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The gala suite being so planned that all the rooms adjoined each
other, the effect of distance was further enhanced by placing the
openings in line, so that on entering the suite it was possible to
look down its whole length. The importance of preserving this
long vista, or enfilade, as the French call it, is dwelt on by all old
writers on house-decoration. If a ball-room be properly lit and
decorated, it is never necessary to dress it up with any sort of
temporary ornamentation: the true mark of the well-decorated
ball-room is to look always ready for a ball.

The only chair seen in most modern ball-rooms is the folding
camp-seat hired by the hundred when entertainments are given ;
but there is no reason why a ball-room should be even tempo-
rarily disfigured by these makeshifts, which look their worst when
an effort is made to conceal their cheap construction under a little
gilding and satin. -In all old ball-rooms, benches and tabourets
(small seats without backs) were ranged in a continuous line
along the walls. These seats, handsomely designed, and covered
with tapestry, velvet, or embroidered silk slips, were a part of the
permanent decoration of the room. On ordinary occasions they
would be sufficient for a modern ball-room; and when larger en-
tertainments made it needful to provide additional seats, these
might be copied from the seventeenth-century perroquets, exam-



142 The Decoration of Houses

pies of which may be found in the various French works on the
history of furniture. These perroquets, or folding chairs without
arms, made of natural walnut or gilded, with seats of tapestry,
velvet or decorated leather, would form an excellent substitute
for the modern cotillon seat.

The first rule to be observed in the decoration of the music-
room is the avoidance of all stuff hangings, draperies, and sub-
stances likely to deaden sound. The treatment chosen for the
room must of course depend on its size and its relation to the
other rooms in the house. While a music-room should be more
subdued in color than a ball-room, sombre tints and heavy orna-
ment are obviously inappropriate: the effect aimed at should be
one of lightness and serenity in form and color. However small
and simple the music-room may be, it should always appear as
though there were space overhead for the notes to escape; and
some form of vaulting or doming is therefore more suitable than
a flat ceiling.

While plain panelling, if well designed, is never out of keeping,
the walls of a music-room are specially suited to a somewhat fan-
ciful style of decoration. In a ball-room, splendor and brilliancy
of effect are more needful than a studied delicacy; but where
people are seated, and everything in the room is consequently sub-
jected to close and prolonged scrutiny, sprightliness of composi-
tion should be combined with variety of detail, the decoration
being neither so confused and intricate as to distract attention, nor
so conventional as to be dismissed with a glance on entering the
room.

The early Renaissance compositions in which stucco low-
reliefs blossom into painted arabesques and tendrils, are peculiarly
adapted to a small music-room; while those who prefer a more




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Bail-Room, Saloon, Music- Room, Gallery 143

architectural treatment may find admirable examples in some of
the Italian eighteenth-century rooms decorated with free-hand
stucco ornament, or in the sculptured wood-panelling of the same
period in France. At Remiremont in the Vosges, formerly the
residence of a noble order of canonesses, the abbess's hdtel con-
tains an octagonal music-room of exceptional beauty, the panelled
walls being carved with skilfully combined musical instruments
and flower-garlands.

In larger apartments a fanciful style of fresco-painting might be
employed, as in the rooms painted by Tiepolo in the Villa Val-
marana, near Vicenza, or in the staircase of the Palazzo Sina, at
Venice, decorated by Longhi with the episodes of an eighteenth-
century carnival. Whatever the design chosen, it should never
resemble the formal treatment suited to ball-room and saloon : the
decoration should sound a note distinctly suggestive of the pur-
pose for which the music-room is used.

It is difficult to understand why modern music-rooms have so
long been disfigured by the clumsy lines of grand and upright pianos,
since the cases of both might be modified without affecting the
construction of the instrument. Of the two, the grand piano
would be the easier to remodel: if its elephantine supports were
replaced by slender fluted legs, and its case and sounding-board
were painted, or inlaid with marquetry, it would resemble the
charming old clavecin which preceded the pianoforte.

Fewer changes are possible in the "upright"; but a marked
improvement could be produced by straightening its legs and
substituting right angles for the weak curves of the lid. The
case itself might be made of plainly panelled mahogany, with a
few good ormolu ornaments; or of inlaid wood, with a design of
musical instruments and similar "attributes"; or it might be



144 The Decoration of Houses

decorated with flower-garlands and arabesques painted either on
the natural wood or on a gilt or colored background.

Designers should also study the lines of those two long-
neglected pieces of furniture, the music-stool and music-stand.
The latter should be designed to match the piano, and painted
or inlaid like its case. The revolving mushroom that now
serves as a music-stool is a modern invention : the old stools were
substantial circular seats resting on four fluted legs. The manuals
of the eighteenth-century cabinet-makers contain countless models
of these piano-seats, which might well be reproduced by modern
designers : there seems no practical reason why the accessories of
the piano should be less decorative than those of the harpsichord.




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XII
THE LIBRARY, SMOKING-ROOM, AND "DEN"

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

Long after the establishment of the printing-press, books, ex-

145



146 The Decoration of Houses

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

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




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

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

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

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



148 The Decoration of Houses

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



150 The Decoration of Houses

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

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

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




WRITING-CHAIR, LOUIS XV PERIOD.



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

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

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

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



152 The Decoration of Houses

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



154 The Decoration of Houses

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

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




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XIII
THE DINING-ROOM

THE dining-room, as we know it, is a comparatively recent
innovation in house-planning. In the early middle ages the
noble and his retainers ate in the hall; then the grand' satte, built
for ceremonial uses, began to serve as a banqueting-room, while
the meals eaten in private were served in the lord's chamber. As
house-planning adapted itself to the growing complexity of life,
the mediaeval bedroom developed into a private suite of living-
rooms, preceded by an antechamber; and this antechamber, or one


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 12 of 16)