Interior Decorating - Furniture and its Choosing
( Originally Published 1919 )
IN the first chapter of this Part, "The Basis of Successful Decoration," we have strongly advocated the use of Period Furniture when and where it may be had. The facilities at hand for the purchase of this furniture will forthwith fully be dealt with, but it may be helpful first to consider what may be done when, for reason of location or price it is beyond reach.
The assortment of good modern pieces is not extremely large, but we may at least be thankful for what there is. The utter badness of all mobiliary design after the decline of the Empire style persisted for many years—we have but to recall the furniture of our fathers and grandfathers, the period of black walnut and later of varnished golden oak. "Eastlake" was a failure, as will be every attempt to create a style not based upon tradition and the long-established principles of beauty. "L 'art Nouveau" has happily passed.
The Mission style, which as the first attempt to escape from jig-saw and gingerbread is praiseworthy, is strictly utilitarian, heavy, unbeautiful, ungraceful, and with lines as antique as the ark. There is one thing to be said in its favour—it is admirable for a happy-go-lucky houseful of children, for it is almost impossible to destroy.
In its lighter forms particularly it is much more attractive when painted and perhaps banded or treated with a few strong, modest decorations, and upholstered in good virile style in solid colourful fabrics not too fine for its texture, in strong stripes, or in a bold printed linen or cretonne with rather striking but tasteful colour. So done it is excellent furniture for the "newer" decoration.
Then there is wicker—and is it not a comment upon the boasted artistic ability and advanced civilisation of the later nineteenth century to say that this is probably the most worthy thing in mobiliary development which it accomplished ! In its way and in its place it is so good, however, that a separate section will be given it.
We have also the handsomer grade of department-store mahogany furniture, most of which to the tyro looks like period furniture but is not. Last summer the writers passed along a series of windows devoted to a "sale" of these goods and grew sick at heart.
There is, too, Peasant or English Cottage furniture, and for modest homes nothing better has. ever been devised (Plates 78 B, 93 and 126). The reader will kindly remember, however, that this is period furniture as much as any other.
Some of these pieces may be found in the shops, for there are a few companies that are manufacturing it. There are also two firms, and perhaps others, that make it and sell direct to the consumer by means of representative sheets or catalogues.
Messrs. William Leavens & Co., Inc., of Boston, manufacture this cottage furniture and also pieces in the Mission vein. By use of the first a home may be charmingly fitted up—if one but has the taste; and we are trying to show the way. For the living-room a large gate-legged table and one or two smaller plain wall-tables; simple cottage chairs; some easy, comfort-able wicker chairs with seat and back cushions; a large winged upholstered chair (for this a beautiful cretonne furniture-cover may be made which can be taken off for cleaning) ; a box-couch with solid colour cover, perhaps of velour, and attractive pillows of various kinds; a tapestry or brocade hanging (see Plate 128 of a re-modelled farm-house) with a simple chest of drawers below it, or else a long table in the place of the chest. On either of the last can be placed attractive candle-sticks with candles and a bowl or two. A convenient desk is often welcome.
With these appropriately go bare, stained or painted floors with a few simple rugs in good colouring to accord with the colour-scheme decided upon (see section Unity and Variety) ; simple white curtains; a good lamp; a mirror or hanging over a small table used as a console. A few good prints in colour or monotone, or Japanese prints, in simple, well-chosen frames, or a really excellent water-colour or two are all the pictures needed.
For accessories use such things as a Chinese reproduction of a Kang-Hsi or Chien-Lung vase, a bowl or two of pottery in such solid colours as rose, blue, grey or yellow; a cylindrical Chinese medallion-ware lidded jar for cigarettes and a rose-bowl of transparent glass. By referring to the various chapters under which these matters of furnishing are discussed, many hints and illustrations will be found. A newly married couple of moderate means will find this method the most desirable and as inexpensive as is anything in these days of high costs.
Some of the pieces might be painted and others stained in the reddish-brown found on the colour-chart (not imitation mahogany). As means grow larger good mahogany or walnut pieces (antique or faithful reproductions) may be substituted and some of the original furniture used elsewhere.
This same firm (Leavens & Co.) makes two excellent styles of beds—those with simple slat head and foot boards and the turned four-poster. If twin-beds are used (and they should be if two occupy one room) the slat form is the better as the others give too "postery" an appearance where two beds are employed. They also supply good plain chests of drawers. It is better to get these without the attached mirrors and secure one with old mahogany or rosewood frame, which can readily be picked up at one of the antique shops. Or such a mirror as that which hangs above the console in Plate 92 A would be excellent.
A rather more expensive and also pleasing sort of furniture is made by the Erskine-Danforth Corporation of New York. This comprises excellent pieces of the simpler forms of period furniture, some of them, fortunately for variety's sake, other than English, and good forms of Peasant furniture painted and deco-rated. Even in inexpensive furnishing it is well to bear in mind the facilities of International-Inter Period Dec-oration treated in Part III.
It is unfortunate that there is not yet upon the market a good supply of Directoire furniture, than which nothing can be more simply graceful and attractive. It is practically simplified Louis Seize with a little more swing in the arms and legs of chairs and settees (Plates 171 and 172). Decorators fully appreciate the qualities of this furniture, and it is surprising that more of it has not previously been made. It is but one additional indication of the slowness of American furniture manufacturers in realising that there is a wide field for them if they will but supply faithful reproductions of simple forms of period furniture such as this and those pieces used in the remodelled farm-house, and at moderate prices.
It is to be hoped that in these times of reconstruction and renewed enterprise both manufacturers and dealers will awake to the fact that there are people of moderate means but cultivated tastes who are looking to them to supply their needs. If they do not, acute foreign manufacturers are likely to do so to the detriment of American interests.
There is a considerable amount of painted furniture of modern character upon the market—most of it being simplifications and variations from eighteenth century forms. These are temporarily attractive; that is, they seem fresh and modern (largely because of their colouring) until one realises their remote origin and considers how much better is the origin than the derivation. It is a pity that they do not show greater distinction of design.
The making of furniture in willow, reed, rattan, cane and bamboo (the term wicker seems commonly used for all of them) is one of the most serviceable and useful of modern mobiliary developments. These materials have occasionally been tortured into forms to which they are not suited, but they have generally proved most satisfactory and durable. The reasonable price of willow furniture has been a great aid to those who have much to do upon small means. Those who have taken it up for this reason may congratulate them-selves that with these and other simple forms they have done much better than those who have spent larger sums upon highly ornamented and often grotesque modern pieces.
The closely-woven reed furniture (Plate 94) is naturally more expensive, as it is also firmer and more compact. One writer designed and had made to order a small armchair in this material which after some years of use seems practically indestructible. Since then numerous beautiful forms have been brought out in all these materials and in close and open mesh, so that one may well grow enthusiastic over the possibilities of wicker furniture. Stained a mahogany shade and given attractive cushions such pieces go well in any but formal or luxurious rooms, and when painted in such tones as grey, grey blue, grey mauve, sage green, cream buff, yellow, rose or black and accompanied by upholstery in striped goods, cretonne or printed linen, they are often really handsome and perfectly suitable for city houses and apartments. For use with the "Modern" Decoration this furniture is often painted in brilliant colour. Frequently staining or painting is not necessary, for in some rooms their natural colour is entirely harmonious, and even interspersed among mahogany the lighter note proves occasionally a needed contrast.
For the country or seashore there is nothing better, and wicker is especially adapted to sun parlours, protected porches, morning and living-rooms. In the bed-room of either man or woman a comfortable arm-chair of this light, cool and serviceable material, with a back high enough to rest the head against, will prove a boon to tired minds and bodies for seizing a short rest while it can be had in the intervals of our busy lives.
The Oriental forms, with flaring backs, and the hour-glass chairs are still imported. Some are also made by American manufacturers. The "Dryad" furniture is also very attractive.
The Chinese bird-cages (Plate 126) and the old style cages of willow, largest in the middle and tapering at both top and bottom (Plate 93 A), are most pleasing. Hung in a sunny white-curtained window they give cheer and have the atmosphere of home. The flower baskets of flat basket-work may be mentioned here as equally attractive.
There remains the long and noble line of Period Furniture. In considering it a certain amount of knowledge must be taken for granted by the writers. Those not familiar with the subject are referred to "The Practical Book of Period Furniture," by Eberlein and McClure, where they will find it treated in detail. Part I of this volume is replete with information and Part III on International-Interperiod Deco-ration should carefully be studied.
Not everyone can afford genuine antiques, and good examples of certain special pieces are not always to be picked up just when desired. The beautiful qualities of the old woods and the patina of time are not to be found in reproductions, but otherwise they may thoroughly be commended—when they are faithful. Just ,why so much "Near Period" furniture persists is rather puzzling. Doubtless, the manufacturers at first found genuine reproductions difficult to sell, for after long years biassed by the bad, the good would naturally be slow in gaining genuine appreciation. Perhaps these conditions may still exist to a certain extent, but just why adaptations nearly enough correct to cause many purchasers to think they are securing genuine styles should sell better is difficult to say, particularly as such pieces are profusely advertised as being of certain periods. Manufacturers should remember that distortions of original forms cause positive pain to those who "know," and as the number of such persons is largely increasing, the reputations of such manufacturers are bound to suffer in the end.
We think, however, that there have been indications of a return to a saner point of view, and that there will be less and less adaptation during the coming years. In the meantime, purchasers will do well to confine themselves to faithful reproductions only.
SELECTING FURNITURE ACCORDING TO QUALITIES OF MEANING
In considering Period Furniture, as indeed with the whole subject of decoration, let us appeal for a broader and more catholic spirit than is often found. Just why the sympathies and appreciation of many writers and decorators are so limited is rather puzzling. One may certainly prefer one style to all others —such preference will usually be found temperamental—without exalting that style to the depreciation of others.
There have been a few bad periods and there have been some bad pieces designed in all good periods, but these may be ignored. If we review the various periods and styles we shall find that each is excellent for its own qualities and that its qualities differ from those of others. Let us, therefore, enjoy and employ them in accordance with this and not quarrel with them be-cause they do not possess that which belongs to others. We shall, as usual, make ourselves clear by an example.
There are some whose temperament inclines them toward the classic, the refined and the formal who are scathing in their remarks upon the furniture of Queen Anne. Queen Anne furniture is not of classic style, but we find something else which the classic does not al-ways possess—quaintness, homeliness and comfort. May we quote here a phrase from Henry James in relation to objects of far less artistic worth than Queen Anne furniture: "The infirmity of art was the candour of affection." There we have it in a few words. We may often love an object which falls short of the supremest beauty, while that beauty incarnate in another object may fill us with undying admiration but leave our affections cold.
The classic, the romantic and the quaint each has its place in our varied lives and circumstances. We need not disparage one because of the other: broad-mindedness will see that in one establishment or another there is a place for each. A study of Part I and Part III on International-Interperiod decoration, will show the qualities and what might be termed the meanings of the various styles, when we can then determine which of them are best suited to our own use and circumstances.
ANTIQUES AND REPRODUCTIONS
In all the large cities there are dealers in imported antiques. These pieces are usually choice and necessarily high in price, but those who can afford them will find these dealers reliable and fully informed.
There is also the dealer in antiques who is a cabinet-maker as well. The antiques in his stock whether of British or American style, are usually of early American make, and it may be said that in beauty of the woods employed and in workmanship they are equal to the imported pieces.
Indeed, we are informed by a cabinet-making dealer who has, handled both that the carcase-work of the American pieces is usually the stronger. Some beautifully carved and elaborate furniture was made here and such examples may well be called "museum pieces." They now fetch nearly or quite as much as British work.
Our American cabinet-makers usually concerned themselves, however, with the production of the less elaborate but sufficiently ornamented forms, together with the simple pieces, and these are still within reach of those of moderate means. Indeed these antiques and cabinet-makers' reproductions may still sometimes be purchased at lower prices than new commercial furniture. There are especially in the East well-known furniture makers handling their own product and also large establishments (which might be termed cabinet-making factories) which sell through decorators and the highest class of dealers, both of which make fine and faithful reproductions of Period Furniture of various nationalities and styles. The pieces chosen are generally more unusual and often more elaborate than those made by the smaller cabinet-makers and the prices are necessarily higher.
The cabinet-makers' reproductions do not usually consist of the more elaborate pieces, but of those of quite sufficient ornament, often very handsome, well constructed of excellent mahogany or walnut and with the soft, desirable finish.
COMMERCIAL PERIOD FURNITURE
There are many large factories throughout the country, with superb equipment, turning out quantities of furniture of excellent workmanship, mostly by machinery. This furniture is found in good furniture- and department-shops and is thoroughly satisfactory except—that much or most of it is not faithful period furniture—perhaps in many cases it does not pretend to be. With no wish to be invidious, the fact that it is not faithful is to the present writers a very large reservation indeed. An acquaintance recently observed that they are just enough wrong to be misleading and injurious to one's sense of rightness of form.
Some of these are not in themselves bad pieces of furniture, others are "reproductions," losing the proportions and virility of their originals, and many of them are merely designed more or less after certain styles or mixtures of styles, some of them containing features which have no congruity whatever.
It is to this furniture we have previously referred and for which we then said we see no reason; the prices asked would certainly seem to warrant a faithful reproduction. A few enquiries will show how these figures compare with those of cabinet-makers' reproductions or even with those of the correct and elaborate forms referred to in a preceding section.
A desideratum is the manufacture of simple forms of faithful Period furniture in greater quantities and within the reach of those of quite moderate means.
That our own strictures are moderate may be seen by the following quotation from an address before the Architectural League of New York by the President of a large furniture manufacturing company, and printed in "Good Furniture.'' Referring to these reproductions of the English furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he says : "Not 10 per cent. of this furniture gives the public even a faint idea as to what those styles really were, wherein lies their charm, and why those products of la vigorous, active and progressive age, in their true character, should have so much of appeal for us today. Our great public really knows almost nothing of them, and therefore is not in a position to judge the good from the bad, not only in old work, but in the novelties of design which each year we see develop into a fad and then fade away into nothingness." Later he refers to these reproductions as "commercial crimes committed in that name."
This condition of affairs is largely the fault of the furniture-buying public, and that public can change the condition as soon as it wishes. All that is required is to make its will known, to insist upon straight reproductions and to buy nothing else.
In the eighteenth century the number of gentlemen who made a real study of decorative matters is surprising, and we know from the correspondence of the period that the interest was decidedly general. Our own public is too ill-informed to be able to discern the "good from the bad," and too lethargic to improve itself by means of authoritative books and a little study of authentic examples in the museums. As it is, more greatly interested in "movies" than in the improvement of its homes, it is consequently quite content with "commercial crimes."
The exceptions—and their number is constantly increasing—deserve the greater honour.
SUITES AND ODD PIECES
The idea that a room must be furnished exclusively with one suite of furniture is happily defunct; and yet, like most such popular conceptions, it contains a certain amount of validity; the, errour lying in its being narrowed into a decorative dictum. If we substitute may for "must" and delete "exclusively" we shall arrive at the truth that in some instances a suite of furniture is an excellent basis upon which to work.
In a large drawing-room, particularly of the Georgian period or in the styles of Louis Quinze or Louis Seize, it is highly advisable that sofas, chairs, stools, couches, cabinets and tables should form a suite or be sufficiently in keeping essentially to do so. To these, however, may advantageously be added other pieces, still in keeping, but sufficiently different to give variety. In the dining-room it is well that the chairs about the table should form a set, but if the room be large we may well add wall chairs of harmonising but different build to redeem the room from bareness and too great uniformity.
Even in the informal drawing- or living-room a settee and a few matching chairs among other furniture undoubtedly give an aspect of unity which is not so evident if all the pieces differ one from another.
One of the best plans in the furnishing of informal rooms is to select a sufficient number of pieces of one period or style, though not necessarily matching, to form a basis, adding to these other furniture various but not conflicting. With these may well be used a few appropriate lacquered or painted pieces.
The whole subject of the mingling of cognate styles is fully and scientifically treated in Part III on International-Interperiod Decoration.
FURNITURE FOR THE "MODERN DECORATION"
There is no doubt that of recent years, in the revival of interest in good furnishing, great attention has been given to furniture and sometimes expense has been lavished upon it not out of proportion to its deserts but in undue relation to the total sum which the furnisher has to spend; so that other household accessories have suffered. Sometimes, where funds are sufficient for all needs this has taken the form simply of an interest in furniture too exclusive of other decorative features and for its own sake rather than for its fitness in the proposed scheme. In a general reaction against past methods, furniture, therefore, and especially handsome period furniture, has come in for its share of decrial with the new movers and is relegated to a secondary place.
Anyone who has given study to. the subject of household decoration will freely admit that in many homes simpler and far less costly pieces would have given a better and more coherent result; this by no means should imply a lessened interest in furniture but rather a larger and more intelligent consideration of it whether simple or handsome. It should, in short, occupy its place adequately but not unduly in the plan of decoration as regards its, form, its colour and its arrangement.
The new decoration lies largely in the direction of simplicity and therefore this school advocates simple styles and takes as its models the Peasant furniture of Continental Europe and the Cottage furniture of England. Naturally, those who follow the style of the Vienna Secession also use, the furniture accompanying it. Particular attention is also rightly paid to arrangement—in theory if not always in practice—and over-crowding is sedulously avoided.
Not only are old English cottages of the greatest charm (Plate 95 A), but the British architects and decorators of to-day and some of our best American men have so wonderfully absorbed and carried on the traditions of probably the most homelike civilisation the world has known, that illustrations of their work are given (Plates 78 B and 93). Colour is not with them carried to the extent that it is with these "mod-ern" decorators, but each of these interiors is so well balanced and so simple that all of them would be susceptible of treatment in strong tones if desired.
It should be pointed out that much of the picturesque charm of these rooms is constructional and due to the architectural proportions and features, and, in some cases, to built-in furniture, so that the illustrations serve as models in these respects as well.
Naturally great insistence is laid by the newer school upon the colour values of furniture used, and to accord with the decorative scheme adopted it may be finished in the natural colour of the wood, stained to any hue and dully finished, or painted, or decorated.
Decoration may be quaint in character to accord with old-time effects, or may be most modern and brilliant. When painted, furniture may be in subdued tones, but is often violent, such as bright blue or emerald green chairs with rush seats in bright yellow. Good tones are ivories, greys and tans, grey-blue and grey-mauve, yellow, rose, apple-green and black, the latter often highly polished (Plate 95 B).
Such furniture is frequently ornamented with lines in a harmonising or strongly contrasting colour. Black is excellent with any of the mentioned tones. The furniture previously mentioned as sold direct to the consumers is excellent for this style of decoration. Messrs. A. L. Diament & Co., of Philadelphia, who are the American agents for the attractive modern French Desfosse and Karth printed linens and cretonnes, are now supplying furniture painted to accord in colour and design with their fabrics.
Mission furniture, so uninviting in its usual colouring, takes on new life and decorative value when painted in attractive colour.
Wicker furniture is of special use in the new decoration. It may either be painted or left in its natural tone, and be supplied with strongly decorative cushions in solid colour, stripes or modern patterns.
Wing chairs are homelike and afford great comfort.