Peculiar Styles and Decorations of Different Periods
It is easy to gain from the popular literature of period decoration an impression that the period styles reveal a peculiar fitness and beauty, and that each possesses an esoteric significance, innate and beyond rational explanation. It is true that each style does reveal a peculiar fitness-for its own period; and it is also true that the best rooms of any period reveal a peculiar beauty because they reveal those approximately perfect convergences of artistic effect in outline, proportion, coloring, texture and ornamental detail which, though necessarily characteristic of any finely decorated room, are more difficult to achieve by the purely eclectic method. As to their esoteric significance, the period styles possess none. Their significance depends, as the whole course of our study has served to point out, upon their elements; that is, upon outline, proportions, coloring and texture. A Renaissance chair of the first period reveals a fine effect of virility; but so does a Doric column or a Kazak rug, and for the same reasons. The effect of slender proportions and soft, yielding curves is always the same, whether we meet with them in a Louis XV sofa or in a Greuze canvas. Indeed, a sufficiently skillful designer, though he had never so much as heard of the style of Louis XV, could create a room which would have the emotional quality of that style through the employment by purely artistic means of the emotional qualities of form and color.
Where the architecture of a house permits a general adherence to a definite style, many niceties of decorative expression are possible which are not possible in rooms furnished in a more eclectic manner. On the other hand, the common practice of doing adjoining rooms, practically without reference to their architecture, in different styles which are so far apart in structure and in ornament as to be not only unsympathetic but antipathetic, so that one passes from a Henri II hall to a Georgian living room, an Italian dining room or a Louis XVI music room, is a decorative absurdity which has given a theatrical character to many American homes, robbed them alike of beauty and of comfort, and made their owners unconscious contributors to the gayety of nations. The important thing, and the only thing that is absolutely essential, whether one adopts a period style or not, is to see that the furniture and other decorative materials in the room fit the room in scale, concur in expressing its emotional purpose in proportion, line and coloring, and harmonize with each other and with the whole by reason of the repetition of like elements, both in physical appearance and in emotional significance.
In matters of decorative practice we are too much concerned with names, which may mean much or little. We speak of the style of Chippendale, for example, as though it were sharply defined; whereas Thomas Chippendale was a popular designer who turned his hand to anything that pleased him and promised to be profitable, and who, in addition to his most characteristic work, introduced an extreme type of rococo ornament into England at one period of his career, and created a hybrid Chinese-Chippendale style at another period. Even the great style of Louis XIV was by no means homogeneous, for during the major part of the reign of Le Roi Soleil, a bitter struggle for ascendancy raged between the exponents of two schools of architectuure. At the present time it I particularly unwise for the layman to attach too much significance to the names borne by many of the so-called period pieces. Designers to-day use the historic styles as a thesaurus from which to draw whatever ideas happen to meet their needs or please their fancy. Much of the period furniture now in use, especially the dining room and bed room furniture, can be identified with the historic styles whose names it bears only through its ornamental detail, and then only with difficulty.
This is just as well, for out of it will come eventually a characteristic expression of our own needs and aspirations-a style "made and moulded of things past," as every other style has been; but one that will be shaped to meet the peculiar requirements of a modern, cultured and democratic age. In the meantime, we who have homes to furnish will not take too seriously the claims of those who, on the one hand, urge the peculiar preciousness and virtue of the period styles, or who, on the other, decry any use of those styles. Having analyzed our own needs and fixed upon our own goal, we will approach it deliberately, taking the beautiful where we have the good fortune to find it, and concerned only with its fitness for our use. And in the degree that we acquire the power to read the meaning of the house-furnishing materials in their elements, the ability so to select and arrange them that essential likenesses result in unity and harmony, and the common sense to see to it that comfort and suitability are not lost in the search for style, we shall be able to create, each for himself, and out of the materials within our reach, the favorable home environment which is the chief end of the art of interior decoration.