Elsie de Wolfe.

The House in Good Taste online

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Illustrated with photographs in color and black and white

New York
The Century Co.







Elsie de Wolfe (Frontispiece)
In this hall, simplicity, suitability and proportion are observed
Mennoyer drawings and old mirrors set in panelings
A portrait by Nattier inset above a fine old mantel
The Washington Irving house was delightfully rambling
A Washington Irving House bedroom
Miss Marbury's bedroom
The fore-court and entrance of the Fifty-fifth Street house
A painted wall broken into panels by narrow moldings
A wall paper of Elizabethan design with oak furniture
The scheme of this room grew from the jars on the mantel
A Louis Seize bedroom in rose and blue and cream
The writing corner of a chintz bedroom
Black chintz used in a dressing-room
Printed linen curtains over rose colored silk
Straight hangings of rose and yellow shot silk
Muslin glass curtains in the Washington Irving house
Here are many lighting fixtures harmoniously assembled in a
Detail of a fine old French fixture of hand wrought metal
Lighting fixtures inspired by Adam mirrors
The staircase in the Bayard Thayer house
The drawing-room should be intimate in spirit
The fine formality of well-placed paneling
The living-room in the C.W. Harkness house at Morristown, New Jersey
Miss Anne Morgan's Louis XVI boudoir
Miss Morgan's Louis XVI _lit de repos_
A Georgian dining-room in the William Iselin house
Mrs. Ogden Armour's Chinese paper screen
Mrs. James Warren Lane's painted dining-table
The private dining-room in the Colony Club
An old painted bed of the Louis XVI period
Miss Crocker's Louis XVI bed
A Colony Club bedroom
Mauve chintz in a dull green room
Mrs. Frederick Havemeyer's Chinoiserie chintz bed
Mrs. Payne Whitney's green feather chintz bed
My own bedroom is built around a Breton bed
Furniture painted with chintz designs
Miss Morgan's Louis XVI dressing-room
Miss Marbury's chintz-hung dressing-table
A corner of my own boudoir
Built-in bookshelves in a small room
Mrs. C.W. Harkness's cabinet for _objets d'art_
A banquette of the Louis XV period covered with needlework
A Chinese Chippendale sofa covered with chintz
The trellis room in the Colony Club
Mrs. Ormond G. Smith's trellis room at Center Island, New York
Looking over the _tapis vert_ to the trellis
A fine old console in the Villa Trianon
The broad terrace connects house and garden
A proper writing-table in the drawing-room
A cream-colored porcelain stove in a New York house
Mr. James Deering's wall fountain
Fountain in the trellis room of Mrs. Ormond G. Smith



I know of nothing more significant than the awakening of men and women
throughout our country to the desire to improve their houses. Call it
what you will - awakening, development, American Renaissance - it is a
most startling and promising condition of affairs.

It is no longer possible, even to people of only faintly æsthetic
tastes, to buy chairs merely to sit upon or a clock merely that it
should tell the time. Home-makers are determined to have their houses,
outside and in, correct according to the best standards. What do we mean
by the best standards? Certainly not those of the useless, overcharged
house of the average American millionaire, who builds and furnishes his
home with a hopeless disregard of tradition. We must accept the
standards that the artists and the architects accept, the standards that
have come to us from those exceedingly rational people, our ancestors.

Our ancestors built for stability and use, and so their simple houses
were excellent examples of architecture. Their spacious, uncrowded
interiors were usually beautiful. Houses and furniture fulfilled their
uses, and if an object fulfils its mission the chances are that it is

It is all very well to plan our ideal house or apartment, our individual
castle in Spain, but it isn't necessary to live among intolerable
furnishings just because we cannot realize our castle. There never was a
house so bad that it couldn't be made over into something worth while.
We shall all be very much happier when we learn to transform the things
we have into a semblance of our ideal.

How, then, may we go about accomplishing our ideal?

By letting it go!

By forgetting this vaguely pleasing dream, this evidence of our smug
vanity, and making ourselves ready for a new ideal.

By considering the body of material from which it is good sense to
choose when we have a house to decorate.

By studying the development of the modern house, its romantic tradition
and architectural history.

By taking upon ourselves the duty of self-taught lessons of sincerity
and common sense, and suitability.

By learning what is meant by color and form and line, harmony and
contrast and proportion.

When we are on familiar terms with our tools, and feel our vague ideas
clearing into definite inspiration, then we are ready to talk about
ideals. We are fit to approach the full art of home-making.

We take it for granted that every woman is interested in houses - that
she either has a house in course of construction, or dreams of having
one, or has had a house long enough wrong to wish it right. And we take
it for granted that this American home is always the woman's home: a man
may build and decorate a beautiful house, but it remains for a woman to
make a home of it for him. It is the personality of the mistress that
the home expresses. Men are forever guests in our homes, no matter how
much happiness they may find there.

You will express yourself in your house, whether you want to or not, so
you must make up your mind to a long preparatory discipline. You may
have only one house to furnish in your life-time, possibly, so be
careful and go warily. Therefore, you must select for your architect a
man who isn't too determined to have _his_ way. It is a fearful mistake
to leave the entire planning of your home to a man whose social
experience may be limited, for instance, for he can impose on you his
conception of your tastes with a damning permanency and emphasis. I once
heard a certain Boston architect say that he taught his clients to be
ladies and gentlemen. He couldn't, you know. All he could do is to set
the front door so that it would reprove them if they weren't!

Who does not know, for instance, those mistaken people whose houses
represent their own or their architects' hasty visits to the fine old
_châteaux_ of the Loire, or the palaces of Versailles, or the fine old
houses of England, or the gracious villas of Italy? We must avoid such
aspiring architects, and visualize our homes not as so many specially
designated rooms and convenient closets, but as individual expressions
of ourselves, of the future we plan, of our dreams for our children. The
ideal house is the house that has been long planned for, long awaited.


Fortunately for us, our best architects are so very good that we are
better than safe if we take our problems to them. These men associate
with themselves the hundred young architects who are eager to prove
themselves on small houses. The idea that it is economical to be your
own architect and trust your house to a building contractor is a
mistaken, and most expensive, one. The surer you are of your architect's
common sense and professional ability, the surer you may be that your
house will be economically efficient. He will not only plan a house that
will meet the needs of your family, but he will give you inspiration for
its interior. He will concern himself with the moldings, the
light-openings, the door-handles and hinges, the unconsidered things
that make or mar your house. Select for your architect a man you'd like
for a friend. Perhaps he will be, before the house comes true. If you
are both sincere, if you both purpose to have the best thing you can
afford, the house will express the genius and character of your
architect and the personality and character of yourself, as a great
painting suggests both painter and sitter. The hard won triumph of a
well-built house means many compromises, but the ultimate satisfaction
is worth everything.

I do not purpose, in this book, to go into the historic traditions of
architecture and decoration - there are so many excellent books it were
absurd to review them - but I do wish to trace briefly the development of
the modern house, the woman's house, to show you that all that is
intimate and charming in the home as we know it has come through the
unmeasured influence of women. Man conceived the great house with its
parade rooms, its _grands appartements_ but woman found eternal parade
tiresome, and planned for herself little retreats, rooms small enough
for comfort and intimacy. In short, man made the house: woman went him
one better and made of it a home.

The virtues of simplicity and reticence in form first came into being,
as nearly as we can tell, in the _Grotta_, the little studio-like
apartment of Isabella d'Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, away back in
1496. The Marchioness made of this little studio her personal retreat.
Here she brought many of the treasures of the Italian Renaissance.
Really, simplicity and reticence were the last things she considered,
but the point is that they were considered at all in such a restless,
passionate age. Later, in 1522, she established the _Paradiso_, a suite
of apartments which she occupied after her husband's death. So you see
the idea of a woman planning her own apartment is pretty old, after all.

The next woman who took a stand that revealed genuine social
consciousness was that half-French, half-Italian woman, Catherine de
Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet. She seceded from court because the
court was swaggering and hurly-burly, with florid Marie-de-Medicis at
its head. And with this recession, she began to express in her conduct,
her feeling, her conversation, and, finally, in her house, her awakened
consciousness of beauty and reserve, of simplicity and suitability.

This was the early Seventeenth Century, mind you, when the main salons
of the French houses were filled with such institutions as rows of red
chairs and boxed state beds. She undertook, first of all, to have a
light and gracefully curving stairway leading to her salon instead of
supplanting it. She grouped her rooms with a lovely diversity of size
and purpose, whereas before they had been vast, stately halls with
cubbies hardby for sleeping. She gave the bedroom its alcove, boudoir,
ante-chamber, and even its bath, and then as decorator she supplanted
the old feudal yellow and red with her famous silver-blue. She covered
blue chairs with silver bullion. She fashioned long, tenderly colored
curtains of novel shades. Reticence was always in evidence, but it was
the reticence of elegance. It was through Madame de Rambouillet that the
armchair received its final distribution of yielding parts, and began
to express the comfort of soft padded backward slope, of width and
warmth and color.

It was all very heavy, very grave, very angular, this Hôtel Rambouillet,
but it was devised for and consecrated to conversation, considered a new
form of privilege! The _précieuses_ in their later jargon called chairs
"the indispensables of conversation."

I have been at some length to give a picture of Madame de Rambouillet's
hôtel because it really is the earliest modern house. There, where the
society that frequented it was analyzing its soul in dialogue and long
platonic discussion that would seem stark enough to us, the word which
it invented for itself was _urbanité_ - the coinage of one of its own
foremost figures.

It is unprofitable to follow on into the grandeurs of Louis XIV, if one
hopes to find an advance there in truth-telling architecture. At the end
of that splendid official success the squalor of Versailles was
unspeakable, its stenches unbearable. In spite of its size the Palace
was known as the most comfortless house in Europe. After the death of
its owner society, in a fit of madness, plunged into the _rocaille_.
When the restlessness of Louis XV could no longer find moorings in this
brilliancy, there came into being little houses called _folies_, garden
hermitages for the privileged. Here we find Madame de Pompadour in
calicoes, in a wild garden, bare-foot, playing as a milkmaid, or seated
in a little gray-white interior with painted wooden furniture, having
her supper on an earthen-ware service that has replaced old silver and
gold. Amorous alcoves lost their painted Loves and took on gray and
white decorations. The casinos of little _comédiennes_ did not glitter
any more. English sentiment began to bedim Gallic eyes, and so what we
know as the Louis XVI style was born.

And so, at that moment, the idea of the modern house came into its own,
and it could advance - as an idea - hardly any further. For with all the
intrepidity and passion of the later Eighteenth Century in its search
for beauty, for all the magic-making of convenience and ingenuity of the
Nineteenth Century, the fundamentals have changed but little. And now we
of the Twentieth Century can only add material comforts and an
expression of our personality. We raise the house beyond the reach of
squalor, we give it measured heat, we give it water in abundance and
perfect sanitation and light everywhere, we give it ventilation less
successfully than we might, and finally we give it the human quality
that is so modern. There are no dungeons in the good modern house, no
disgraceful lairs for servants, no horrors of humidity.


And so we women have achieved a house, luminous with kind purpose
throughout. It is finished - that is our difficulty! We inherit it, all
rounded in its perfection, consummate in its charms, but it is finished,
and what can we do about a thing that is finished I Doesn't it seem that
we are back in the old position of Isabella d'Este - eager, predatory,
and "thingy"? And isn't it time for us to pull up short lest we
sidestep the goal? We are so sure of a thousand appetites we are in
danger of passing by the amiable commonplaces. We find ourselves
dismayed in old houses that look too simple. We must stop and ask
ourselves questions, and, if necessary, plan for ourselves little
retreats until we can find ourselves again.

What is the goal? A house that is like the life that goes on within it,
a house that gives us beauty as we understand it - and beauty of a nobler
kind that we may grow to understand, a house that _looks_ amenity.

Suppose you have obtained this sort of wisdom - a sane viewpoint. I think
it will give you as great a satisfaction to re-arrange your house with
what you have as to re-build, re-decorate. The results may not be so
charming, but you can learn by them. You can take your indiscriminate
inheritance of Victorian rosewood of Eastlake walnut and cocobolo, your
pickle-and-plum colored Morris furniture, and make a civilized interior
by placing it right, and putting detail at the right points. Your sense
of the pleasure and meaning of human intercourse will be clear in your
disposition of your best things, in your elimination of your worst ones.

When you have emptied the tables of _rubbish_ so that you can put
_things_ down on them at need, placed them in a light where you can
write on them in repose, or isolated real works of art in the middle of
them; when you have set your dropsical sofas where you want them for
talk, or warmth and reading; when you can see the fire from the bed in
your sleeping-room, and dress near your bath; if this sort of sense of
your rights is acknowledged in your rearrangement, your rooms will
always have meaning, in the end. If you like only the things in a chair
that have meaning, and grow to hate the rest you will, without any other
instruction, prefer - the next time you are buying - a good Louis XVI
_fauteuil_ to a stuffed velvet chair. You will never again be guilty of
the errors of meaningless magnificence.

To most of us in America who must perforce lead workaday lives, the
absence of beauty is a very distinct lack. I think, indeed, that the
present awakening has come to stay, and that before very long, we shall
have simple houses with fireplaces that draw, electric lights in the
proper places, comfortable and sensible furniture, and not a gilt-legged
spindle-shanked table or chair anywhere. This may be a decorator's
optimistic dream, but let us all hope that it may come true.



When I am asked to decorate a new house, my first thought is
suitability. My next thought is proportion. Always I keep in mind the
importance of simplicity. First, I study the people who are to live in
this house, and their needs, as thoroughly as I studied my parts in the
days when I was an actress. For the time-being I really am the
chatelaine of the house. When I have thoroughly familiarized myself with
my "part," I let that go for the time, and consider the proportion of
the house and its rooms. It is much more important that the wall
openings, windows, doors, and fireplaces should be in the right place
and should balance one another than that there should be expensive and
extravagant hangings and carpets.

My first thought in laying out a room is the placing of the electric
light openings. How rarely does one find the lights in the right place
in our over-magnificent hotels and residences! One arrives from a
journey tired out and travel-stained, only to find oneself facing a
mirror as far removed from the daylight as possible, with the artificial
lights directly behind one, or high in the ceiling in the center of the
room. In my houses I always see that each room shall have its lights
placed for the comfort of its occupants. There must be lights in
sheltered corners of the fireplace, by the writing-desk, on each side of
the dressing-table, and so on.

Then I consider the heating of the room. We Americans are slaves to
steam heat. We ruin our furniture, our complexions, and our dispositions
by this enervating atmosphere of too much heat. In my own houses I have
a fireplace in each room, and I burn wood in it. There is a
heating-system in the basement of my house, but it is under perfect
control. I prefer the normal heat of sunshine and open fires. But,
granted that open fires are impossible in all your rooms, do arrange in
the beginning that the small rooms of your house may not be overheated.
It is a distinct irritation to a person who loves clean air to go into a
room where a flood of steam heat pours out of every corner. There is
usually no way to control it unless you turn it off altogether. I once
had the temerity to do this in a certain hotel room where there was a
cold and cheerless empty fireplace. I summoned a reluctant chambermaid,
only to be told that the chimney had never had a fire in it and the
proprietor would rather not take such a risk!


Perhaps the guest in your house would not be so troublesome, but don't
tempt her! If you have a fireplace, see that it is in working order.
We are sure to judge a woman in whose house we find ourselves for the
first time, by her surroundings. We judge her temperament, her habits,
her inclinations, by the interior of her home. We may talk of the
weather, but we are looking at the furniture. We attribute vulgar
qualities to those who are content to live in ugly surroundings. We
endow with refinement and charm the person who welcomes us in a
delightful room, where the colors blend and the proportions are as
perfect as in a picture. After all, what surer guarantee can there be of
a woman's character, natural and cultivated, inherent and inherited,
than taste? It is a compass that never errs. If a woman has taste she
may have faults, follies, fads, she may err, she may be as human and
feminine as she pleases, but she will never cause a scandal!

How can we develop taste? Some of us, alas, can never develop it,
because we can never let go of shams. We must learn to recognize
suitability, simplicity and proportion, and apply our knowledge to our
needs. I grant you we may never fully appreciate the full balance of
proportion, but we can exert our common sense and decide whether a thing
is suitable; we can consult our conscience as to whether an object is
simple, and we can train our eyes to recognize good and bad proportion.
A technical knowledge of architecture is not necessary to know that a
huge stuffed leather chair in a tiny gold and cream room is unsuitable,
is hideously complicated, and is as much out of proportion as the
proverbial bull in the china-shop.

A woman's environment will speak for her life, whether she likes it or
not. How can we believe that a woman of sincerity of purpose will hang
fake "works of art" on her walls, or satisfy herself with imitation
velvets or silks? How can we attribute taste to a woman who permits
paper floors and iron ceilings in her house? We are too afraid of the
restful commonplaces, and yet if we live simple lives, why shouldn't we
be glad our houses are comfortably commonplace? How much better to have
plain furniture that is comfortable, simple chintzes printed from old
blocks, a few good prints, than all the sham things in the world? A
house is a dead-give-away, anyhow, so you should arrange is so that the
person who sees your personality in it will be reassured, not

Too often, here in America, the most comfortable room in the house is
given up to a sort of bastard collection of gilt chairs and tables,
over-elaborate draperies shutting out both light and air, and huge and
frightful paintings. This style of room, with its museum-like
furnishings, has been dubbed "Marie Antoinette," _why_, no one but the
American decorator can say. Heaven knows poor Marie Antoinette had
enough follies to atone for, but certainly she has never been treated
more shabbily than when they dub these mausoleums "Marie Antoinette

I remember taking a clever Englishwoman of much taste to see a woman who
was very proud of her new house. We had seen most of the house when the
hostess, who had evidently reserved what she considered the best for
the last, threw open the doors of a large and gorgeous apartment and
said, "This is my Louis XVI ballroom." My friend, who had been very
patient up to that moment, said very quietly, "What makes you think so?"

Louis XVI thought a salon well furnished with a few fine chairs and a
table. He wished to be of supreme importance. In the immense salons of
the Italian palaces there were a few benches and chairs. People then
wished spaces about them.

Nowadays, people are swamped by their furniture. Too many centuries, too
many races, crowd one another in a small room. The owner seems
insignificant among his collections of historical furniture. Whether he
collects all sorts of things of all periods in one heterogeneous mass,
or whether he fills his house with the furniture of some one epoch, he

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Online LibraryElsie de WolfeThe House in Good Taste → online text (page 1 of 13)