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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Room Decor in General [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Doors [Next Chapter]


PROPORTION is the good breeding of architecture. It is that something, indefinable to the unprofessional eye, which gives repose and distinction to a room: in its origin a matter of nice mathematical calculation, of scientific adjustment of voids and masses, but in its effects as intangible as that all-pervading essence which the ancients called the soul

It is not proposed to enter here into a technical discussion of the delicate problem of proportion. The decorator, with whom this book is chiefly concerned, is generally not consulted until the house that he is to decorate has been built—and built, in all probability, quite without reference to the interior treatment it is destined to receive. All he can hope to do is, by slight modifica­tions here and there in the dimensions or position of the open­ings, to re-establish that harmony of parts so frequently disre­garded in modern house-planning. It often happens, however, that the decorator's desire to make these slight changes, upon which the success of his whole scheme depends, is a source of perplexity and distress to his bewildered client, who sees in it merely the inclination to find fault with another's work. Nothing can be more natural than this attitude on the part of the client How is he to decide between the architect, who has possibly disregarded

32                   The Decoration of Houses

in some measure the claims of symmetry and proportion in planning the interior of the house, and the decorator who in­sists upon those claims without being able to justify his demands by any explanation comprehensible to the unprofessional ? It is inevitable that the decorator, who comes last, should fare worse, especially as he makes his appearance at a time when contractors' bills are pouring in, and the proposition to move a mantelpiece or change the dimensions of a door opens fresh vistas of expense to the client's terrified imagination.

Undoubtedly these difficulties have diminished in the last few years. Architects are turning anew to the lost tradition of sym­metry and to a scientific study of the relation between voids and masses, and the decorator's task has become correspondingly easier. Still, there are many cases where his work is complicated by some trifling obstacle, the removal of which the client opposes only because he cannot in imagination foresee the improvement which would follow. If the client permits the change to be made, he has no difficulty in appreciating the result: he cannot see it in advance.

A few words from Isaac Ware's admirable chapter on "The Origin of Proportions in the Orders "l may serve to show the im­portance of proportion in all schemes of decoration, and the neces­sity of conforming to certain rules that may at first appear both arbitrary and incomprehensible.

" An architect of genius," Ware writes (alluding to the latitude which the ancients allowed themselves in using the orders), "will think himself happy, in designing a building that is to be enriched with the Doric order, that he has all the latitude between two and a half and seventeen for the prefecture of its capital; that he can

                    Walls    33

proportion this projecture to the general idea of his building any­where between these extremes and show his authority. This is an happiness to the person of real genius; ... but as all archi­tects are not, nor can be expected to be, of this stamp, it is needful some standard should be established, founded upon what a good taste shall most admire in the antique, and fixed as a model from which to work, or as a test to which we may have recourse in disputes and controversies."

If to these words be added his happy definition of the sense of proportion as "fancy under the restraint and conduct of judg­ment," and his closing caution that "it is mean in the undertaker of a great work to copy strictly, and it is dangerous to give a loose to fancy without a perfect knowledge bow far a variation may be justified" the unprofessional reader may form some idea of the importance of proportion and of the necessity for observing its rules.

If proportion is the good breeding of architecture, symmetry, or the answering of one part to another, may be defined as the sanity of decoration. The desire for symmetry, for balance, for rhythm in form as well as in sound, is one of the most inveterate of human instincts. Yet for years Anglo-Saxons have been taught that to pay any regard to symmetry in architecture or decoration is to truckle to one of the meanest forms of artistic hypocrisy. The master who has taught this strange creed, in words magical enough to win acceptance for any doctrine, has also revealed to his generation so many of the forgotten beauties of early art that it is hard to dispute his principles of esthetics. As a guide through the byways of art, Mr. Ruskin is entitled to the reverence and gratitude of all; but as a logical exponent of the causes and effects of the beauty he discovers, his authority is certainly open

34                   The Decoration of Houses

to question. For years he has spent the full force of his un­matched prose in denouncing the enormity of putting a door or a window in a certain place in order that it may correspond to an­other ; nor has he scrupled to declare to the victims of this prac­tice that it leads to abysses of moral as well as of artistic degradation.

Time has taken the terror from these threats and architects are beginning to see that a regard for external symmetry, far from interfering with the requirements of house-planning, tends to produce a better, because a more carefully studied, plan, as well as a more convenient distribution of wall-space; but in the lay mind there still lingers not only a vague association between out­ward symmetry and interior discomfort, between a well-balanced facade and badly distributed rooms, but a still vaguer notion that regard for symmetry indicates poverty of invention, lack of in­genuity and weak subservience to a meaningless form.

What the instinct for symmetry means, philosophers may be left to explain; but that it does exist, that it means something, and that it is most strongly developed in those races which have reached the highest artistic civilization, must be acknowledged by all students of sociology. It is, therefore, not superfluous to point out that, in interior decoration as well as in architecture, a regard for symmetry, besides satisfying a legitimate artistic requirement, tends to make the average room not only easier to furnish, but more comfortable to live in.

As the effect produced by a room depends chiefly upon the distribution of its openings, it will be well to begin by consider­ing the treatment of the walls. It has already been said that the decorator can often improve a room, not only from the artistic point of view, but as regards the comfort of its inmates, by



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making some slight change in the position of its openings. Take, for instance, a library in which it is necessary to put the two principal bookcases one on each side of a door or fireplace. If this opening is in the centre of one side of the room, the wall-decorations may be made to balance, and the bookcases may be of the same width,—an arrangement which will give to the room an air of spaciousness and repose. Should the wall-spaces on either side of the opening be of unequal extent, both decorations and book­cases must be modified in size and design; and not only does the problem become more difficult, but the result, because neces­sarily less simple, is certain to be less satisfactory. Sometimes, on the other hand, convenience is sacrificed to symmetry; and in such cases it is the decorator's business to remedy this defect, while preserving to the eye the aspect of symmetry. A long narrow room may be taken as an example. If the fireplace is in the centre of one of the long sides of the room, with a door di­rectly opposite, the hearth will be without privacy and the room virtually divided into two parts, since, in a narrow room, no one cares to sit in a line with the doorway. This division of the room makes it more difficult to furnish and less comfortable to live in, besides wasting all the floor-space between the chimney and the door. One way of overcoming the difficulty is to move the door some distance down the long side of the room, so that the space about the fireplace is no longer a thoroughfare, and the privacy of the greater part of the room is preserved, even if the door be left open. The removal of the door from the centre of one side of the room having disturbed the equilibrium of the openings, this equi­librium may be restored by placing in a line with the door, at the other end of the same side-wall, a piece of furniture correspond­ing as nearly as possible in height and width to the door.   This

 36                   The Decoration of Houses

will satisfy the eye, which in matters of symmetry demands, not absolute similarity of detail, but merely correspondence of outline and dimensions.

It is idle to multiply examples of the various ways in which such readjustments of the openings may increase the comfort and beauty of a room. Every problem in house decoration demands a slightly different application of the same general principles, and the foregoing instances are intended only to show how much depends upon the placing of openings and how reasonable is the decorator's claim to have a share in planning the background upon which his effects are to be produced.

It may surprise those whose attention has not been turned to such matters to be told that in all but the most cheaply con­structed houses the interior walls are invariably treated as an order. In all houses, even of the poorest kind, the walls of the rooms are finished by a plain projecting board adjoining the floor, surmounted by one or more mouldings. This base, as it is called, is nothing more nor less than the part of an order between shaft and floor, or shaft and pedestal, as the case may be. If it be next remarked that the upper part of the wall, adjoining the ceiling, is invariably finished by a moulded projection correspond­ing with the crowning member of an order, it will be clear that the shaft, with its capital, has simply been omitted, or that the uniform wall-space between the base and cornice has been regarded as replacing it. In rooms of a certain height and im­portance the column or pilaster is frequently restored to its proper place between base and cornice; but where such treatment is too monumental for the dimensions of the room, the main lines of the wall-space should none the less be regarded as distinctly architectural, and the decoration applied should be subordinate to

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the implied existence of an order. (For the application of an order to walls, see Plates XLII and L.)

Where the shafts are omitted, the eye undoubtedly feels a lack of continuity in the treatment: the cornice seems to hang in air and the effect produced is unsatisfactory. This is obviated by the use of panelling, the vertical lines carried up at intervals from base to cornice satisfying the need for some visible connection be­tween the upper and lower members of the order. Moreover, if the lines of the openings are carried up to the cornice (as they are in all well-designed schemes of decoration), the openings may be considered as intercolumniations and the intermediate wall-spaces as the shafts or piers supporting the cornice.

In well-finished rooms the order is usually imagined as resting, not on the floor, but on pedestals, or rather on a continuous pedestal. This continuous pedestal, or "dado" as it is usually called, is represented by a plinth surmounted by mouldings, by an intermediate member often decorated with tablets or sunk panels with moulded margins, and by a cornice. The use of the dado raises the chief wall-decoration of the room to a level with the eye and prevents its being interrupted or concealed by the furniture which may be placed against the walls. This fact makes it clear that in all well-designed rooms there should be a dado about two and a half feet high. If lower than this, it does not serve its purpose of raising the wall-decoration to a line above the furniture; while the high dado often seen in modern American rooms throws all the rest of the panelling out of scale and loses its own significance as the pedestal sup­porting an order.

In rooms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when little furniture was used, the dado was often richly ornamented, being

38                   The Decoration of Houses

sometimes painted with delicate arabesques corresponding with those on the doors and inside shutters. As rooms grew smaller and the quantity of furniture increased so much that the dado was almost concealed, the treatment of the latter was wisely simplified, being reduced, as a rule, to sunk panels and a few strongly marked mouldings. The decorator cannot do better than plan the ornamentation of his dado according to the amount of furniture to be placed against the walls. In corridor or ante­chamber, or in a ball-room, the dado may receive a more elaborate treatment than is necessary in a library or drawing-room, where probably much less of it will be seen. It was not unusual, in the decoration of lobbies and corridors in old French and Italian houses, to omit the dado entirely if an order was used, thus bring­ing the wall-decoration down to the base-board; but this was done only in rooms or passage-ways not meant to contain any furniture.

The three noblest forms of wall-decoration are fresco-paint­ing, panelling, and tapestry hangings. In the best period of decoration all three were regarded as subordinate to the archi­tectural lines of the room. The Italian fresco-painters, from Giotto to Tiepolo, never lost sight of the interrelation between painting and architecture. It matters not if the connection be­tween base and cornice be maintained by actual pilasters or mouldings, or by their painted or woven imitations. The line, and not the substance, is what the eye demands. It is a curi­ous perversion of artistic laws that has led certain critics to denounce painted architecture or woven mouldings. As in imaginative literature the author may present to his reader as possible anything that he has the talent to make the reader accept, so in decorative art the artist is justified in presenting to




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the eye whatever his skill can devise to satisfy its requirements; nor is there any insincerity in this proceeding. Decorative art is not an exact science. The decorator is not a chemist or a physiol­ogist ; it is part of his mission, not to explain illusions, but to produce them. Subject only to laws established by the limitations of the eye, he is master of the domain of fancy, of that pays bleu of the impossible that it is his privilege to throw open to the charmed imagination.

Of the means of wall-decoration already named, fresco-painting and stucco-panelling were generally preferred by Italian deco­rators, and wood-panelling and tapestries by those of northern Europe. The use of arras naturally commended itself to the northern noble, shivering in his draughty castles and obliged to carry from one to another the furniture and hangings that the unsettled state of the country made it impossible to leave behind him. Italy, however, long supplied the finest designs to the tapestry-looms of northern Europe, as the Italian painters provided ready-made backgrounds of peaked hills, winding torrents and pinnacled cities to the German engravers and the Flemish painters of their day.

Tapestry, in the best periods of house-decoration, was always subordinated to the architectural lines of the room (see Plate XI). Where it was not specially woven for the panels it was intended to fill, the subdivisions of the wall-spaces were adapted to its dimensions. It was carefully fitted into the panelling of the room, and never made to turn an angle, as wall-paper does in modern rooms, nor combined with other odds and ends of deco­ration. If a room was tapestried, it was tapestried, not decorated in some other way, with bits of tapestry hung here and there at random over the fundamental lines of the decoration.   Nothing

40                    The Decoration of Houses

can be more beautiful than tapestry properly used; but hung up without regard to the composition of the room, here turning an angle, there covering a part of the dado or overlapping a pilaster, it not only loses its own value, but destroys the whole scheme of decoration with which it is thus unmeaningly combined.

Italian panelling was of stone, marble or stucco, while in north­ern Europe it was so generally of wood that (in England espe­cially) the term panelling has become almost synonymous with wood-panelling, and in some minds there is a curious impression that any panelling not of wood is a sham. As a matter of fact, wood-panelling was used in northern Europe simply because it kept the cold out more successfully than a revtiemtnt of stone or plaster; while south of the Alps its use was avoided for the equally good reason that in hot climates it attracts vermin.

If priority of use be held as establishing a standard in decora­tion, wood-panelling should be regarded as a sham and plaster-panelling as its lawful prototype; for the use of stucco in the panelling of walls and ceilings is highly characteristic of Roman interior decoration, and wood-panelling as at present used is cer­tainly of later origin. But nothing can be more idle than such comparisons, nor more misleading than the idea that stucco is a sham because it seeks to imitate wood. It does not seek to imi­tate wood. It is a recognized substance, of incalculable value for decorative effect, and no more owes its place in decoration to a fancied resemblance to some other material than the nave of a cathedral owes its place in architecture to the fancied resemblance to a ship.

In the hands of a great race of artistic virtuosi like the Italians, stucco has produced effects of beauty which in any other sub­stance would have lost something of their freshness, their plastic

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spontaneity. From the delicate traceries of the Roman baths and the loveliness of Agostino da Duccio's chapel-front at Perugia, to the improvised bravura treatment of the Farnese theatre at Parma, it has served, through every phase of Italian art, to embody the most refined and studied, as well as the most audacious and ephemeral, of decorative conceptions.

It must not be supposed that because painting, panelling and tapestry are the noblest forms of wall-decoration, they are neces­sarily the most unattainable. Good tapestry is, of course, very expensive, and even that which is only mediocre is beyond the reach of the average purchaser; while stuff hangings and wall­papers, its modern successors, have less to recommend them than other forms of wall-decoration. With painting and panelling the case is different. When painted walls were in fashion, there existed, below the great creative artists, schools of decorative de­signers skilled in the art of fresco-decoration, from the simplest kind to the most ornate. The demand for such decoration would now call forth the same order of talent, and many artists who are wasting their energies on the production of indifferent landscapes and unsuccessful portraits might, in the quite different field of decorative painting, find the true expression of their talent.

To many minds the mention of a frescoed room suggests the image of a grandiose saloon, with gods and goddesses of heroic size crowding the domed ceiling and lofty walls; but the heroic style of fresco-painting is only one of its many phases. To see how well this form of decoration may be adapted to small modern rooms and to our present way of living, it is only necessary to study the walls of the little Pompeian houses, with their delicate arabesques and slender, fanciful figures, or to note the manner in which the Italian painters treated the small rooms of the casino or

42                   The Decoration of Houses

garden-pavilion which formed part of every Italian country-seat Examples of this light style of decoration may be found in the Casino del grotto in the grounds of the Palazzo del T at Mantua, in some of the smaller rooms of the hunting-lodge of Stupinigi near Turin, and in the casino of the Villa Valmarana near Vicenza, where the frescoes are by Tiepolo; while in France a pleasing instance of the same style of treatment is seen in the small octag­onal pavilion called the Belvedere, frescoed by Le Riche, in the gardens of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

As regards panelling, it has already been said that if the effect produced be satisfactory to the eye, the substance used is a matter of indifference. Stone-panelling has the merit of solidity, and the outlines of massive stone mouldings are strong and dignified; but the same effect may be produced in stucco, a material as well suited to the purpose as stone, save for its greater fragility. Wood-panelling is adapted to the most delicate carving, greater sharpness of edge and clearness of undercutting being obtainable than in stucco: though this qualification applies only to the moulded stucco ornaments used from economy, not to those modelled by hand. Used in the latter way, stucco may be made to produce the same effects as carved wood, and for delicacy of modelling in low relief it is superior to any other material. There is, in short, little to choose between the different substances, ex­cept in so far as one or the other may commend itself to the artist as more peculiarly suited to the special requirements of his design, or to the practical conditions regulating his work.

It is to this regard for practical conditions, and not to any fancied superiority over other materials, that the use of wood-panelling in northern Europe may most reasonably be attributed. Not only was wood easy to obtain, but it had the additional




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merit of keeping out the cold: two qualities sufficient to recom­mend it to the common sense of French and English architects. From the decorative point of view it has, when unpainted, one undeniable advantage over stucco—that is, beauty of color and veining. As a background for the dull gilding of old picture-frames, or as a setting for tapestry, nothing can surpass the soft rich tones of oak or walnut panelling, undefaced by the appli­cation of a shiny varnish.

With the introduction of the orders into domestic architecture and the treatment of interior walls with dado and cornice, the panelling of the wall-space between those two members began to assume definite proportions. In England and France, before that time, wall-panels were often divided into small equal-sized rectangles which, from lack of any central motive, pro­duced a most inadequate impression. Frequently, too, in the houses of the Renaissance the panelling, instead of being carried up to the ceiling, was terminated two or three feet below it— a form of treatment that reduced the height of the room and broke the connection between walls and ceiling. This awkward device of stunted panelling, or, as it might be called, of an unduly heightened dado, has been revived by modern decorators; and it is not unusual to see the walls of a room treated, as regards their base-board and cornice, as part of an order, and then panelled up to within a foot or two of the cornice, without apparent regard to the true raison d'ltre of the dado (see Plate XII).

If, then, the design of the wall-panelling is good, it matters little whether stone, stucco, or wood be used. In all three it is possible to obtain effects ranging from the grandeur of the great loggia of the Villa Madama to the simplicity of any wood-panelled parlor in a New England country-house, and from the

44                   The Decoration of Houses

greatest costliness to an outlay little larger than that required for the purchase of a good wall-paper.

It was well for the future of house-decoration when medical science declared itself against the use of wall-papers. These hangings have, in fact, little to recommend them. Besides being objectionable on sanitary grounds, they are inferior as a wall-deco­ration to any form of treatment, however simple, that maintains, instead of effacing, the architectural lines of a room. It was the use of wall-paper that led to the obliteration of the over-door and over-mantel, and to the gradual submerging under a flood of pattern of all the main lines of the wall-spaces. Its merits are that it is cheap, easy to put on and easy to remove. On the other hand, it is readily damaged, soon fades, and cannot be cleaned; while from the decorative point of view there can be no comparison between the flat meanderings of wall-paper pattern and the strong architectural lines of any scheme of panelling, however simple. Sometimes, of course, the use of wall-paper is a matter of convenience, since it saves both time and trouble; but a papered room can never, decoratively or otherwise, be as satisfactory as one in which the walls are treated in some other manner.

The hanging of walls with chintz or any other material is even more objectionable than the use of wall-paper, since it has not the saving merit of cheapness. The custom is probably a survival of the time when wall-decorations had to be made in movable shape; and this facility of removal points to the one good reason for using stuff hangings. In a hired house, if the wall-decora­tions are ugly, and it is necessary to hide them, the rooms may be hung with stuff which the departing tenant can take away. In other words, stuff hangings are serviceable if used as a tent;

                Walls      45

as a permanent mode of decoration they are both unhealthy and inappropriate. There is something unpleasant in the idea of a dust-collecting fabric fixed to the wall, so that it cannot be shaken out at will like a curtain. Textile fabrics are meant to be moved, folded, shaken: they have none of the qualities of per­manence and solidity which we associate with the walls of a room. The much-derided marble curtains of the Jesuit church in Venice are no more illogical than stuff wall-hangings.

In decorating the walls of a room, the first point to be consid­ered is whether they are to form a background for its contents, or to be in themselves its chief decoration. In many cases the dis­appointing effects of wall-decoration are due to the fact that this important distinction has been overlooked. In rooms that are to be hung with prints or pictures, the panelling or other treat­ment of the walls should be carefully designed with a view to the size and number of the pictures. Pictures should never be hung against a background of pattern. Nothing is more distressing than the sight of a large oil-painting in a ponderous frame seem­ingly suspended from a spray of wild roses or any of the other naturalistic vegetation of the modern wall-paper. The overlaying of pattern is always a mistake. It produces a confusion of line in which the finest forms lose their individuality and significance.

It is also important to avoid hanging pictures or prints too close to each other. Not only do the colors clash, but the different designs of the frames, some of which may be heavy, with deeply recessed mouldings, while others are flat and carved in low relief, produce an equally discordant impression. Every one recognizes the necessity of selecting the mouldings and other ornamental details of a room with a view to their position in the scheme of decoration; but few stop to consider that in a room hung with

46                   The Decoration of Houses

pictures, the frames take the place of wall-mouldings, and conse­quently must be chosen and placed as though they were part of a definite decorative composition.

Pictures and prints should be fastened to the wall, not hung by a cord or wire, nor allowed to tilt forward at an angle. The lat­ter arrangement is specially disturbing since it throws the pic­ture-frames out of the line of the wall. It must never be forgotten that pictures on a wall, whether set in panels or merely framed and hung, inevitably become a part of the wall-decoration. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in rooms of any im­portance, pictures were always treated as a part of the decoration, and frequently as panels sunk in the wall in a setting of carved wood or stucco mouldings (see paintings in Plates V and XIX). Even when not set in panels, they were always fixed to the wall, and their frames, whether of wood or stucco, were made to cor­respond with the ornamental detail of the rest of the room. Beau­tiful examples of this mode of treatment are seen in many English interiors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,1 and some of the finest carvings of Grinling Gibbons were designed for this purpose.

Even where the walls are not to be hung with pictures, it is necessary to consider what kind of background the furniture and objects of art require. If the room is to be crowded with cabi­nets, bookcases and other tall pieces, and these, as well as the tables and mantel-shelf, are to be covered with porcelain vases, bronze statuettes, ivories, Chinese monsters and Chelsea groups, a plain background should be provided for this many-colored medley.   Should the room contain only a few important pieces

1 See the saloon at Easton Neston, built by Nicholas Hawkesmoor (Plate XIII), and various examples given in Pyne's Royal Residences.

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of furniture, and one or two vases or busts, the walls against which these strongly marked objects are to be placed may re­ceive a more decorative treatment. It is only in rooms used for entertaining, dining, or some special purpose for which little fur­niture is required, that the walls should receive a more elaborate scheme of decoration.

Where the walls are treated in an architectural manner, with a well-designed dado and cornice, and an over-mantel and over-doors connecting the openings with the cornice, it will be found that in a room of average size the intervening wall-spaces may be tinted in a uniform color and left unornamented. If the funda­mental lines are right, very little decorative detail is needed to complete the effect; whereas, when the lines are wrong, no over­laying of ornamental odds and ends, in the way of pictures, bric-a-brac and other improvised expedients, will conceal the struc­tural deficiencies.

Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Room Decor in General [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Doors [Next Chapter]