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DECORATION AS AN ART
“Who creates a Home, creates a potent spirit which in turn doth fashion him that fashioned.“
Probably no art has so few masters as that of decoration. In England, Morris was for many years the great leader, but among his followers in England no one has attained the dignity of unquestioned authority; and in America, in spite of far more general practice of the art, we still are without a leader whose very name establishes law.
It is true we are free to draw inspiration from the same sources which supplied Morris and the men associated with him in his enthusiasms, and in fact we do lean, as they did, upon English eighteenth-century domestic art—and derive from the men who made that period famous many of our articles of faith; but there are almost no authoritative books upon the subject of appropriate modern decoration. Our text books are still to be written; and one must glean knowledge from many sources, shape it into rules, and test the rules, before adopting them as safe guides.
Yet in spite of the absence of authoritative teaching, we have learned that an art dependent upon other arts, as decoration is upon building and architecture, is bound to follow the principles which govern them. We must base our work upon what has already been done, select our decorative forms from appropriate periods, conform our use of colour to the principles of colour, and be able to choose and apply all manufactures in accordance with the great law of appropriateness. If we do this, we stand upon something capable of evolution and the creation of a system.
In so far as the principles of decoration are derived from other arts, they can be acquired by every one, but an exquisite feeling in their application is the distinguishing quality of the true decorator.
There is quite a general impression that house-decoration is not an art which requires a long course of study and training, but some kind of natural knack of arrangement—a faculty of making things “look pretty,” and that any one who has this faculty is amply qualified for “taking up house-decoration.” Indeed, natural facility succeeds in satisfying many personal cravings for beauty, although it is not competent for general practice.
Of course there are people, and many of them, who are gifted with an inherent sense of balance and arrangement, and a true eye for colour, and—given the same materials—such people will make a room pleasant and cozy, where one without these gifts would make it positively ugly. In so far, then, individual gifts are a great advantage, yet one possessing them in even an unusual degree may make great mistakes in decoration. What not to do, in this day of almost universal experiment, is perhaps the most valuable lesson to the untrained decorator. Many of the rocks upon which he splits are down in no chart, and lie in the track of what seems to him perfectly plain sailing.
There are houses of fine and noble exterior which are vulgarized by uneducated experiments in colour and ornament, and belittled by being filled with heterogeneous collections of unimportant art. Yet these very instances serve to emphasize the demand for beautiful surroundings, and in spite of mistakes and incongruities, must be reckoned as efforts toward a desirable end.
In spite of a prevalent want of training, it is astonishing how much we have of good interior decoration, not only in houses of great importance, but in those of people of average fortunes—indeed, it is in the latter that we get the general value of the art.
This comparative excellence is to be referred to the very general acquirement of what we call “art cultivation” among American women, and this, in conjunction with a knowledge that her social world will be apt to judge of her capacity by her success or want of success in making her own surroundings beautiful, determines the efforts of the individual woman. She feels that she is expected to prove her superiority by living in a home distinguished for beauty as well as for the usual orderliness and refinement. Of course this sense of obligation is a powerful spur to the exercise of natural gifts, and if in addition to these she has the habit of reasoning upon the principles of things, and is sufficiently cultivated in the literature of art to avoid unwarrantable experiment, there is no reason why she should not be successful in her own surroundings.
The typical American, whether man, or woman, has great natural facility, and when the fact is once recognized that beauty—like education—can dignify any circumstances, from the narrowest to the most opulent, it becomes one of the objects of life to secure it. How this is done depends upon the talent and cultivation of the family, and this is often adequate for excellent results.
It is quite possible that so much general ability may discourage the study of decoration as a precise form of art, since it encourages the idea that The House Beautiful can be secured by any one who has money to pay for processes, and possesses what is simply designated as “good taste.”
We do not find this impulse toward the creation of beautiful interiors as noticeable in other countries as in America. The instinct of self-expression is much stronger in us than in other races, and for that reason we cannot be contented with the utterances of any generation, race or country save our own. We gather to ourselves what we personally enjoy or wish to enjoy, and will not take our domestic environment at second hand. It follows that there is a certain difference and originality in our methods, which bids fair to acquire distinct character, and may in the future distinguish this art-loving period as a maker of style.
A successful foreign painter who has visited this country at intervals during the last ten years said, “There is no such uniformity of beautiful interiors anywhere else in the world. There are palaces in France and Italy, and great country houses in England, to the embellishment of which generations of owners have devoted the best art of their own time; but in America there is something of it everywhere. Many unpretentious houses have drawing-rooms possessing colour-decoration which would distinguish them as examples in England or France.”
To Americans this does not seem a remarkable fact. We have come into a period which desires beauty, and each one secures it as best he can. We are a teachable and a studious people, with a faculty of turning “general information” to account; and general information upon art matters has had much to do with our good interiors.
We have, perhaps half unconsciously, applied fundamental principles to our decoration, and this may be as much owing to natural good sense as to cultivation. We have a habit of reasoning about things, and acting upon our conclusions, instead of allowing the rest of the world to do the reasoning while we adopt the result. It is owing to this conjunction of love for and cultivation of art, and the habit of materializing what we wish, that we have so many thoroughly successful interiors, which have been accomplished almost without aid from professional artists. It is these, instead of the smaller number of costly interiors, which give the reputation of artistic merit to our homes.
Undoubtedly the largest proportion of successful as well as unsuccessful domestic art in our country is due to the efforts of women. In the great race for wealth which characterizes our time, it is demanded that women shall make it effective by so using it as to distinguish the family; and nothing distinguishes it so much as the superiority of the home. This effort adheres to small as well as large fortunes, and in fact the necessity is more pronounced in the case of mediocre than of great ones. In the former there is something to be made up—some protest of worth and ability and intelligence that helps many a home to become beautiful.
As I have said, a woman feels that the test of her capacity is that her house shall not only be comfortable and attractive, but that it shall be arranged according to the laws of harmony and beauty. It is as much the demand of the hour as that she shall be able to train her children according to the latest and most enlightened theories, or that she shall take part in public and philanthropic movements, or understand and have an opinion on political methods. These are things which are expected of every woman who makes a part of society; and no less is it expected that her house shall be an appropriate and beautiful setting for her personality, a credit to her husband, and an unconscious education for her children.
But it happens that means of education in all of these directions, except that of decoration, are easily available. A woman can become a member of a kindergarten association, and get from books and study the result of scientific knowledge of child-life and training. She can find means to study the ethics of her relations to her kind and become an effective philanthropist, or join the league for political education and acquire a more or less enlightened understanding of politics; but who is to formulate for her the science of beauty, to teach her how to make the interior aspect of her home perfect in its adaptation to her circumstances, and as harmonious in colour and arrangement as a song without words? She feels that these conditions create a mental atmosphere serene and yet inspiring, and that such surroundings are as much her birthright and that of her children as food and clothing of a grade belonging to their circumstances, but how is it to be compassed?
Most women ask themselves this question, and fail to understand that it is as much of a marvel when a woman without training or experience creates a good interior as a whole, as if an amateur in music should compose an opera. It is not at all impossible for a woman of good taste—and it must be remembered that this word means an educated or cultivated power of selection—to secure harmonious or happily contrasted colour in a room, and to select beautiful things in the way of furniture and belongings; but what is to save her from the thousand and one mistakes possible to inexperience in this combination of things which make lasting enjoyment and appropriate perfection in a house? How can she know which rooms will be benefited by sombre or sunny tints, and which exposure will give full sway to her favourite colour or colours? How can she have learned the reliability or want of reliability in certain materials or processes used in decoration, or the rules of treatment which will modify a low and dark room and make it seem light and airy, or “bring down” too high a ceiling and widen narrow walls so as to apparently correct disproportion? These things are the results of laws which she has never studied—laws of compensation and relation, which belong exclusively to the world of colour, and unfortunately they are not so well formulated that they can be committed to memory like rules of grammar; yet all good colour-practice rests upon them as unquestionably as language rests upon grammatical construction.
Of course one may use colour as one can speak a language, purely by imitation and memory, but it is not absolutely reliable practice; and just here comes in the necessity for professional advice.
There are many difficulties in the accomplishment of a perfect house-interior which few householders have had the time or experience to cope with, and yet the fact remains that each mistress of a house believes that unless she vanquishes all difficulties and comes out triumphantly with colours flying at the housetop and enjoyment and admiration following her efforts, she has failed in something which she should have been perfectly able to accomplish. But the obligation is certainly a forced one. It is the result of the modern awakening to the effect of many heretofore unrecognized influences in our lives and the lives and characters of our children. A beautiful home is undoubtedly a great means of education, and of that best of all education which is unconscious. To grow up in such a one means a much more complete and perfect man or woman than would be possible without that particular influence.
But a perfect home is never created all at once and by one person, and let the anxious house-mistress take comfort in the thought. She should also remember that it is in the nature of beauty to grow, and that a well-rounded and beautiful family life adds its quota day by day. Every book, every sketch or picture—every carefully selected or characteristic object brought into the home adds to and makes a part of a beautiful whole, and no house can be absolutely perfect without all these evidences of family life.
It can be made ready for them, completely and perfectly ready, by professional skill and knowledge; but if it remained just where the interior artist or decorator left it, it would have no more of the sentiment of domesticity than a statue.
CHARACTER IN HOUSES
“For the created still doth shadow forth the mind and will which made it.
“Thou art the very mould of thy creator.”
It needs the combined personality of the family to make the character of the house. No one could say of a house which has family character, “It is one of ——’s houses” (naming one or another successful decorator), because the decorator would have done only what it was his business to do—used technical and artistic knowledge in preparing a proper and correct background for family life. Even in doing that, he must consult family tastes and idiosyncracies if he has the reverence for individuality which belongs to the true artist.
A domestic interior is a thing to which he should give knowledge and not personality, and the puzzled home-maker, who understands that her world expects correct use of means of beauty, as well as character and originality in her home, need not feel that to secure the one she must sacrifice the other.
An inexperienced person might think it an easy thing to make a beautiful home, because the world is full of beautiful art and manufactures, and if there is money to pay for them it would seem as easy to furnish a house with everything beautiful as to go out in the garden and gather beautiful flowers; but we must remember that the world is also full of ugly things—things false in art, in truth and in beauty—things made to sell—made with only this idea behind them, manufactured on the principle that an artificial fly is made to look something like a true one in order to catch the inexpert and the unwary. It is a curious fact that these false things—manufactures without honesty, without knowledge, without art—have a property of demoralizing the spirit of the home, and that to make it truly beautiful everything in it must be genuine as well as appropriate, and must also fit into some previously considered scheme of use and beauty.
The esthetic or beautiful aspect of the home, in short, must be created through the mind of the family or owner, and is only maintained by its or his susceptibility to true beauty and appreciation of it. It must, in fact, be a visible mould of invisible matter, like the leaf-mould one finds in mineral springs, which show the wonderful veining, branching, construction and delicacy of outline in a way which one could hardly be conscious of in the actual leaf.
If the grade or dignity of the home requires professional and scholarly art direction, the problem is how to use this professional or artistic advice without delivering over the entire creation into stranger or alien hands; without abdicating the right and privilege of personal expression. If the decorator appreciates this right, his function will be somewhat akin to that of the portrait painter; both are bound to represent the individual or family in their performances, each artist using the truest and best methods of art with the added gift of grace or charm of colour which he possesses, the one giving the physical aspect of his client and the other the mental characteristics, circumstances, position and life of the house-owner and his family. This is the true mission of the decorator, although it is not always so understood. What is called business talent may lead him to invent schemes of costliness which relate far more to his own profit than to the wishes or character of the house-owner.
But it is not always that the assistance of the specialist in decoration and furnishing is necessary. There are many homes where both are quite within the scope of the ordinary man or woman of taste. In fact, the great majority of homes come within these lines, and it is to such home-builders that rules, not involving styles, are especially of use.
The principles of truth and harmony, which underlie all beauty, may be secured in the most inexpensive cottage as well as in the broadest and most imposing residence. Indeed, the cottage has the advantage of that most potent ally of beauty—simplicity—a quality which is apt to be conspicuously absent from the schemes of decoration for the palace.
Categories: English Literature