Elements of Beauty within Interior Decoration
When the decorator, having mastered the grammar of his art and studied the architectural requirements of the room to be furnished and the needs and tastes of its occupants, sets out to make the room beautiful, he is immediately confronted by the puzzling question: What is beauty? Fitness and comfort he can ensure by the due exercise of care and common sense. But how ensure beauty, an intangible and elusive quality which he can neither define nor even recognize with assurance? How go about it to give what is at best but a vague ideal concrete expression? How make a start in the actual processes of selection and arrangement? And, seeing that what one calls beautiful another calls unbeautiful, and that indeed there seem to be no fixed standards or norms of beauty, how shall he know, when his room is finished, whether it is beautiful or not?
These considerations do not trouble the great artist, who does what he has to do, as Lord Bacon noted, “by a kind of felicity.” Nor do they trouble the great number of house-furnishers who do it in the same way, minus the felicity. But to those of us who are neither great artists nor indifferent to beauty, and who must see the ground beneath our feet before we take a step, they are questions of the most serious importance.
If we turn to books for answers to these questions we find that writers on interior decoration have the most part ignored them, contenting themselves either with description and illustration, or with generalities too loose to be markedly helpful in practice; while from the writers on esthetics we learn that although philosophers from Pythagoras to Croce have sought to define it, beauty is after all a quality too subtle for definition. Like electricity, or like the life-force itself, we can experience it but we cannot tell what it is.
At first thought this looks like an impasse. However, the case is not as bad as it looks; for a while it is true that beauty is beyond definition, and that no formulas exist for its creation, it is also true that the elements of beauty, or rather the conditions under which it appears, are fairly constant. If, therefore, we can cause these conditions to be present in our rooms we can be sure that beauty, is some degree at least, will be present also. The first of these elements or conditions, the one most easily apprehensible and most nearly susceptible in practice of reduction to general statement, and the one that constitutes the essential principle of beauty in the art of interior decoration, is the imaginative or sensuous expression of unity in variety.
Simply expressed, this means that before beauty can appear in it any work of art, whether it be a picture, a chair, or a furnished room, must consist of many parts; which parts, however numerous or diverse, must be so combined that they appear to concur in forming one whole. That is, they must present themselves to the mind as a unit, with a single aim, design and purpose. No bare room, no room which lacks a diversity of lines, shapes, colors and textures, of lights and shadows, of plain and ornamented surfaces, can be beautiful. Nor can any room be beautiful which, possessing this diversity, fails to fuse it into an essential unity. Conversely, no room so decorated that it reveals a stimulating degree of diversity, while at the same time its unity is perceptible instantly and without effort, can be wholly lacking in beauty.
It is therefore clear that the decorator will do well to disregard, at the outset, the more intangible and spiritual elements of beauty, which demand for their creation both imaginative power and a high degree of technical skill. These more subtle elements will come later, with the growth of creative power. At the outset it will be enough for him to arrive at principles of selection and arrangement through which the diversity of forms and colors necessarily appearing in the walls, floor and ceiling of his room, in its furniture and upholstery fabrics, its hangings, lamps, shades and pictures, can be coordinated and fused into the unity without which the room and its furnishings will be merely a congeries of unrelated parts, and as such unbeautiful. It is manifest that unity or the lack of it can be perceived only by the mind. To the nature of the mind, therefore, we must look for the solution of the problem.