Some Dont’s in House Furnishing

John Holt December 1 1911

Some Dont’s in House Furnishing

John Holt December 1 1911

Some Dont’s in House Furnishing

John Holt

UGLINESS, like dirt, consists largely of “matter out of place,” hence, of matter wasted. William Morris said that when “our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not

works of art, they are either wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.” Waste is always ugly and unpleasant, and makeshifts and shams are always wasteful.

And of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in Canada every year on the making and furnishing of homes, a very large proportion must be wasted. Men who are the essence of keenness and intelligence in their business allow themselves to make absurd mistakes in matters which quite as much concern their daily life. “Taste” happens to be their blind spot and they are wise only when they recognize the fact.

There was a time when you could have counted the really well-furnished houses

in Canada on your fingers. Times were rough and people had neither the leisure to cultivate their tastes nor the money to gratify the tastes they might have had. Consequently when money did become more plentiful those who wished to spend it on improving and embellishing their homes were delivered bound and helpless into the hands of furniture manufacturers of even worse ideas and ideals than their own.

Stern years of association with no more than the bare necessaries of backwoods

life led naturally to the idea that any addition to a necessary must be a luxury, and that, to be beautiful, things must be as far as possible removed from the simple lines of the primitive products of axe and saw.

The manufacturer of the day made furniture as elaborately curly and shiny and brilliantly upholstered as the simplest heart could desire. Towering, bemirrored overmantels that shouted through a megaphone; “parlor suites” which were a perpetual brass band; innumerable “ornaments” designed to show by their expensive uselessness that their owners were rich enough to dispense with purely useful things.

Survivals of these terrible times are still to be seen, chiefly in small country hotels and suchlike places. Seldom does one find a house or even a room which thus shouts aloud the bad taste of its owner. Even when one does, the owner usually shows signs of grace. He is dimly conscious that all is not as it should be, though he may not for the life of him see what is wrong.

Since the man of taste no longer has to go abroad to satisfy his artistic sense, it has become increasingly unlikely that the man whose tastes are undeveloped will fall into bad hands. Canadians of to-day are on much the same level whether they are prepared to spend much or little on the furnishings of their houses. That is to say, all are now able to command the guidance of experts of discrimination. True the “wood butcher” with inclinations towards emerald plush is still in existence, but public taste has so much improved that the professional decorator who is an artist has been able to make himself heard, and the “reign of terror” is over among the generality of furniture makers.

Chiefly we go to the past for our best designs. L’Art Nouveau is the standing horrible example of latter day attempts to evolve something “up-to-date.” Consequently “Period” furniture is deservedly popular, and in its use it is equally easy to obtain excellent effects or to make disastrous mistakes.

The easiest mistake to make is in the use of “period” fruniture which has no period. As long as the furniture is pleasing to the eye, this is not a matter of very great importance to any but an expert. More glaring is the mixture of opposed

periods, each of which may be correct in itself.

Y ou ha ve been into houses in which the rooms are nothing more or less than a series of shocks. The hall is Mission, severe to the point of being forbidding. An arch reveals a formally frivolous Louis XV drawing-room, all gilding, mirrors and breakfast-food cherubs. Beyond is a smaller parlor in florid Renaissance. You eat your dinner in a heavy black Jacobean dining-room, take coffee in a Moorish alcove, and lose a hundred up in the Flemish billiard-room, because you are oppressed with a fear that your bedroom will be Chinese or Egyptian. The exterior of the house by-the-bye probably represents a Scottish stronghold with extinguisher turrets.

Now, each of these styles may be carried out in the most correct and tasteful manner, but in combination they are a nightmare. Yet it is quite easy to enjoy the beauties of several periods without shock by means of a gentle shading off from one room to another. The hall, for instance, could be Colonial in effect, and as long as undue heaviness was avoided, the eye would travel smoothly to the Sheraton furniture of the drawing-room, with its delicately tapering legs and rich simplicity of narrow inlay. A few pieces of heavier type and deeply cushioned modern easy chairs covered in material in harmony with the Sheraton upholstery would be a natural descent from the formality of the drawing-room to the cosier atmosphere of the parlor or living room.

The heavier pieces of hall furniture— a cabinet of American black walnut, for instance—would be placed away from the drawing-room and towards the diningroom and library, thus preparing the eye for the black solidity of the Jacobean furniture found there. At the turn of the stairs a gradual change could be arranged from the darker woodwork of the hall to the light, bright airiness which should characterize the bedrooms and their corridors. In fact, the general idea should be to so arrange matters that a stranger in passing from room to room should not be conscious for a few seconds of any great change in the nature of his surroundings.

The opposite extreme to a jarring mixture of periods is the mistake of the man who is period-ridden. He chooses some

period and sticks to it through thick and thin from one end of the house to the other. Provided he has chosen a “pure” period this is all very well in its way—if only the inhabitants of the house could dress and act the part as well. In the course of time the disadvantages of this arrangement become more and more apparent, Inevitably the house gets out of its period in details. A picture comes as a gift, an odd piece of furniture is picked up here, a hit of china there, till at last the original scheme has become varied in a hundred incongruous details. There are some houses so period-ridden that the novels and magazines on the shelf under the table look like glaring anachronisms.

The mistake lies, of course, in seeking the letter instead of the spirit of a period. There is no harm in mixing periods with-

in reason. You find the same spirit running through furniture of different styles and different makers, and it is the spirit that makes a room or mars it. The “shading off” process should be carried out in each room as well as between the various rooms of the house.

If any man finds that his eye does not show him the difference between harmony and discord in this respect he may make reasons and logic his guides. It is worth his while to read up the subject of furnishing. To read not. only the rule-ofthumb text books on decoration—though they are very useful—but works which deal with the history and evolution of furniture. Years of study combined with instincts are necessary to make the expert, but any man of intelligence soon can pick up a smattering both interesting and useful.

He can learn the influence of France on English eighteenth century furniture, and thus get an idea of the extent to which the styles of the two countries are likely to harmonize. He can learn the chief points of difference between one period and another. The spiral turning of legs and bars which differentiates Charles II chairs and tables from earlier models, the elaborate carvings of Grinling Gibbon and his imitators, the black Japan and gilt fruit and flower decorations characteristic of Heppelwhite. After all, when one is buying something that purpots to be a replica or even to carry out the spirit of an old model, it is just as well to be able to see to what extent it fulfills its promise.

If he is a seeker for genuine antiques, a slight knowledge will save him from the more flagrant frauds at any rate. The

writer was shown a chest which the owner cherished as late Elizabethan on the strength of its carvings. Unfortunately the wood was mahogany, and mahogany was unknown in England prior to 1720. Clearly the chest was a copy of an ancient model—in the wrong wood. The same owner had an “Elizabethan” chest of drawers, unaware that this article of furniture was not evolved from the simple chest till the middle of the seventeenth century.

Cultivated taste in Canada, as in England, has a distinct leaning towards simplicity. Hence the popularity, not only of the more simple and refined eighteenth century models, but of the modern reversions to extreme simplicity, such as Mission and the various “craft” productions. Often this simplicity is carried altogether

too far. Very “Art-and-Crafty” people inhabit houses furnished with a simplicity that amounts to scantiness, while an excess of the hard lines and angles of Mission furniture sometimes gives an uncomfortably austere impression, however comfortable individaual pieces of furniture may be.

The Craft enthusiast makes the mistake of ignoring the conditions under which we live. After all, we are civilized beings and members of a very complex social system, whether we like it or not. We must live accordingly. It is ridiculous to expect us to live the life of a story-book cottager, or to satisfy the requirements of modern civilization with the aid of a few joint stools and a trestle table stained green—an appropriate color.

All the same, simplicity is the proper side on which to err. A scantily furnished house is infinitely better than one that is overcrowded. Besides it is easy enough to remedy over-simplicity, whereas the only remedy for overcrowding is the scrapping of superfluous articles that once cost good money to buy.

Another way of ignoring the times in which we live is in choosing old style furniture of a period quite unsuited either to everyday requirements or to the purposes to which a room is to be put. Empire, Louis XV or similar brilliantly formal styles are quite unsuited for the ordinary small drawing-room. Large reception and ball-rooms are where they belong — for which, in fact, they were designed—and nothing is ever able to invest them with homeliness. Gayety, perhaps, but cheerfulness never.

Most of the mistakes outlined above are such that any man is liable to make—even a man with some knowledge of good and evil in decoration. For those who are without taste, with whom lack of time or unsuitable environment has prevented its development, there are so many pitfalls that it would be difficult to name half of them. Those who are wise enough to recognize their blind spot will also be wise enough to seek expert advice rather than to attempt to rely upon their own uneducated judgment, and all they need fear is falling into bad hands. Ás has been said, the vastly improved public taste in

Canada has made this far less likely than once might have been the case.

Naturally the acceptance of too much or varied advice should be avoided. To go to one man for advice about wall paper, to another regarding rugs and to take designs for furniture from a third often has peculiar results. You find Craft furniture of the ultra-simple type on a fully carpeted floor, or in a room with elaborately fringed and looped up curtains. Or Ádam furniture against brilliantly flowered wall paper.

Most of the mistakes of an uneducated taste arise from a desire to get plenty of show for the money. Thereby were fortunes made by the “plush and polish merchants” of the past; because of this one sees much misuse of otherwise beautiful things. On the principle that there cannot be too much of a good thing, rooms are crammed with elaborate carvings which kill each other and vulgarizes the whole effect. Or heavy furniture is chosen to the exclusion of light and graceful pieces, because “there is more to it.” It should always be remembered that expense does not necessarily mean value. When in doubt about anything brilliant or elaborate—Don’t.

There are many excellent text books dealing with the practical side of furnishing and which lay down those laws from which there must be no departure. From them one may learn the limitation of a north room in the matter of wallpaper, and the liberties that may be taken with a room that gets plenty of sunshine. Tables may be consulted which show what colors can be used in contrast, and in harmony, and advice obtained upon the placing of lighting fixtures.

These are important details no doubt, but they are insignificant compared to the necessity for “humanity” in a house. A man should never forget that he owes something to his own personality.

The wish, natural enough, to obtain immediate results, should be fought down resolutely. It is impossible to make a home by building a house and filling it full of furniture, however well the furniture may be chosen. If the equipment of a house is to reflect anything of its owner’s personality it must be a matter of gradual growth.