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Interior Decorating - 19th Century Episodes and After

( Originally Published 1919 )

INTRODUCTION. -- Howsoever wonderful the nineteenth century may have been as an era of phenomenal material progress and of unprecedented mechanical, engineering and scientific achievement, it was distinctly not a period kindly to architecture or to any of the allied arts, and the art of interior decoration fared worse, if such a thing were possible, than any of the others. After about 1830 architecture, furniture design and the practice of decorative furnishing slumped into a dismal vale of barrenness or of revolting vulgarities and simpering inanitiesa deplorable state with almost no bright spots at all to relieve the artificiality, dreariness and stupidity. From the day of the so-called "carpenters' Classic" style in domestic architecture and the synchronous gobby, clumsy and tumid mahogany-veneered travesties upon the Empire style in furniture, both of which spread over the United States about the date above mentioned, there was a dreary procession of one abnormality after another until near the very end of the century—in architecture, the Gothic revival with its wooden crenellations painted and sanded to simulate stone, and jig-saw tracery and fretwork, the mansard roof episode with its attendant bastard Rococo enormities of decorative detail, the still more atrocious whimsicalities of the Centennial fashion with bird-box masses and details that were a most unhappy medley derived from Gothic tracery, Moorish fretwork and Hamburg edging, and next following this nightmare the aberrations of the "dreadful 80's"; in furniture, the rosewood fantasticalities, the black walnut perversions when designers so frequently adapted and parodied the least inspired eighteenth century Italian and Spanish precedents—an exhibition not of ignorance but of abysmal bad taste—the East-lake trivialities, the golden oak brutalities of unhappy memory and still more unhappy survivals; and, to complete the tale of iniquities, the shocking "art nouveau" demonstrations of what an utterly unbalanced and depraved, and we might add starved, imagination could descend to. Even in the last decade of the nineteenth century and after the beginning of the twentieth, when the invitable but long delayed reaction against all the preceding abominations had set in and the trend towards reasonable taste and sane furnishing had gained appreciable impetus, occasional discouraging reversions to mobiliary imbecility were to be noted and, along with them, reversions to decorative imbecility as well. Witness the extravagances and faddish, inane gaucheries perpetrated under the inspiration of Viennese influence.

Bad as things were in America, conditions were little if any better in England or on the Continent. As a fit accompaniment to the ill-shapen furniture, the acme of decorative effort in Great Britain seems to have been reached in a very orgy of kakochromous needle-work in Berlin wool and a dolorous achievement of dexterity in decalcomania plastering, to be followed slightly later by a succession of equally unedifying performances. Like absurdities made their appearance locally elsewhere. And in all this mad age, which seems to have run riot in a delirium of delight over the fancied possibility of creating art by purely mechanical processes, there was a drab, unmitigated monotony of decorative horrors relieved only by such infrequent and sporadic episodes as the Biedermeier period in Bavaria or some of the better efforts of William Morris and his contemporaries in England. One of the most deplorable and pathetic features of the period was the universal self-satisfaction and the universal striving to attain the smug and genteel—verbum horribile!—result. There was no lack of mental capacity among decorators and designers—would that there had been! The outcome might have been less appallingly hideous, but the mental capacity was prostituted to the pursuit of copious and banal activity wholly devoid of imagination and of worthy ideals. The minds of those who should have created worthy things were grovelling in a moil of the grossest mechanical materialism.

Architectural Background and Methods of Fixed Decoration.—During the period of "carpenters' Classic" ascendancy there is little that can be said, in a positive way, of the architectural background. Its qualities were chiefly negative. Apart from the rectangular door and window openings with their rectangularly detailed and perfunctory trims and rectangularly detailed, perfunctory and flat fireplace surrounds and mantels to match, there was little that could be dignified by the name of interior architecture. The best that can be said of these items of equipment is that they were simple. The rooms were apt to be lofty and of fairly good proportions and the door and window openings were generous ; so that, despite the lack of any real spirit of inspiration, there was a certain amount of dignity because there was no great pretense. To be sure, it was the dignity of a large box, an altether passive and negative dignity. The soul of the room was often throttled by blocking up the fireplace and substituting an hot-air register to serve in lieu of the living fire. The walls were merely expanses of white plaster above an insignificant baseboard and the cornices, while respectable, were neither impressive nor of any positive decorative value.

Succeeding this period of "carpenters' Classic" dominance, when the woodwork was customarily painted an unobtrusive white or cream and the walls were either painted or else papered in banal or even worse than banal taste, came an era of the same barren walls which offered an expansive opportunity for the display of atrociously hideous wall-paper, soulless registers set beneath vulgarly proportioned marble mantels, and pompous, tumid, ill-detailed woodwork executed either in expensive walnut or else fashioned from some humbler wood and painted white or dirty chocolate brown or grained. The finishing touch to this delectable interior would be a grotesque and pretentious chandelier dropping out of a no less grotesque and pretentious cast plaster centre-piece affixed to the middle of the ceiling. At this same time we often find doors and windows with heads either semicircular or else showing the segment of an arc, supposedly conveying a bit of distinction, and, when affluent vulgarity was minded to splurge in elaboration of woodwork, there were sometimes added borders of heavy machine-carved flowers, thick rope mouldings and heavy gadrooned edges, borrowed unintelligently from eighteenth century Italian models of not the best type. City houses of the brown-stone-front vintage supply plentiful examples of these depressing items.

The next phase of ugliness was the Centennial episode with nothing new or better to contribute to the architectural background and only a variation in the matter of fretted gingerbread woodwork more plentifully diffused, besides the supplementary horror of so-called frescoes consisting of awkward designs printed on paper and pasted on ceilings. An Eastlake spirit also manifested itself in the woodwork. Next came the dreary, ponderous and stupid period of the 80's with its attendant monstrosities of wainscot, grotesque galleried and fussy mantel-pieces and over-mantels with mirrors ; stair rails and grilles with multitudinous spool and globular turnings; panels and fire-place hoods with muscular griffins and caryatides and a maze of foliations and grisly masques derived from clumsy medieval German motifs, all substantially wrought in golden oak or, perhaps, in red-stained mahogany. A frequent piece de resistance of fixed. decoration at this time was a terrifying composition in "stained" glass of virulent colouring or else a. bewildering maelstrom of much be-leaded fragments of thick white glass, set in unusual shaped windows, on stair landings or above sideboards. Almost synchronous with this hectic era was the "Art Nouveau" craze with its attenuations, its contortions and its misshapen sinuosities that closely resemble hanks of molasses toffy being pulled at a candy frolic.

From all this moil of aberrations there was bound to be a revulsion of feeling and a recrudescence of sanity; the human mind had done its worst and the pendulum was due to swing back to better things. The day of better things had dawned, there were searchings among the saner precedents of the past and considerable progress had been achieved when there arose a brief reversion to anarchy in the extravagant gaucheries of the ultra-Viennese school, an isolated ebullition, however, which endured in vigour for only a brief season and did not serve to stay or seriously hinder the course of decorative progress to which we have since held.

Furniture and Decoration.—The furniture properly cognate to the "carpenters' Classic" phase, in the matter of architectural background, was of the swollen and clumsy late American Empire type, which was usually of solid mahogany or else veneered with crotch wood over the tumid proportions. There is so much of it still extant, and unfortunately some of it is being extensively reproduced and palmed off on the unenlightened in out of the way regions, that it is unnecessary to describe it in detail. This mobiliary type was closely followed by the rosewood furniture with much meaningless sinuosity of members and profuse carving of details. Such pieces as etageres or "what-nets" flourished in polite drawing-rooms as did also marble-topped tables, oftentimes surmounted with coloured wax flowers under glass domes as becoming central features of ornament. The rosewood period gave place in due season to the period of black walnut, a time in which mobiliary design made no improvement and only succeeded in debauching sundry eighteenth century Spanish and Italian motifs and making them infinitely worse than they were originally. Upon the heels of black walnut came the procession of golden oak with its tedious ponderosity and revival of loutish German mediaeval details, there being but a brief episode of Eastlake creations in walnut before the toffy-coloured tyranny became universal. After the chief vogue of golden oak, with its monstrous sideboards and ungainly tables, a medley of styles began to crop up. Then the dry bones were stirred and towards the end of the nineteenth century there began to be a revival of sane de-sign in furniture which has improved steadily to the present day without serious let or hindrance, save for the "Art Nouveau" and ultra-impressionistic modern Viennese furores which, however, soon ran their ephemeral course and subsided into deserved obscurity. There were, undoubtedly, analogies during all this sterile and misguided period between the design of furniture and the architectural characteristics, but in a time when there was little domestic building that deserved the name of architecture and little furniture of any merit, it would be idle to point out correspondences of glaring imperfection.

Other Decorative Accessories and Movable Decorations.—During nearly the whole of this dreary period of progressive horrors, which may be said to have reached its culmination in the Turkish cosy corner with all the grotesque and inappropriate accompaniments thereto appertaining, the "decorative accessories" were not decorative but quite the reverse and their room would have been better than their presence.

There were wall-papers, which were usually bad, and there were numerous draperies and fringes, which were generally far worse, about as bad, indeed, as perverted and fantastic imagination could make them. Carpets there were, and rugs, ingrain, Brussels, Wilton., Axminster and sundry other weaves, physically admirable but, for the most part, either poor or actively objectionable in colour and pattern. It was de rigueur as a rule to have the carpets cover every inch of floor space. Later on, towards the end of the century when there began to be a taste for parquetted floors of hard wood and ornamental (?) designs, rugs came into greater vogue, especially after the impulse given towards the collection of Oriental rugs by the Centennial.

Barring these and shocking bad lighting fixtures and very mediocre sculpture in marble or bronze, with occasional excursions into the least inspired phases of Sevres, Royal Worcester and other ceramic productions, the period was barren of decorative accessories and movable decorations. The wall-papers designed by William Morris and the Japanese bronzes and some of the porcelains that appeared after the Centennial ought not to be unconditionally included in this category of condemnation, but their influence went only a little way towards mitigating the otherwise objection-able tone of the era.

Materials and Colour.—Reference has already been made to the woods used for furniture and interior finish. It remains only to mention the materials employed for upholstery and hangings. Haircloth, both plain and patterned, enjoyed great popularity at the beginning of the period and deserved furniture of better de-sign on which to be applied. Velvets, both plain and figured, brocades, damasks, brocatelles, poplins, satins and silks of the best quality were lavishly used for upholstery and draperies but, as a rule, far more could be said for their quality than for either their colour or their design. Carpets, likewise, were of the best possible quality but shared the same limitations regarding colour and pattern as the other fabrics.

The colours most favoured were either sombre and dull or else vigorous and full, in the latter case being employed without the requisite knowledge of their properties and relations to do them justice. The Viennese episode, almost coincident with cubism and post-impressionism in painting, launched into riotous excesses of both colour and design, if much of it can be called design, with an utter disregard for chromatic psychology. Perhaps the psychology involved was Teutonic, which would account for its inscrutability.

Arrangement.—This was essentially the period of the "what-not" and the centre table—it might be more proper to spell it Centre Table with capitals as indicating the almost religious veneration paid it--of grim, sumptuous, uncomfortable and depressing formality and "genteel," middle-class propriety in arrangement without consideration for either practical utility or comfort. One cause, perhaps, for all the dreary, expensive banality and lack of either humanity or a modicum of taste was the fact that it was a period of preeminently material prosperity and rapid accumulation of wealth which brought to the fore a vast crowd of nouveaux riches who had neither the knowledge nor traditions back of them to impel them to better things. They allowed themselves to be outfitted by purely commercial purveyors who were enjoined to make the establishments of their patrons thoroughly respectable and au fait. And unfortunately those who, from, their antecedents, should have known better, allowed themselves to be infected by the ill example of the vulgarly affluent majority.

During the last few years a new movement has arisen. As it has gained a very considerable following, particularly among those who are strongly individual in their tastes and preferences, it is desirable that a separate section be given to its consideration.


When a new tendency or movement first reaches the attention of the public, and particularly if in some of its manifestations it be rather startling, several attitudes of mind immediately become evident. One temperament shrinks from the unusual, sometimes with repulsion and hard language, while another, with equal lack of examination, runs to embrace it as le dernier cri; still another regards that as everything else with a tolerant smile of amused indifference, while it is re-served for a fourth class to weigh merits and demerits before passing judgment.

As it is to this last group that the readers of this book will doubtless belong, they will probably be glad of a consideration of this comparatively new movement in household decoration which shall be at once sympathetic and impartial.


While the newer tendency is derived from the Modernistic Movement abroad, it would be fairer to say that its American manifestation is a reflection of that influence rather than a continuation. The European movement, developed in its turn from the Austrian Secession, a recognised school so long ago as the closing years of the last century, is decidedly iconoclastic and will be referred to later. We do not think that there has been a great deal of this spirit shown in household decoration here, and, with the exception of the work of a few exponents of European origin, what has been done in this direction has probably been by way of interesting experiment. We need hardly look for any outbreak of erratic tendencies, and the conservative need not therefore greatly concern themselvs at the few manifestations of outre decoration which have appeared. There naturally will be some in every movement who go further than others, so that we may expect to find here as elsewhere all shades of opinion and practice, from decided innovation to comparative conservatism.

The movement is the product of a number of clever minds, and there is no organisation for the promulgation of certain principles : the tendency here seems simply a reaction from "Period" furnishing and the supplying of another method of treatment which shall be more in accord with our life to-day. How well and how fully it does this is the aim of this section to enquire.

If we interpret aright the movement in this country its ideal—and what a fine one it is !—is to teach use, convenience and beauty by way of simplicity and balance on the one hand and fine, frank, cheerful colour on the other. Now there is nothing very "new" about all this—and it is none the worse for that. It is what many of us have "been after" for many days. As the thing which comes nearest to their solution of the problem is Peasant Art (including the British Cottage) this has largely been the inspiration of the new movement. The humorous side of this is that while some at least of the new movers have been scathing in their criticisms of Period Art as unable to embody the spirit of to-day, Peasant Art is as much Period Art as any other. None of us, however, is entirely logical and we need not stress this, especially as mingled with this older inspiration is the use of anything from any source which will aid in the realising of the object desired.

In itself the use of varying materials is also unobjectionable, providing they can be welded and harmonised into a complete and beautiful whole. It is in the definition of the aim to be realised that we come to our first question.

If the Modern Movement is an effort to realise, and to provide homes in correct relation to, human life to-day, it is evident that the result will depend upon the conception of what that life is.


It is undeniable that there is in our present existence (and those whose disposition it is to ignore the past are invited to remember that there has also been in most ages) an element which is hectic, freakish, anarchistic and unwholesome. In Europe before the war this tendency was growing to an alarming extent and many brilliant but erratic minds so stressed this phase of our existence as either wilfully to deny its other elements, or so to dislike them as to wish them begone. The extreme wing of this group would have liked to cut loose from and abolish the past with its lessons and make all new after its own devices. It is little wonder that we, have seen an outpouring of cub-ism, vorticism, futurism, attempts to depict emotional-ism and movement without sufficient regard to the basis of form, strident and discordant colour, and the more hectic and immodest tendencies in woman's dress.

We do not say and we do not think that this spirit has entered to any great extent into decorative art in America and probably the war has eradicated it abroad.

Here, we may well believe, the movement in general simply recognises the variety, the virility, the elasticity, yes and the restlessness and excitability of modern life and attempts to meet and interpret it. Whether it would not be better to endeavour to neutralise the latter phases is a question worth the asking.

With the difference in aim comes the difference in result, and consequently we shall find examples which continue with the fine qualities of simplicity and strength of line the stiffness and want of home feeling which somehow prevails in much of the Vienna Secession; other houses a bouquet, with rooms in colour-schemes representing various and unrelated flowers; and still others in which the unities are rightly kept and which have the cheer and charm and freshness of simplicity and beautiful colour beautifully used.


That the injection of these qualities into our homes would be an exceedingly desirable thing was effectively borne in upon the writers when for selective purposes they had the task of going over some three hundred photographs of the interiors of tasteful houses. With few of them could particular fault be found (other-wise the photographs would not have been taken), but . in less than a quarter of this number was any particular individuality shown.

Most tasteful Americans are unduly conservative and too content to follow precedent, and a movement which awakens and "gives them to think" is decidedly at present a needed spur. It does not follow that we must rush to adopt the new decoration, but it is well to consider it carefully, for it has much to offer. In addition to providing many hints even to those who prefer the old it certainly affords at much less expense than period furnishing a method of decoration well adapted to modest houses, cottages and some apartments, which is simple and at the same time artistic, bright and attractive.

There is no obligation to adopt its more outre features if unsuited to our temperaments, for it presents alternatives from which to choose. In order that full consideration be given this method its detailed characteristics have been treated in Part II in the chapters on Colour, Walls, Floors, Furniture and Fabrics.

A very practical question is: How far is it adapted to the possessions we already have? If, upon examination, we find this spirit or ideal appeals to us, can we avail ourselves of it wholly, or to what extent, without an entire redecoration and refurnishing of our homes?

To those who own handsome Period Furniture and furnishings it may be said that such things will not be superseded by this or any other new method which may arise. The "modern" method, charming as it may be at its best, is in any event rather limited to small houses or apartments, and indeed not to all of these. It is an excellent sign that many Americans of the better and more thoughtful class are taking account of something other than size. Small families often wish to eliminate the care and continual bother large properties involve and are moving into apartments or smaller houses, even erecting smaller country abodes as well. The tastes of these people may be highly formed and rather luxurious, and merely simple and charming houses would reflect neither their personalities nor their lives. They may then wish these abodes to be jewel caskets enshrining gems in the way of rare furniture, textiles, vases and pictures, and there should be none to say them nay in their desire to surround themselves with beauty. In such cases the new decoration obviously does not apply.

Then, too, if the colouring in any house is rather attenuated it is plain that patches of brighter hue can-not be introduced without working havoc with all that remains; so that in such instances again one must either take or leave it—redecorate or let all remain largely as it is.

But there are many houses furnished in non-committal style, and others containing period furniture, but which are generally eclectic in character, and these may sometimes be greatly helped by hints from this newer method. As the simplicity of spaciousness is one of its finest features, there may be some elimination, and the improvement wrought by the mere removal of cumbersome and less desirable pieces is often immeasurable.

The colouring of a room generally exists in the walls, rugs and fabrics. If the walls are good and are neutral they are perfectly adapted to this new style, and if they are "fussy" they are not adapted to any style and should be changed. If they are in poor condition they may be renewed either in the neutral or more colourful vein.

Of rugs much the same may be said. If neutral they are perfectly correct, and so if they are colourful, provided they are not restless in pattern or contrast. If objectionable, bare floors would be better with any style of decoration. An expanse of bare, well-polished floor with a few simple rugs in good solid colouring, or two tones, or bordered, is always attractive. Good Oriental rugs will do excellently well if the new colouring to be introduced is made to accord with them.

Now with the simple change of upholstery, hangings and cushions wonders may be done in the vivifying of such a house. But before, anything is done plan the whole. Consult the section on "Unity and Variety" and the Peasant colour-combinations given in the chap-ter on Colour, and scheme out what is to be done in each room. If there is a large couch its cover may be colourful, but let it be of solid colour and then use pillows of decidedly ornamental character, with one of black.

For upholstery stripes always have an intrinsic style of their own, and these may be strong and varied, or plain strong tones may be chosen, or printed linen or cretonne.

If there is great variety in the other furnishings keep the portieres and window curtains in solid colour. If variety is lacking it may be introduced here.

Much may be done by Oriental, Batik, or other decorative hangings, screens, lamps, vases, and the like.

The probability is that in most houses many of the pictures may be discarded to advantage. Those that are retained should be good in themselves and for the decorative purpose for which they are used, and their frames should be fitting and unobtrusive.

Merely nondescript homes may be made coherent and attractive by following the plan outlined in the preceding paragraphs with the addition of an over-hauling of the furniture. Badly designed, tortuously carved or machine-impressed pieces should be simplified or discarded. "Foolish" bric-a-brac, calendars, photographs and general litter should especially be weeded out. Better a few good things than much which is distracting and inharmonious.

Regarding the new decoration we may then finally say that in its saner forms it is attractive, practical and inexpensive. As to its more outre aspects one could not close more fittingly than to quote the words of Mr. Aymar Embury regarding strained and eccentric effects in general : " Whatever fascination this wayward cleverness may afford at first sight is not lasting, but is sure to dwindle and become a weariness when once the novelty has given place to the habit of familiar contact day after day."

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