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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Walls [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Windows [Next Chapter]


THE fate of the door in America has been a curious one, and had the other chief features of the house—such as win­dows, fireplaces, and stairs—been pursued with the same relent­less animosity by architects and decorators, we should no longer be living in houses at all. First, the door was slid into the wall; then even its concealed presence was resented, and it was un­hung and replaced by a portiere; while of late it has actually ceased to form a part of house-building, and many recently built houses contain doorways without doors. Even the front door, which might seem to have too valid a reason for existence to be disturbed by the variations of fashion, has lately had to yield its place, in the more pretentious kind of house, to a wrought-iron gateway lined with plate-glass, against which, as a climax of in­consequence, a thick curtain is usually hung.

It is not difficult to explain such architectural vagaries. In general, their origin is to be found in the misapplication of some serviceable feature and its consequent rejection by those who did not understand that it had ceased to be useful only because it was not properly used.

In the matter of doors, such an explanation at once presents itself.   During the latter half of the eighteenth century it occurred



Doors                                        49

to some ingenious person that when two adjoining rooms were used for entertaining, and it was necessary to open the doors be­tween them, these doors might be in the way; and to avoid this possibility, a recess was formed in the thickness of the wall, and the door was made to slide into it.

This idea apparently originated in England, for sliding doors, even in the present day, are virtually unknown on the continent; and Isaac Ware, in the book already quoted, speaks of the sliding door as having been used "at the house, late Mr. de Pestre's, near Hanover Square," and adds that "the manner of it there may serve as an example to other builders," showing it to have been a novelty which he thought worthy of imitation.

English taste has never been so sure as that of the Latin races; and it has, moreover, been perpetually modified by a passion for contriving all kinds of supposed "conveniences," which instead of simplifying life not unfrequently tend to complicate it Amer­icans have inherited this trait, and in both countries the architect or upholsterer who can present a new and more intricate way of planning a house or of making a piece of furniture, is more sure of a hearing than he who follows the accepted lines.

It is doubtful if the devices to which so much is sacrificed in English and American house-planning always offer the practical advantages attributed to them. In the case of the sliding door these advantages are certainly open to question, since there is no reason why a door should not open into a room. Under ordinary circumstances, doors should always be kept shut; it is only, as Ware points out, when two adjoining rooms are used for enter­taining that it is necessary to leave the door between them open. Now, between two rooms destined for entertaining, a double door (4 deux battants) is always preferable to a single one; and as an

50                   The Decoration of Houses

opening four feet six inches wide is sufficient in such cases, each of the doors will be only two feet three inches wide, and therefore cannot encroach to any serious extent on the floor-space of the room. On the other hand, much has been sacrificed to the supposed "convenience" of the sliding door: first, the decorative effect of a well-panelled door, with hinges, box-locks and handle of finely chiselled bronze ; secondly, the privacy of both rooms, since the difficulty of closing a heavy sliding door always leads to its being left open, with the result that two rooms are necessarily used as one. In fact, the absence of privacy in modern houses is doubtless in part due to the difficulty of closing the doors be­tween the rooms.

The sliding door has led to another abuse in house-planning: the exaggerated widening of the doorway. While doors were hung on hinges, doorways were of necessity restricted to their proper dimensions; but with the introduction of the sliding door, openings eight or ten feet wide became possible. The planning of a house is often modified by a vague idea on the part of its owners that they may wish to give entertainments on a large scale. As a matter of fact, general entertainments are seldom given in a house of average size; and those who plan their houses with a view to such possibilities sacrifice their daily comfort to an event occurring perhaps once a year. But even where many entertainments are to be given large doorways are of little use. Any architect of experience knows that ease of circulation de­pends far more on the planning of the house and on the position of the openings than on the actual dimensions of the latter. Indeed, two moderate-sized doorways leading from one room to another are of much more use in facilitating the movements of a crowd than one opening ten feet wide.

                Doors     51

Sliding doors have been recommended on the ground that their use preserves a greater amount of wall-space; but two doorways of moderate dimensions, properly placed, will preserve as much wall-space as one very large opening and will probably permit a better distribution of panelling and furniture. There was far more wall-space in seventeenth and eighteenth-century rooms than there is in rooms of the same dimensions in the average modern Ameri­can house; and even where this space was not greater in actual measurement, more furniture could be used, since the openings were always placed with a view to the proper arrangement of what the room was to contain.

According to the best authorities, the height of a well-propor­tioned doorway should be twice its width; and as the height is necessarily regulated by the stud of the room, it follows that the width varies; but it is obvious that no doorway should be less than six feet high nor less than three feet wide.

When a doorway is over three feet six inches wide, a pair of doors should always be used; while a single door is preferable in a narrow opening.

In rooms twelve feet or less in height, doorways should not be more than nine feet high. The width of openings in such rooms is therefore restricted to four feet six inches; indeed, it is permis­sible to make the opening lower and thus reduce its width to four feet; six inches of additional wall-space are not to be despised in a room of average dimensions.

The treatment of the door forms one of the most interesting chapters in the history of house-decoration. In feudal castles the interior doorway, for purposes of defense, was made so small and narrow that only one person could pass through at a time, and was set in a plain lintel or architrave of stone, the door itself being

                Doors     52

fortified by bands of steel or iron, and by heavy bolts and bars. Even at this early period it seems probable that in the chief apartments the lines of the doorway were carried up to the ceiling by means of an over-door of carved wood, or of some painted decorative composition.1 This connection between the doorway and the ceiling, maintained through all the subsequent phases of house-decoration, was in fact never disregarded until the beginning of the present century.

    It was in Italy that the door, in common with the other features of private dwellings, first received a distinctly architectural treatment. In Italian palaces of the fifteenth century the doorways were usually framed by architraves of marble, enriched with arabesques, medallions and professional friezes in low relief, combined with disks of colored marble. Interesting examples of this treatment are seen in the apartments of Isabella of Este in the ducal palace of Mantua (see Plate XIV), in the ducal palace at Urbino, and in the Certosa of Pavia -- some of the smaller doorways in this monastery being decorated with medallion portraits of the Sforzas, and with other low reliefs of extraordinary beauty.

    The doors in Italian palaces were usually of inlaid wood, elaborate in composition and affording in many cases beautiful instances of that sense of material limitation that preserves one art from infringing upon another. The intarsia doors of the palace at Urbino are among the most famous examples of this form of decoration. It should be noted that many of the woods used in Italian marquetry were of a light shade, so that the blending of colors in Renaissance doors produces a sunny golden-brown tint in perfect harmony with the marble architrave of the

 [1] Swee Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonal de l'Architecture francaise, under Porte.

Doors                                         53

doorway. The Italian decorator would never have permitted so harsh a contrast as that between the white trim and the mahog­any doors of English eighteenth-century houses. The juxtaposi­tion of colors was disapproved by French decorators also, and was seldom seen except in England and in the American houses built under English influence. It should be observed, too, that the polish given to hard-grained wood in England, and imitated in the wood-varnish of the present day, was never in favor in Italy and France. Shiny surfaces were always disliked by the best decorators.

The classic revival in Italy necessarily modified the treatment of the doorway. Flat arabesques and delicately chiselled medal­lions gave way to a plain architrave, frequently masked by an order; while the over-door took the form of a pediment, or, in the absence of shafts, of a cornice or entablature resting on brackets. The use of a pediment over interior doorways was characteristic of Italian decoration.

In studying Italian interiors of this period from photographs or modern prints, or even in visiting the partly dilapidated palaces themselves, it may at first appear that the lines of the doorway were not always carried up to the cornice. Several causes have combined to produce this impression. In the first place, the architectural treatment of the over-door was frequently painted on the wall, and has consequently disappeared with the rest of the wall-decoration (see Plate XV). Then, again, Italian rooms were often painted with landscapes and out-of-door architectural effects, and when this was done the doorways were combined with these architectural compositions, and were not treated as part of the room, but as part of what the room pretended to be. In the suppressed Scuola della Carita (now the Academy of Fine

54                   The Decoration of Houses

Arts) at Venice, one may see a famous example of this treatment in the doorway under the stairs leading up to the temple, in Titian's great painting of the "Presentation of the Virgin."1 Again, in the high-studded Italian saloons containing a mu­sician's gallery, or a clerestory, a cornice was frequently carried around the walls at suitable height above the lower range of openings, and the decorative treatment above the doors, win­dows and fireplace extended only to this cornice, not to the actual ceiling of the room.

Thus it will be seen that the relation between the openings and cornice in Italian decoration was in reality always maintained except where the decorator chose to regard them as forming a part, not of the room, but of some other architectural composition.

In the sixteenth century the excessive use of marquetry was abandoned, doors being panelled, and either left undecorated or painted with those light animated combinations of figure and ara­besque which Raphael borrowed from the Roman fresco-painters, and which since his day have been peculiarly characteristic of Italian decorative painting.3

Wood-carving in Italy was little used in house-decoration, and, as a rule, the panelling of doors was severely architectural in char­acter, with little of the delicate ornamentation marking the French work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.8

In France the application of the orders to interior doorways ' was never very popular, though it figures in French architectural

[1] This painting has now been restored to its proper position in the Scuola della Carita, and the door which had been painted in under the stairs has been removed to make way for the actual doorway around which the picture was originally painted.

[2] See the doors of the Sala dello Zodiaco in the ducal palace at Mantua (Plate XVI).

[3] Some rooms of the rocaille period, however, contain doors as elaborately carved as those seen in France (see the doors in the royal palace at Genoa, Plate XXXIV).




Doors                                        55

works of the eighteenth century. The architrave, except in houses of great magnificence, was usually of wood, sometimes very richly carved. It was often surmounted by an entablature with a cornice resting on carved brackets; while the panel be­tween this and the ceiling-cornice was occuped by an over-door consisting either of a painting, of a carved panel or of a stucco or marble bas-relief. These over-doors usually corresponded with the design of the over-mantel.

Great taste and skill were displayed in the decoration of door-panels and embrasure. In the earlier part of the seventeenth century, doors and embrasures were usually painted, and nothing in the way of decorative painting can exceed in beauty and fitness the French compositions of this period.1

During the reign of Louis XIV, doors were either carved or painted, and their treatment ranged from the most elaborate dec­oration to the simplest panelling set in a plain wooden architrave. In some French doors of this period painting and carving were admirably combined; and they were further ornamented by the chiselled locks and hinges for which French locksmiths were famous. So important a part did these locks and hinges play in French decoration that Lebrun himself is said to have designed those in the Galerie d'Apollon, in the Louvre, when he composed the decoration of the room. Even in the simplest private houses, where chiselled bronze was too expensive a luxury, and wrought-iron locks and hinges, with plain knobs of brass or iron, were used instead, such attention was paid to both design and execution that it is almost impossible to find in France an old lock or hinge, however plain, that is not well designed and well made (see Plate XVII). The miserable commercial article that disgraces 1 See the doors at Vaux-le-Vicomte and in the Palais de Justice at Rennes.

56                   The Decoration of Houses

our modern doors would not have been tolerated in the most un­pretentious dwelling.

The mortise-lock now in use in England and America first made its appearance toward the end of the eighteenth century in England, where it displaced the brass or iron box-lock; but on the Continent it has never been adopted. It is a poor substitute for the box-lock, since it not only weakens but disfigures the door, while a well-designed box-lock is both substantial and ornamental (see Plate XVII).

In many minds the Louis XV period is associated with a general waviness of line and excess of carving. It has already been pointed out that even when the rocaille manner was at its height the main lines of a room were seldom allowed to follow the ca­pricious movement of the ornamental accessories. Openings being the leading features of a room, their main lines were almost invariably respected; and while considerable play of movement was allowed in some of the accessory mouldings of the over-doors and over-mantels, the plan of the panel, in general symmetrical, was in many cases a plain rectangle.1

During the Louis XV period the panelling of doors was fre­quently enriched with elaborate carving; but such doors are to be found only in palaces, or in princely houses like the H6tels de Soubise, de Rohan, or de Toulouse (see Plate XVIII). In the most magnificent apartments, moreover, plain panelled doors were as common as those adorned with carving; while in the average private hdtel, even where much ornament was lavished on the panelling of the walls, the doors were left plain.

Towards the close of this reign, when the influence of Gabriel

l Only in the most exaggerated German baroque were the vertical lines of the door-panels sometimes irregular.


Doors                                         57

began to simplify and restrain the ornamental details of house-decoration, the panelled door was often made without carving and was sometimes painted with attenuated arabesques and grisaille medallions, relieved against a gold ground. Gabriel gave the key-note of what is known as Louis XVI decoration, and the treatment of the door in France followed the same general lines until the end of the eighteenth century. As the classic influence became more marked, paintings in the over-door and over-mantel were replaced by low or high reliefs in stucco: and towards the end of the Louis XVI period a processional frieze in the classic manner often filled the entablature above the architrave of the door (see Plate XVI).

Doors opening upon a terrace, or leading from an antechamber into a summer-parlor, or salon frais, were frequently made of glass; while in gala rooms, doors so situated as to correspond with the windows of the room were sometimes made of looking-glass. In both these instances the glass was divided into small panes, with such strongly marked mouldings that there could not be a moment's doubt of the apparent, as well as the actual, solidity of the door. In good decorative art first impressions are always taken into account, and the immediate satisfaction of the eye is provided for.

In England the treatment of doorway and door followed in a general way the Italian precedent The architrave, as a rule, was severely architectural, and in the eighteenth century the applica­tion of an order was regarded as almost essential in rooms of a certain importance. The door itself was sometimes inlaid,1 but oftener simply panelled (see Plate XI).

l The inlaid doors of Houghton Halt, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole, were noted for their beauty and costliness.   The price of each was £300.

58                   The Decoration of Houses

In the panelling of doors, English taste, except when it closely followed Italian precedents, was not always good. The use of a pair of doors in one opening was confined to grand houses, and in the average dwelling single doors were almost invariably used, even in openings over three feet wide. The great width of some of these single doors led to a curious treatment of the panels, the door being divided by a central stile, which was sometimes beaded, as though, instead of a single door, it were really a pair held together by some invisible agency. This central stile is almost invariably seen in the doors of modern American houses.

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the use of highly polished mahogany doors became general in England. It has already been pointed out that the juxtaposition of a dark-colored door and a white architrave was not approved by French and Italian architects. Blondel, in fact, expressly states that such contrasts are to be avoided, and that where walls are pale in tint the door should never be dark: thus in vestibules and antechambers panelled with Caen stone he recommends painting doors a pale shade of gray. 

In Italy, when doors were left unpainted they were usually made of walnut, a wood of which the soft, dull tone harmonizes well with almost any color, whether light or dark; while in France it would not be easy to find an unpainted door, except in rooms where the wall-panelling is also of natural wood.

In the better type of house lately built in America there is seen a tendency to return to the use of doors hung on hinges. These, however, have been so long out of favor that the rules regulating their dimensions have been lost sight of, and the modern door and architrave are seldom satisfactory in these respects. The principles of proportion have been further disturbed by a return




                    Doors     59

to the confused and hesitating system of panelling prevalent in England during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods.

The old French and Italian architects never failed to respect that rule of decorative composition which prescribes that where there is any division of parts, one part shall unmistakably pre­dominate. In conformity with this rule, the principal panel in doors of French or Italian design is so much higher than the others that these are at once seen to be merely accessory; whereas many of our modern doors are cut up into so many small panels, and the central one so little exceeds the others in height, that they do not "compose."

The architrave of the modern door has been neglected for the same reasons as the window-architrave. The use of the heavy sliding door, which could not be opened or shut without an effort, led to the adoption of the portiere; and the architrave, being thus concealed, was no longer regarded as a feature of any importance in the decoration of the room.

The portiere has always been used, as old prints and pictures show; but, like the curtain, in earlier days it was simply intended to keep out currents of air, and was consequently seldom seen in well-built houses, where double sets of doors served far better to protect the room from draughts. In less luxurious rooms, where there were no double doors, and portieres had to be used, these were made as scant and unobtrusive as possible. The device of draping stuffs about the doorway, thus substituting a textile architrave for one of wood or stone, originated with the modern upholsterer; and it is now not unusual to see a wide opening with no door in it, enclosed in yards and yards of draperies which cannot even be lowered at will.

The portiere, besides causing a break in architectural lines,

 6o                   The Decoration of Houses

has become one of the chief expenses in the decoration of the modern room; indeed, the amount spent in buying yards of plush or damask, with the addition of silk cord, tassels, gimp and fringe, often makes it necessary to slight the essential features of the room; so that an ugly mantelpiece or ceiling is preserved because the money required to replace it has been used in the purchase of portteres. These superfluous draperies are, in fact, more expensive than a well-made door with hinges and box-lock of chiselled bronze.

The general use of the portiere has also caused the disappear­ance of the over-door. The lines of the opening being hidden under a mass of drapery, the need of connecting them with the cornice was no longer felt, and one more feature of the room passed out of the architect's hands into those of the upholsterer, or, as he might more fitly be called, the house-dressmaker.

The return to better principles of design will do more than anything else to restore the architectural lines of the room. Those who use portteres generally do so from an instinctive feel­ing that a door is an ugly thing that ought to be hidden, and modern doors are in fact ugly; but when architects give to the treatment of openings the same attention they formerly received, it will soon be seen that this ugliness is not a necessity, and portieres will disappear with the return of well-designed doors.

Some general hints concerning the distribution of openings have been given in the chapter on walls. It may be noted in ad­dition that while all doorways in a room should, as a rule, be of one height, there are cases where certain clearly subordinate openings may be lower than those which contain doors £ deux battants. In such cases the panelling of the door must be care­fully modified in accordance with the dimensions of the opening,




                    Doors     61

and the treatment of the over-doors in their relation to each other must be studied with equal attention. Examples of such adaptations are to be found in many old French and Italian rooms.1

Doors should always swing into a room. This facilitates en­trance and gives the hospitable impression that everything is made easy to those who are coming in. Doors should further­more be so hung that they screen that part of the room in which the occupants usually sit. In small rooms, especially those in town houses, this detail cannot be too carefully considered. The fact that so many doors open in the wrong way is another excuse for the existence of portteres.

A word must also be said concerning the actual making of the door. There is a general impression that veneered doors or furni­ture are cheap substitutes for articles made of solid blocks of wood. As a matter of fact, owing to the high temperature of American houses, all well-made wood-work used in this country is of neces­sity composed of at least three, and often of five, layers of wood. This method of veneering, in which the layers are so placed that the grain runs in different directions, is the only way of counteract­ing the shrinking and swelling of the wood under artificial heat

To some minds the concealed door represents one of those architectural deceptions which no necessity can excuse. It is cer­tain that the concealed door is an expedient, and that in a well-planned house there should be no need for expedients, unless the architect is hampered by limitations of space, as is the case in designing the average American town house. Architects all know how many principles of beauty and fitness must be sacri-

*See a room in the Ministere de la Marine at Paris, where a subordinate door is cleverly treated in connection with one of more importance.

62                   The Decoration of Houses

ficed to the restrictions of a plot of ground twenty-five feet wide by seventy-five or a hundred in length. Under such conditions, every device is permissible that helps to produce an effect of spaciousness and symmetry without interfering with convenience: chief among these contrivances being the concealed door.

Such doors are often useful in altering or adding to a badly planned house. It is sometimes desirable to give increased facili­ties of communication without adding to the visible number of openings in any one room; while in other cases the limited amount of wall-space may make it difficult to find place for a doorway corresponding in dimensions with the others; or, again, where it is necessary to make a closet under the stairs, the archi­trave of a visible door may clash awkwardly with the string-board.

Under such conditions the concealed door naturally suggests itself. To those who regard its use as an offense against artistic integrity, it must once more be pointed out that architecture addresses itself not to the moral sense, but to the eye. The exist­ing confusion on this point is partly due to the strange analogy drawn by modern critics between artistic sincerity and moral law. Analogies are the most dangerous form of reasoning: they con­nect resemblances, but disguise facts; and in this instance nothing can be more fallacious than to measure the architect's action by an ethical standard.

"Sincerity," in many minds, is chiefly associated with speaking the truth; but architectural sincerity is simply obedience to certain visual requirements, one of which demands that what are at once seen to be the main lines of a room or house snail be acknow­ledged as such in the application of ornament. The same archi­tectural principles demand that the main lines of a room shall not



Doors                                         63

be unnecessarily interrupted; and in certain cases it would be bad taste to disturb the equilibrium of wall-spaces and decoration by introducing a visible door leading to some unimportant closet or passageway, of which the existence need not be known to any but the inmates of the house. It is in such cases that the con­cealed door is a useful expedient. It can hardly be necessary to point out that it would be a great mistake to place a concealed door in a main opening. These openings should always be recognized as one of the chief features of the room, and so treated by the decorator; but this point has already been so strongly insisted upon that it is reverted to here only in order to show how different are the requirements which justify concealment.

The concealed door has until recently been used so little by American architects that its construction is not well understood, and it is often hung on ordinary visible hinges, instead of being. swung on a pivot. There is no reason why, with proper care, a door of this kind should not be so nicely adjusted to the wall-panelling as to be practically invisible; and to fulfil this condition is the first necessity of its construction (see concealed door in Plate XLV).

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