Knowledge of Historic Ornament
Successful practice in interior decoration does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of historic ornament, but it does require a very considerable and a very accurate knowledge of that subject. This knowledge the student of interior decoration who aims at anything approaching a mastery of his subject must acquire, even though its acquisition involve some drudgery. Moreover, a little knowledge of the evolution of ornamental art ought to be a part of the equipment of every cultivated person; for every ornamental form is a human document, and ornamental art is as much a revelation of the life and culture of a race or an epoch as is architecture or literature.
There is a wide literature of ornament, and the student will be helped both by such works as the analytical studies of Crane, Day, Wornum and Hamlin, and by the numerous manuals or cyclopedias of ornament, which contain innumerable examples of historic ornament. Of these manuals Meyer's Handbook of Ornament, Glazier's Manual of Historic Ornament and Speltz's Styles of Ornament are in black and white and easily accessible. The two great manuals in color are Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament and Racinet's L'ornement polychrome.
The three cardinal sins against good decoration in the choice and distribution of ornament are revealed by the use of ornament not properly related to and dependent upon structure, the use in the same composition of ornamental forms which seem to be incongruous-that is, incapable of having grown together; and the use of too much or too little ornament.
The decorator can escape the first sin, as he can escape so many other sins against good decoration, by the mere exercise of care and common sense. He can escape the second sin only through a sound study of ornament, which will enable him to avoid incongruities both in the character of ornament and in degrees of conventionalization, which is a matter no less important.
The distribution of ornament and the relation of ornamented to plain surfaces is a matter of very great importance in decoration, both in the treatment of the room regarded as a whole and in the design of individual units. The mind finds a room with too much ornament distracting and wearisome, and one with too little ornament tedious and dull. That is, it wants, here as everywhere, to be aware of the presence of unity in diversity. Beauty and comfort are possible only where there is neither too little nor too much. The student will sometimes find in books on interior decoration definite formulas for the distribution of ornament; as, for example, the statement that figured rugs demand plain walls and hangings, figured walls plain rugs and hangings, and figured hangings plain rugs and walls. Such formulas are of no value what- ever, since they may be, and in fact are continually disregarded with the happiest results.
Probably no formula can be adduced to cover the distribution of ornament more definite than the one which was included in the chapter on proportion. We know that we must have a judicious balance between plain and ornamented surfaces; but we know also that within the maximum and minimum limits imposed by this esthetic requirement we can in practice vary in a marked degree the relative emphasis placed upon plain or ornamented surfaces in the decoration of a given room. Relative emphasis upon plain as opposed to ornamented surfaces makes for fineness and delicacy of effect, while relative emphasis upon ornamented as opposed to plain surfaces makes for richness and breadth of effect. Over-emphasis upon plainness results in thin, poor and weak rooms. Over-emphasis upon ornament results in over-complexity and that confusion which is invariably fatal to beauty.