The Nature of Interior Decoration
WE all live in houses of one sort or another. Before these houses can be lived in they must be furnished. When furnished, whether well or ill, they constitute the environment in which we spend the great part of our lives, and as such influence us continuously and profoundly. In the degree that this environment is beautiful and comfortable it affects us favourably, making for repose, for quick recuperation from fatigue of mind or body, for cheerfulness, for wider and higher interests, and for a fuller and comelier mode of living generally. In the degree that it is uncomfortable and unbeautiful it makes quite as inevitably for the opposites of these desiderata.
It is therefore that a properly furnished house is, for each of us, a very important matter indeed; and, as a necessary corollary, that a knowledge of how to furnish a house properly is also a very important matter. Unhappily no one is born with this knowledge. It must be acquired, at some cost in time and effort, before it can be employed. Beauty and comfort in the home-and equally, of course, in the hotel, theatre, or public room of whatever kind-do not result from chance or happy accident. They result from the proper employment of reasoned processes. That is, they result only from the practice of an art, using the work art to mean practice as guided by correct principles in the use of means for the attainment of a desired end. This art, for lack of a better term, we call interior decoration. Those who study and practice in this art, whether as professionals or laymen, are here called decorators.
In a fine sense interior decoration is one of the creative arts. Transforming an empty house into a place of restful beauty is no less creative work than transforming a stretcher of white canvas into a picture, or a block of stone into a sculptured form. There is, however, this very important distinction: that while the decorator creates and artistic whole he does not create the individual units by means of which that whole is built up. That is, he does not design and weave his own rugs, or print his own wall papers or cretonnes, or build his own tables or chairs. What he does is to select such things as he may require from stocks designed and made by others, and to combine and arrange the things so selected in such a way as to fashion a harmonious and beautiful whole. Interior decoration therefore is in an emphatic and peculiar sense an art of selection and arrangement.
It is obvious that such an art does not require dexterity of hand or skill in craftsmanship for its successful practice, but rather skill in selection and arrangement. Work of the highest order demands, here as in the other ars, that power of imagination and of vast artistic synthesis which we call genius. Work of a lower order demands, at the least, and unerring sense of what is becoming and appropriate, a clear perception of what is harmonious and beautiful in the relationships of form and color, and a considerable familiarity with decorative materials and processes. In a word it demands precisely that complex of knowledge, appreciation, discrimination and judgement connoted by the word taste.
Taste, which Chenier happily characterised as a delicate good sense, is defined by the dictionary as the power of perceiving and relishing excellence in human performances; the faculty of discerning beauty, order, congruity, proportion, symmetry, or whatever constitutes excellence. The definition is inadequate, as the definition of any complex abstraction is sure to be; but the faculty itself constitutes the irreducible minimum in the equipment of the decorator. Lacking taste, no one can hope to do anything with while in the art. Possessing it, any one can hope to do much, however meagre his other resources. For the decorator the acquisition of a sure taste is therefore in the most determined sense a necessity.
There is, of course, no royal road. The distance to be travelled, as well as the difficulties of the journey, will vary for each individual. At the worst, we know that taste is a faculty which can be cultivated by any normal person who is willing to make the necessary effort. It is indubitable that different persons are differently endowed, and that the acquisition of a cultivated taste will prove more difficult for one than for another; but it is also true that the mind and the spirit, like the body, can be strengthened by exercise, and that for the person of normal endowment there need be no question of possibility, but only of means and methods.
The word taste is very commonly used in a second sense, to express individual fancy or predilection. This significance of the term is, in fact, the only one recognised by a great many people, with a resulting confusion of ideas which is responsible for much bad decoration. The saying that there is no disputing in matters of taste has come down to us from antiquity, and even to-day it is true that great numbers of house-wives do not admit the need for a cultivated taste because they do not recognise the authority, or indeed the existence, of any norms or standards of artistic judgment higher than their own preferences. Quite naturally the more unsophisticated among housewives of this class proceed to furnish their homes according to the promptings of their own sweet will, and remain happily unperturbed by the result. Among the more sophisticated we find on the one hand a tendency to imitate-to copy from the homes of acquaintances or from books and magazines, or, under the name of period decoration, to set up in their homes, with scrupulous fidelity to detail, one or more of the historic styles. On the other hand, there is a disposition to reject experience; to aim only at self-expression; and, mistaking mere eccentricity for originality, to create decorative environments which reveal neither beauty nor comfort, but only the vagaries of inept and un-disciplined fancy.
It is clear that the real aim of interior decoration is as remote from mere imitation as it is from mere eccentricity; being, as we have seen, no other than the creation of a beautiful and fitting home. In these creative processes it can work neither blindly nor by fiat. Rather it must, like every other creative art, work in harmony with a body of definable general principles, and its products, whether imitative or original, can be excellent only in the degree that they conform to these principles. It follows therefore that taste, in so far as it governs the selective processes of the art, can be best and most quickly cultivated by the study of these underlying principles, and by the critical and long-continued examination of such examples of good and bad work are necessary to their illustration and mastery. To deny that interior decoration has a basis in organised knowledge is to deny the possibility of intelligent progress in the art. Writing of the art of painting, Leonardo da Vince long ago observed that “those who become enamored of the practice of the art without having previously applied themselves to the diligent study of the scientific part of it may be compared to mariners who put to sea without rudder or compass, and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished-for port. Practice must always be founded on good theory.” What is true of painting is even more true of interior decoration. It, too, consists in a superstructure of practice resting upon a substructure of principle, and any genuinely productive study of it must begin with its foundation.