IT will be apparent from the preceding chapters that the study of period decoration does not lie within the scope of this essay, which is concerned neither with individual nor epochal expression in interior decoration, but rather with the basic principles that underlie and condition all expression in that art.
Period decoration is in theory and in practice an attempt to employ in the decoration of present-day homes the ideals, forms and materials of an earlier day. We have, however, seen that interior decoration is properly an art having the distinctly practical aim of making homes beautiful and comfortable to live in; that to be beautiful a given house must conform to esthetic laws derived from the constitution of the mind itself, and therefore lying far below all that is changing and ephemeral; while to be comfortable it must satisfy a complex of special needs, tastes and circumstances which of necessity varies with each household, and is in fact as unique as the complex of lines in a finger-print. Since one of the factors in every decorative problem is in the nature of things unique, it follows that every satisfactory solution of such a problem must also be unique, and that accordingly a man cannot live in his neighbor's house, or his father's or his grandfather's house, and find it in any accurate sense both beautiful and comfortable. How, therefore, can he expect to live in the homes of one or two or three hundred years ago?
Of course, no one really does. The most enthusiastic exponent of period decoration professes merely to adapt the historic styles to present-day needs, though it is to be noted that in practice he seeks to re-create the ideals of the past, and to reproduce its rooms with meticulous fidelity to detail. The ideal of a return to the past is however foolish and quite unrealizable. We cannot return to the past, either in art or in life, precisely because it is the past. The hour or the age that has been borne backward by the stream of time is gone, with its own ideals and aspirations, its proper modes of thought and action. It can never be called back or re-created or re-lived. Hence period decoration, in the degree that it is fully and accurately realized, is mere pose, theatrical and unreal. It is in fact only in the degree that an historic style can be so modified in practice as to adapt it to the requirements of comfortable modern life that it is properly of interest to the decorator of to-day. In the degree that it is too archaic, too ponderous, too sumptuous or too exotic for present-day homes it is properly of academic interest only, and the attempt to use it in practice in spite of its manifest unfitness can result only in actual ugliness and discomfort, however great may be the effect of magnificence or the merely pictorial value of the rooms.
Much of undoubted value can be learned through the systematic study of period decoration that can be learned in no other way, but the time required for such a study is prohibitive for most laymen, while the mass of descriptive and illustrative material essential to it has never been-and cannot be-condensed into a single volume. The student who has the time and energy to go ahead with the serious study of the subject will find an admirable literature in English and French, while several manuals are available which treat different phases of it superficially but helpfully for the general reader.