter. Worked out arithmetically, this ratio is about that of five to three.
The golden section satisfies the requirements of the mind, and may be accepted as an approximate ideal. The basic fact with reference to excellence in proportion is that it is based upon the laws of repetition and principality. For example, the length and breadth of a rectangle, in order to satisfy the esthetic requirements of the mind, must be nearly enough alike so that their likeness is easily apparent; yet one dimension must be enough greater than the other to satisfy the need for a dominant element. Of the three rectangles shown in Figure 32, A, being square, satisfies the demand for likeness but not for principality; while B satisfies the demand for principality but not that for repetition. C alone satisfies both demands, and therefore it is alone accepted by the mind as of pleasing proportions. The ratio thus applied to the division of lines and the dimensions of rectangles was held by Xeising to be applicable to the dimensions of ellipses, rhombs and other geometrical forms, and in the arts of design to the proportions of floor and wall spaces, windows, doors, tables, rugs, books, vases, frames, chairs and chairbacks, and so on.
This ratio is pleasing because, as Raymond has pointed out, the mind judges of proportion by unconscious comparison of like spatial units, as it judges of rhythm in music and poetry by comparison of like accents. As long as these units are expressible in small ratios, like 1 :1 or 1 :2, they are easily perceptible. As the number of units is increased the ratio becomes more difficult to perceive and the proportion more subtle, up to the point where the mind is unable to judge the ratio. Thus the ratio 2:3 is more subtle and more interesting than the ratio 1:1, yet it is easily sensed by the mind. On the other hand, ratios like 4:7, 7:12, or 9 :14 involve a number of divisions beyond the power of the mind to grasp. Primitive art is very simple and involves endless repetition of the ratio I :I, but as man's intelligence increases and his esthetic perceptions are developed his taste demands more subtle relationships. The proportion of 3:5 satisfies the most highly trained eye and mind, as it satisfied the Greeks, because it is the most subtle that the mind can grasp with the ease necessary to esthetic enjoyment.
Long before the time of Xeising Vitruvius stated that the length of a room should be to its breadth as 5 :3, or as 3 :2 ; or, in the case of very large apartments, as 2 :1. The decorator will find in practice that when a room varies widely from this ideal its apparent pro-portions must be altered through some of the devices noted above before the room can be made to seem satisfactory to a critical taste; and that, within the limits necessarily imposed by their function and particular situation, the various forms and surfaces in his treatment will be found to be increasingly pleasing to the mind as they approach the proportions of the golden section.
Our instinctive insistence upon the presence of a dominant element in every composition conditions the proportions of all horizontal divisions of the wall spaces. When a wall is divided into two parts only, one part must be perceptibly wider than the other, and the more nearly these divisions approximate the ratio of five to three, other things being equal, the more pleasing they will be. Figure 33 shows a dining room wall in which this ratio appears in the proportions of the wall itself, in the division into paneling and frieze, and in the opening. This, of course, is not a law, but only a safe guide. In practice the horizontal division of a given wall space may vary widely from these proportions and still be entirely satisfactory, provided only that the mind is left in no doubt as to the presence of a dominant element. The ratio might also require to be modified to make allowance for the peculiar effect of the design of paneling or frieze. Thus vertical panels without any horizontal rails would increase the apparent height of the lower member, while a friÏeze designed upon marked horizontal lines or wide lateral curves would apparently diminish that of the upper member.
When, in the case of large and important rooms, there are three or more horizontal divisions, one must perceptibly exceed the total of all the others. The elevation shown in Figure 34, based upon the Tuscan order, has a height of 11'6", with a dado of 2'3", a sidewall of 7'2", a frieze of 1'6", and a 7" cornice. In the decoration of a given room these proportions will naturally be so adjusted as best to accord with the motive of the room, the character and projection of its trim, and the design and coloring of the frieze; but as a rough rule of practice we may, taking one-nineteenth of the ceiling height as a module, give the dado a a height of four modules, the sidewall twelve or slightly less, the frieze two or slightly more, and the cornice one or slightly less.
Where there are no horizontal divisions other than the regular low baseboard and a cornice or picture molding at the ceiling the difference between the side-wall and the other two members is so great that the mind makes no attempt to compare them, but instead compares the total height of the room with the windows, which thus become the element to be given principality, and which ought accordingly to be longer than the total of the space above the windows plus the space below. Here the mind is in general best satisfied when the space below the window is about one-third of the height of the window itself, while the space above is about one-fourth of the length of the window. Thus a room with a ceiling nine feet and six inches high would look well with windows six feet long, having two feet from sill to floor, and one foot six inches from top of window to ceiling. It must, of course, be noted that these vague generalizations are not intended to apply to the design of great apartments, where the openings will start from the floor and be carried by means of over-door and over-window treatments to the cornice. They apply to rooms of ordinary size and proportions only, and then merely as suggestions which are reasonably sure to lead to satisfactory results. Nothing could be more false than the assumption that relations of proportion can be reduced to unalterable formulas.
The beauty of proportion which is the principal element of that organic harmony characteristic of a well-furnished room depends first of all upon a proper emphasis of structure. In the perfect room we are al-ways conscious of being indoors, not out. At the back of the mind lies always the intimate sense of shelter, of protection, of freedom to live our lives unhindered by nature or by man. This implies a sense of strong walls, of adequate coverings for the openings, above all of a firm roof over our heads. No room can be a perfect room unless it makes us subtly aware of the presence of these primary requirements of shelter.
The trim or woodwork of a room outlines its structure and helps to steady and support its decorative treatment. It is clear that the emphasis to be placed upon this structural outline will vary according to the character of the room and the way in which it is to be furnished, since anything large, heavy, elaborate or complex will require a stronger structural support than will anything small or light or simple. The effect of strength and importance of the woodwork will vary directly with the factors of area, projection, sharpness of outline, marked texture, and contrast with the wall areas.
It is a weakness of present-day decoration that it so largely fails to recognize the basic importance of structure, and so largely concerns itself with what is applied and incidental, as the builders of forty years ago so largely ignored proportion and structural emphasis and concerned themselves with fussy bays, dormers, brackets, grills, shaped shingles and jig-saw applique, which to the surer taste of to-day seem in the last degree tawdry, trivial and ugly. This failure to recognize the basic importance of structure is peculiarly characteristic of our treatment of the ceiling.
The ceiling is the roof of the room, the sheltering and protecting element. In all the great decorative periods it was given a relatively elaborate treatment. The classic methods of ceiling decoration, besides being quite beyond the means of the average home owner, are for the most part rendered unfitting by the very low ceilings which, in the interests both of economy and of repose, characterize most modern homes. Ceilings treated in plaster relief or with beaming are widely used in rooms having a ceiling height of ten feet or more, and with excellent effect when they are in scale with the room and well executed ; but the great number of ceilings in ordinary homes are and will continue to be of plain plaster, tinted or covered with canvas and painted. In their treatment the decorator is concerned with three factors : texture, already discussed; tone; and support.
The ceiling must seem to the mind to have some body and weight, since in the modern house it is to be regarded not as the sky above the room but rather as its roof. The very common practice of making the ceiling perfectly smooth and of doing it in white or pale cream regardless alike of its actual height and of the coloring and tone of the walls often results not only in sharp tone contrasts by which the mind is more or less consciously perturbed, but also in the loss of the sense of sheltered intimacy. Making the ceiling slightly rougher—for example, by covering it with cloth and painting it in oil and stippling—and keeping it a little lower in tone, according to a formula to be stated in the chapter on light and shade, makes it seem heavier and therefore more satisfactory to the mind, while at the same time it pi events an inartistic contact with the walls.
Whatever its tone, the ceiling must seem to be adequately supported. This requires the use of a supporting molding of some kind at the point where the ceiling appears to rest on the sidewall. The position, depth, projection and ornamental character of this member will naturally depend upon the proportions of the room and upon its function and decorative motive, and it ought in every case to be determined by a competent architectural designer. In any case the cornice molding must appear in its turn to be adequately supported. Nothing is more disturbing, and few things more commonly experienced, than the consciousness of a cornice which seems heavy enough amply to support the ceiling, but is itself quite unsupported and apparently suspended in the air.
Where the walls are paneled the ceiling support is of course adequate, as it is where over-mantel and over-doors are extended to the cornice, following the general practice in rooms of importance. In ordinary rooms this apparent support will be afforded either by the walls or by the openings, or by both. The mind unconsciously regards the wall of a room as an order, or combination of architectural factors necessary to hold up the solids over an opening, and it demands either that the wall itself seem to possess the strength essential to this office or that it be performed by the openings. In the latter case the windows set off by their draperies seem to act as columns which support the cornice and ceiling. Here the impression of strength conveyed by the pillars of classic architecture is expressed by the draperies, which must, of course, fall to the floor; and the deeper the folds of the fabric the more marked will be the shadows they cast and the greater the impression of strength.
Where the walls are depended upon for apparent support for the cornice and ceiling they must be strengthened by relatively dark color or marked texture or pattern, or by two or three of these factors in combination. In this case the hangings do not re-quire to be hung to the floor. They may, if desired, be made of light textures and stopped at the bottom of the apron ; but they must be definitely related either to the walls or to the windows. The common practice of stopping them arbitrarily at a point nine or twelve or fifteen inches below the sill ignores their structural character and leaves the mind perturbed and unconvinced.
The present vogue of plain walls has much to recommend it; yet it often results in bad decoration because, like every other vogue, it often disregards considerations of fitness. The predominance of plain as opposed to ornamented surfaces results naturally in effects that are fine and delicate, but that easily become thin and poor when overemphasized; while the predominance of ornamented as opposed to plain surfaces makes for a breadth and richness of effect that easily develops when overemphasized into complexity and confusion. It is therefore clear that plain walls, set off by hangings, furniture and objects of art, accord excellently with relatively small rooms and relatively light coloring; but that when the rooms are large, the colors low, and the requirements of structural emphasis pronounced, plain walls lack the strength to support the cornice and ceiling unless they are either paneled or invested with a marked effect of rough or open texture, whether through the use of plaster, paper or cloth. In every case where there is any room for doubt as to its structural adequacy a texture paper should be tried in position before it is chosen, since it will often be found that nothing less than pattern, of a size and emphasis proportioned to the scale' of the room, will prove adequate for its structural requirements.
The preference for plain walls, as for plain rugs and plain hangings, is largely based upon the belief that they are more restful than figured walls, make a more sympathetic background for the other deco-rations, and cause the room to appear larger. This belief is only partially warranted. In the degree that plain walls are smooth and shiny they are unrestful and unsympathetic. In the degree that either Walls or floor coverings are in sharp contrast in hue, tone or texture with the objects that appear against them, they tend to reduce the apparent size of the room. Moreover, it is to be remembered that furniture of ugly or eccentric outline is emphasized and thrown into an unwelcome relief by plain walls, and reduced to relative impotence by repeating but inconspicuous pattern ; and, finally, that in the degree that the room is filled with furniture of many styles, its unity must be emphasized in every practicable manner. As we have seen, the simplest way to emphasize the unity of a room is to cover its background surfaces with a repeating pattern.
Proportion as it affects the distribution of tones, hues and ornament will be discussed in later chapters. No discussion of any phase of the subject can, how-ever, be more than helpfully suggestive. An accurate sense of proportion demands that certain powers of perception and comparison be strengthened, and they can no more be strengthened by reading about pro-portion than the body can be strengthened by reading about the Petersen exercises or the Swoboda system. The eye and the mind must be trained by long observation and study of beautiful forms in nature and in art to perceive the subtle spatial relationships, hidden utterly from the untrained eye, upon which beauty and significance, in decoration as in all the arts, so largely depend.