Furniture And The Room

The art of furnishing runs on two wheels--the room and the furniture. As

in the bicycle, the inordinate development of one wheel at the expense

of its colleague has been not without some great feats, yet too often

has provoked catastrophe; so furnishing makes safest progression when,

with a juster proportion, its two wheels are kept to moderate and

uniform diameters. The room should be for the furniture just as much as

the furniture for the room.

Of late it has not been so; we have been indulging in the

"disproportionately wheeled" type, and the result has been to crowd our

rooms, and reduce them to insignificance. Even locomotion in them is

often embarrassing, especially when the upholsterer has been allowed

carte blanche. But, apart from this, there is a sense of repletion in

these masses of chattel--miscellanies brought together with no

subordination to each other, or to the effect of the room as a whole.

Taken in the single piece, our furniture is sometimes not without its

merit, but it is rarely exempt from self-assertion, or, to use a slang

term, "fussiness." And an aggregation of "fussinesses" becomes

fatiguing. One is betrayed into uncivilised longings for the workhouse,

or even the convict's cell, the simplicity of bare boards and tables!

But we must not use our dictum for aggressive purposes merely, faulty

as modern systems may be. In the distinction of the two sides of the

problem of furnishing--the room for the furniture, and the furniture for

the room--there is some historical significance. Under these titles

might be written respectively the first and last chapters in the history

of this art--its rise and its decadence.

Furniture in the embryonic state of chests, which held the possessions

of early times, and served, as they moved from place to place, for

tables, chairs, and wardrobes, may have been in existence while the

tents and sheds which accommodated them were of less value. But

furnishing began with settled architecture, when the room grew first

into importance, and overshadowed its contents. The art of the builder

had soared far beyond the ambitions of the furnisher.

Later, the two constituents of our art came to be produced

simultaneously, and under one impulse of design. The room, whether

church or hall, had now its specific furniture. In the former this was

adapted for ritual, in the latter for feasting; but in both the contents

formed in idea an integral part of the interior in which they stood. And

while these conditions endured, the art was in its palmy state.

Later, furniture came to be considered apart from its position. It grew

fanciful and fortuitous. The problem of fitting it to the room was no

problem at all while both sprang from a common conception: it became so

when its independent design, at first a foible of luxury, grew to be a

necessity of production. As long, however, as architecture remained

dominant, and painting and sculpture were its acknowledged vassals,

furniture retained its legitimate position and shared in their triumphs.

But when these the elder sisters shook off their allegiance, furniture

followed suit. It developed the self-assertion of which we have spoken,

and, in the belief that it could stand alone, divorced itself from that

support which was the final cause of its existence. There have been

doubtless many slackenings and tightenings of the chain which links the

arts of design together; but it is to be noted how with each slackening

furniture grew gorgeous and artificial, failed to sympathise with common

needs, and sank slowly but surely into feebleness and insipidity.

We had passed through some such cycle by the middle of this century.

With the dissolution of old ties the majority of the decorative arts had

perished. Painting remained to us, arrogating to herself the role which

hitherto the whole company had combined to make successful. In her

struggle to fill the giant's robe, she has run unresistingly in the ruts

of the age. She has crowded her portable canvases, side by side, into

exhibitions and galleries, and claimed the title of art for literary

rather than aesthetic suggestions. The minor coquetries of craftsmanship,

from which once was nourished the burly strength of art, have felt out

of place in such illustrious company. So we have the forced art of

public display, but it has ceased to be the habit in which our common

rooms and homely walls could be dressed.

The attendant symptom has been the loss from our houses of all that

architectural amalgam, which in former times blended the structure with

its contents, the screens and panellings, which, half room, half

furniture, cemented the one to the other. The eighteenth century carried

on the tradition to a great extent with plinth and dado, cornice and

encrusted ceiling; but by the middle of the nineteenth we had our

interiors handed over to us by the architect almost completely void of

architectural feature. We are asked to take as a substitute, what is

naively called "decoration," two coats of paint, and a veneer of

machine-printed wall-papers.

In this progress of obliteration an important factor has been the

increasing brevity of our tenures. Three or four times in twenty years

the outgoing tenant will make good his dilapidations, and the

house-agent will put the premises into tenantable repair--as these

things are settled for us by lawyers and surveyors. After a series of

such processes, what can remain of internal architecture? Can there be

left even a room worth furnishing, in the true sense of the term? The

first step to render it so must usually be the obliteration of as much

as possible of the maimed and distorted construction, which our

leasehold house offers.

What wonder, then, if furniture, beginning again to account herself an

art, should have transgressed her limits and invaded the room? Ceilings,

walls and floors, chimneypieces, grates, doors and windows, all nowadays

come into the hands of the artistic furnisher, and are at the mercy of

upholsterers and cabinetmakers to begin with, and of the

antiquity-collector to follow. Then we bring in our gardens, and finish

off our drawing-room as a mixture of a conservatory and a bric-a-brac


The fashion for archaeological mimicry has been another pitfall. The

attempt to bring back art by complete reproductions of old-day

furnishings has been much the vogue abroad. The Parisians distinguish

many styles and affect to carry them out in every detail. The Americans

have copied Paris, and we have done a little ourselves. But the weak

element in all this is, that the occupier of these mediaeval or classic

apartments remains still the nineteenth-century embodiment, which we

meet in railway carriage and omnibus. We cannot be cultured Epicureans

in a drawing-room of the Roman Empire, and by the opening of a door walk

as Flemish Burgomasters into our libraries. The heart of the age will

mould its productions irrespective of fashion or archaeology, and such

miserable shams fail to reach it.

If we, who live in this century, can at all ourselves appraise the

position, its most essential characteristic in its bearing upon art has

been the commercial tendency. Thereby an indelible stamp is set upon our

furniture. The making of it under the supreme condition of profitable

sale has affected it in both its functions. On the side of utility our

furniture has been shaped to the uses of the million, not of the

individual. Hence its monotonously average character, its failure to

become part of ourselves, its lack of personal and local charm. How

should a "stock" article possess either?

But the blight has fallen more cruelly on that other function, which is

a necessity of human craftsmanship--the effort to express itself and

please the eye by the expression. Art being the monopoly of "painting,"

and having nothing to do with such vulgar matters as furniture,

commercialism has been able to advance a standard of beauty of its own,

with one canon, that of speedy profits. Furniture has become a mere ware

in the market of fashion. Bought to-day as the rage, it is discarded

to-morrow, and some new fancy purchased. The tradesman has a new margin

of profit, but the customer is just where he was. It may be granted that

a genuine necessity of sale is the stimulus to which all serious effort

in the arts must look for progress, and without which they would become

faddism and conceit. But it is a different thing altogether when this

passes from stimulus into motive--the exclusive motive of profit to the

producer. The worth of the article is impaired as much as the well-being

of the craftsman, and furniture is degraded to the position of a pawn in

the game of the sweater.

We must, I fear, be content at present to put up with exhibitions and

unarchitectural rooms. But while making the best of these conditions, we

need not acquiesce in them or maintain their permanence. At any rate we

may fight a good fight with commercialism. The evils of heartless and

unloving production, under the grind of an unnecessary greed, are patent

enough to lead us to reflect that we have after all in these matters a

choice. We need not spend our money on that which is not bread. We can

go for our furniture to the individual craftsman and not the commercial

firm. The penalty for so doing is no longer prohibitive.

In closing our remarks we cannot do better than repeat our initial

axiom--the art of furnishing lies with the room as much as with the

furniture. The old ways are still the only ways. When we care for art

sufficiently to summon her from her state prison-house of exhibitions

and galleries, to live again a free life among us in our homes, she will

appear as a controlling force, using not only painting and sculpture,

but all the decorative arts to shape room and furniture under one

purpose of design. Whether we shall then give her the time-honoured

title of architecture, or call her by another name, is of no moment.