Candace Wheeler.

Principles of home decoration, with practical examples online

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considers first of all the principle of
strength ; but under the varied influ-
ences of the Georgian period one
hardly expects fidelity to first princi-
ples. New England carpenters and
cabinet-makers who had wrought
under the masters of carpentry and
cabinet-work in England brought
with them not only skill to fashion,
but the very patterns and drawings
from which Chippendale and Shera-
ton furniture had been made in Eng-
land. Our English forefathers were
very fond of the St, Domingo ma-
hogany, brought back in the ship-
bottoms of English traders, but the


English workmen who made furni-
ture in the new world, while they
adopted this foreign wood, were not
slow to appreciate the wild cherry,
and the different maples and oak
and nut woods which they found in
America. They were woods easy to
work, and apt to take on polish
and shining surface. The cabinet-
makers liked also the abnormal speci-
mens of maple where the fibre grew
in close waves, called curled maple,
as well as the great roots flecked and
spotted with minute knots, known as
dotted maple.

All these things went into colonial
furniture, so beautifully cut, so care-
fully dowelled and put together, so
well made, that many of the things
have become heirlooms in the families
for which they were constructed. I
remember admiring a fine old cherry
book-case in Mr. Lowell's library at
Cambridge, and being told by the


poet that it had belonged to his
grandfather. When I spoke of the
comparative rarity of such possessions
he answered : " Oh, anyone can have
his grandfather's furniture if he will
wait a hundred years ! "

Nevertheless, with modern meth-
ods of manufacture it is by no means
certain that a hundred years will
secure possession of the furniture we
buy to-day to our grandchildren. In
those early days it was not uncom-
mon, it was indeed the custom, for
some one of the men who were called
'^journeymen cabinet-makers " — that
is, men who had served their time
and learned their trade, but had not
yet settled down to a fixed place and
shop of their own — to take up an
abode in the house with the family
which had built it, for a year, or
even two or three years, carrying on
the work in some out-house or de-
pendence, choosing and seasoning the


wood, and measuring the furniture
for the spaces where it was to stand.

There was a fine fitness in such fur-
nishing ; it was as if the different
pieces actually grew where they were
placed, and it is small wonder that
so built and fashioned they should
possess almost a human interest.
Direct and special thought and effort
were incorporated with the furniture
from the very first, and it easily ex-
plains the excellences and finenesses
of its fashioning.

There is an interesting house in
Flushing, Long Island, where such
furniture still stands in the rooms
where it was put together in 1664,
and where it is so fitted to spaces it
has filled during the passing centuries,
that it would be impossible to carry it
through the narrow doors and passages,
which, unlike our present halls, were
made for the passing to and fro of
human beings, and not of furniture.






It is this kind of interest which
attaches us to colonial furniture and
adds to the value of its beauty and
careful adaptation to human con-
venience. In the roomy "high boys"
which we find in old houses there are
places for everything. They were made
for the orderly packing and keeping
of valuable things, in closetless rooms,
and they were made without project-
ing corners and cornices, because life
was lived in smaller spaces than at
present. They were the best prod-
uct of a thoughtful time — where if
manufacture lacked some of the ma-
chinery and appliances of to-day, it
was at least not rushed by breathless
competition, but could progress slowly
in careful leisure. Of course we can-
not all have colonial furniture, and
indeed it would not be according to
the spirit of our time, for the arts
of our own day are to be encouraged
and fostered — but we can buy the


best of the things which are made in
our time, the best in style, in inten-
tion, in fittingness, and above all in
carefulness and honesty of construc-

For some reason the quality of
durability seems to be wanting in
modern furniture. Our things are
fashioned of the same woods, but
something in the curing or prepara-
tion of them has weakened the fibre
and made it brittle. Probably the
gradual evaporation of the tree-juices
which old-time cabinet-makers were
willing to wait for, left the shrunken
sinews of the wood in better condition
than is possible with our hurried and
violent kiln-dried methods. What is
gained in time in the one place is lost
in another. Nature refuses to enter
into our race for speedy completion,
and if we hurry her natural processes
we shorten our lease of ownership.

As a very apt illustration of this


fact, I remember coming into posses-
sion some twenty years ago of an oak
chair which had stood, perhaps, for
more than two hundred years in a
Long Island farm-house. When I
found it, it had been long relegated
to kitchen use and was covered with
a crust of variously coloured paints
which had accumulated during the
two centuries of its existence. The
fashion of it was rare, and had prob-
ably been evolved by some early
American cabinet-maker, for while it
had all and even more than the grace
of the high-backed Chippendale pat-
terns, it was better fitted to the
rounded surfaces of the human body.
It was a spindle chair with a slightly
hollowed seat, the rim of the back
rounded to a loop which was con-
tinued into arm-rests, which spread
into thickened blades for hand-rests.
Being very much in love with the
grace and ease of it, I took it to a


manufacturer to be reproduced in
mahogany, who, with a far-sighted
sagacity, flooded the market with that
particular pattern.

We are used — and with good rea-
son — to consider mahogany as a dura-
ble wood, but of the half-dozen of
mahogany copies of the old oak chair,
each one has suffered some break of
legs or arms or spindles, while the orig-
inal remains as firm in its withered
old age as it was the day I rescued it
from the '' out-kitchen '* of the Long
Island farm-house.

For the next fifty years after the
close of our colonial history, the
colonial cabinet-makers in New Eng-
land and the northern Middle States
continued to flourish, evolving an
occasional good variation from what
may be called colonial forms. Rush-
and flag-bottomed chairs and chairs
with seats of twisted rawhide — the
frames often gilded and painted —


sometimes took the place of wrought
mahogany, except in the best rooms
of great houses. Many of these are
of excellent shape and construction,
and specially interesting as an adap-
tation of natural products of the
country. Undoubtedly, with our in-
genious modern appliances, we could
make as good furniture as was made
in Chippendale and Sheraton's day,
with far less expenditure of effort ;
but the demon of competition in
trade will not allow it. We must
use all material, perfect or imperfect;
we cannot afford to select. We must
cover knots and imperfections with
composition and pass them on. We
must use the cheapest glue, and save
an infinitesimal sum in the length of
our dowels ; we must varnish instead
of polishing, or <'the other man " will
get the better of us. If we did not
do these things our furniture would
be better, but '' the other man "


would sell more, because he could
sell more cheaply.

Since the revived interest in the
making of furniture, we find an oc-
casional and marked recurrence to
primitive form — on each occasion the
apparently new style taking on the
name of the man who produced it.

In our own day we have seen the
" Eastlake furniture " appear and dis-
appear, succeeded by the '' Morris
furniture," which is undoubtedly bet-
ter adapted to our varied wants. At
present, mortising and dowelling have
come to the front as proper processes,
especially for table-building ; and this
time the style appears under the name
of '' Mission furniture." Much of
this is extremely well suited for cot-
tage furnishing, but the occasional
exaggeration of the style takes one
back not only to early, but the earli-
est, English art, when chairs were im-
movable seats or blocks, and tables


absolute fixtures on account of the
weighty legs upon which they were
built. In short, the careful and
cultivated decorator finds it as im-
perative to guard against exagger-
ated simplicity as unsupported pret-

Fortunately there has been a great
deal of attention paid to good cabinet
work within the last few years, and
although the method of its making
lacks the human motive and the
human interest of former days — it is
still a good expression of the art of
to-day, and at its best, worthy to be
carried down with the generations as
one of the steps in the evolutions of
time. What we have to do, is to
learn to discriminate between good
and bad, to appreciate the best in
design and workmanship, even al-
though we cannot afford to buy it.
In this case we should learn to do with
less. As a rule our houses are crowded.


If we are able to buy a few good
things, we are apt instead to buy
many only moderately good, for lav-
ish possession seems to be a sort of
passion, or birthright, of Americans.
It follows that we fill our houses with
heterogeneous collections of furniture,
new and old, good and bad, appro-
priate or inappropriate, as the case
may be, with a result of living in
seeming luxury, but a luxury without
proper selection or true value. To
have less would in many cases be to
have more — more tranquillity of life,
more ease of mind, more knowledge
and more real enjoyment.

There is another principle which
can be brought into play in this case,
and that is the one of buying — not a
costly kind of thing, but the best of
its kind. If it is a choice in chairs,
for instance, let it be the best cane-
seated, or rush-bottomed chair that
is made, instead of the second or third







PI .


best upholstered or leather-covered
one. If it is a question of tables, buy
the simplest form made of flawless
wood and with best finish, instead of
a bargain in elaborately turned or
scantily carved material. If it is in
bedsteads, a plain brass, or good
enamelled iron or a simple form in
black walnut, instead of a cheap in-
laid wood — and so on through the
whole category. A good chintz or
cotton is better for draperies, than
flimsy silk or brocade ; and when all
is done the very spirit of truth will
sit enthroned in the household, and
we shall find that all things have
been brought into harmony by her

Although the furnishing of a house
should be one of the most pains-
taking and studied of pursuits, there
is certainly nothing which is at the
same time so fascinating and so flat-
tering in its promise of future enjoy-


ment. It is like the making of a
picture as far as possibility of beauty
is concerned, but a picture within
and against which one's life, and the
life of the family, is to be lived. It
is a bit of creative art in itself, and
one which concerns us so closely as
to be a very part of us. We enjoy
every separate thing we may find or
select or procure — not only for the
beauty and goodness which is in it,
but for its contribution to the general
whole. And in knowledge of ap-
plied and manufactured art, the fur-
nishing of a house is truly " the be-
ginning of wisdom." One learns to
appreciate what is excellent in the
new, from study and appreciation of
quality in the old.

It is the fascination of this study
which has made a multiplication of
shops and collections of <' antiques "
in every quarter of the city. Many
a woman begins from the shop-


keeper's point of view of the value
of mere age, and learns by experience
that age, considered by itself, is a dis-
qualification, and that it gives value
only v^hen the art which created the
antique has been lost or greatly de-
teriorated. If one can find as good,
or a better thing in art and quality,
made to-day — by all means buy the
thing of to-day, and let yourself and
your children be credited with the
hundred or two years of wear which
is in it. We can easily see that it is
wiser to buy modern iridescent glass,
fitted to our use, and yet carrying all
the fascinating lustre of ancient glass,
than to sigh for the possession of some
unbuyable thing belonging to dead
and gone Caesars. And the case is
as true of other modern art and
modern inventions, if the art is good,
and the inventions suitable to our
wants and needs.

Yet in spite of the goodness of


much that is new, there is a subtle
pleasure in turning over, and even in
appropriating, the things that are old.
There are certain fenced-in-blocks
on the east side of New York City
where for many years the choice parts
of old houses have been deposited.
As fashion and wealth have changed
their locality — treading slowly up
from the Battery to Central Park —
many beautiful bits of construction
have been left behind in the aban-
doned houses — either disregarded on
account of change in popular taste,
or unappreciated by reason of want
of knowledge. For the few whose
knowledge was competent, there
were things to be found in the sec-
ond-hand yards, precious beyond
comparison with anything of con-
temporaneous manufacture.

There were panelled front doors
with beautifully fluted columns and


carved capitals, surmounted by half-
ovals of curiously designed sashes ;
there were beautifully wrought iron
railings, and elaborate newel-posts
of mahogany, brass door-knobs and
hinges, and English hob-grates, and
crystal chandeliers of cost and brill-
iance, and panelled wainscots of oak
and mahogany ; chimney-pieces in
marble and wood of an excellence
which we are almost vainly trying
to compass, and all of them to be
bought at the price of lumber.

These are the things to make one
who remembers them critical about
the collections to be found in the
antique shops of to-day, and yet
such shops are enticing and fash-
ionable, and the quest of antiques
will go on until we become convinced
of the art-value and the equal merit
of the new — which period many
things seem to indicate is not far off.


In those days there was but one
antique shop in all New York which
was devoted to the sale of old things,
to furniture, pictures, statuary, and
what Ruskin calls "portable art" of
all kinds. It was a place where one
might go, crying " new lamps for old
ones" with a certainty of profit in
the transaction. In later years it has
been known as Syphers, and although
one of many, instead of a single one,
is still a place of fascinating possi-

To sum up the gospel of furnish-
ing, we need only fall back upon the
principles of absolute fitness, actual
goodness, and real beauty. If the
furniture of a well-coloured room
possesses these three qualities, the
room as a whole can hardly fail to be
lastingly satisfactory. It must be re-
membered, however, that it is a trin-
ity of virtues. No piece of furniture
should be chosen because it is intrin-


sically good or genuinely beautiful,
if it has not also its use — and this
rule applies to all rooms, with the
one exception of the drawing-room.

The necessity of use^ governing the
style of furnishing in a room, is very
well understood. Thus, while both
drawing-room and dining-room must
express hospitality, it is of a different
kind or degree. That of the draw-
ing-room is ceremonious and punc-
tilious, and represents the family in
its relation to society, while the din-
ing-room is far more intimate, and
belongs to the family in its relation
to friends. In fact, as the dining-
room is the heart of the house, its
furnishing would naturally be quite
different in feeling and character from
the drawing-room, although it might
be fully as lavish in cost. It would
be stronger, less conservative, and al-
together more personal in its expres-
sion. Family portraits and family


silver give the personal note which
we like to recognise in our friends'
dining-rooms, because the intimacy
of the room makes even family his-
tory in place.

In moderate houses, even the draw-
ing-room is too much a family room
to allow it to be entirely emancipated
from the law of use, but in houses
which are not circumscribed in space,
and where one or more rooms are
set apart to social rather than domes-
tic life, it is natural and proper to
gather in them things which stand,
primarily, for art and beauty — which
satisfy the needs of the mind as dis-
tinct from those of bodily comfort.
Things which belong in the category
of "unrelated beauty" may be ap-
propriately gathered in such a room,
because the use of it is to please the
eye and excite the interest of our
social world; therefore a table which
is a marvel of art, but not of con-


venience, or a casket which is beau-
tiful to look at, but of no practical
use, are in accordance with the idea
of the room. They help compose a
picture, not only for the eyes of
friends and acquaintances, but for
the education of the family.

It follows that an artistic and lux-
urious drawing-room may be a true
family expression ; it may speak of
travel and interest in the artistic de-
velopment of mankind ; but even
where the experiences of the family
have been wide and liberal, if the
house and circumstances are narrow,
a luxurious interior is by no means
a happiness.

It may seem quite superfluous to
give advice against luxury in furnish-
ing except where it is warranted
by exceptional means, because each
family naturally adjusts its furnishing
to its own needs and circumstances;
but the influence of mere beauty is


very powerful, and many a costly toy
drifts into homes where it does not
rightly belong, and where, instead of
being an educational or elevating in-
fluence, it is a source of mental de-
terioration, from its conflict with un-
sympathetic circumstances. A long
and useful chapter might be written
upon " art out of place," but nothing
which could be said upon the subject
would apply to that incorporation of
art and beauty with furniture and in-
terior surroundings, which is the effort
and object of every true artist and art-

The fact to be emphasised is, that
objets d^ art — beautiful in themselves
and costly because of the superior
knowledge, artistic feeling, and pa-
tient labour which have produced
them — demand care and reserve for
their preservation^ which is not avail-
able in a household where the first
motive of everything must be minis-


try to comfort. Art in the shape of
pictures is fortunately exempt from
this rule, and may dignify and beau-
tify every room in the house without
being imperilled by contact in the
exigencies of use.

Following out this idea, a house
where circumstances demand that
there shall be no drawing-room, and
where the family sitting-room must
also answer for the reception of
guests, a perfect beauty and dignity
may be achieved by harmony of
colour, beauty of form, and appro-
priateness to purpose, and this may
be carried to almost any degree of
perfection by the introduction and
accompaniment of pictures. In this
case art is a part of the room, as well
as an adornment of it. It is kneaded
into every article of furniture. It is
the daily bread of art to which we
are all entitled, and which can make
a small country home, or a smaller


city apartment, as enjoyable and ele-
vating as if it were filled with the
luxuries of art.

But one may say, " It requires
knowledge to do this ; much knowl-
edge in the selection of the compara-
tively few things which are to make
up such an interior," and that is
true — and the knowledge is to be
proved every time we come to the
test of buying. Yet it is a curious
fact that the really good thing, the
thing which is good in art as well as
construction, will inevitably be chosen
by an intelligent buyer, instead of
the thing which is bad in art and in
construction. Fortunately, one can
see good examples in the shops of
to-day, where twenty years ago at
best only honest and respectable fur-
niture was on exhibition. One must
rely somewhat on the character of
the places from which one buys,
and not expect good styles and relia-


























ble manufacture where commercial
success is the dominant note of the
business. In truth the careful buyer
is not so apt to fail in quality as in
harmony, because grade as well as
style in different articles and manu-
factures is to be considered. What
is perfectly good in one grade of
manufacture will not be in harmony
with a higher or lower grade in
another. Just as we choose our
grade of floor-covering from ingrain
to Aubusson, we must choose the
grade of other furnishings. Even an
inexperienced buyer would be apt to
feel this, and would know that if ^he
found a simple ingrain-filling appro-
priate to a bed-chamber, maple or
enamelled furniture would belong to
it, instead of more costly inlaid or
carved pieces.

It may be well to reiterate the fact
that the predominant use of each room
in a house gives the clew to the best


rules of treatment in decoration and
furniture. For instance, the hall,
being an intermediate space between
in and out of doors, should be col-
oured and furnished in direct refer-
ence to this, and to its common use
as a thoroughfare by all members of
the family. It is not a place of pro-
longed occupation, and may therefore
properly be without the luxury and
ease of lounges and lounging-chairs.
But as long as it serves both as en-
trance-room to the house and for
carrying the stairways to the upper
floors, it should be treated in such a
way as to lead up to and prepare the
mind for whatever of inner luxury
there may be in the house. At the
same time it should preserve some-
thing of the simplicity and freedom
from all attempt at effect which be-
long to out-of-door life. The dif-
ference between its decoration and
furniture and that of other divisions


of the house should be principally in
surface, and not in colour. Differ-
ence of surface is secured by the use
of materials which are permanent and
durable in effect, such as wood, plas-
ter, and leather. These may all be
coloured without injury to their im-
pression of permanency, although it
is generally preferable to take advan-
tage of indigenous or " inherent col-
our " like the natural yellows and
russets of wood and leather. When
these are used for both walls and
ceiling, it will be found that, to give
the necessary variation, and prevent
an impression of monotony and dul-
ness, some tint must be added in the
ornament of the surface, which could
be gained by a forcible deepening or
variation of the general tone, like a
deep golden brown, which is the low-
est tone of the scale of yellow, or a
red which would be only a variant
of the prevailing tint. The intro-


duction of an opposing or contrasting
tint, like pale blue in small masses as
compared with the general tint, even
if it is in so small a space as that of a
water-colour on the wall, adds the
necessary contrast, and enlivens and
invigorates a harmony.

No colour carries with it a more
appropriate influence at the entrance
of a house than red in its different
values. Certain tints of it which are
known both as Pompeiian and Da-
mascus red have sufficient yellow in
their composition to fall in with the

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Online LibraryCandace WheelerPrinciples of home decoration, with practical examples → online text (page 7 of 9)