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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Doors [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Fireplace [Next Chapter]



IN the decorative treatment of a room the importance of open­ings can hardly be overestimated. Not only do they represent the three chief essentials of its comfort,— light, heat and means of access,— but they are the leading features in that combination of voids and masses that forms the basis of architectural harmony. In fact, it is chiefly because the decorative value of openings has ceased to be recognized that modern rooms so seldom produce a satisfactory and harmonious impression. It used to be thought that the effect of a room depended on the treatment of its waH-spaces and openings; now it is supposed to depend on its curtains and furniture. Accessory details have crowded out the main decorative features; and, as invariably happens when the relation of parts is disturbed, everything in the modern room has been thrown out of balance by this confusion between the es­sential and the incidental in decoration.1

The return to a more architectural treatment of rooms and to a recognition of the decorative value of openings, besides producing

[1] As an example of the extent to which openings have come to be ignored as fac­tors in the decorative composition of a room, it is curious to note that in Eastlake's well-known Hints on Household Tasks no mention is made of doors, windows or fireplaces. Compare this point of view with that of the earlier decorators, from Vignola to Roubo and Ware.

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much better results, would undoubtedly reduce the expense of house-decoration. A small quantity of ornament, properly applied, will produce far more effect than ten times its amount used in the wrong way; and it will be found that when decorators rely for their effects on the treatment of openings, the rest of the room will require little ornamentation. The crowding of rooms with furniture and bric-a-brac is doubtless partly due to an unconscious desire to fill up the blanks caused by the lack of architectural composition in the treatment of the walls.

The importance of connecting the main lines of the openings with the cornice having been explained in the previous chapter, it is now necessary to study the different openings in turn, and to see in how many ways they serve to increase the dignity and beauty of their surroundings.

As light-giving is the main purpose for which windows are made, the top of the window should be as near the ceiling as the cornice will allow. Ventilation, the secondary purpose of the window, is also better served by its being so placed, since an opening a foot wide near the ceiling will do more towards airing a room than a space twice as large near the floor. In our north­ern States, where the dark winter days and the need of artificial heat make light and ventilation so necessary, these considerations are especially important. In Italian palaces the windows are gen­erally lower than in more northern countries, since the greater intensity of the sunshine makes a much smaller opening suffi­cient; moreover, in Italy, during the summer, houses are not kept cool by letting in the air, but by shutting it out.

Windows should not exceed five feet in width, while in small rooms openings three feet wide will be found sufficient   There

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are practical as well as artistic reasons for observing this rule, since a sash-window containing a sheet of glass more than five feet wide cannot be so hung that it may be raised without effort; while a casement, or French window, though it may be made somewhat wider, is not easy to open if its width exceeds six feet.

The next point to consider is the distance between the bottom of the window and the floor. This must be decided by circum­stances, such as the nature of the view, the existence of a balcony or veranda, or the wish to have a window-seat. The outlook must also be considered, and the window treated in one way if it looks upon the street, and in another if it gives on the garden or informal side of the house. In the country nothing is more charming than the French window opening to the floor. On the more public side of the house, unless the latter gives on an en­closed court, it is best that the windows should be placed about three feet from the floor, so that persons approaching the house may not be abte to look in. Windows placed at this height should be provided with a fixed seat, or with one of the little settees with arms, but without a back, formerly used for this purpose.

Although for practical reasons it may be necessary that the same room should contain some windows opening to the floor and others raised several feet above it, the tops of all the windows should be on a level. To place them at different heights serves no useful end, and interferes with any general scheme of decora­tion and more specially with the arrangement of curtains.

Mullions dividing a window in the centre should be avoided whenever possible, since they are an unnecessary obstruction to the view. The chief drawback to a casement window is that its sashes join in the middle; but as this is a structural necessity, it

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is less objectionable. If mullions are required, they should be so placed as to divide the window into three parts, thus preserving an unobstructed central pane. The window called Palladian illus­trates this point.

Now that large plate-glass windows have ceased to be a novelty, it will perhaps be recognized that the old window with subdi­vided panes had certain artistic and practical merits that have of late been disregarded.

Where there is a fine prospect, windows made of a single plate of glass are often preferred; but it must be remembered that the subdivisions of a sash, while obstructing the view, serve to estab­lish a relation between the inside of the house and the landscape, making the latter what, as seen from a room, it logically ought to be: a part of the wall-decoration, in the sense of being subordi­nated to the same general lines. A large unbroken sheet of plate-glass interrupts the decorative scheme of the room, just as in verse, if the distances between the rhymes are so great that the ear can­not connect them, the continuity of sound is interrupted. Deco­ration must rhyme to the eye, and to do so must be subject to the limitations of the eye, as verse is subject to the limitations of the ear. Success in any art depends on a due regard for the limitations of the sense to which it appeals.

The effect of a perpetually open window, produced by a large sheet of plate-glass, while it gives a sense of coolness and the impression of being out of doors, becomes for these very reasons a disadvantage in cold weather.

It is sometimes said that the architects of the eighteenth century would have used large plates of glass in their windows had they been able to obtain them; but as such plates were frequently used for mirrors, it is evident that they were not difficult to get,

68                   The Decoration of Houses

and that there must have been other reasons for not employing them in windows; while the additional expense could hardly have been an obstacle in an age when princes and nobles built with such royal disregard of cost The French, always logical in such matters, having tried the eflfect of plate-glass, are now returning to the old fashion of smaller panes; and in many of the new houses in Paris, where the windows at first contained large plates of glass, the latter have since been subdivided by a net­work of narrow mouldings applied to the glass.

As to the comparative merits of French, or casement, and sash windows, both arrangements have certain advantages. In houses built in the French or Italian style, casement windows are best adapted to the general treatment; while the sash-win­dow is more in keeping in English houses. Perhaps the best way of deciding the question is to remember that "les fenttres sont intimement liees aux grandes lignes de l'architecture," and to conform to the rule suggested by this axiom.

The two common objections to French windows—that they are less convenient for ventilation, and that they cannot be opened without letting in cold air near the floor—are both unfounded. All properly made French windows have at the top an impost or stationary part containing small panes, one of which is made to open, thus affording perfect ventilation without draught An­other expedient, seen in one of the rooms of Mesdames de France at Versailles, is a small pane in the main part of the window, opening on hinges of its own. (For examples of well-designed French windows, see Plates XXX and XXXI.)

Sash-windows have the disadvantage of not opening more than half-way, a serious drawback in our hot summer climate. It is often said that French windows cannot be opened wide without



(SHOWING well-designed window with solid inside shutter, and pictures


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interfering with the curtains; but this difficulty is easily met by the use of curtains made with cords and pulleys, in the sensible old-fashioned manner. The real purpose of the window-curtain is to regulate the amount of light admitted to the room, and a curtain so arranged that it cannot be drawn backward and for­ward at will is but a meaningless accessory. It was not until the beginning of*the present century that curtains were used without regard to their practical purpose. The window-hangings of the middle ages and of the Renaissance were simply straight pieces of cloth or tapestry hung across the window without any attempt at drapery, and regarded not as part of the decoration of the room, but as a necessary protection against draughts. It is proba­bly for this reason that in old prints and pictures representing the rooms of wealthy people, curtains are so seldom seen. The better the house, the less need there was for curtains. In the engravings of Abraham Bosse, which so faithfully represent the interior deco­ration of every class of French house during the reign of Louis XIII, it will be noticed that in the richest apartments there are no window-curtains. In all the finest rooms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the inside shutters and embrasures of the windows were decorated with a care which proves that they were not meant to be concealed by curtains (see the painted embrasures of the saloon in the Villa Vertemati, Plate XL1V). The shutters in the state apartments of Fouquet's chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Melun, are painted on both sides with exquisite arabesques; while those in the apartments of Mesdames de France, on the ground floor of the palace of Versailles, are examples of the most beautiful carving. In fact, it would be more difficult to cite a room of any importance in which the windows were not so treated, than to go on enumerating examples of what

was really a universal custom until the beginning of the present century. It is known, of course, that curtains were used in former times: prints, pictures and inventories alike prove this fact; but the care expended on the decorative treatment of win­dows makes it plain that the curtain, like the portiere, was regarded as a necessary evil rather than as part of the general scheme of dec­oration. The meagreness and simplicity of the curtains in old pictures prove that they were used merely as window shades or sun-blinds. The scant straight folds pushed back from the tall windows of the Prince de Conti's salon, in Olivier's charming picture of " Le Th6 a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti," are as obviously utilitarian as the strip of green woollen stuff hanging against the leaded casement of the mediaeval bed-chamber in Car-paccio's "Dream of St Ursula."

Another way of hanging window-curtains in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was to place them inside the architrave, so that they did not conceal it. The architectural treatment of the trim, and the practice prevalent at that period of carrying the windows up to the cornice, made this a satisfactory way of ar­ranging the curtain; but in the modern American house, where the trim is usually bad, and where there is often a dreary waste of wall-paper between the window and the ceiling, it is better to hang the curtains close under the cornice.

It was not until the eighteenth century that the window-cur­tain was divided in the middle; and this change was intended only to facilitate the drawing of the hangings, which, owing to the increased size of the windows, were necessarily wider and heavier. The curtain continued to hang down in straight folds, pulled back at will to permit the opening of the window, and drawn at night.    Fixed window-draperies, with festoons and

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folds so arranged that they cannot be lowered or raised, are an invention of the modern upholsterer. Not only have these fixed draperies done away with the true purpose of the curtain, but they have made architects and decorators careless in their treat­ment of openings. The architrave and embrasure of a window are now regarded as of no more importance in the decorative treatment of a room than the inside of the chimney.

The modern use of the lambrequin as an ornamental finish to window-curtains is another instance of misapplied decoration. Its history is easy to trace. The mediaeval bed was always en­closed in curtains hanging from a wooden framework, and the lambrequin was used as a kind of cornice to conceal it. When the use of gathered window-shades became general in Italy, the lambrequin was transferred from the bed to the window, in order to hide the clumsy bunches of folds formed by these shades when drawn up. In old prints, lambrequins over windows are almost always seen in connection with Italian shades, and this is the only logical way of using them ; though they are often of service in concealing the defects of badly-shaped windows and unarchitectural trim.

Those who criticize'the architects and decorators of the past are sometimes disposed to think that they worked in a certain way because they were too ignorant to devise a better method; whereas they were usually controlled by practical and artistic considerations which their critics are prone to disregard, not only in judging the work of the past, but in the attempt to make good its deficiencies. Thus the cabinet-makers of the Renaissance did not make straight-backed wooden chairs because they were in­capable of imagining anything more comfortable, but because the former were better adapted than cushioned arm-chairs to

the emplacements so frequent at that period. In like manner, the decorator who regarded curtains as a necessity rather than as part of the decoration of the room knew (what the modern up­holsterer fails to understand) that, the beauty of a room depend­ing chiefly on its openings, to conceal these under draperies is to hide the key of the whole decorative scheme.

The muslin window-curtain is a recent innovation. Its only purpose is to protect the interior of the room from public view: a need not felt before the use of large sheets of glass, since it is difficult to look through a subdivided sash from the outside. Under such circumstances muslin curtains are, of course, useful; but where they may be dispensed with, owing to the situation of the room or the subdivision of panes, they are no loss. Lin­gerie effects do not combine well with architecture, and the more architecturally a window is treated, the less it need be dressed up in ruffles. To put such curtains in a window, and then loop them back so that they form a mere frame to the pane, is to do away with their real purpose, and to substitute a textile for an archi­tectural effect Where muslin curtains are necessary, they should be a mere transparent screen hung against the glass. In town houses especially all outward show of richness should be avoided; the use of elaborate lace-figured curtains, besides obstructing the view, seems an attempt to protrude the luxury of the interior upon the street It is needless to point out the futility of the second layer of muslin which, in some houses, hangs inside the sash-curtains.

The solid inside shutter, now so generally discarded, save in France, formerly served the purposes for which curtains and shades are used, and, combined with outside blinds, afforded all the protection that a window really requires (see Plate XIX).

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These shutters should be made with solid panels, not with slats, their purpose being to darken the room and keep out the cold, while the light is regulated by the outside blinds. The best of these is the old-fashioned hand-made blind, with wide fixed slats, still to be seen on old New England houses and always used in France and Italy : the frail machine-made substitute now in general use has nothing to recommend it.
Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Doors [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Fireplace [Next Chapter]