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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Ball Room, Bar, Music Room & Gallery [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Dining Room [Next Chapter]



IN the days when furniture was defined as " that which may be carried about," the natural bookcase was a chest with a strong lock. These chests, packed with precious manuscripts, followed the prince or noble from one castle to another, and were even car­ried after him into camp. Before the invention of printing, when twenty or thirty books formed an exceptionally large library, and many great personages were content with the possession of one volume, such ambulant bookcases were sufficient for the require­ments of the most eager bibliophile. Occasionally the volumes were kept in a small press or cupboard, and placed in a chest only when their owner travelled; but the bookcase, as now known, did not take shape until much later, for when books multiplied with the introduction of printing, it became customary to fit up for their reception little rooms called cabinets. In the famous cab-inet of Catherine de' Medici at Blois the walls are lined with book­shelves concealed behind sliding panels—a contrivance rendered doubly necessary by the general insecurity of property, and by the fact that the books of that period, whether in manuscript or printed, were made sumptuous as church jewelry by the art of painter and goldsmith. Long after the establishment of the printing-press, books, ex-

                 The Decoration of Houses

cept in the hands of the scholar, continued to be a kind of curios­ity, like other objects of art: less an intellectual need than a treasure upon which rich men prided themselves. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the taste for books became a taste for reading. France led the way in this new fashion, which was assiduously cultivated in those Parisian salons of which Ma­dame de Rambouillet's is the recognized type. The possession of a library, hitherto the privilege of kings, of wealthy monasteries, or of some distinguished patron of letters like Grolier, Maioli, or de Thou, now came to be regarded as a necessity of every gentle­man's establishment Beautiful bindings were still highly valued, and some of the most wonderful work produced in France belongs to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but as people began to buy books for the sake of what they contained, less exaggerated importance was attached to their exterior, so that bindings, though perfect as taste and skill could make them, were seldom as extravagantly enriched as in the two preceding centuries. Up to a certain point this change was not to be regretted: the me­diaeval book, with its gold or ivory bas-reliefs bordered with pre­cious stones, and its massive jewelled clasps, was more like a mon­strance or reliquary than anything meant for less ceremonious use. It remained for the Italian printers and binders of the sixteenth century, and for their French imitators, to adapt the form of the book to its purpose, changing, as it were, a jewelled idol to a human companion.

The substitution of the octavo for the folio, and certain modi­fications in binding which made it possible to stand books upright instead of laying one above the other with edges outward, gradu­ally gave to the library a more modern aspect. In France, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the library had come to be a

The Library, Smoking-Room, and "Den" 147

recognized feature in private houses. The Renaissance cabinet continued to be the common receptacle for books; but as the shelves were no longer concealed, bindings now contributed to the decoration of the room. Movable bookcases were not unknown, but these seem to have been merely presses in which wooden door-panels were replaced by glass or by a lattice-work of brass wire. The typical French bookcase & deux corps—that is, made in two separate parts, the lower a cupboard to contain prints and folios, the upper with shelves and glazed or latticed doors—was introduced later, and is still the best model for a movable book­case. In rooms of any importance, however, the French archi­tect always preferred to build his book-shelves into niches formed in the thickness of the wall, thus utilizing the books as part of his scheme of decoration.

There is no doubt that this is not only the most practical, but the most decorative, way of housing any collection of books large enough to be so employed. To adorn the walls of a library, and then conceal their ornamentation by expensive bookcases, is a waste, or rather a misapplication, of effects—always a sin against aesthetic principles.

The importance of bookbindings as an element in house-deco­ration has already been touched upon; but since a taste for good bindings has come to be regarded as a collector's fad, like accu­mulating snuff-boxes or baisers-de-paix, it seems needful to point out how obvious and valuable a means of decoration is lost by disregarding the outward appearance of books. To be decora­tive, a bookcase need not contain the productions of the master-binders,— old volumes by Eve and Derdme, or the work of Roger Payne and Sanderson,— unsurpassed as they are in color-value. Ordinary bindings of half morocco or vellum form an expanse of

148                  The Decoration of Houses

warm lustrous color; such bindings are comparatively inexpen­sive; yet people will often hesitate to pay for a good edition bound in plain levant half the amount they are ready to throw away upon a piece of modern Saxe or a silver photograph-frame.

The question of binding leads incidentally to that of editions, though the latter is hardly within the scope of this book. People who have begun to notice the outside of their books naturally come to appreciate paper and type; and thus learn that the modern book is too often merely the cheapest possible vehicle for putting words into print. The last few years have brought about some improvement; and it is now not unusual for a publisher, in bringing out a book at the ordinary rates, to produce also a small edition in large-paper copies. These large-paper books, though as yet far from perfect in type and make-up, are superior to the average "commercial article"; and, apart from their artistic merit, are in themselves a good investment, since the value of such edi­tions increases steadily year by year. Those who cannot afford both edition and binding will do better to buy large-paper books or current first editions in boards, than "handsomely bound" volumes unworthy in type and paper. The plain paper or buck­ram covers of a good publisher are, in fact, more decorative, because more artistic, than showy tree-calf or "antique morocco."

The same principle applies to the library itself: plain shelves filled with good editions in good bindings are more truly decora­tive than ornate bookcases lined with tawdry books.

It has already been pointed out that the plan of building book­shelves into the walls is the most decorative and the most practical (see Plate XLVIII). The best examples of this treatment are found in France. The walls of the rooms thus decorated were usually of panelled wood, either in natural oak or walnut, as in the beau-

The Library, Smoking-Room, and "Den" 149

tiful library of the old university at Nancy, or else painted in two contrasting colors, such as gray and white. When not set in recesses, the shelves formed a sort of continuous lining around the walls, as in the library of Louis XVI in the palace at Versailles (see Plate XLVII), or in that of the Due de Choiseul at Chanteloup, now set up in one of the rooms of the public library at Tours.

In either case, instead of being detached pieces of furniture, the bookcases formed an organic part of the wall-decoration. Any study of old French works on house-decoration and furniture will show how seldom the detached bookcase was used in French libraries: but few models are to be found, and these were proba­bly designed for use in the boudoir or study, rather than in the library proper (see bookcase in Plate V).

In England, where private libraries were fewer and less ex­tensive, the movable bookcase was much used, and examples of built-in shelves are proportionately rarer. The hand-books of the old English cabinet-makers contain innumerable models of handsome bookcases, with glazed doors set with diamond-shaped panes in wooden mouldings, and the familiar broken pediment surmounted by a bust or an urn. It was natural that where books were few, small bookcases should be preferred to a room lined with shelves; and in the seventeenth century, according to John Evelyn, the "three nations of Great Britain" contained fewer books than Paris.

Almost all the old bookcases had one feature in common: that is, the lower cupboard with solid doors. The bookcase proper rested upon this projecting cupboard, thus raising the books above the level of the furniture. The prevalent fashion of low' book-shelves, starting from the floor, and not extending much higher than the dado-moulding, has probably been brought about

150                 The Decoration of Houses

by the other recent fashion of low-studded rooms. Architects are beginning to rediscover the forgotten fact that the stud of a room should be regulated by the dimensions of its floor-space; so that in the newer houses the dwarf bookcase is no longer a necessity. It is certainly less convenient than the tall old-fashioned press; for not only must one kneel to reach the lower shelves, but the books are hidden, and access to them is obstructed, by their being on a level with the furniture.

The general decoration of the library should be of such charac­ter as to form a background or setting to the books, rather than to distract attention from them. The richly adorned room in which books are but a minor incident is, in fact, no library at all. There is no reason why the decorations of a library should not be splen­did ; but in that case the books must be splendid too, and suffi­cient in number to dominate all the accessory decorations of the room.

When there are books enough, it is best to use them as part of the decorative treatment of the walls, panelling any intervening spaces in a severe and dignified style; otherwise movable book­cases may be placed against the more important wall-spaces, the walls being decorated with wooden panelling or with mouldings and stucco ornaments; but in this case composition and color-scheme must be so subdued as to throw the bookcases and their contents into marked relief. It does not follow that because books are the chief feature of the library, other ornaments should be ex­cluded; but they should be used with discrimination, and so chosen as to harmonize with the spirit of the room. Nowhere is the modern litter of knick-knacks and photographs more inappro­priate than in the library. The tables should be large, substantial, and clear of everything but lamps, books and papers—one table



The Library, Smoking-Room, and "Den" 151

at least being given over to the filing of books and newspapers. The library writing-table is seldom large enough, or sufficiently free from odds and ends in the shape of photograph-frames, silver boxes, and flower-vases, to g\ve free play to the elbows. A large solid table of the kind called bureau-mini&tre (see the table in Plate XLV1I) is well adapted to the library; and in front of it should stand a comfortable writing-chair such as that represented in Plate XLIX.

The housing of a great private library is one of the most inter­esting problems of interior architecture. Such a room, combining monumental dimensions with the rich color-values and impressive effect produced by tiers of fine bindings, affords unequalled oppor­tunity for the exercise of the architect's skill. The two-storied room with gallery and stairs and domed or vaulted ceiling is the finest setting for a great collection. Space may of course be gained by means of a series of bookcases projecting into the room and forming deep bays along each of the walls; but this arrangement is seldom necessary save in a public library, and however skilfully handled must necessarily diminish the architec­tural effect of the room. In America the great private library is still so much a thing of the future that its treatment need not be discussed in detail. Few of the large houses lately built in the United States contain a library in the serious meaning of the term; but it is to be hoped that the next generation of architects will have wider opportunities in this direction.

The smoking-room proper, with its mise en seine of Turkish divans, narghilehs, brass coffee-trays, and other Oriental proper­ties, is no longer considered a necessity in the modern house; and the room which would formerly have been used for this special purpose now comes rather under the head of the master's loung-

152                 The Decoration of Houses

ing-room, or " den "— since the latter word seems to have attained the dignity of a technical term.

Whatever extravagances the upholsterer may have committed in other parts of the house, it is usually conceded that common sense should regulate the furnishing of the den. Fragile chairs, lace-petticoat lamp-shades and irrelevant bric-a-brac are conse­quently excluded; and the master's sense of comfort often ex­presses itself in a set of "office" furniture—a roller-top desk, a revolving chair, and others of the puffy type already described as the accepted model of a luxurious seat Thus freed from the su­perfluous, the den is likely to be the most comfortable room in the house; and the natural inference is that a room, in order to be comfortable, must be ugly. One can picture the derision of the man who is told that he might, without the smallest sacrifice of comfort or convenience, transact his business at a Louis XVI writ­ing-table, seated in a Louis XVI chair!—yet the handsomest desks of the last century—the fine old bureaux a la Kaunit^ or a cylin-dre—were the prototypes of the modern "roller-top"; and the cane or leather-seated writing-chair, with rounded back and five slim strong legs, was far more comfortable than the amorphous revolving seat. Convenience was not sacrificed to beauty in either desk or chair; but both the old pieces, being designed by skilled cabinet-makers, were as decorative as they were useful. There seems, in fact, no reason why the modern den should not resem­ble the financiers' bureaux seen in so many old prints: rooms of dignified plainness, but where each line of wall-panelling and fur­niture was as carefully studied and intelligently adapted to its ends as though intended for a drawing-room or boudoir.

Reference has been made to the way in which, even in small houses, a room may be sacrificed to a supposed " effect," or to

The Library, Smoking-Room, and "Den" 153

some inherited tradition as to its former use. Thus the family drawing-room is too often made uninhabitable from some vague feeling that a " drawing-room " is not worthy of its name unless too fine to sit in; while the small front room on the ground floor — in the average American house the only corner given over to the master—is thrown into the hall, either that the house may appear larger and handsomer, or from sheer inability to make so small a room habitable.

There is no reason why even a ten-by-twelve or an eight-by-fourteen foot room should not be made comfortable; and the fol­lowing suggestions are intended to indicate the lines on which an appropriate scheme of decoration might be carried out.

In most town houses the small room down-stairs is built with an opening in the longitudinal wall, close to the front door, while there is usually another entrance at the back of the room, facing the window; one at least of these openings being, as a rule, of ex­aggerated width. In such cases the door in the side of the room should be walled up: this gives privacy and provides enough ad­ditional wall-space for a good-sized piece of furniture.

The best way of obtaining an effect of size is to panel the wails by means of clear-cut architectural mouldings : a few strong ver­tical lines will give dignity to the room and height to the ceiling. The walls should be free from pattern and light in color, since dark walls necessitate much artificial light, and have the disad­vantage of making a room look small.

The ceiling, if not plain, must be ornamented with the lightest tracery, and supported by a cornice correspondingly simple in design. Heavy ceiling-mouldings are obviously out of place in a small room, and a plain expanse of plaster is always preferable to misapplied ornament.

154                 The Decoration of Houses

A single curtain made of some flexible material, such as cor­duroy or thin unlined damask, and so hung that it may be readily drawn back during the day, is sufficient for the window; while in a corner near this window may be placed an easy-chair and a small solidly made table, large enough to hold a lamp- and a book or two.

These rooms, in some recently built town houses, contain chim­neys set in an angle of the wall: a misplaced attempt at quaint-ness, making it inconvenient to sit near the hearth, and seriously interfering with the general arrangement of the room. When the chimney occupies the centre of the longitudinal wall there is space, even in a very narrow room, for a group of chairs about the fireplace — provided, as we are now supposing, the opening in the parallel wall has been closed. A book­case or some other high piece of furniture may be placed on each side of the mantel, and there will be space opposite for a sofa and a good-sized writing-table. If the pieces of furniture chosen are in scale with the dimensions of the room, and are placed against 'the wall, instead of being set sideways, with the usual easel or palm-tree behind them, it is surprising to see how much a small room may contain without appearing to be overcrowded.


DINING-ROOM, PALACE OF COMPIEGNE.    LOUIS XVI PERIOD. (over-doors and over-mantel painted in grisaille, by sauvage.)

Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Ball Room, Bar, Music Room & Gallery [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Dining Room [Next Chapter]