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

The portiere, besides causing a break in architectural lines,

60 The Decoration of Houses

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

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

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

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



Doors 6 1

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

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

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

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

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

62 The Decoration of Houses

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

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

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

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




Doors 63

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

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


IN the decorative treatment of a room the importance of open-
ings 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
wall-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 es-
sential 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 pro-

1 As an example of the extent to which openings have come to be ignored as fac-
tors in the decorative composition of a room, it is curious to note that in Eastlake's
well-known Hints on Household Taste 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. .


Windows 65

ducing 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 north-
ern 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 gen-
erally lower than in more northern countries, since the greater
intensity of the sunshine makes a much smaller opening suffi-
cient; 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

66 The Decoration of Houses

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 circum-
stances, 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 en-
closed 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 able 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

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 decora-
tion 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 illus-
trates this point.

Now that large plate-glass windows have ceased to be a novelty,
it will perhaps be recognized that the old window with subdi-
vided 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 estab-
lish 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 subordi-
nated 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 can-
not connect them, the continuity of sound is interrupted. Deco-
ration 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 effect of plate-glass, are now
returning to the old fashion of smaller panes; arfd 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 net-
work 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-win-
dow is more in keeping in English houses. Perhaps the best
way of deciding the question is to remember that "les fenetres
sont intimement liees aux grandes lignes de 1'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. An-
other 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



























































| e



Windows 69

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 for-
ward 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 proba-
bly 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 deco-
ration 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 XLIV).
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

70 The Decoration of Houses

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 win-
dows makes it plain that the curtain, like the portiere, was regarded
as a necessary evil rather than as part of the general scheme of dec-
oration. 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 The a 1'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 ar-
ranging 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-cur-
tain 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

Windows 71

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 treat-
ment 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 en-
closed 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 in-
capable of imagining anything more comfortable, but because
the former were better adapted than cushioned arm-chairs to

J2 The Decoration of Houses

the deplacements 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 up-
holsterer fails to understand) that, the beauty of a room depend-
ing 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. Lin-
gerie 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 archi-
tectural 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,

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 6 of 16)