The Decoration of Houses: Don't Get Bogged Down in the Details

The Decoration of Houses: Don't Get Bogged Down in the Details

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________


Hello and welcome to episode 3 of The Daniel House Book Club, where we’re journeying through the 8 books every interior designer and design enthusiast should have read according to architectural digest. If you’d like to read along with us, please visit our website, and click on the Club Bulletin tab for a complete schedule of our first season’s readings, or just follow along and be surprised. Today, we are reading from The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, who I’ve begun referring to fondly as Edith and Ogs, because it’s less of a tongue twister.

I’m your host, Peter Spalding and I’m in New York this week, my favorite place in America, possibly the world. And I’m surrounded by great examples of the sort of architecture Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman hoped to peruade their readers to create. Whenever I visit, I spend as much time in Central Park as humanly possible. Even though the park is a Victorian creation, I can’t help but think of how related it is to what we’re learning together. The Decoration of Houses, especially the section we’re reading this week, is very much about not getting bogged down in little details – remembering to zoom out, see the big picture and employ design ideas that go the furthest in making a real impression. Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect who led the design of Central Park, hated little flower beds because they were, and are, so inconsequential. Instead, he had huge swaths of land altered, digging up earth for little lakes in one place and piling it all back up somewhere else to create bluffs offering vantage points beyond those lakes. Instead of planting flowers, he planted tiny forests. All this encouraged park visitors to move through and explore the landscape because they could sense some new great experience was lying just beyond. I think we can all agree, people continue to love the outcome. Edith and Ogden are trying to convey the same sense of movement can occur in a house, if you maintain the big picture perspective Frederic Law Olmsted understood so well. Now a quick word from The Daniel House CEO Alexander Spalding.

Today, we’re looking at Edith and Og’s chapters on Ceilings and Floors, Entrance and Vestibule and Hall and Stair. We’re starting with ceilings first, which I’m excited about, because this an area I have explored the least in my own work. I have to admit, I’m always hearing designers say the ceiling is the biggest missed opportunity in a house. And then I go into a contemporary room that has a ceiling that’s been painted or leafed or covered in wallpaper, and I think to myself, “I really don’t like this.” I have done a couple special ceilings that made the project, but these were pretty architectural in nature. Once, I worked on a farmhouse that was built in 2000, but felt like it may have been dated even when it was finished. It had a double height foyer that was turned 45 degrees from all the rest of the rooms in the house. One wall was missing, allowing space, including the double height ceiling, to flow right into the family room before dropping down to an open single height kitchen.  Another wall curved to carry the stairs. The house really had no architecture; everything was cased in that vaguely traditional 2-1/2” stock moulding in that really orangey oak that was so popular in the 1990s. I hope to never see that stuff again. The clients did have a lot of Victorian antiques they’d inherited and mixed with some contemporary industrial pieces. The effect was not terrible, but  really needed a unifying architectural backdrop to support it. I proposed we expire the region’s supply of reclaimed barnwood to create a grid of unfinished ceiling beams layered over a white tongue-and-groove ceiling. The squares of the grid were big, 8x8’ I think, and centered on the foyer’s huge chandelier. In the end, we used the language of the ceiling to inform the walls too, supporting this weighty design on thickly paneled walls painted a moody blue-green. This rustic thing I described is not exactly my taste, but the transformation was complete and the clients and their guests were blown away. I think the success was in providing scale and articulation to a space that had none. Edith and Ogs have a lot to say about why scale is so critical in the success of a ceiling and why sometimes paint and pattern up there can feel really oppressive like I’ve experienced. 

Wood ceilings, by nature of their construction, always look heavy. They won’t be successful if they aren’t held up or at least appear to be held up by wood paneled walls or something similarly robust. Without correspondingly hefty walls, these ceilings will seem to bare down on you. Any sort of coffered ceiling no matter what it’s made of will look very heavy if there isn’t a strong center to the ceiling composition too. The 8x8’ grid of rough-hewn wooden beams I created back in that farmhouse stretched across the ceiling of several irregularly shaped rooms, so the only piece of the grid that was actually one complete, totally horizontal square was in the dead center of the foyer, framing the chandelier. There was nothing to compete with the attention this drew. I did my reading and some writing for this episode in one my favorite rooms ever, the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library, designed by the great firm of Carrere & Hastings. The room is humongous – nearly 80 feet wide and 300 feet long with a ceiling that’s over 50 feet high. It’s the perfect place for a great composition overhead. And actually, on initial inspection, it sort of seems like you have 3 equal panels of mural painting divided by deep coffering, which is definitely not what Edith and Ogs are advising. But, when you examine the room more closely, you realize that all four corners are punctuated by gigantic piers that seem to support the room, so its dimensions actually narrow at either end. Where this happens, a series of much smaller coffers cover the ceiling. So, the three equal panels make up one huge center that stretches across the room and seems to offer windows into the heavens above, while the groups of coffering at either end make up the rest of the complete composition. The mural paintings are not filled with a bunch of little birds and cherubs, but just abstract cloud cover. As Edith and Ogs warn, smaller, more detailed elements up there would be totally useless, nearly invisible clutter. We are almost always furthest away from the ceiling so the scheme up there really needs to communicate big ideas only. 

You’re probably not painting clouds on your client’s ceiling, so here are a few slightly more relevant tips. In a room with a low ceiling, a crown moulding that is short but stretches out a little further onto the ceiling in the horizontal direction creates the illusion of height. In a big room with a low ceiling, a cove or barrel vault may also be a good way to achieve the look of more space, as a great big, plain ceiling can become a pretty daunting element of a room. Sinuous or especially detailed patterns are sort of disorienting over-head and our authors would never, ever, ever put wallpaper on the ceiling. I’m sure they’d disagree with me, but I do think there are some fairly small rooms (usually bedrooms) whose walls, ceiling, curtains and bedding are one single paper and fabric pattern that are very, very successful. Do what you will with this information.

Where coffers and the illusion of space beyond might be great ceiling, Edith and Ogs hate them on the floor. They are referring to layouts of marble or tile and sometimes patterns in European rugs that give the indication of some kind of three-dimensionality. We interact more directly with the floor and rely on it to literally support us and keep us upright, so having it look and be totally level is pretty important. 

Whenever possible, floors should be marble or stone, our authors say. Wood is never preferable for them, even though a lot of people seem to think it makes a space warmer, they argue it doesn’t. I’m sitting in room with a wood floor right now and I’m freezing, the other day in the stone floored New York Public Library I was toasty, so perhaps they’re on to something. I think this is a pretty circumstantial assertion, that mostly has to do with stone feeling more dignified, which I’d have to concede. They do like Old French Parquet floors though, especially when the individual pieces of wood do not contrast too greatly from those around them. I think the old parquet patterns scale wood up to the level of being able to have a meaningful impact on a room, as opposed to the ceaseless, unidirectional lines of regular wood.

They are not nearly as opposed to wall-to-wall carpet as many contemporary designers and consumers seem to be, as long as it is simple and the same color from room to room. They favor dark colors because they say a room should feel its weightiest at the bottom. I rarely where white pants for a similar reason, but I’m not overly sold on this as a steadfast rule. 

Stair runners, they say, should always be of a strong solid color. Masses of single color are one of the best tools to create effects in design they say. Little patterns, I think would be for them like little flower gardens were for Frederick Law Olmsted, detractors from the big picture. Better to plant thousands of red begonias that can be seen a mile away than distract with little dots of color here and there.

This could be a good time to interject and say yesterday I got to visit Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, in Lenox, Mass., much of which was designed with Ogden Codman. Though I’ll describe it in a bit more detail here shortly, one thing I noticed a lot was the flooring. I love terrazzo – I just put it in a client’s kitchen and stayed in a little Italian villa where it was everywhere, but I did not like it in Edith’s drawing room. It could have been that the color was the same as the stuff in my elementary school hallways or the room’s rug was too small, or that the furniture layout didn’t feel great for intimate conversation. Whatever the case, I would have much more likely spent all my time in the adjacent library where there is a really nice parquet floor that exudes warmth the minute you step in. I’m only bringing this up to point out that even though our author’s wrote with great authority, they were just people like you and me and sometimes they were wrong. Or their opinion, though maybe based in good reason was just one of many. 

Now, let’s move on to entrances and vestibules. In house hunting, the number one deal breaker for me is a front door that open’s right into the living room. I hate this, and so did Edith and Ogs. According to them, a main living space in a house should be at least two clicks away from the front door, maybe more. 

The nicest front doors are solid, with no windows and strong architectural lines. They not only seem to, but actually do provide security. A few feet beyond this door, many good houses have another glass door that creates an airlock to keep out the cold. Then, comes the vestibule, a much neglected, often removed little space delivered to us all the way from ancient Greece where it could have been a series of as many as three rooms that transitioned a house from public to private space. Similarly, in ancient Rome, the vestibule was one of the series of spaces in a house between the street and its central atrium. Often, the vestibule included a porter’s lodge. Almost all the colleges at Oxford still have this ancient arrangement today and Edith and Ogs are advocating a vestibule for the same reason. It’s a transition room from exterior to interior. It’s a source of protection from weather and intruders, and apparently a place where our authors would have stuck their help to let party guests in and out, just like the porters at Oxford continue to check students in and out of their colleges today. 

As a protective room, the vestibule should be made of and furnished with impenetrable materials and should be the most austere room, giving off very little of a house’s interior character. Walls and floor are best in stone or marble and the only furniture should be stone topped tables, holding vases or busts. Plaster casts are fine too. If you can’t afford marble, wood paneling painted white or grey or some other pale color also work. Light fixtures should also be simple and seemingly protective, like big old hurricane glass lanterns. 

Even though it’s huge, Edith’s house in Lenox does not have a proper vestibule exactly as we’ve just described. It has something better; you enter through central double doors on the ground floor of its three-story white stucco façade into an opening in the middle of the long side of a rectangular entrance hall. So, rather than a hall running through the house as is so familiar in the center hall colonials all over America, this one flanks the front of the house. It has a low, gently vaulted ceiling and the plaster walls are treated like those of a grotto, as if dripping with seaweed, which is perfect iconography for a room that is a story below all the important rooms. There’s nothing to do in this space except enter. At the far right, another set of central double doors carries you through to the stair, fully contained in its own space. On the next story, directly above the entrance hall, is the gallery which serves to connect the main rooms of the most important floor of the house. So the ground floor entrance hall works as a vestibule and the gallery works as a proper hall, in the ideal sequence of a house, which we’re about to learn more about. 

Now, we’re at the most complicated chapter we’re covering today: hall and stairs. Last week I said if there is one thing to take away from this book, it is that the walls of classical houses are treated as orders. Here’s the second biggest takeaway: the main hall and the stairs do not occupy the same space in a really good house. This is a problem we confront again and again in houses in the United States. When I was 13 or 14 a good friend of mine was moving to a new house with her family. As a 13 or 14-year-old herself, she didn’t have a lot of say in the new house, but when her parents asked if there was anything she’d particularly like, she said, “great prom stairs.” And in most houses here, to have quote, “great prom stairs,” means you walk in the front door and are immediately greeted with some woefully inadequate interpretation of Cinderella’s castle. My friend was only a girl, but adults should have more developed senses. I always find these houses a little promiscuous and I think Edith and Ogden would agree. A house needs to unfold a little more before revealing what many, young and old, consider as one of the main events. The story of a house goes vestibule, then main hall opening to important rooms, and the stair. The only exception to this sequence, as we just saw at Edith’s house and which we can find all over Europe, is in cases where all the main rooms of a house are upstairs. Then, the vestibule may open onto the stairs which carry you up to the hall. So, often in a very grand house, it is the hall, not the stair that is treated with importance.  One thing to keep in mind about really grand stairs is that they need to take you somewhere; four beds and a couple of baths is not a compelling enough reason to ascend the Spanish steps.

The aggrandizement of the stair is often cited as one of the major contributions of the Renaissance to the world of architecture, but as Edith and Ogs point out, even then, stairs contained between two walls, what they call intermural stairs, were seen as grand enough for palaces. Before this period stairs had been completely concealed either for security or because they were not considered visually interesting. Where there is not room for a hall and a separate stair, an enclosed stair is preferable in our authors’ eyes. 

We’ve already described their ideal character for the vestibule, which you’ll remember is austere and inpenetrable. Now, let’s talk about the character for the hall and the stairs. While the hall can be a bit more forgiving than the vestibule, one thing Edith and Ogs aren’t too keen on is it being confused with another cozy place to read by the fire. In rambling Queen Anne Houses and even in the early houses influenced by the classical revival that began in the 1880’s and 90’s the hall often grew so large that it had a fireplace and a couple of upholstered chairs, and cases of books to read. The problem with this is that it is somewhat redundant and doesn’t consider the hall’s actual purpose as something of a public square or maybe even a highway of a home. It’s redundant because the hall connects the vestibule and front door to the comfier rooms of the house that should already be filled with books and chairs and a fireplace or two. Even if you put some comfy chairs in the hall, who would ever want to sit there, when they could sit in the much more inviting living room and be a lot less in the way. 

Like a on a highway, Edith and Ogs say people are not stopping to look around in the hall, so decorative schemes should consider first impressions and not a lot more. The hall isn’t a place for small, detailed art or pieces that need to be carefully considered to understand their symbolic meaning. Words like simple, forcible, vigorous and even severe should inform the design of the hall. Furniture here might be straight back chairs and benches for waiting, stone topped tables and consoles, and maybe a very architectural cabinet if storage is needed. The best flooring is stone or marble and where carpet is used, it should be of one strong color matching the stair runner. The best stair rails are of wrought iron, or stone in their opinion. Wood should only be considered if the stairs themselves are wood. Stainless steel was in the works but not readily available at the time, so they identify steel as a poor substitute for iron since it is impossible to keep clean. 

I’m sure you’ve got enough to digest, but before I let you go, let me tell you about one more beautiful entry sequence I just experienced at The Carlyle Hotel, where I finally visited Bemelmans Bar for the first time. Although I’ve just said hotel, this shouldn’t really be understood to be all that different from a residence, because apart from being known for an air of discretion, The Carlyle is a combination hotel and private residence with 60 or so private apartments. To pique your interest, it was the former home of John F. Kennedy and one of Princess Diana’s favorite places to stay. If you’re thinking it sounds really stuffy, you’re wrong – it’s quiet, but oh-so-inviting. My brief search didn’t bring up any floor plans so I am describing it to you from the memory of my only visit, but what I recall is stepping in off East 76th street to a small octagonal vestibule with warm white walls and a black marble floor with a white marble octagonal boarder. The lighting was low and whatever the fixtures were, they weren’t loud enough to catch my attention. Exiting the vestibule, I walked down five gentle steps to the sunken lobby or hall, which I think was square and decorated with the same palette as the vestibule. The room had Ionic pilasters at all four corners and framing each of its openings. To my right was the front desk, which was sunken into the wall. I don’t remember what was straight ahead, but definitely not a major opening. To my left, was a passageway to a beautiful sitting room with an open fire surrounded by mustard colored velvet or mohair upholstered armchairs and settees. Continuing through this room I passed into a much narrow hall, whose axis was perpendicular to everything I’ve just described. It too was warm white with a black and white floor. Somewhere along this route, I must have passed some stairs or elevators, but I have no idea where, which is sort of the point. If I had been looking for them, I would have found them easily I am sure, but they did not announce themselves loudly. At the end of this small hall, I went up a couple of steps into The Gallery, which was richly decorated, with a Turkish pattern in red, green and blue on the walls and little low tables surrounded red velvet armchairs and upholstered benches filled with pillows along the wall. This room was rectangular with chamfered corners, and in the chamfered corner at the back left was yet another passage with a short gentle set of 4 or 5 steps where I finally arrived at Bemelmens Bar, which was the most richly decorated room I’d experienced. It was low ceilinged with high leather benches along the curving walls. Above the benches were the most beautiful, warmly colored murals, which were the whole reason I had wanted to come. They were painted by the writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans who wrote Madeline and after whom the bar is named. The grand piano and the musicians were in the middle of the little space, with hardly any separation from the guests. The whole thing felt like it could have just as easily been a party in my living room as an evening in a famous bar with waiters and pianists and strangers. I will remember that experience forever, and it won’t be about what I drank, which was way too strong for me, by the way, or what was playing on the piano, which was beautiful. It will be about being enveloped by comfort and taken on a journey from the moment I stepped off the street to the time I found my seat in the bar, alongside all kinds of strangers, who for just an evening, took on the feeling of long-lost friends.  Architecture, delivered slowly enough, has the power set the stage for so many great experiences with other humans. 

So, in your next projects, consider separating your clients’ stairs from their front doors and withholding a real sense of intimacy until the house’s entry sequence has delivered its inhabitants to the main event. 

For next week, we’re reading chapters 10, 11 and 12 or The Drawing Room, Boudoir and Morning Room, Gala Rooms: Ball-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery and The Library, Smoking Room and Den. Not working on any of these? Not to worry, neither am I, but as usual there’s still plenty to learn and apply to new types of rooms. See ya next week!


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