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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Dining Room [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Children's Playroom & Nursery [Next Chapter]



THE history of the bedroom has been incidentally touched upon in tracing the development of the drawing-room from the mediseval hall. It was shown that early in the middle ages the sleeping-chamber, which had been one of the first outgrowths of the hall, was divided into the cbambre de parade, or incipient drawing-room, and the cbambre au giste, or actual sleeping-room.

The increasing development of social life in the sixteenth cen­tury brought about a further change; the state bedroom being set aside for entertainments of ceremony, while the sleeping-chamber was used as the family living-room and as the scene of suppers, card-parties, and informal receptions—or sometimes actually as the kitchen. Indeed, so varied were the uses to which the cbambre au giste was put, that in France especially it can hardly be said to have offered a refuge from the promiscuity of the hall.

As a rule, the bedrooms of the Renaissance and of the seven­teenth century were very richly furnished. The fashion of raising the bed on a dais separated from the rest of the room by columns and a balustrade was introduced in France in the time of Louis XIV. This innovation gave rise to the habit of dividing the deco­ration of the room into two parts; the walls being usually panelled

or painted, while the "alcove," as it was called, was hung in




Bedrooms     163

tapestry, velvet or some rich stuff in keeping with the heavy cur­tains that completely enveloped the bedstead. This use of stuff hangings about the bed, so contrary to our ideas of bedroom hygiene, was due to the difficulty of heating the large high-studded rooms of the period, and also, it must be owned, to the prevalent dread of fresh air as of something essentially unwhole­some and pernicious.

In the early middle ages people usually slept on the floor; though it would seem that occasionally, to avoid cold or damp­ness, the mattress was laid on cords stretched upon a low wooden framework. In the fourteenth century the use of such frameworks became more general, and the bed was often enclosed in curtains hung from a tester resting on four posts. Bed-hangings and coverlet were often magnificently embroidered; but in order that it might not be necessary to transport from place to place the un­wieldy bedstead and tester, these were made in the rudest manner, without attempt at carving or adornment. In course of time this primitive framework developed into the sumptuous four-post bedstead of the Renaissance, with elaborately carved cornice and colonnes torses enriched with gilding. Thence­forward more wealth and skill were expended upon the bed­stead than upon any other article of furniture. Gilding, carving, and inlaying of silver, ivory or mother-of-pearl, combined to adorn the framework, and embroidery made the coverlet and hangings resplendent as church vestments. This magnificence is explained by the fact that it was customary for the lady of the house to lie in bed while receiving company. In many old prints representing suppers, card-parties, or afternoon visits, the hostess is thus seen, with elaborately dressed head and stiff brocade gown, while her friends are grouped about the bedside in equally rich attire.

164                 The Decoration of Houses

This curious custom persisted until late in the eighteenth century ; and under such conditions it was natural that the old cabinet­makers should vie with each other in producing a variety of ornate and fanciful bedsteads. It would be useless to enumerate here the modifications in design marking the different periods of decora­tion : those who are interested in the subject will find it treated in detail in the various French works on furniture.

It was natural that while the bedroom was used as a salon it should be decorated with more elaboration than would otherwise have been fitting; but two causes combined to simplify its treat­ment in the eighteenth century. One of these was the new fashion of petits appartetnents. With artists so keenly alive to proportion as the old French designers, it was inevitable that such a change in dimensions should bring about a corresponding change in deco­ration. The bedrooms of the eighteenth century, though some­times elaborate in detail, had none of the pompous richness of the great Renaissance or Louis XIV room (see Plate L1V). The pre­tentious dais with its screen of columns was replaced by a niche containing the bed; plain wood-panelling succeeded to tapestry and embroidered hangings; and the heavy carved ceiling with its mythological centre-picture made way for light traceries on plaster.

The other change in the decoration of French bedrooms was due to the substitution of linen or cotton bed and window-hangings for the sumptuous velvets and brocades of the seventeenth cen­tury. This change has usually been ascribed to the importation of linens and cottons from the East; and no doubt the novelty of these gay indiennes stimulated the taste for simple hangings. The old inventories, however, show that, in addition to the im­ported India hangings, plain white linen curtains with a colored border were much used; and it is probably the change in the size

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of rooms that first led to the adoption of thin washable hangings. The curtains and bed-draperies of damask or brocatelle, so well suited to the high-studded rooms of the seventeenth century, would have been out of place in the small apartments of the Regency. In studying the history of decoration, it will generally be found that the supposed vagaries of house-furnishing were ac­tually based on some practical requirement; and in this instance the old decorators were doubtless guided rather by common sense than by caprice. The adoption of these washable materials cer­tainly introduced a style of bedroom-furnishing answering to all the requirements of recent hygiene; for not only were windows and bedsteads hung with unlined cotton or linen, but chairs and sofas were covered with removable bousses, or slip-covers; while the painted wall-panelling and bare brick or parquet floors came for nearer to the modern sanitary ideal than do the papered walls and nailed-down carpets still seen in many bedrooms. This sim­ple form of decoration had the additional charm of variety; for it was not unusual to have several complete sets of curtains and slip-covers, embroidered to match, and changed with the seasons. The hangings and covers of the queen's bedroom at Versailles were changed four times a year.

Although bedrooms are still "done" in chintz, and though of late especially there has been a reaction from the satin-damask bedroom with its dust-collecting upholstery and knick-knacks, the modern habit of lining chintz curtains and of tufting chairs has done away with the chief advantages of the simpler style of treatment. There is something illogical in using washable stuffs in such a way that they cannot be washed, especially in view of the fact that the heavily lined curtains, which might be useful to exclude light and cold, are in nine cases out of ten so hung by

166                 The Decoration of Houses

the upholsterer that they cannot possibly be drawn at night Be­sides, the patterns of modern chintzes have so little in common with the toilet imprimies of the seventeenth^ and eighteenth cen­turies that they scarcely serve the same decorative purpose; and it is therefore needful to give some account of the old French bed­room hangings, as well as of the manner in which they were employed.

The liking for colonnades showed itself in France early in the seventeenth century. Before this, cotton materials had been im­ported from the East; but in the seventeenth century a manufactory was established in France, and until about 1800 cotton and linen curtains and furniture-coverings remained in fashion. This taste was encouraged by the importation of the toiles des Indes, printed cottons of gay color and fanciful design, much sought after in France, especially after the government, in order to protect native industry, had restricted the privilege of importing them to the Compagnie des Indes. It was not until Oberkampf established his manufactory at Jouy in 1760 that the French toiles began to re­place those of foreign manufacture. Hitherto the cottons made in France had been stamped merely in outline, the colors being filled in by hand; but Oberkampf invented a method of printing in colors, thereby making France the leading market for such stuffs.

The earliest printed cottons having been imported from India and China, it was natural that the style of the Oriental designers should influence their European imitators. Europe had, in fact, been prompt to recognize the singular beauty of Chinese art, and in France the passion for cbinoi&eries, first aroused by Mazarin's collection of Oriental objects of art, continued unabated until the general decline of taste at the end of the eighteenth century. No­where, perhaps, was the influence of Chinese art more beneficial


Bedrooms     167
to European designers than in the composition of stuff-patterns. The fantastic gaiety and variety of Chinese designs, in which the human figure so largely predominates, gave fresh animation to European compositions, while the absence of perspective and modelling preserved that conventionalism so essential in pattern-designing. The voluminous acanthus-leaves, the fleur-de-lys, arabesques and massive scroll-work so suitable to the Genoese velvets and Lyons silks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would have been far too magnificent for the cotton stuffs that were beginning to replace those splendid tissues. On a thin ma­terial a heavy architectural pattern was obviously inappropriate; besides, it would have been out of scale with the smaller rooms and lighter style of decoration then coming into fashion.

The French designer, while influenced by Chinese compositions, was too artistic to be satisfied with literal reproductions of his Ori­ental models. Absorbing the spirit of the Chinese designs, he either blent mandarins and pagodas with Italian grottoes, French land­scapes, and classical masks and trophies, in one of those delight­ful inventions which are the fairy-tales of decorative art, or applied the principles of Oriental design to purely European subjects. In comparing the printed cottons of the seventeenth and eigh­teenth centuries with modern chintzes, it will be seen that the lat­ter are either covered with monotonous repetitions of a geometri­cal figure, or with realistic reproductions of some natural object. Many wall-papers and chintzes of the present day represent loose branches of flowers scattered on a plain surface, with no more relation to each other or to their background than so many real flowers fixed at random against the wall. This literal render­ing of natural objects with deceptive accuracy, always condemned by the best artists, is especially inappropriate when brought in

168                 The Decoration of Houses

close contact with the highly conventionalized forms of architec­tural composition. In this respect, the endlessly repeated geo­metrical figure is obviously less objectionable; yet the geometri­cal design, as produced to-day, has one defect in common with the other—that is, lack of imagination. Modern draughtsmen, in eliminating from their work that fanciful element (always strictly subordinated to some general scheme of composition) which marked the designs of the last two centuries, have de­prived themselves of the individuality and freshness that might have saved their patterns from monotony.

This rejection of the fanciful in composition is probably due to the excessive use of pattern in modern decoration. Where much pattern is used, it must be as monotonous as possible, or it will become unbearable. The old decorators used few lines, and permitted themselves more freedom in design ; or rather they remembered, what is now too often forgotten, that in the decoration of a room furniture and objects of art help to make design, and in consequence they were chiefly concerned with providing plain spaces of background to throw into relief the contents of the room. Of late there has been so marked a re­turn to plain panelled or painted walls that the pattern-designer will soon be encouraged to give freer rein to his fancy. In a room where walls and floor are of uniform tint, there is no reason why the design of curtains and chair-coverings should consist of long straight rows of buttercups or crocuses, endlessly repeated.

It must not be thought that the old designs were unconven­tional. Nature, in passing through the medium of the imagina­tion, is necessarily transposed and in a manner conventionalized; and it is this transposition, this deliberate selection of certain




Bedrooms     169

characteristics to the exclusion of others, that distinguishes the work of art from a cast or a photograph. But the reduction of natural objects to geometrical forms is only one of the results of artistic selection. The Italian fresco-painters — the recognized masters of wall-decoration in the flat—always used the natu­ralistic method, but subject to certain restrictions in composition or color. This applies also to the Chinese designers, and to the humbler European pattern-makers who on more modest lines followed the same sound artistic traditions. In studying the toiles peintes manufactured in Europe previous to the present century, it will be seen that where the design included the human figure or landscape naturalistically treated (as in the fables of i^sop and La Fontaine, or the history of Don Quixote), the pattern was either printed entirely in one color, or so fantas­tically colored that by no possibility could it pass for an attempt at a literal rendering of nature. Besides, in all such compositions (and here the Chinese influence is seen) perspective was stu­diously avoided, and the little superimposed groups or scenes were either connected by some decorative arabesque, or so designed that by their outline they formed a recurring pattern. On the other hand, when the design was obviously conventional a variety of colors was freely used. The introduction of the human figure, animals, architecture and landscape into stuff-pat­terns undoubtedly gave to the old designs an animation lacking in those of the present day; and a return to the pays bleu of the Chinese artist would be a gain to modern decoration.

Of the various ways in which a bedroom may be planned, none is so luxurious and practical as the French method of subdividing it into a suite composed of two or more small rooms. Where space is not restricted there should in fact be four rooms, preceded

170                 The Decoration of Houses

by an antechamber separating the suite from the main corridor of the house. The small sitting-room or boudoir opens into this an­techamber; and next comes the bedroom, beyond which are the dressing and bath rooms. In French suites of this kind there are usually but two means of entrance from the main corridor: one for the use of the occupant, leading into the antechamber, the other opening into the bath-room, to give access to the servants. This arrangement, besides giving greater privacy, preserves much valuable wall-space, which would be sacrificed in America to the supposed necessity of making every room in a house open upon one of the main passageways.

The plan of the bedroom suite can of course be carried out only in large houses; but even where there is no lack of space, such an arrangement is seldom adopted by American architects, and most of the more important houses recently built contain immense bed­rooms, instead of a series of suites. To enumerate the practical advantages of the suite over the single large room hardly comes within the scope of this book; but as the uses to which a bed­room is put fall into certain natural subdivisions, it will be more convenient to consider it as a suite.

Since bedrooms are no longer used as salons, there is no reason for decorating them in an elaborate manner; and, however mag­nificent the other apartments, it is evident that in this part of the house simplicity is most fitting. Now that people have been taught the unhealthiness of sleeping in a room with stuff hangings, heavy window-draperies and tufted furniture, the old fashion of painted walls and bare floors naturally commends itself; and as the bed­room suite is but the subdivision of one large room, it is obviously better that the same style of decoration should be used throughout

For this reason, plain panelled walls and chintz or cotton hang-

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ings are more appropriate to the boudoir than silk and gilding. If the walls are without pattern, a figured chintz may be chosen for curtains and furniture; while those who prefer plain tints should use unbleached cotton, trimmed with bands of color, or some colored linen with applications of gimp or embroidery. It is a good plan to cover all the chairs and sofas in the bedroom suite with slips matching the window-curtains; but where this is done, the furniture should, if possible, be designed for the pur­pose, since the lines of modern upholstered chairs are not suited to slips. The habit of designing furniture for slip-covers origi­nated in the middle ages. At a time when the necessity of trans­porting furniture was added to the other difficulties of travel, it was usual to have common carpenter-built benches and tables, that might be left behind without risk, and to cover these with richly embroidered slips. The custom persisted long after fur­niture had ceased to be a part of luggage, and the benches and tabourets now seen in many European palaces are covered merely with embroidered slips. Even when a set of furniture was up­holstered with silk, it was usual, in the eighteenth century, to provide embroidered cotton covers for use in summer, while cur­tains of the same stuff were substituted for the heavier hangings used in winter. Old inventories frequently mention these ten-tures Sett, which are well adapted to our hot summer climate.

The boudoir should contain a writing-table, a lounge or lit de repos, and one or two comfortable arm-chairs, while in a bedroom forming part of a suite only the bedstead and its accessories should be placed.

The pieces of furniture needed in a well-appointed dressing-room are the toilet-table, wash-stand, clothes-press and cheval-glass, with the addition, if space permits, of one or two commodes

172                 The Decoration of Houses

or chiffonniers. The designing of modern furniture of this kind is seldom satisfactory; yet many who are careful to choose simple, substantial pieces for the other rooms of the house, submit to the pretentious "bedroom suit" of bird's-eye maple or mahogany, with its wearisome irrelevance of line and its excess of cheap ornament Any study of old bedroom furniture will make clear the inferiority of the modern manufacturer's designs. Nowhere is the old sense of proportion and fitness seen to better advantage than in the simple, admirably composed commodes and clothes-presses of the eighteenth-century bedroom (see Plate LVII).

The bath-room walls and floor should, of course, be water-proof. In the average bath-room, a tiled floor and a high wainscoting of tiles are now usually seen; and the detached enamel or porce­lain bath has in most cases replaced the built-in metal tub. The bath-rooms in the larger houses recently built are, in general, lined with marble; but though the use of this substance gives oppor­tunity for fine architectural effects, few modern bath-rooms can in this respect be compared with those seen in the great houses of Europe. The chief fault of the American bath-room is that, how­ever splendid the materials used, the treatment is seldom archi­tectural. A glance at the beautiful bath-room in the Pitti Palace at Florence (see Plate LV) will show how much effect may be pro­duced in a smalj space by carefully studied composition. A mere closet is here transformed into a stately room, by that regard for harmony of parts which distinguishes interior architecture from mere decoration. A bath-room lined with precious marbles, with bath and wash-stand ranged along the wall, regardless of their re­lation to the composition of the whole, is no better architecturally than the tiled bath-room seen in ordinary houses: design, not substance, is needed to make the one superior to the other.

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