The Decoration of Houses: Introduction, The Historical Tradition, and Rooms in General

The Decoration of Houses: Introduction, The Historical Tradition, and Rooms in General


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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Welcome to the very first episode of The Daniel House Book Club. We’re here to learn more about great design together. Whether you’re designing a new hotel or just furnishing your first apartment, we’re exploring books that will help you create spaces you and / or your guests and clients will want to return to again and again. There’s a lot of design out there and though I hate to be a downer, not all of it is good. But all of it could be, if we armed ourselves with a little more knowledge. This is not a podcast created to persuade you toward one aesthetic or another, but to explore together the immense library of design genius that has been contributed to the world by so many great talents that came before us and some that are still among us, so that when we arrive at our next jobs, we’ll find our place amongst the ranks of our amazing profession.

I’m Peter Spalding, the Chief Creative Officer of The Daniel House Club, and I’ll be your host.

Our readings this first season come from the list, recently published by Architectural Digest, of 8 books every interior designer and design enthusiast should have read. For a complete schedule of our first season’s readings, please visit our website, and click on the Club Bulletin tab to find links to purchase each book. Or just follow along and be surprised. We’re reading in chronological order of publication, so the first book we’re reading together is The Decoration of Houses, written in 1897 by the New York Socialite and author Edith Wharton and her architect, Ogden Codman. Though it’s almost 125 years old and some of its concepts, like making sure doors open into rooms so that the people sitting in those rooms are not visible to servants passing in the hall, solve 19th century design problems that no longer represent the values of contemporary society, many of the book’s lessons, especially those on symmetry, balance, proportion and arrangement of rooms, are still useful in creating great interiors for today.

 We’re going to dedicate six weeks of conversation to The Decoration of Houses, before moving onto the next book. Again, for a complete schedule of our first season’s readings, please visit our website, and click on the Club Bulletin tab where you’ll find links to purchase each book.

Before we dive into the introduction, a brief word from our CEO, Alexander Spalding.


Okay, today we’re going to focus on the introduction of The Decoration of Houses, as well as its first two chapters called, “The Historical Tradition” and “Rooms in general.” I want to begin by discussing the last sentence of the introduction, which is (in part) this: The most magnificent palaces of Europe contain rooms as simple as those in any private house…simplicity is at home even in palaces.”

 Edith and Ogden offer this as an explanation of why they’ve picked images of some of the fanciest examples in the world to explore the topics they’re putting forth, but I think it represents the over-arching and somewhat surprising theme of the book. I say surprising because this is a book about the creation of huge, classically inspired houses which we as Post-Modern readers think of as complicated, highly decorated, and even tacky and here they are talking about simplicity.

But, I’d ask you to think of a trip you’ve made to London or Paris or best of all, Rome. You probably visited a couple terrific old rooms with hardly a stick of furniture in them, that felt like they were complete. This sense of completion, before we even get to furniture, is because the creators of those rooms relied on ancient systems of proportion, balance and symmetry to bring them into existence. If you brought a desk or a chair or a couple of sofas into that room you recall, it would hardly make a difference except you and a few friends could sit down and have a conversation. If you brought some rugs and tables and lamps into the space you could see and hear each other better, but the overall impact of the place would remain unchanged. When a modern sofa is photographed in some huge empty, classical European room, it is not the room that looks better, it is the sofa. In 2008, when the late architect Charles Gwathmey finished a glass and steel skyscraper, which was surrounded by great buildings from earlier generations at lower Manhattan’s Astor Place, one critic called it “an elf dancing among men.” What he meant was that the building may have been just fine, very nice even, but it made no difference, as its surroundings were already so well defined. It’s sort of like one man peeing into the ocean. Who cares?


I pause here for a second to say that I think the great early Modern architects and designers got this. They saw that if you stripped these classical buildings to their essence, there was powerful underlying geometry at work. With this knowledge, they created some of the most seductive spaces and objects the world has ever known. These things, especially chairs like those by Breuer and Eames and Mies van der Rohe, have a cultish, nearly worshipful following by design lovers far and wide. And really, it’s pretty rare to see a new thing or place added to this canon. I think this is because later designers, instead of understanding the underlying systems of these places and things, attributed their success to bold colors, lovely shapes or the novel materials from which they were made, or even maybe the specific social problems they were trying to address.

All this is to emphasize what our authors mean when they say, “The most magnificent palaces of Europe contain rooms as simple as those in any private house, simplicity is at home even in palaces.” That is, if you strip away the decoration of Versailles, go upstairs into one of its most underwhelming rooms, a servant’s bedroom maybe, you will find it is still Versailles because the mechanics underlying all if it is all still at work. Take those underlying mechanics from that underwhelming room tucked away in that palace and use them to create simple rooms for nice houses. Then, the architecture will already be so good that the question of what sofa to put in the room will hardly be a question at all.

Edith and Ogden’s intent is to help the layman figure out if a house has good bones or not, and to help a professional learn to design those bones.

Okay, now back to the very beginning of the intro, where Wharton and Codman lay out this weird story of men camping castles. Why are we starting here? They’re letting us know that there was a time when everything in the home was portable, but I think also informing us that even when homes were portable, there was a need to define the space with walls, ceiling and floors, even if this definition was provided by temporary materials like cloth.

The story is a little bit of oversimplified nonsense -- more a literary device than historical fact, but it serves to help us see how walls and ceilings and floors became the most important parts of the places we call home. As the walls were no longer mobile, they could be further defined and refined to become complete works of art.

The question of what a complete work of art is could be the subject of several whole podcasts, but let’s quickly consider what it means in an art form that a lot of people are way more familiar with than I. Your favorite song has melody, harmony and rhythm. The melody is probably the part you remember – the part that carries the lyrics you butcher in the shower. But in the shower, accompanied by nothing but the sound of running water, you don’t really have a song, just something your roommate or family wishes would stop. Add in some notes to harmonize and set that all to a beat and you begin to have something worth listening to. At least that’s my rudimentary understanding of music.

Architecture is no different. Let’s say the columns and the mirrors and the gilding are what you remember from Versailles. I guess then, they are the melody. Like the melody of your favorite song, they are nothing without an accompanying rhythm and some notes that are a little less vocal. Take those columns and mirrors and line them up in a ranch in Texas and the visual music they make is just terrible. In fact, these high notes plucked out and robbed of their bassline fall short of being complete art. They are as bad and displeasing to everyone around as your singing in the shower.  But, learn from those melodic elements of the very greatest compositions ever written, and actually take out your tape measure and learn how big they are and how they are positioned in relation to one another and you might begin to able to make something pretty.

So, in addition to simplicity, we have one more over-arching theme introduced here; that of thorough composition, where melody, harmony and rhythm come together to make a complete work of art. When Wharton and Codman are lamenting the separation of decoration from architecture, they are saying things like mouldings and furnishings are part of the song of a house and selecting them without regard for what the other parts of the song are doing is a recipe for failure. Did you know, when you open a catalog of moulding profiles, most of the pieces you find there have their origin in classical Greek and Roman temples. Once you know how they go together, you can use these parts to elicit all kinds of different results, just like a musician. Modernists knew this. Even if you don’t ever plan to make a classical room in your life, the lessons contained within the themes presented in this intro will help you go far.


Buckle up and let’s head into Edith and Ogden’s first chapter, “The Historical Tradition.” This chapter tells us how we, late 19th century citizens of the United States as we are, inherited the concept of the private house and how we can reclaim the lost art of making it architecturally coherent after the Victorians with their indulgent aesthetic preferences, nearly lost it forever.

 It explains Italian, French and English historical examples of houses in some detail. While Italian houses of the Renaissance are architecturally beautiful, they are too geared toward social life for us to understand them as prerequisites for our own homes. The rooms for frequent and grand indoor / outdoor parties are generally much more important than the rooms where the family actually lives.

While France and England were slower to become “Modern” in the sense we understand, our domestic worlds really come from those nations. Their homes, Wharton and Codman argue, were more private as they had emerged from an era of feudalism in which a house was necessarily a place of protection. Consider too, that it wasn’t until the age of Louis XIV that we had anything resembling a comfortable upholstered armchair. It was also in France, that enormous fireplaces once used for roasting animals were sucked up into the chimney and replaced with the much smaller opening and mantel we know today…although fireplace design, now required only for ambiance, has taken so many captivating turns in the century since Wharton and Codman wrote that I’m not sure this change is as obvious to a 21st century reader as it was to a 19th century one.

I think my favorite passage in this chapter and maybe in the whole book, is on the subject of originality versus imitativeness in art. We crave originality and celebrate it above all else. But what Wharton and Codman smartly point out is that it’s very difficult to say anything new if you do not have any words with which to speak. They argue that in reclaiming this lost art of great house design, some copying will be necessary in order to get the syntax and punctuation right and not to speak it with too heavy an accent. Today, I think all you have to do to see this is true is go visit a Colonial Revival house build in 1920 and then go right after to see one built in 1990. The former will be better in every way, because it will be speaking a complete and coherent language that its designers bothered to learn, instead of just asking their clients, “do you want a contemporary, or a “traditional.” The very best part of the passage is that they leave it by saying, once you get the language, there is no end to the thought-provoking things you may be able to say. I think that’s what people are picking up on when they say “classic is always new.”

Following this, our authors go into a discussion somewhat like the much-overstated Modernist adage, “form follows function,” except as it is not an advertising scheme for the new look, they say what I think the Modernists probably really meant. “A building’s decoration must harmonize with its structural limitations” … and they go one step further, saying from this harmony of decoration with structure, “springs the rhythm that distinguishes architecture from mere construction.” In short, this harmony of decoration with structure is the key to making a complete work of art. Before I move on, let me say that I love Modern architecture, but anyone who has really bought the idea that form follows function in earnest, only needs to see that the bronze I-beams of Mies van der Rohe’s famous Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue in New York which are not structural at all, but decorations applied to its curtain wall, to understand their error. The applied I-beams are beautiful indications of the building’s construction, and are essential to its artistic success, but they are not a mere exposure of its true structural components. Mies knew the language of classical architecture and was using new words to express it.

Now things get tricky, because Wharton and Codman use this concept of decorative and structural harmony as the test of a well-designed room, announcing that, “a room must be decorated as it is, because no other decoration would harmonize as well with the plan.” What incredible confidence it would take to stand before a client and say, “There is no other way, it could not, in reason, you idiot, be any different.” But this is probably an over-simplification of what they are saying. Basically, they are restating the concept just discussed as it relates to the room you are about to decorate. Its decoration must harmonize with its structure. And here, I think structure means proportion. If the room is a tall, elegant box of a space, you should choose component parts that exemplify that. If it is short and dumpy, you should choose parts that make it look as good as possible. You should not choose a scheme of decoration the scale of which is totally off for the space you’ve been given unless dissonance is your goal. It’s sort of like, “If you have a long torso and short legs, low-rise jeans might not be the best look for you.”

This first chapter ends with a discussion of Renaissance Italian, Post Louis XIV French and post Inigo Jones English as the best styles to employ for great success in domestic interiors, but I find this too outside of contemporary thinking to really delve into too deeply. These styles are all reliant on classical proportioning systems and I think it is enough to say to your clients, “we are looking to fill this room with stuff that is square and lanky or round and squat,” etcetera, etcetera to find success. The style helps define a set of criteria, which you and your client could delineate in other ways.


            And following this whirlwind tour through Western European history, we arrive at the part of the book where we begin thinking about planning some nice rooms. Right away in their chapter called “Rooms in General,” Wharton and Codman are talking about purpose. And let me just say that I think one of the reasons designers get a bad rep and sometimes experience pushback from their clients is that they have failed to start with purpose as a motive. “It is not enough to be a library or a drawing-room,” our authors warn, “it must be the library or drawing room best suited to the owner of the house.” They provide this bit of advice which I think is eminently useful: “the golden mean lies in trying to arrange our houses with a view to our own comfort and convenience; the more closely we follow this rule, the easier our rooms will be to furnish and the pleasanter to live in.”

Now, I do think this is great advice, but I think too that sometimes clients can become so focused on the particular way they live that they refuse to believe a more beautiful solution will accommodate their needs just as well, if not better. Sometimes, we as designers need to bend to the will of our clients and other times we have been hired, whether they remember it at the time of their request or not, to put our foot down. Just last night I had a client call and tell me we needed to widen the opening between their kitchen and dining room. All they could see where studs indicating the future plan. I know, from lots of experience, the doorway is the very best dimension to allow easy passage and make the space feel big. As the argument continued, I said, “I would stake my career on keeping the dimensions as they are.” This worked and I could do it with confidence because Wharton and Codman have helped me distill the “black magic” of decoration by reminding me there are very nice dimensions for door openings, and also very poor ones. They say no matter the quality of the decoration of a room, its liveableness relies mostly on the position of its doors, fireplace and windows, the arrangement of the furniture and the absence of anything that is not necessary.  I think they might equally say position of doors, fireplace and windows dictate whether furniture can be placed well, so these are the things to consider first, and to fix if they aren’t working.

And here we come to the stuff I find really helpful to just about every project I have worked on. Some practical tips that make a logical room like, “the fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme.” The tv wasn’t in the picture when Edith and Ogden were writing, and while I really do hate them over the fireplace, what they are saying is that we need to create a context where whatever is the height of focus in a space, whether it’s a tv or a fireplace or both, is easily enjoyed. So, if you have a great fireplace, don’t have a door opening on either side of the hearth, because that’s where the chairs should be. Don’t build beautiful windows and cover them in impassible window coverings so light can never flow in freely. Put some easy chairs by the windows so you can read by natural light. Have nice big tables to work at and don’t cover them with chotchkies. Don’t plan a room with the fireplace directly across from its huge main opening because it’s always a little uncomfortable to feel so exposed to another space. These ideas are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. 

Some of us have lived our entire lives in the era of the open floor plan and so this next part makes hardly any sense to us at all. In the house I lived in till I was five, a large foyer opened onto a transverse hall that had no separation from the dining and living area. Instead, the hall and living areas were made distinct by a change from parquet floors to carpet. The living and dining space were only separate because my mom had arranged the sofa with its back to the dining table thereby giving some indication of space for eating and space for sitting with friends. All this was visible from the moment you entered the front door. I cannot remember ever eating in that dining room except on my birthday, and the living room was a tomb. We always sat in the more private family room and ate in the kitchen. Recently, I visited a new, very large house where I entered into what looked like an expensive shower but was actually meant for wine storage, before turning immediately into the living room followed by an open kitchen and dining room of humongous scale. There was no wine available for purchase at the entry hall wine shower and the living room was empty of people despite lots of huge furniture. The five other guests and I spent all our time visiting our hosts at the cozier end of the kitchen island while the kids played in their rooms.

Believe it or not, Wharton and Codman were actually fighting the same kind of nonsense I’ve just described back in 1897. I love shingle style houses, but I have not been to many that looked easy to furnish. Like a lot of the houses from the last 30 years, they too, have gaping passageways that make their numerous spaces join endlessly to one another with little regard for what’s meant to happen in any of them. This makes it so one can have a gigantic house with lots of beautiful space where no one can live. I am not sure that we today would identify privacy as “one of the first requisites of civilized life,” as Wharton and Codman did, but most people I know still seem to want it at some point or other. We no longer assign purposes as rigidly from one room to the next, but Wharton and Codman say whatever the purpose of a room, it is seriously diminished if it cannot be preserved as a world in itself.

Obviously, this cannot always be applied in the same way it was when our authors wrote. Now, the same people who eat the meal, prepare it while they watch their kids and send a few emails, but to assume the people of today always want every piece of their life jumbled together for all to see is dumb if for no other reason than it is impossible to keep it all orderly. This is evidenced by the number of houses I have recently seen that have a real kitchen located behind the show kitchen that is connected to the living room. Insane! The moral here is that sacrificing livable space to a sense of more space is not a good practice.

We need at least some walls to make nice rooms to live a nice life. And we need the openings in those walls to be well positioned so we sense a pleasing degree of connection from one space to the next. This is more successful, Wharton and Codman argue, if the architect and decorator are one in the same. If they are not, it would be great if they were at least of the same persuasion so the fundamental lines of the room are not a subject of worry.

In architecture school, I had to take sculpture class. I’d spend four hours three mornings a week sculpting the same live model’s head. I was not especially good at it, but what I remember the instructor emphasizing more than anything else was the importance of continuing to bring the entire piece up to the same level of finish at once. “Don’t focus all your energy on the nose today, because the eyes have hardly been developed! Get them working together generally before you get too specific!” Through no fault of my own, I did eventually turn my glob of clay into something resembling my model. Codman and Wharton say the same of houses. The masses of a house need to be in sync with one another and so does the level of each mass’s decoration. One humongous room is odd in the context of several small ones. It’s equally weird if they’re all the same size. A very detailed room will make plain ones seem even plainer. But, maybe you enter a small, plain room, then move into a slightly larger, slightly more decorated one until you’ve come to the biggest, most decorated room. Then, you begin to sense a story of a house worth exploring, like my clay began to resemble a human head worth looking at.  

Obviously, not every client has the budget to bring all their rooms up to a new level of finish, so the authors suggest spending the money to make the backgrounds aka the walls of all the room look great, and filling them with decent, plain things until better things can be afforded. I usually use this tactic with clients and have not regretted it – it’s a lot less work to change out one sofa for another than to reframe and replaster a room.

The next couple pages are ones I’d like to read through with every client as they further address what to do to stretch a budget as far as possible. First, Wharton and Codman identify the things that already exist to go in a room. A lot of designers seem to want to start with a blank slate, which I always find a little weird since by the time a person has arrived at the stage of life in which they can afford a designer, presumably they own at least a couple of things they actually like and that say something about them. Usually these things, as Wharton and Codman correctly point out, are a mix of good, bad and inoffensive. Identify the good things and plan the new scheme with them in mind. They don’t say this, but this move will also go a long way toward establishing trust with your clients.

Second, they do say it is essential that the designer always be told what items the client intends to bring into the room as this will greatly influence any plans made. I can’t emphasize how important it is for clients to understand this almost the moment you meet them. It is not you behaving as a control freak, it is you requiring the proper communication and respect to do your job well. If they plan to bring something into the room that you hate, it’s better to know right away and consider it a design challenge, than to have it show up two days before you plan to install a house and ruin everything.

Third, if you have to let some things go, remember it is always most important to consider the clients’ ultimate comfort over other effects like expensive flooring or beautiful works of art. Your clients’ must haves are nicely scaled rooms with comfortable chairs next to sizable tables for drinks and ipads and lamps for reading. Do not scrimp on these things. Make all the other furnishings plain, so that when more money is available, great things can go in their place.

Fourth, finally, and in my view most important, help your clients steer clear of fads. Wharton and Codman dramatically call this our “Athenian thirst for novelty.” There is no worse advertisement for the profession of interior design than a very expensive room that is out of style five years after it was completed. How can a house ever become really nice, if everything needs to be hauled off to Goodwill or worse, the dump, two times every decade. What’s more sustainable for your business and our Earth is the client who, after you’ve smartly and beautifully done their living room, calls you back a year later to get a few more nice pieces or furnish the family room too, or better, hires you to do their vacation house and their kids house and then their grandkids. This is the work you want and the work our world needs.

And so concludes our discussion on “Rooms in General.” The chapter offers a bit more on color, pattern and material which I hope you’ll explore on your own. Next week we’ll delve into chapters 3, 4 and 5 on Walls, Doors and Windows. Happy reading and see you next time.

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