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 lead
r 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.