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.