Different Styles in Different Periods
In all ages man has tried as best he could to make his home satisfy his needs and aspirations. If we take a quick glance backward over such of his attempts as have been made in historical times we will see that from time to time, at a given period and among a given people, architects, builders, designers and craftsmen of all sorts get into the habit of doing things in a certain way-of emphasizing certain types of line, form, proportions, ornamental motives and colorings. These ways will always be seen to have grown more or less spontaneously out of the ideals and customs of the past, and to be adjusted more or less perfectly to the ideals and customs of the particular period. And because these ways of doing things conform to the prevailing social, economic and political conditions, and express the prevailing social and ethical ideals, they become general, then dominant, and thus crystallize into what we call a style. Among other peoples with different ideals and needs other styles become dominant. Everywhere styles wax and wane and are succeeded by new styles which more adequately express new ideals or meet changed conditions. Infrequently what we call the period styles have expressed the needs and tastes of a whole people: usually those of the court and the aristocracy only. Always they are in a state of flux, because they are merely the reflection in one medium-as literature is in another medium, and historic costume in a third-of life, which is itself always in a state of flux. Thus each style emerges slowly from an earlier one, climbs to the meridian of its purest expression, declines, degenerates and decays, following the universal law of life.
The civilizations of the ancient world made no important contributions toward the development of the modern house. Neither did the civilization of medieval Europe, with its feudal organization of society and its vast and gloomy castles. It was not until the Renaissance that the modern house and modern methods of furnishing it began to emerge. From the middle of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth-that is, from the Renaissance to the French revolution, when the old regime passed, and aristocracy began to yield place to modern industrial democracy-the tides of life flowed swiftly in Europe, and, as we would expect, frequent and relatively rapid changes took place in the manner of building and furnishing houses.
While the Renaissance began in Italy, it quickly spread to the north and west. In architecture and decoration the Italian ideas, forms and practice soon reached France, and, half a century later, we find them in England, where they displaced or fused with the Gothic ideals and practice. They became dominant in France with the accession of Francois I in I5I5, and in England with the accession of Elizabeth in 1558.
The French styles developed smoothly and logically, that of Francois I being followed by those of Henri II, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. After the revolution the Directoire and the Empire styles were created, from foreign elements chiefly classical, by the fiat of Napoleon. In England, owing to frequent changes of dynasty, and to the constant interfusion of foreign ideas through political and commercial causes, the styles changed rapidly, beginning with the Elizabethan, followed by the Jacobean, the styles of Charles the First, the Commonwealth, Charles the Second, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and the Early Georgian, and by the late eighteenth century Adam style and the individual furniture styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton, and finally terminating in the nineteenth century in the so-called Victorian style.
During the nineteenth century decoration, like architecture, fell into a period of decline. Taste became debased, craftsmanship inferior, and in America, as in Europe, builders, manufacturers and house-furnishers alike gave over all attempt at serious original work, and contented themselves with poor reproductions and poorer adaptations of the work of the past.
Some forty years ago our wealthier people began to want more fitting and beautiful homes. These people had traveled in France, and they turned naturally to France for models, so that there was a period of almost two decades in which French ideas and practice were dominant in the furnishings of important American houses. Later the English styles began to be copied, and presently, almost over night, we had among us the phenomenon of period decoration. The thing went farther than mere copying. Whole rooms-woodwork, ceiling, fireplace, furniture; everything except the pregnant associations and the spiritual quality that made them significant and beautiful were torn out of old English houses and French chateaux and set up, as in the bed of Procrustes, at whatever cost of amputation or stretching, in the great American houses.