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Interior Decorating - The Arrangement and Balance of Furniture

( Originally Published 1919 )

THE arrangement of furniture is taken up before the subject of furniture itself, because most persons are already possessed of at least a portion of what is to be used. Furthermore, the matter of arrangement and balance is so important that it should be mastered before, new furniture is purchased.

We have already, then, in our houses the constructional items of doors, windows, fireplaces and panelling, if this be used. Frequently, too, in new houses or apartments, there are such built-in features as china-cupboards, wardrobes and bookcases. All, therefore, that usually confronts us is the existing space into which we must pleasantly arrange our household effects, and possibly provide for others. When we mobilise these effects they seem of great variety, but their uses are so well defined that this in itself often aids their placing. In a bedroom of the usual size, for instance, the purpose of the room defines the appropriate furniture. Often, too, from the construction of the room, it is at once evident where the bedstead should go, and there remain but a few wall spaces into which we may fit a chest of drawers with mirror above, or a dressing-table, a highboy, wardrobe or chiffonier, a small table or two, chairs, and perhaps, if the room be sufficiently large, a couch, and the like. The fact that we should have a good light by which to dress, will probably determine the place of the dressing-table, while a wardrobe or highboy may go into a darker space, so that by natural circumstances our progress has greatly been aided (Plate 88 A and B). In any event, we have arrived at the precept that it is well to begin with the principal pieces of furniture, after-wards disposing of the others.


In order, however, that the final result should show a correct balance of arrangement, we shall need to use other principles. Some of them are at once evident, as, if we were to load a boat, we should not naturally place all the bulky freight on one side and the light on the other, 'so we shall not arrange all the tall pieces of furniture on one side of a room and place the low pieces on the opposite side. By so doing we should not actually tip the room as we should the boat, but we should tip its appearance. Furthermore, even if we disregarded for the moment the looks of the whole room and considered either side alone, we should see how montonous is a series of pieces of more or less uniform height. We must, therefore, intersperse high and low to secure a proper balance.

Balance, in its simplest form, is that in which the objects on each side of a larger central feature are the same in character and arranged in the same manner. This is illustrated in the beautiful group of Italian Renaissance furniture in which the chairs and torcheres are alike on both sides of the handsome credenza (Plate 89 B). This arrangement, being formal in its character, is particularly in place for stately rooms, but is equally appropriate in such humbler surroundings as a quiet eighteenth century room where two chairs flank a Queen Anne sofa with an old portrait above. The formality here is combined with quaintness, both of which are charming in an interior of this old-time type.

A further development of the principle of balance is that in which the objects on the two sides of the central object are not the same or even of the same character. Such an. arrangement, as we shall by-and-by see, does away with formality, and imparts a more familiar and homelike atmosphere to the room where it is used.

Although balance of this nature is simple and easily accomplished, it is often neglected or but imperfectly managed. An example of such faulty balance is shown in the illustration where, on the right of a fireplace, a tea-table with two small pictures above fails to balance the antique organ on the left. The readiness with which such an imperfection can be remedied, is shown in the corresponding illustration where the two small and poorly hung pictures have given way to a larger picture properly placed (Plate 90).

An example of what amounts not only to disorganisation in furnishing, but to loss of homelike feeling, is that of a room of generally attractive character with its comfortable sofa and chair on opposing sides of a fireplace and a stand placed stiffly between (Plate 91). It is evident that the chair fails to balance the sofa in length and that the stand is disjoined from either. Now if the chair were pulled slightly forward, and the stand moved back, not directly to the side of the chair but to the side and just forward of its edge, where it would be handy to the chair's occupant, it will at once be plain that an altogether different atmosphere of invitation and restfulness had entered into the composition. If a rug were laid down before the fireplace, the windows simply curtained, some of the objects removed from the mantel and a larger clock or other object introduced to give centralisation, the whole effect would be changed. It will, therefore, be seen that the treatment of this one room is a small object-lesson in decoration, and points out what an infinite improvement a few changes in position and addition can make in an interior which is already generally good, so far as it goes.

The principle of balance being so clearly shown, it might prove interesting to try a few experiments with light pieces of furniture in one's own household, especially if there are young people in the family. The future of good household-art naturally lies with the rising generation, and if those who are now young can be interested in such matters the benefit may prove immeasurable. Parents might also find their children taking a vital interest in the attractiveness and neatness of their own rooms. The writers, therefore, indicate a few such experiments :

If, for example, we have a fireplace, or other large object, with a small space on each side of it, we may place a chair with a picture above it in each space. Such an arrangement is balanced but is formal, and we may prefer a small table in one of the spaces. If it is approximately of the size of the removed chair we shall still have balance, but, if the table is long, we shall immediately see that this balance is disturbed, and it will be better to substitute a couch for the chair on the other side, thus matching the long table in shape.

We may, however, alter the arrangement which first existed by the use of a tall object instead of a long one —we may wish to place on one side of the central fireplace a mahogany bookcase which, although not much wider than the chair, if bulky, may happen to exceed it considerably in height. It is plain that we shall have to remove the one picture in order to give place to the bookcase, and we then have the case on one side and the chair with picture above it on the other. If the picture be of strong character in a dark frame and the chair also dark, we still have a good balance to the case on the other side, but if the chair be small or light in colour and the picture be likewise, we shall not have balance. The question of "value" has, therefore, entered into the problem as well as that of size. Value is the lightness or darkness of an object irrespective of its colour. Balance may be described as equal weight of effect, and it is that which we must secure.

Another principle with which we are all familiar is the avoiding of top-heaviness—we should not place a very large picture, hanging or mirror above a small chair or table. It is really surprising sometimes to see how little is required in this direction to spoil an effect and to "get upon one's nerves" when constantly seen. In such instances, we should recall here, also, the principle of value; for, although the sizes of the two objects may be in proper relation, the arrangement will, nevertheless, be bad if the upper one be too strong and dark for the lower. If the lower is also frail in build, the bad result will further be intensified.

Two varieties of treatment have been considered—that in which the objects on each side of a larger central feature were alike in character and similarly arranged, and that in which they were different but were either of themselves or by the addition of other objects of equal general effect.

Occasionally in household arrangement two other contingencies arise. It may be that on the one side of the central object (such as a fireplace) we wish to use some such piece of furniture as a bookcase of moderate size and on the other side a table and chair. We so place them at equal distances from the fireplace on its two sides, but are disappointed to find that the appearance is wrong, that the latter articles do not sufficiently balance the former. Even when we place a lamp or other object of some height upon the table the result is but little improved. We could build up the effect by a picture upon the wall, but we may already have done all we wish in this direction and may really prefer a change from the formal balance. It may easily be secured. It will be remembered that the writers' definition of balance was "equal weight of effect": in order therefore to give the object or group which is the lighter in effect the same weight which the larger possesses we must give more leverage to the lighter. In other words, as we move it farther from the central object it gains in weight of effect. A few inches will usually be sufficient, because the original discrepancy should not be great.

The second contingency is where there is no central object or room for one, but where the wall space is sufficiently large for the placing of two objects or groups. In this case the procedure is precisely the same except that instead of working from a central object we work from a central point. Measure the wall space and find its centre; if the two objects or groups are of equal weight of effect place them equidistant from this central point. If one is lighter than the other move the lighter farther away from the central point until it is felt that the balance is correct. There will likely be other circumstances in our household arrangement in which we shall, have to exercise this balance of feeling and to which this will be a guide. Mathematical calculation would be too abstruse, and a little experiment will make is unnecessary as well.


Every large wall space should have an object of central interest about which other objects may group, and if it be not there we must either supply or create it. It may be supplied by one of the larger and taller pieces of furniture, by a large mirror, or a tapestry or other hanging; it may be created by building up a series of objects.

As these built-up effects are among the most interesting and attractive decorative facilities we possess, several of them will be suggested.

First of all, they give us the opportunity of making the most of and of bringing out the true beauty of fine pieces which yet are not of large size. One might, for instance, be the happy possessor of such a handsome inlaid console cabinet as that shown in Plate 92 A, but be so unknowing as to place it, because of its size, in some convenient but undistinguished corner where its beauty would be hidden and its effect as a decoration fatally lost. On the other hand, but little is required to make of it a centre of interest worthy the name—the placing upon it of a few choice objects and the hanging above it of the unusual but simple mirror shows its true value. This group might be flanked by handsome chairs or settees, thus furnishing the side of a room which it would be a pleasure to enter.

A different but similar result may be obtained by the use of a long but low bookcase. Above this we may hang a panel nearly as long as the bookcase and, upon the latter, place a few objects that will unite the two and give interest. These objects might be a plaque or vases, a couple of small pictures and a pair of candlesticks. Or as a centralising object we might use an attractive table or chest with a panel, mirror, or picture hanging above it, and a sconce on each side.

For a stately room, no better centralised group could be imagined than such an arrangement as that of the Italian Renaissance furnishings shown in Plate 89 B, and if one lack such distinguished materials much the same result might be obtained by articles of far less cost.

Probably as comfortable and homelike a composition as could be desired is that which occupies the end of a little room illustrated in Plate 92 B. Here is a roomy couch with a backing to match the covering, hung from a brass rod upon the wall. There are abundant cushions, and above it is a panel consisting of a series of four attractive and colourful Japanese prints in one mat and frame, flanked by a sconce on the one hand and an upright panel between the long one and the antique bookcase on the other. As usual, photography has emphasised the pattern of the covering. A Sheraton settee with quieter coverings has since taken the place of the couch.

Small hangings are less often used in such situations than mirrors, but if one is on the lookout for such things it would be possible sooner or later to pick up some attractive and unusual piece of drapery that would give individuality to such a setting.

Carved woodwork, polychromatic decoration, a plaster panel or a Chinese or Japanese decoration would all be appropriate for this or similar places.

Of the built-up effects that have been suggested it may be said that each of these devices has its own interest and that all might be used, each in its own situation.


We have the expression "Hearth and Home," and when there is a fireplace, it is the central object of interest and should be so treated. In many old houses, a settle often stood endwise to the room at one or both sides of the fireplace, and in modern use the same device may be employed. A tea-table, sensibly set at its end, does much to relieve the stiffness of a settle and adds to the home-like atmosphere of the composition.

In more elegant rooms it is now happily quite customary to place a sofa in the same position. An excellent example of fireplace treatment is shown in Plate 56. If space is limited it is sometimes better to employ an easy-chair, with perhaps a stand or small table, for the opposing side. There should be a hearth rug and cricket, hassock or a sitting pillow or two upon the floor. Such an arrangement at once gives an air of comfort and rest. If a room is too small to admit of a full-length couch or sofa, we could use one of the double-chair settees, or simply another comfortable chair. Sofas are sometimes placed directly before the fireplace and backed by a table.

In large living-rooms or libraries, it is often pleasing to draw up a small table with books and a chair before the fireplace, placing them sufficiently far away to avoid any appearance of crowding. If, owing to the arrangement of the room, this should be found to look artificial, take them away—nothing but sincerity is tolerable.


In a great salon, one central object (even with minor ones) on a long unbroken wall space would probably not be sufficient. In such a case two large and hand-some companion cabinets could be used. They would be placed with less space between them than at their sides, so as to give good appearance and keep the companionable relations of the two without the monotony of too close a neighbourhood. With these should, of course, be pleasantly arranged other pieces of lesser size forming attractive groups. As such cases usually call for the services of an interior decorator it is hardly worth while to take up other expedients here.

In large rooms especially, all furniture should not be arranged along the wall, but some pieces should be placed out upon the floor space; on the side of a long room, it is, otherwise almost impossible to escape stiffness and formality. This is taken up a little later on.

If, however, a room be long but too narrow to allow other than a wall arrangement, we should, in addition to the main centre, establish other minor centres of interest. If, however, an imposing fireplace is the main centre, we may place a cabinet or bookcase in the middle of the long wall space on one side, and one of our built-up effects on the other: these, with lower pieces of furniture interspersed, will he sure to give desirable variety and interest. In all cases where there is room for a considerable amount of furniture it should, when well arranged, fall into groups, each attractive in itself, natural in appearance, and composing well with the groups about it.


Corners are usually a consolation and convenience rather than a source of worry (Plate 89 A). Frequently pieces on the side wall are close enough to the corner sufficiently to occupy it, while the other corners of the room prove the natural resting places for such things as desks, tables (rectangular or round), tall clocks, small cabinets or bookcases, screens not in constant use, sewing and serving tables, and finally, in the room where it is used, the ubiquitous sewing-machine—at present usually the ugliest and often the most offensively ornamented object with which decent humanity is afflicted. To hide it with a screen is as yet the only resource.

The main precaution to take regarding corners is that they should not look weak, and for this reason they are not the best places in the world for chairs, unless thee be roomy.

In drawing-rooms a grand piano often finds its best situation with its "nose" in a corner and its flat side almost parallel with one wall, rather than swung out into the room at a disagreeable angle. As a grand piano is not high, a large picture or hanging on the wall occupied by its flat side and a picture hung upon the other wall will be advisable.

The placing of a desk or other such piece of furniture diagonally across a corner is unpleasing unless there is a jut of the wall partially filling the space be-hind and so justifying the arrangement. This is frequently the case in new steel-construction apartment houses. Kidney-shaped desks are by their form particularly suited to corners. A tea-table set in a corner with a chair behind it and a muffin stand at the side is a hospitable arrangement and entirely unobjectionable, because the corner is filled. It is the empty triangular space behind pieces of furniture that is unreasonable and unpleasant.


We have just looked over a series of interiors of modern club-houses and handsome dwellings and the first expression occurring thereat was decidedly unliterary. It seems to be a weakness of human nature that where an allowance is made for the sake of variety and use it too often becomes an obsession. As many of these interiors with furniture set "anyhow" over the floor can only be described as a conglomeration, it is well for us to take warning.

Let us consider then what we may properly do in the placing of furniture out upon the floor space. We may do nothing if it will result in crowding, Even the setting of a single table in the centre of a room is bad if we must spoil our tempers to get around it. In small rooms we may, however, make another disposition of a table which is pleasing and convenient. Instead ,of placing it flat against a window or wall space, with a chair before it, its back to the room, or instead of placing a chair at either end, we may set the table endwise to the wall, or to one side of the window, and a chair at one or both sides of the table. With a few interesting objects upon the latter. we shall find that we have an attractive grouping.

A small table or stand in front of an end of a sofa or by a large chair at once commends itself because convenient.

The arrangement of a sofa backed by a table has its convenience—we may sit on the sofa and read by the light placed upon the table—but we should be careful that the two pieces chosen agree better than they some-times do. One "set-out" arrangement which seems to have widely spread among householders is the placing of a couch or seat at the foot of a bedstead (Plate 88 A) —another good device under proper conditions. But often we have been obliged to smile at the absurdity of an imposing couch at the foot of a negligible bedstead, an amusing example of the "tail wagging the dog." We often wonder why persons who use common sense in most concerns of life fail to do so in such simple matters. Is it that they are determined to follow a vogue of which they have heard, at whatever cost?

Chairs in front of bookcases, wardrobes and cabinets are annoying, as each time a door is opened the chair must be moved; and why add to human misery by strewing chairs and stools everywhere around to fall over or stumble against : in short, why so crowd a room with set-out furniture that our progress through it becomes a process or a pilgrimage? The blocking of doorways is equally bad practice.

It is also to be remembered that the littering of a room with all sorts of unrelated objects and personal effects is utterly destructive of repose and charm.

Finally, the large pieces of furniture set out upon the floor space should follow the direction of the one wall or the other. Impossible angles distract us through disturbing the harmony of line. Women, through a mistaken idea that "setting things catacornered" gives homelike character, are notable offenders in this respect. A chair, or resting stool or two, may be left at the convenient angle at which naturally occupied, but if we go beyond this we have disturbance.


The importance of considering the relative sizes of various accompanying objects (the relation is technically called scale) runs throughout the subject of interior decoration and must everywhere be taken into account. With it is intimately associated the matter of weight, real or apparent. Though in actual avoirdupois a wooden moulding be not heavy, we may not rightly put up a cornice so out of scale that it appears as if it might bring down the ceiling upon our heads.

This is so obvious that it seems few would transgress, yet is it more obvious than the following which we frequently see: window poles stout enough for an athlete's horizontal-bar from which depend curtains of filmy net or lace weighing but a few ounces ; fragile tables groaning under the weight of huge lamps; carpets and upholstery of strong and sweeping pattern in tiny rooms, and the heterogeneous mixture of furniture formal and sprawling, heavy and light?

In every age save the present one of high enlight enment has there been an instinctive sense of fitness and proportion even among "the people"—witness the admirable congruity between furniture and interior in the old English cottage and the houses of Continental peasants. Hardly nowadays shall we find that sense even among them that consider themselves the educated and elect.

"We have taken the most delightful house—Tudor, you know : with dark oak panelling," says Mrs. A. She has, most unfortunately, and proceeds to fill it with a number of vanloads of accumulated mahogany furniture. Not only do oak and mahogany go badly together as regards colour, but they are of an entirely different provenance and spirit, having precisely as much in common as an eighteenth century gentleman and Sir Walter Raleigh. "Other times, other manners."

"Our apartment living-room," remarks Mr. B., the broker, "is so homelike, with its low, heavy beamed ceiling." By the fireplace of that truly long, low, comfortable room with its horizontal lines you would find a big easy-chair—for Mr. B. values his comfort. But Mrs. B. is "refined" and evidences that quality by the tall, high-shouldered, spindle-leg furniture, upholstered in fabrics in attenuated colour and small pattern. One looks up from these egg-shell pieces to the massive beams above and trusts they will not fall.

And at No. —,Street (we can readily fill the blanks) the lofty room with its fine old mantel and woodwork in white and beautifully modelled plaster ceiling is occupied by dumpy mission and a mid-Victorian black-walnut bookcase!


Interior decoration is not a mystery : it is the use of enlightened common sense. Experience leads us to the conviction that even those who are unskilled in home arrangement have more intrinsic ability in this direction than they realise, and it is the aim of the present writers to aid them in using that which they possess. Bearing in mind the simple and gradually developed suggestions that have been made, if the reader will be-gin with the practice, we fancy that the intrinsic knowledge of which we have spoken will rally to his aid. In other words, most persons, when they see a thing, have a fairly good eye for balance, distance and scale; their difficulty usually has been that they have not looked and considered; even those who flatter themselves upon their artistic ability often fail to weigh sufficiently and so fall into errour.

Experimentation is the best teacher. Begin as has been suggested, with the principal and obvious pieces, afterwards. grouping the others as well as possible. Then, using one's own natural eye for balance and effect, weigh the result. It will probably be seen at once that a certain piece will not do "here" but will do "there," or that it must be moved in one direction or the other. If a happy result is secured with any one group, learn to let it alone; pass on to another until each group is satisfactory, and all the groups pull satisfactorily together.

You will then have accomplished a gratifying result in interior arrangement, with correct balance, scale and line.

It has justly been said that not only must each of the four walls of a room look well, but that each must look well in relation to that next to it—that the diagonal result must also be good. To this may be added that the view from each doorway should be attractive and inviting.

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