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Of The Room And Furniture

The transient tenure that most of us have in our dwellings, and the
absorbing nature of the struggle that most of us have to make to win the
necessary provisions of life, prevent our encouraging the manufacture of
well-wrought furniture.

We mean to outgrow our houses--our lease expires after so many years and
then we shall want an entirely different class of furniture;
consequently we purchase articles that have only sufficient life in them
to last the brief period of our occupation, and are content to abide by
the want of appropriateness or beauty, in the clear intention of some
day surrounding ourselves with objects that shall be joys to us for the
remainder of our life. Another deterrent condition to making a serious
outlay in furniture is the instability of fashion: each decade sees a
new style, and the furniture that we have acquired in the exercise of
our experienced taste will in all probability be discarded by the
impetuous purism of the succeeding generation.

At present we are suffering from such a catholicity of taste as sees
good in everything, and has an indifferent and tepid appreciation of all
and sundry, especially if consecrated by age.

This is mainly a reaction against the austerity of those moralists who
preached the logic of construction, and who required outward proof of
the principles on which and by which each piece was designed.

Another cause prejudicial to the growth of modern furniture is the
canonisation of old.

That tables and chairs should have lasted one hundred years is indeed
proof that they were originally well made: that the conditions of the
moment of their make were better than they are now is possible, and such
aureole as is their due let us hasten to offer. But, to take advantage
of their survival and to increase their number by facsimile reproduction
is to paralyse all healthy growth of manufacture.

As an answer to the needs and habits of our ancestors of one hundred
years ago--both in construction and design--let them serve us as models
showing the attitude of mind in which we should meet the problems of our
day--and so far as the needs and habits of the present time are
unchanged, as models of form, not to be incorporated with our
vernacular, but which we should recognise as successful form, and
discover the plastic secrets of its shape.

With this possession we may borrow what forms we will--shapes of the Ind
and far Cathay--the whole wide world is open to us--of past imaginations
and of the dreams of our own.

But without this master-key the copying is slavish, and the bondage of
the task is both cruel and destructive.

Cruel, because mindless, work can be reproduced more rapidly than
thoughtful work can be invented, and the rate of production affects the
price of other articles of similar kind, so that the one dictates what
the other shall receive; and destructive, because it treats the
craftsman as a mere machine, whose only standard can be mechanical

Now, all furniture that has any permanent value has been designed and
wrought to meet the ends it had to serve, and the careful elaboration of
it gave its maker scope for his pleasure and occasion for his pride.

If a man really likes what he has got to do, he will make great shifts
to express and realise his pleasure; he will choose carefully his
materials, and either in playfulness of fancy, or in grave renunciation
of the garniture of his art, will put the stamp of his individuality on
his work.

An example of living art in modern furniture is a costermonger's barrow.
Affectionately put together, carved and painted, it expresses almost in
words the pride and taste of its owner.

As long as we are incapable of recognising and sympathising with the
delight of the workman in the realisation of his art, our admiration of
his work is a pretence, and our encouragement of it blind--and this
blindness makes us insensitive as to whether the delight is really there
or no; consequently our patronage will most often be disastrous rather
than helpful.

The value of furniture depends on the directness of its response to the
requirements that called it into being, and to the nature of the
conditions that evoked it.

To obtain good furniture we must contrive that the conditions of its
service are worthy conditions, and not merely the dictates of our fancy
or our sloth.

At the present moment modern furniture may be roughly divided into two
classes: furniture for service, and furniture for display. Most of us,
however, have to confine ourselves to the possession of serviceable
furniture only; and a more frank recognition of this limitation would
assist us greatly in our selection. If only we kept our real needs
steadily before us, how much more beauty we could import into our homes!

Owing to lack of observation, and of experienced canons of taste, our
fancies are caught by some chance object that pleases--one of that huge
collection of ephemeral articles which "have been created to supply a
want" that hitherto has never been felt--and as the cost of these
fictions is (by the nature of the case) so low as to be of no great
moment to us, the thing is purchased and helps henceforth to swell the
museum of incongruous accumulation that goes by the name of a "furnished

A fancy, so caught, is soon outworn, but the precept of economy forbids
the discharge of the superfluous purchase, and so it adds its unit to
the sum of daily labour spent on its preservation and its appearance.
This burden of unnecessary toil is the index of the needlessness and
cruelty with which we spend the labour of those whom need has put under
our service.

And the sum of money spent on these ill-considered acquisitions which
have gone to swell the general total of distress, an ever-widening ring
of bitter ripple, might, concentrated, have purchased some one thing,
both beautiful and useful, whose fashioning had been a pleasure to the
artificer, and whose presence was an increasing delight to the owner and
an added unit to this world's real wealth.

Such indiscriminate collection defeats its own aim. Compare the way
Giovanni Bellini fits up St. Jerome's study for him in the National
Gallery. There is no stint of money evidently; the Saint gets all that
he can properly want, and he gets over and above--the addition born of
his denial--the look of peace and calm in his room, that can so seldom
be found with us. Another reason why our rooms are so glaringly
over-furnished is, that many of us aim at a standard of profusion, in
forgetfulness of the circumstances which created that standard.
Families, whose descent has been historic, and whose home has been their
pride, accumulate, in the lapse of time, heirlooms of many
kinds--pictures, furniture, trinkets, etc.--and as these increase in
numbers, the rooms in which they are contained become filled and crowded
beyond what beauty or comfort permits, and such sacrifice is justly made
for the demands of filial pride.

This emotion is so conspicuously an honourable one that we are all
eager to possess and give scope to our own, and so long as the scope is
honest there is nothing more laudable.

But the temptation is to add to our uninherited display in this
particular by substitutes, and to surround ourselves with immemorable
articles, the justification of whose presence really should be that they
form part of the history of our lives in more important respects than
the mere occasions of their purchase.

It is this unreasoning ambition that leads to the rivalling of princely
houses by the acquisition of "family portraits purchased in Wardour
Street"--the rivalling of historic libraries by the purchase of
thousands of books to form our yesterday's libraries of undisturbed
volumes--the rivalling of memorable chairs and tables, by recently
bought articles of our own, crowded in imitation of our model with
innumerable trifles, to the infinite tax of our space, our patience, and
our purse.

Our want of care and restraint in the selection of our furniture affects
both its design and manufacture.

Constantly articles are bought for temporary use--we postponing the
responsibility of wise purchase until we have more time, or else we buy
what is not precisely what we want but which must do, since we cannot
wait to have the exact things made, and have not the time to search
elsewhere for them.

Furniture, in response to this demand, must be made either so striking
as to arrest the eye, or so variedly serviceable as to meet some
considerable proportion of the conflicting requirements made on it by
the chance intending purchaser, or else it must fall back on the
impregnable basis of antiquity and silence all argument with the canon
that what the late Mr. Chippendale did was bound to be "good taste."

"There should be a place for everything, and everything in its place."
Very true. But in the exercise of our orderliness we require the hearty
co-operation of the "place" itself. 'Tis a wonderful aid when the place
fits the object it is intended to contain.

Take the common male chest of drawers as a case in point. Its function
is to hold a man's shirts and his clothes, articles of a known and
constant size. Why are the drawers not made proportionate for their
duty? Why are they so few and so deep that when filled--as they needs
must be--they are uneasy to draw out, and to obtain the particular
article of which we are in quest, and which of course is at the bottom,
we must burrow into the heavy super-incumbent mass of clothes in our
search, and--that successful--spend a weary while in contriving to
repack the ill-disposed space. It can hardly be economy of labour and
material that dictates this, for--if so--why is the usual hanging
wardrobe made so preposterously too tall? Does the idiot maker suppose
that a woman's dress is hung all in one piece, body and skirt, from the
nape of the neck, to trail its extremest length?

The art of buying furniture, or having it made for us, is to be acquired
only by study and pains, and we must either pursue the necessary
education, or depute the furnishing of our rooms to competent hands: and
the responsibility does not end here, for there is the duty of
discovering who are competent, and this must be done indirectly since
direct inquiry only elicits the one criterion, omnipotent, omnipresent,
of cost.

The object to be gained in furnishing a room is to supply the just
requirements of the occupants, to accentuate or further the character of
the room, and to indicate the individual habits and tastes of the owner.

Each piece should be beautiful in itself, and, still more important,
should minister to and increase the beauty of the others. Collective
beauty is to be aimed at; not so much individual.

Proportion is another essential. Not that the proportions of furniture
should vary with the size of the rooms: the dimensions of chairs, height
of tables, sizes of doors, have long been all fixed and, having direct
reference to the human body, are immutable.

Substantially, the size of man's body is the same and has been the same
from the dawn of history until now, and will be the same whether in a
cottage parlour or the Albert Hall. But there is a proportion in the
relations of the spaces of a room to its furniture which must be
secured. If this is not done, no individual beauty of the objects in the
room will repair the lost harmony or be compensation for the picture
that might have been.

A museum of beautiful objects has its educational value, but no one
pretends that it claims to be more than a storehouse of beauty.

The painter who crowds his canvas with the innumerable spots of colour
that can be squeezed out of every tube of beautiful paint that the
colourman sells, is no nearer his goal than he who fills his rooms with
a heterogeneous miscellany of articles swept together from every clime
and of every age.


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