Walls Ceilings And Floors
The true principle of wall treatment is to make the boundary stand for
colour and beauty, and not alone for division of space.
As a rule, the colour treatment of a house interior must begin with the
walls, and it is fortunate if these are blank and plain as in most new
houses with uncoloured ceilings, flat or broken with mouldings to suit
the style of the house.
The range of possible treatme
t is very wide, from simple tones of wall
colour against which quiet cottage or domestic city life goes on, to the
elaboration of walls of houses of a different grade, where stately
pageants are a part of the drama of daily life. But having shown that
certain rules are applicable to both, and indeed necessary to success
in both, we may choose within these rules any tint or colour which is
Rooms with an east or west light may carry successfully tones of any
shade, without violating fundamental laws.
The first impression of a room depends upon the walls. In fact, rooms
are good or bad, agreeable or ugly in exact accordance with the
wall-quality and treatment. No richness of floor-covering, draperies, or
furniture can minimise their influence.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the world is full of papers and other
devices for making walls agreeable; and we cannot wonder at this, when
we reflect that something of the kind is necessary to the aspect of the
room, and that each room effects for the individual exactly what the
outer walls of the house effect for the family, they give space for
personal privacy and for that reserve of the individual which is the
earliest effect of luxury and comfort.
It is certain that if walls are not made agreeable there is in them
something of restraint to the eye and the sense which is altogether
disagreeable. Apparent confinement within given limits, is, on the
whole, repugnant to either the natural or civilised man, and for this
reason we are constantly tempted to disguise the limit and to cover the
wall in such a way as shall interest and make us forget our bounds. In
this case, the idea of decoration is, to make the walls a barrier of
colour only, instead of hard, unyielding masonry; to take away the sense
of being shut in a box, and give instead freedom to thought and pleasure
to the sense.
It is the effect of shut-in-ness which the square and rigid walls of a
room give that makes drapery so effective and welcome, and which also
gives value to the practice of covering walls with silks or other
textiles. The softened surface takes away the sense of restraint. We
hang our walls with pictures, or cover them with textiles, or with paper
which carries design, or even colour them with
pigments--something--anything, which will disguise a restraining bound,
or make it masquerade as a luxury.
This effort or instinct has set in motion the machinery of the world. It
has created tapestries and brocades for castle and palace, and invented
cheap substitutes for these costly products, so that the smallest and
poorest house as well as the richest can cover its walls with something
pleasant to the eye and suggestive to the mind.
It is one of the privileges and opportunities of art to invent these
disguises; and to do it so thoroughly and successfully as to content us
with facts which would otherwise be disagreeable. And we do, by these
various devices, make our walls so hospitable to our thoughts that we
take positive and continual pleasure in them.
We do this chiefly, perhaps, by ministering to our instinctive love of
colour; which to many temperaments is like food to the hungry, and
satisfies as insistent a demand of the mind as food to the body.
At this late period of the world we are the inheritors of many methods
of wall disguise, from the primitive weavings or blanket coverings with
which nomadic peoples lined the walls of their tents, or the arras which
in later days covered the roughness and rudeness of the stone walls of
kings and barons, to the pictured tapestries of later centuries. This
latter achievement of art manufacture has outlived and far outweighed
the others in value, because it more perfectly performs the object of
Tapestries, for the most part, offer us a semblance of nature, and cheat
us with a sense of unlimited horizon. The older tapestries give us, with
this, suggestions of human life and action in out-of-door scenes
sufficiently unrealistic to offer a vague dream of existence in fields
and forests. This effectually diverts our minds from the confinements of
space, and allows us the freedom of nature.
Probably the true secret of the never-failing appreciation of
tapestries--from the very beginning of their history until this day--is
this fact of their suggestiveness; since we find that damasks of silk or
velvet or other costly weavings, although far surpassing tapestries in
texture and concentration of colour, yet lacking their suggestiveness to
the mind, can never rival them in the estimation of the world.
Unhappily, we cannot count veritable tapestries as a modern recourse in
wall-treatment, since we are precluded from the use of genuine ones by
their scarcity and cost.
There is undoubtedly a peculiar richness and charm in a tapestry-hung
wall which no other wall covering can give; yet they are not entirely
appropriate to our time. They belong to the period of windy palaces and
enormous enclosures, and are fitted for pageants and ceremonies, and not
to our carefully plastered, wind-tight and narrow rooms. Their mission
to-day is to reproduce for us in museums and collections the life of
yesterday, so full of pomp and almost barbaric lack of domestic comfort.
In studios they are certainly appropriate and suggestive, but in
private houses except of the princely sort, it is far better to make
harmonies with the things of to-day.
Nevertheless if the soul craves tapestries let them be chosen for
intrinsic beauty and perfect preservation, instead of accepting the rags
of the past and trying to create with them a magnificence which must be
incomplete and shabby. Considering, as I do, that tapestries belong to
the life and conditions of the past, where the homeless many toiled for
the pampered few, and not to the homes of to-day where the man of
moderate means expects beauty in his home as confidently as if he were a
world ruler, I find it hardly necessary to include them in the list of
means of modern decoration, and indeed it is not necessary, since a
well-preserved tapestry of a good period, and of a famous manufacturer
or origin, is so costly a purchase that only our bounteous and
self-indulgent millionaires would venture to acquire one solely for
purposes of wall decoration. It would be purchased as a specimen of art
and not as furnishing.
Yet I know one instance of a library where a genuine old foliage
tapestry has been cut and fitted to the walls and between bookcases and
doors, where the wood of the room is in mahogany, and a great
chimney-piece of Caen stone of Richardson's designing fills nearly one
side of the room. Of course the tapestry is unapproachable in effect in
this particular place and with its surroundings. It has the richness and
softness of velvet, and the red of the mahogany doors and furniture
finds exactly its foil in the blue greens and soft browns of the web,
while the polished floor and velvety antique rugs bring all the richness
of the walls down to one's feet and to the hearth with its glow of
fire. But this particular room hardly makes an example for general
following. It is really a house of state, a house without children, one
in which public life predominates.
There is a very flagrant far-away imitation of tapestry which is so far
from being good that it is a wonder it has had even a moderate success,
imitation which does not even attempt the decorative effect of the
genuine, but substitutes upon an admirably woven cotton or woollen
canvas, figure panels, copied from modern French masters, and suggestive
of nothing but bad art. Yet these panels are sometimes used (and in fact
are produced for the purpose of being used) precisely as a genuine
tapestry would be, although the very fact of pretence in them, brings a
feeling of untruth, quite at variance with the principles of all good
art. The objection to pictures transferred to tapestries holds good,
even when the tapestries are genuine.
The great cartoons of Raphael, still to be seen in the Kensington
Museum, which were drawn and coloured for Flemish weavers to copy, show
a perfect adaptation to the medium of weaving, while the paintings in
the Vatican by the same great master are entirely inappropriate to
A picture cannot be transposed to different substance and purpose
without losing the qualities which make it valuable. The double effort
to be both a tapestry and a picture is futile, and brings into disrepute
a simple art of imitation which might become respectable if its
capabilities were rightly used.
No one familiar with collections of tapestries can fail to recognise the
largeness and simplicity of treatment peculiar to tapestry subjects as
contrasted with the elaboration of pictures.
If we grant that in this modern world of hurry, imitation of tapestries
is legitimate, the important question is, what are the best subjects,
and what is the best use for such imitations?
The best use is undoubtedly that of wall-covering; and that was, indeed,
the earliest object for which they were created. They were woven to
cover great empty spaces of unsightly masonry; and they are still
infinitely useful and beautiful in grand apartments whose barren spaces
are too large for modern pictures, and which need the disguise of a
suggestion of scenery or pictorial subject.
If tapestries must be painted, let them by all means follow the style of
the ancient verdure or foliage tapestries, and be used for the same
purpose--to cover an otherwise blank wall. This is legitimate, and even
beautiful, but it is painting, and should be frankly acknowledged to be
such, and no attempt made to have them masquerade as genuine and costly
weavings. It is simply and always painting, although in the style and
spirit of early tapestries. Productions of this sort, where real skill
in textile painting is used, are quite worthy of admiration and respect.
I remember seeing, in the Swedish exhibit of women's work in the Woman's
Building at the Columbian Exposition, a screen which had evidently been
copied from an old bit of verdure tapestry. At the base were
broad-leaved water-plants, each leaf carefully copied in blocks and
patches of colour, with even the effect of the little empty space--where
one thread passes to the back in weaving, to make room for one of
another colour brought forward--imitated by a dot of black to simulate
the tiny shadow-filled pen-point of a hole.
Now whether this was art or not I leave to French critics to decide, but
it was at least admirable imitation; and any one able to cover the wall
spaces between bookcases in a library with such imitation would find
them as richly set as if it were veritable tapestry.
This is a very different thing from a painted tapestry, perhaps enlarged
from a photograph or engraving of a painting the original of which the
tapestry-painter had never even seen--the destiny of which unfortunate
copy, changed in size, colour, and all the qualities which gave value to
the original, is probably to be hung as a picture in the centre of a
space of wall-paper totally antagonistic in colour.
When I see these things I long to curb the ambition of the unfortunate
tapestry-painter until a course of study has taught him or her the
proper use of a really useful process; for whether the object is to
produce a decoration or a simulated tapestry, it is not attained by
The ordinary process of painting in dyes upon a wool or linen fabric
woven in tapestry method, and fixing the colour with heat, enables the
painter--if a true tapestry subject is chosen and tapestry effects
carefully studied--to produce really effective and good things, and this
opens a much larger field to the woman decorator than the ordinary
unstudied shams which have thrown what might become in time a large and
useful art-industry into neglect and disrepute.
I have seen the walls of a library hung with Siberian linen, stained in
landscape design in the old blues and greens which give tapestry its
decorative value, and found it a delightful wall-covering. Indeed we may
lay it down as a principle in decoration that while we may use and adapt
any decorative effect we must not attempt to make it pass for the
thing which suggested the effect.
Coarse and carefully woven linens, used as I have indicated, are really
far better than old tapestries for modern houses, because the design can
be adapted to the specific purpose and the texture itself can be easily
cleaned and is more appropriate to the close walls and less airy rooms
of this century.
For costly wall-decoration, leather is another of the substances which
have had a past of pomp and magnificence, and carries with it, in
addition to beauty, a suggestion of the art of a race. Spanish leather,
with its stamping and gilding, is quite as costly a wall covering as
antique or modern tapestry, and far more indestructible. Perhaps it is
needlessly durable as a mere vehicle for decoration. At all events
Japanese artists and artisans seem to be of this opinion, and have
transferred the same kind of decoration to heavy paper, where for some
occult reason--although strongly simulating leather--it seems not only
not objectionable, but even meritorious. This is because it simply
transfers an artistic method from a costly substance, to another which
is less so, and the fact may even have some weight that paper is a
product of human manufacture, instead of human appropriation of animal
life, for surely sentiment has its influence in decoration as in other
Wood panelling is also a form of interior treatment which has come to us
by inheritance from the past as well as by right of natural possession.
It has a richness and sober dignity of effect which commends it in large
or small interiors, in halls, libraries, and dining-rooms, whether they
are public or private; devoted to grand functions, or to the constantly
recurring uses of domesticity. Wood is so beautiful a substance in
itself, and lends itself to so many processes of ornamentation, that
hardly too much can be said of its appropriateness for interior
decoration. From the two extremes of plain pine panellings cut into
squares or parallelograms by machinery, and covered with paint in tints
to match door and window casings, to the most elaborate carvings which
back the Cathedral stalls or seats of ecclesiastical dignity, it is
always beautiful and generally appropriate in use and effect, and that
can hardly be said of any other substance. There are wainscotted rooms
in old houses in Newport, where, under the accumulated paint of one or
two centuries, great panels of old Spanish mahogany can still be found,
not much the worse for their long eclipse. Such rooms, in the original
brilliancy of colour and polish, with their parallel shadings of
mahogany-red reflecting back the firelight from tiled chimney-places and
scattering the play of dancing flame, must have had a beauty of colour
hard to match in this day of sober oak and painted wainscottings.
One of the lessons gained by experience in treatment of house interiors,
is that plain, flat tints give apparent size to small rooms, and that a
satisfying effect in large ones can be gained by variation of tint or
surface; also, that in a bedroom or other small room apparent size will
be gained by using a wall covering which is light rather than dark.
Some difference of tone there must be in large plain surfaces which lie
within the level of the eye; or the monotony of a room becomes
fatiguing. A plain, painted wall may, it is true, be broken by pictures,
or cabinets, or bits of china; anything in short which will throw parts
of it into shadow, and illumine other parts with gilded reflections; but
even then there will be long, plain spaces above the picture or cabinet
line, where blank monotony of tone will be fatal to the general effect
of the room.
It is in this upper space, upon a plain painted wall, that a broad line
of flat decoration should occur, but on a wall hung with paper or cloth,
it is by no means necessary.
Damasked cloths, where the design is shown by the direction of woven
threads, are particularly effective and satisfactory as wall-coverings.
The soft surface is luxurious to the imagination, and the play of light
and shadow upon the warp and woof interests the eye, although there is
no actual change of colour.
Too much stress can hardly be laid upon the variation of tone in
wall-surfaces, since the four walls stand for the atmosphere of a room.
Tone means quality of colour. It may be light or dark, or of any tint,
or variations of tint, but the quality of it must be soft and
charitable, instead of harsh and uncompromising.
Almost the best of modern inventions for inexpensive wall-coverings are
found in what are called the ingrain papers. These have a variable
surface, without reflections, and make not only a soft and impalpable
colour effect, but, on account of their want of reflection, are good
backgrounds for pictures.
In these papers the colour is produced by a mixture in the mass of
paper pulp of atoms of varying tint, which are combined in the substance
and make one general tint resulting from the mixture of several. In
canvases and textiles, which are a more expensive method of producing
almost the same mixed effect, the minute points of brilliance of threads
in light and darkness of threads in shadow, combine to produce softness
of tone, impossible to pigment because it has but one plain surface,
unrelieved by breaking up into light and shadow.
Variation, produced by minute differences, which affect each other and
which the eye blends into a general tone, produce quality. It is at the
same time soft and brilliant, and is really a popular adaptation of the
philosophy of impressionist painters, whose small dabs of pure colour
placed in close juxtaposition and fused into one tone by the eye, give
the purity and vibration of colour which distinguishes work of that
Some skilful painters can stipple one tone upon another so as to produce
the same brilliant softness of effect, and when this can be done,
oil-colour upon plaster is the best of all treatment for bedrooms since
it fulfils all the sanitary and other conditions so necessary in
sleeping-rooms. The same effect may be produced if the walls are of
rough instead of smooth plaster, so that the small inequalities of
surface give light and shadow as in textiles; upon such surfaces a
pleasant tint in flat colour is always good. Painted burlaps and certain
Japanese papers prepared with what may be called a textile or canvas
surface give the same effect, and indeed quality of tint and tone is far
more easily obtained in wall-coverings or applied materials than in
paint, because in most wall-coverings there are variations of tint
produced in the very substance of the material.
This matter of variation without contrast in wall-surface, is one of the
most important in house decoration, and has led to the increased use of
textiles in houses where artistic effects have been carefully studied
and are considered of importance.
Of course wall-paper must continue to be the chief means of
wall-covering, on account of its cheapness, and because it is the
readiest means of sheathing a plaster surface; and a continuous demand
for papers of good and nearly uniform colour, and the sort of
inconspicuous design which fits them for modest interiors will have the
effect of increasing the manufacture of desirable and artistic things.
In the meantime one should carefully avoid the violently coloured
papers which are made only to sell; materials which catch the eye of the
inexperienced and tempt them into the buying of things which are
productive of lasting unrest. It is in the nature of positive masses and
strongly contrasting colours to produce this effect.
If one is unfortunate enough to occupy a room of which the walls are
covered with one of these glaring designs, and circumstances prevent a
radical change, the simplest expedient is to cover the whole surface
with a kalsomine or chalk-wash, of some agreeable tint. This will dry in
an hour or two and present a nearly uniform surface, in which the
printed design of the paper, if it appears at all, will be a mere
suggestion. Papers where the design is carried in colour only a few
shades darker than the background, are also safe, and--if the design is
a good one--often very desirable for halls and dining-rooms. In
skilfully printed papers of the sort the design often has the effect of
a mere shadow-play of form.
Of course in the infinite varieties of use and the numberless variations
of personal taste, there are, and should be, innumerable differences in
application of both colour and materials to interiors. There are
differences in the use of rooms which may make a sense of perfect
seclusion desirable, as, for instance, in libraries, or rooms used
exclusively for evening gatherings of the family. In such semi-private
rooms the treatment should give a sense of close family life rather than
space, while in drawing-rooms it should be exactly the reverse, and this
effect is easily secured by competent use of colour.