Combining the New and the Old

Given careful selection, modernist furnishings may be associated with the older types with fine decorative effect

MARY AGNES PEASE February 15 1930

Combining the New and the Old

Given careful selection, modernist furnishings may be associated with the older types with fine decorative effect

MARY AGNES PEASE February 15 1930

Combining the New and the Old

Given careful selection, modernist furnishings may be associated with the older types with fine decorative effect


THE OLD couplet: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside” was brought forcibly to mind by a letter from a correspondent to this department, who asks if it is possible to blend the old and the new in furniture. “My house,” she says, “is furnished with very good but rather dull furnishings. These I cannot afford to discard, but I am rather intrigued with some of the modern things, especially the bookcases and cupboards, and I would like to combine a few pieces of the new furniture with the old, if you think I could do so without spoiling either.”

Few of us could if we would, or would if we could, discard our old familiar furnishings in favor of modern forms, but there is no doubt that modern art has to be reckoned with in this exciting age. There is no occasion to cast out the old in order to bring in the new, for the latter, if carefully chosen for the pieces with which they are to be associated, will accord admirably with fine old furniture and will add an exhilarating effect to the room.

As has been pointed out by one of our foremost interior decorators, modern furniture is expressive of our times, and, as now designed, it is not extreme in form but is refreshing in its newness. These new forms will represent our own epoch, just as Jacobean furniture and the furniture named after the various kings and queens and cabinetmakers of distinction down the centuries represent the times in which they were made. This decorator further reminds us that history proves that the new

forms of furniture as they came into being did not displace the earlier forms or make them less beautiful. “Beauty,” he says, “can never be out-moded or voided even by another and later form of beauty. To the good folk of Queen Anne’s time the innovations of the Georgian designers may have seemed as extremely modern as does the modern furniture to us today.”

The Best Cannot Quarrel

^'OMBINING the old with the new in furnishing is by no means a modern idea. One often sees furniture of various periods blended with excellent effect. We are told that sometimes the furnishers of Queen Anne’s time would place in the midst of a room of sober brown walnut a gorgeously lacquered highboy of Chinese decoration, and achieve thereby a beautiful ensemble. This brings to mind the description, given by G. B. Stern in her book The Matriarch, of the Rakonitz drawingroom . . “It was curious how the style of decoration, the brocades and candelabra that came from Venice and Vienna, the furniture of the First French Empire, the Bokhara rugs and the cloisonné ornaments blended in with the quiet dignity of Georgian architecture. It may be that the best in art cannot quarrel.” There are many ways iruwhich it is possible to combine the old and the new satisfactorily. I saw a room recently in which ancien! and modern art were admirably blended. The old furniture consisted of several chairs, tables, and a love-seat of the Queen Anne period, while the new included a davenport with boxlike end-tables, a cabinet with some of the new pottery and some modern lighting fixtures. The whole effect of this was uncommonly good.

The reverse of this arrangement would be equally harmonious. The chairs and incidental tables might be all modern in type and the larger pieces belong to an older day. Sometimes clever contrast is more satisfactory than close harmony in such combinations, or the modern note may be introduced by drapery fabrics, rugs and small accessories.

Let us suppose that the person desiring a touch of modernness is abundantly supplied with old furniture of excellent make. If some of the pieces are of the overstuffed variety, they could be modernized by having the stuffing applied in lesser quantity, keeping in mind the lines of the numan body. I have had one of my own somewhat obese chairs slenderized in this manner and re-covered in one of the new fabrics. In addition to its improved appearance, it is now more comfortable and quite new in type.

Another method of introducing a modern touch into an old-fashioned room with good effect is by introducing them mirrors and sinking them into the spaces formerly occupied by cupboards or doors. This is a very simple and very delightful treatment. It brings light, color and space into a room and in no way conflicts with the other furnishings. You will notice that in the illustrations there are few ornaments displayed. We are constantly being reminded by the exponents of modernism that the cardinal principles of the modern trend are simplicity, usefulness, bright cheerful colors and an absence of superfluous ornament.

Sometimes old cupboards or the tops of unused doors are used as bookcases in the modern manner; which means that the backs of the books must be flush with the walls. I saw a rather clever method of treating the door of a closet in this way. The door had been denuded of its handle and lock and completely remodelled to hold the books, but its use as a door was nevertheless unimpaired, for by a secret device cleverly concealed at the side it could be made to spring back and forth as desired.

Victorian Stiffness

' I VHE most difficult furniture, perhaps, to associate with modern pieces is the Victorian because of its ornate character. But decorators have attacked many of the pieces of this period and shorn off the excrescences, toned down the high polish, reduced the stuffing, simplified the lines, and, presto! the old pieces fit in gallantly with the new. This method of change sounds more drastic and expensive than it really is. I had a yellow oak desk that was exceedingly well made but over-ornamented, and had always been an eyesore to me on account of its color and e crescences. After deciding on the way in which it could be improved, I had a carpenter operate on it with a saw. Then it was stained mahogany and polished. I have often been congratulated upon my handsome “mahogany” desk.

Some Victorian furniture associates quite readily with modern pieces: the walnut what-not, if not too rococo, the pedestal mahogany tables, the rosewood chairs with carved rosebuds on the back —formerly covered with horsehair, but qow appearing in bright modern fabrics. In most families of long standing in Canada there will be found sofas and armchairs of rosewood or black walnut with a bit of carving on theback, and with stout cabriole legs. Much can be done with these by upholstering in today’s latest mode of bright-hued fabrics. An acquaintance of mine inherited a number of such pieces and has had them done over in this manner for his apartment, and they look exceedingly well to the casual observer. He confided to me, however, that he felt when he looked at the changed pieces as if his greatgrandmother had had her face lifted and was wearing rouge! Such is the power of association !

The Happy Mean

TT SEEMS to me that the thing to be remembered in combining the old with the new is the proportion and design of each. Don’t combine a ponderous highboy with a bit of gimcrackery, or one of the extreme modern pieces with a very dignified Victorian chair. Avoid combining the elaboration which is sometimes found in the old furniture and the exaggeration which is unfortunately often apparent in the new. Always choose the happy mean. Keep the fine old pieces with a definite decorative value, add new ones that will dwell in harmony with them, and you should obtain a harmonious ensemble.

It is possible to introduce a suggestion of modernity without doing more than changing the background and introducing a soft, clear color on the walls and woodwork, with modern fabrics at the windows. Then, too, there are the minor things which are so important and often make or mar a room—the sofa pillows, lamps, pictures and ornaments: “Oh, the little more and how much it is, and the little less and what worlds away!”

Sometimes the floor covering presents difficulty in combining furniture harmoniously. A very highly decorated oriental rug is a precious belonging, but it is not a happy choice if it is desirable to re-cover old pi ces in some of the new fabrics. For this purpose plain covering for the floor in some of the soft shades, such as greyish green, bronze taupe or the varying mulberry shades, will be found to be in commendable taste. With this as a background, one can do much with gay wall paper, draperies and cushions.

There are, of course, many people to whom the new furnishings make no appeal. With ideas that are deeply rooted in the past they will have none of this “new nonsense!” Yet there is no doubt that modern art is making a place for itself. We can take or leave it as we may. “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” If we like it, it is reassuring to find that we can combine it with our old pieces; that we can keep the old and also have the new. If carefully chosen and wisely grouped, the modern pieces will act as a tonic to the older forms, and each will complement the other.