The Decoration of Houses: Ballrooms & Boudoirs

The Decoration of Houses: Ballrooms & Boudoirs

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Most of our clients don’t throw balls, invite people over for piano recitals in their music room, or hire and fire servants in their boudoir anymore, as all of Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s friends and clients did. It would be stupid for us to create rooms for our clients to try and learn to do these activities. So, as we read through these three chapters that deal with very fancy rooms with specific functions we have extremely rare occasion to create, I’m thinking we have to do it with an ear to the major themes that might be applied to other types of rooms – and maybe also, versions of these rooms that have totally vanished that our clients may actually really like to have. Even though most of them are more apt to drink wine and play video games on the couch, I don’t think they actively want to do these things in a place that looks shabby. If the purpose of some of these rooms is obsolete, their ability to perfectly accommodate their purpose is not. 

I’ve just told you about one sort of big room I reconfigured to accommodate all kinds of informal living; it was made to look beautiful, or at least tidy, by applying lessons I learned directly from these three chapters. I also brought it up because it is an example of the not uncommon situation where the public and private lives of our clients have to happen in the same space. Even though these worlds are a fair bit closer to one another than they were in Edith and Og’s day, at the very least, people want a place to stuff their private mess before a dinner party.

Let’s think of an average contemporary house that does have more than one public room. These rooms are probably living room, dining room, family room and kitchen. There might be an office or library too. In Edith’s house in Lenox, Mass, which I visited last week, the public rooms I remember are drawing room, library, office and dining room. So, not that different actually, except the kitchen was definitely kept separate as that was a realm for the servants. Of these, the drawing room was the very clear center of the house and treated with the most importance. I think Edith and her guests did actually spend a decent amount of time in there.

We don’t have drawing rooms anymore. We have living rooms and family rooms. In the 19th century, critics of domestic design including Edward Bok, editor of the hugely influential Lady’s Home Journal, identified the drawing room as the most over-decorated and uninhabited room in the house. Though it seems Mr. Bok may not have been the first to rename the drawing room the living room, he is the one identified with causing the seismic shift. He hoped this renaming would encourage people to create drawing rooms comfortable and inviting enough to actually live in. He was really, really successful. The Lady’s Home Journal was the first magazine in history to be distributed to over 1,000,000 readers and the very, very famous architect Stanford White attributed its editor with the humongous and lightning speed positive change of the whole nation’s taste in houses. Having refused to work with Bok early on, White said he would gladly work together, pro bono to make up for his initial snub.

So, why do so many of us have grandparents and even parents whose living rooms seem more like the uninhabitable drawing rooms of the pre-Bok world? I will give you five seconds to come up with the answer. 5-4-3-2-1. Got it? That’s right, the t.v. In an episode of my favorite show 30Rock, when Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemmon learns that one of her colleagues doesn’t have a t.v. her immediate response is, “What do you point all of your furniture at?” It would be difficult to overstate the impact the t.v. has had on the way people are inclined to furnish the rooms they live in. It’s probably too simple to attribute this reversion just to the tv though. By the mid twentieth century domestic help in the average house was almost totally eliminated. With the owner now acting as the cook, cleaner and mother, the kitchen had to become the command center and keeping the living room clean for guests while entertaining kids became unreasonable. So, a family room with close connection to the kitchen, where mother and kids could be together and make a mess that didn’t need to be cleaned up before dinner, was obvious. The reason I assign the completion of the return of the living room from the center of family life to a decorative tomb to the t.v. is that through the 40’s and early 50’s you can see kitchens where family life took place, but where no adjacent family room is present. In these houses, you may find the basement rumpus room or party room, but these were more for big, rambunctious gatherings than for t.v. viewing.

In houses where help continued to be employed, a t.v. may have been wheeled into the living room on a cart when the owner wanted to watch something, then wheeled away after. But leaving the t.v. out in the center of the house seemed to be one step too far. So, as the tv became the favored leisure pastime, life at home migrated completely out of the living room until the flat screen made it possible to hang less obtrusively on the wall.

We have made this living room detour because Edith and Og’s history of this space obviously doesn’t bring us to present day, so is a bit confusing to pick up. They carry us through a few centuries of morphing traditions across Europe, and the common thread to note in their account is the homeowners’ consistent need for a public and a private set of rooms. In England, they say the medieval with-drawing room began as a part of the owner’s bedroom, where the ladies might retire from the activities of the hall. It grew from there to its own room.  In France the story was similar, though both the public hall and the private bedroom contained beds – one for actual sleeping and one for ceremonial business or for visiting noblemen. In Italy, the large public salon was eventually divided into the salon de compagnie and salon de famille. I think these names are my favorite and maybe we should take up the terms company room and family room to say what we really mean. Anyway,  as English houses grew, the room for entertaining important people was named the salone, after the Italian grand room  and the one for family life was abbreviated from the medieval lady’s with-drawing room to just “drawing room.”

Finally, Edith and Og’s deliver us to their day in the United States where the average house had the drawing room and the library. The latter was for the man of the house and his guests and the former for the whole family to relax. But often, instead of being treated as the Italian salon de famille, the décor of this relaxing room took on the nature of salon de compagnie, except the family knew no heads of state. Therefore, they had no use for such a room. The point Edith and Ogs are making in delineating all this for us, is that the average house has no place for the fancy living room because there will never be an event important enough for its use. It would be much more enjoyable if it were geared toward everyday family life instead.  I think one of the reasons these rooms are so off-putting is inherent in their design is an assumption that their owners are more important than perhaps they are. It sort of feels like they are playing house. But all it needs to feel like a place to linger and live are comfortable chairs with generous tables and subtle but useful lighting. My own living room is my favorite room in my house. It’s a nice-sized rectangle, 17 feet wide and 25 feet long, with the fireplace at one end. We can and do do everything in this room. The tv is over the fire, but behind a bamboo roller shad that looks like a painting. The sofa is up against the long wall to the left of the fire, with big tables and lamps at either end. Small armchairs are at right angles so this seating group forms a rectangle around a generous coffee table. To the right of the fireplace, a writing desk is placed against fire wall. In the room a bit, across from the sofa grouping, is another pair of armchairs with a square table between and big round ottoman that doubles as seating and connect this group to the sofa group if we have company. In the remaining half of the room, opposite the fireplace wall, is a round game table, a very large cabinet filled with games and books, and a stocked bar cart. Actually, there are books stacked everywhere. It is a place as comfortable for one person as for 20. I think that’s most important attribute of a good living room. Edith and Ogs probably wouldn’t go for the intense shade of yellow in my living room, as they say this room should be of unobtrusive background so that individual objects may be observed for their beauty, and so you don’t get tired of loud walls. We agree that patterned wallpaper is weird in the living room. Too much to take in.

I want to make just a brief pitstop at the boudoir. I’ve never worked with a client who requested one, or probably even had a real grasp on what one is. For some, I think the term feels evocative and definitely decedent. I think, though, that a lot of people have some space in their house that serves this old room’s purpose. The boudoir is a part of a bedroom suite and was historically the private sitting room for the lady of the house. Edith and Ogs point out it corresponded with her husband’s den. In the colonial revival house I grew up in, my dad worked in the library through a pair of double doors off the living room, while my mom had a tiny sitting room off their bedroom. She sitting room had a delicate mantel that was hardly wide enough to hold a picture, an armchair covered in brown chintz with an ottoman and a side table with a phone, a wicker cart with a tv and a built-in bookcase and file drawer. She did all her work there. She’d pay bills, plan events, take calls, wrap presents, iron and sometimes nap. I have a client who has a chaise longue in a sort of private part of the stair landing just outside her bedroom door where I’ve seen her do all the same things. Even though this sort of room seems tethered to old gender roles, I think we should try to forget this and focus on how these tiny rooms are great places to quietly do all kinds of things alone. I don’t think they should be totally taken off the map, especially as the world has recently undergone a huge shift back to working from home. Edith and Ogs point out that in small houses, where a whole bedroom suite is not possible, sometimes this room might be connected to the living room or family room. One thing I think should be noted about these rooms; they aren’t replaced by enlarged laundry rooms with a portion of lowered counter that allows for other kinds of work. A room like that is definitively about a task, which a stand in for boudoir does not have to be. The stuff that goes on in a boudoir may be a bit more high-minded.

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