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Builders' Houses

"Mine own hired house."

A large proportion of homes are made in houses which are not owned, but
leased, and this prevents each man or family from indicating personal
taste in external aspect. A rich man and house-owner may approximate to
a true expression of himself even in the outside of his house if he
strongly desires it, but a man of moderate means must adapt himself and
his family to the house-builder's idea of houses--that is to say, to the
idea of the man who has made house-building a trade, and whose
experiences have created a form into which houses of moderate cost and
fairly universal application may be cast.

Although it is as natural to a man to build or acquire a home as to a
bird to build a nest, he has not the same unfettered freedom in
construction. He cannot always adapt his house either to the physical or
mental size of his family, but must accept what is possible with much
the same feeling with which a family of robins might accommodate
themselves to a wren's nest, or an oriole to that of a barn-swallow. But
the fact remains, that all these accidental homes must, in some way, be
brought into harmony with the lives to be lived in them, and the habits
and wants of the family; and not only this, they must be made attractive
according to the requirements of cultivated society. The effort toward
this is instructive, and the pleasure in and enjoyment of the home
depends upon the success of the effort. The inmates, as a rule, are
quite clear as to what they want to accomplish, but have seldom had
sufficient experience to enable them to remedy defects of construction.

There are expedients by which many of the malformations and uglinesses
of the ordinary "builder's house" may be greatly ameliorated, various
small surgical operations which will remedy badly planned rooms, and
dispositions of furniture which will restore proportion. We can even, by
judicious distribution of planes of colour, apparently lower or raise a
ceiling, and widen or lengthen a room, and these expedients, which
belong partly to the experience of the decorator, are based upon laws
which can easily be formulated. Every one can learn something of them by
the study of faulty rooms and the enjoyment of satisfactory ones.
Indeed, I know no surer or more agreeable way of getting wisdom in the
art of decoration than by tracing back sensation to its source, and
finding out why certain things are utterly satisfactory, and certain
others a positive source of discomfort.

In what are called the "best houses" we can make our deductions quite
as well as in the most faulty, and sometimes get a lesson of avoidance
and a warning against law-breaking which will be quite as useful as if
it were learned in less than the best.

There is one fault very common in houses which date from a period of
some forty or fifty years back, a fault of disproportionate height of
ceilings. In a modern house, if one room is large enough to require a
lofty ceiling, the architect will manage to make his second floor upon
different levels, so as not to inflict the necessary height of large
rooms upon narrow halls and small rooms, which should have only a height
proportioned to their size. A ten-foot room with a thirteen-foot ceiling
makes the narrowness of the room doubly apparent; one feels shut up
between two walls which threaten to come together and squeeze one
between them, while, on the other hand, a ten-foot room with a
nine-foot ceiling may have a really comfortable and cozy effect.

In this case, what is needed is to get rid of the superfluous four feet,
and this can be done by cheating the eye into an utter forgetfulness of
them. There must be horizontal divisions of colour which attract the
attention and make one oblivious of what is above them.

Every one knows the effect of a paper with perpendicular stripes in
apparently heightening a ceiling which is too low, but not every one is
equally aware of the contrary effect of horizontal lines of varied
surface. But in the use of perpendicular lines it is well to remember
that, if the room is small, it will appear still smaller if the wall is
divided into narrow spaces by vertical lines. If it is large and the
ceiling simply low for the size of the room, a good deal can be done by
long, simple lines of drapery in curtains and portieres, or in choosing
a paper where the composition of design is perpendicular rather than

To apparently lower a high ceiling in a small room, the wall should be
treated horizontally in different materials. Three feet of the base can
be covered with coarse canvas or buckram and finished with a small wood
moulding. Six feet of plain wall above this, painted the same shade as
the canvas, makes the space of which the eye is most aware. This space
should be finished with a picture moulding, and the four superfluous
feet of wall above it must be treated as a part of the ceiling. The
cream-white of the actual ceiling should be brought down on the side
walls for a space of two feet, and this has the effect of apparently
enlarging the room, since the added mass of light tint seems to broaden
it. There still remain two feet of space between the picture moulding
and ceiling-line which may be treated as a ceiling-border in
inconspicuous design upon the same cream ground, the design to be in
darker, but of the same tint as the ceiling.

The floor in such a room as this should either be entirely covered with
plain carpeting, or, if it has rugs at all, there should be several, as
one single rug, not entirely covering the floor, would have the effect
of confining the apparent size of the room to the actual size of the

If the doors and windows in such a room are high and narrow, they can be
made to come into the scheme by placing the curtain and portiere rods
below the actual height and covering the upper space with thin material,
either full or plain, of the same colour as the upper wall. A brocaded
muslin, stained or dyed to match the wall, answers this purpose
admirably, and is really better in its place than the usual expedient of
stained glass or open-work wood transom. A good expedient is to have the
design already carried around the wall painted in the same colour upon a
piece of stretched muslin. This is simple but effective treatment, and
is an instance of the kind of thought or knowledge that must be used in
remedying faults of construction.

Colour has much to do with the apparent size of rooms, a room in light
tints always appearing to be larger than a deeply coloured one.

Perhaps the most difficult problem in adaptation is the high, narrow
city house, built and decorated by the block by the builder, who is also
a speculator in real estate, and whose activity was chiefly exercised
before the ingenious devices of the modern architect were known. These
houses exist in quantities in our larger and older cities, and mere
slices of space as they are, are the theatres where the home-life of
many refined and beauty-loving intelligences must be played.

In such houses as these, the task of fitting them to the cultivated eyes
and somewhat critical tests of modern society generally falls to the
women who represent the family, and calls for an amount of ability which
would serve to build any number of creditable houses; yet this is
constantly being done and well done for not one, but many families. I
know one such, which is quite a model of a charming city home and yet
was evolved from one of the worst of its kind and period. In this case
the family had fallen heir to the house and were therefore justified in
the one radical change which metamorphosed the entrance-hall, from a
long, narrow passage, with an apparently interminable stairway occupying
half its width, to a small reception-hall seemingly enlarged by a
judicious placing of the mirrors which had formerly been a part of the
"fixtures" of the parlour and dining-room.

The reception-room was accomplished by cutting off the lower half of the
staircase, which had extended itself to within three feet of the front
door, and turning it directly around, so that it ends at the back
instead of the front of the hall. The two cut ends are connected by a
platform, thrown across from wall to wall, and furnished with a low
railing of carved panels, and turned spindles, which gives a charming
balcony effect. The passage to the back hall and stairs passes under the
balcony and upper end of the staircase, while the space under the lower
stair-end, screened by a portiere, adds a coat-closet to the
conveniences of the reception-hall.

This change was not a difficult thing to accomplish, it was simply an
expedient, but it has the value of carefully planned construction,
and reminds one of the clever utterance of the immortal painter who
said, "I never lose an accident."

Indeed the ingenious home-maker often finds that the worse a thing is,
the better it can be made by competent and careful study. To complete
and adapt incompetent things to orderliness and beauty, to harmonise
incongruous things into a perfect whole requires and exercises ability
of a high order, and the consciousness of its possession is no small
satisfaction. That it is constantly being done shows how much real
cleverness is necessary to ordinary life--and reminds one of the
patriotic New York state senator who declared that it required more
ability to cross Broadway safely at high tide, than to be a great
statesman. And truly, to make a good house out of a poor one, or a
beautiful interior from an ugly one, requires far more thought, and far
more original talent, than to decorate an important new one. The one
follows a travelled path--the other makes it.

Of course competent knowledge saves one from many difficulties; and
faults of construction must be met by knowledge, yet this is often
greatly aided by natural cleverness, and in the course of long practice
in the decorative arts, I have seen such refreshing and charming results
from thoughtful untrained intelligence,--I might almost say
inspiration,--that I have great respect for its manifestations;
especially when exercised in un-authoritative fashion.

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