The decorative materials, like other good things of this world, must be paid for. Accordingly, their cost must in every instance be determined by considerations of fitness. But while it is obvious that a house may properly be furnished either sumptuously or inexpensively, according to the character of the house itself and the means and tastes of its occupants, it seems to be less obvious to the layman that it ought in either case to be furnished to a carefully graduated scale. In decoration in is unwise for artistic no less than for practical reasons to put all one’s eggs into one basket. It is a serious mistake to mix he costly with the cheap, since both are thereby spoiled. Consistent adherence to a predetermined standard of excellence throughout the appointments of each room, and to standards not markedly different in connecting rooms, is absolutely essential to good work. The decorator must accordingly be on guard against the easy possibility of disturbing the decorative balance of a room by the use of single objects or materials too costly for the other furnishings, or of destroying the decorative consistency and air de famille of a suite of connecting rooms by making any one of them, whatever its character, too fine for the others.
All these considerations point to the need of a studied plan of procedure. As a matter of fact, a consistent plan, based upon a careful study of the rooms to be furnished and the needs, tastes and means of their occupants, is only less essential to good work in furnishing a house than in building it. While the proper scope of such a plan will become more clear as we proceed with this study, it is evident at the outset that any plan ought to include a color scheme for each room, based upon a careful consideration of both the architectural and personal factors involved, and a list of all the important articles required for each room, as determined by the purpose and size of the room and the needs of those who use it. With this list the decorator will prepare a schedule of prices which will show the approximate cost of furnishing each room, and, by addition, the total cost of all the rooms. If this grand total proves to be too high for the available appropriation, the whole treatment, or at any rate the treatment of connecting rooms, must be revised and scaled down in order to preserve the effect of consistency which is an invariable characteristic of good work in decoration as in all the arts.
Fitness to purpose has a negative as well as a positive side, since it is quite as necessary to leave out the non-essential as it is to include the essential. Because of the increasingly clear perception of this fact, simplicity has become one of the watchwords of present-day practice. Properly used, the term means freedom from complexity; from too many parts; from artificial and pretentious style. It does not mean mere bareness or crudity or entire absence of ornament or entire innocence of style. There is no esoteric or peculiar virtue in calcimined walls, ingrain or oatmeal papers, scrim, burlap, extra weight denim, rag rugs or mission furniture, though each of these materials may be excellent in its proper situation. A room may be clothed with glowing colors and filled with sumptuous fabrics and richly ornamented forms and still possess the quality of simplicity, provided only that nothing is included which could have been left out without marring the beauty or impairing the usefulness of the room.
It must be admitted, however, that most American houses do lack simplicity. The American housewife is inclined to accumulate much and to discard little. Her rooms are likely to contain too many colors, too much pattern, too much furniture, too many pictures, particularly too many gew-gaws and gimcracks. It must be remembered that a multitude of little trivial things destroys the unity of a room esthetically and clutters it physically, fatiguing the mind and disturbing the serenity of its occupants. Decoration deals with large objects only as the result of effort. When it makes such an effort, only to find the object of it commonplace and quite unworthy of attention, a sense of disgust is inevitable. Even when small objects are beautiful and intrinsically interesting they ought to be used sparingly, for their decorative value is in general inversely proportional to their number. It is far better to follow the Japanese custom, displaying these beautiful things a few at a time while the others remain out of sight, than to make all common by too lavish use.
Moreover, any work of art, whether large or small, must be regarded as objectionable in any room unless it is in a decorative sense more valuable than the space it occupies. A given room is limited in size and in floor and wall area, as the mind is limited in tis power of attention; and since open spaces, an effect of atmosphere and repose, and freedom from too many stimuli are absolutely essential to beauty and comfort, the decorator must ensure this necessary simplicity, even though he may thereby be compelled to eliminate things of real excellence.
FIGURE 2 – Sidewall utterly lacking in simplicity. The wallpaper is unsuitable as a background for the pictures, of which there are far too many.
Most of the sermons preached on simplicity during the past twenty years have had for their text William Morris’ admonition to have in your house only what you knot to be useful and believe to be beautiful. The precept is perfect; yet like many others that have to do with conduct it is hard to live up to. Merely to know what is useful demands thoughtful consideration, while to know what is beautiful presupposes the possession of a taste which would render the advice superfluous. Moreover, to discard even the things we know to be useless or unbeautiful involves overcoming the primal instinct of possession which lies miles deep below our surface veneering of culture. To give up the things we own is to go against nature, and we can do it only as we learn to value what we gain by the process more highly than what we lose.
Finally, the power of sentiment is to be reckoned with. Many of the things which taste and judgement warn us to banish possess a sentimental value. They may be family heirlooms, the gifts of valued friends, the injudicious purchases of honeymoon days. Whether through fear of offending the donors, or because we love them, as Desdemona loved Othello, for the disposed to keep these things in spite of their youth has suffered, we are disposed to keep these things in spite of their manifest ugliness and the patent fact that they destroy the simplicity of our rooms. Into the precinct of these intimate considerations the outsider may not venture. What to keep and what to discard is manifestly a matter for each household to decide for itself. But this is certain: If you would have simplicity and beauty you must pay for them. “Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.”