The Decoration of Houses: Who Needs a Dining Room Anyway?

The Decoration of Houses: Who Needs a Dining Room Anyway?

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Hey fellow interior designers and design enthusiasts. Welcome to The Daniel House Book Club. Together, we’re reading and discussing the 8 books every interior designer and design enthusiast should have read according to Architectural Digest. This is the 5th of 6 episodes focused on Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses. For a complete reading schedule, please visit our website, and click on the club bulletin tab. While you’re there, consider becoming a member. Daniel House Club is a powerful tool that helps interior designers do more of what they love and less of what they hate. I’m the club’s Chief Creative officer, Peter Spalding and I’ll be your host. Today we are discussing chapters 13 and 14, focused on the dining room and bedroom.

I’ve been watching The Great this week on Hulu. It’s pretty vulgar, so be warned, but it’s also a hilarious, by its own admission only occasionally true account of Catherine the Great’s assent to power in Russia. While the show is supposed to be set in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, none of the filming actually took place in Russia. Instead, the palace is cobbled together using a series of incredible interiors from important houses in England and Italy. If the Winter Palace isn’t exactly conveyed, the idea of how a powerful European leader and his or her people lived together in one gigantic house is. The public activities of the great hall, mostly deranged in this case, present a starkly different world from that of each set of apartments designated to an individual member of the royal family or a court family. The interior of the palace was like a town where the hall is the public square, with other formal rooms for specific types of business functioning like little government buildings and groups of smaller private rooms making up family homes. In its cartoonish, satirical way, I think the show actually does a good job of communicating the essence of daily life for people in court during this period, even if it’s over-sexed and irreligious.  What’s most relevant to our discussion today, is where the various inhabitants of this palace eat.

            If you study the floor plan of the Winter Palace, the title “dining room” never appears. In the show, when banqueting with the members of their court, we the Emperor and Empress dining at a head table in one of the big public rooms of the palace, with the people of their court seated at two long tables running the length of the room and looking inward, toward their leaders. After the meal, we see the whole room being cleared of furniture and made ready for an entirely different purpose. When dining alone, we see Peter eating in a room connected to his bedroom. Although the scale and permanence of the table at which he eats seems improbable to me, a room with dining as one of its purposes attached to the bedroom is exactly what Edith and Ogden suggest we’ll find if we bother to look at life from this time period. Our authors are letting us know that the designated dining room, which sits empty except at mealtime, was only a very recent creation at the time they published in 1897. Scenes from The Great corroborate their story.

            In Emily Post’s book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, written about 25 years after The Decoration of Houses, she writes about some very wealthy American families who insisted their servants deliver and clear entire multicourse meals in under 20 minutes to demonstrate how efficient their houses were. I guess that would have been nice if you were seated next to someone you hated. No time for conversation. The homes of these families had enormous staffs with multi-story kitchens, immediately connected to the dining room and this whole set up was one of the modern marvels of which the host wanted their guests to be aware. But back in Catherine’s Russia, and the rest of Continental Europe during the same time, wealthy people dined in whatever room suited them, with little concern for how many minutes away the kitchen was. Obviously, this is because they played no role in preparing the meal.

Interestingly, wealthy or not, I think most of us today tend closer to the dining trends of Catherine’s time than those of the Vanderbilts. The dining room’s brief history and nature as a space that serves only one specific activity might be why our authors don’t focus that much energy on talking about it and why it’s not unusual for our clients, especially those who are tight on space, to second guess it’s necessity as part of their plan.


Though the sloppy manner in which we sometimes do it would bum Edith and Ogden out, I think our tendency to dine more freely around our homes would excite them. Next week is our last week focusing on The Decoration of Houses before we move on to the famous Elsie de Wolfe’s slightly more approachable book. If Edith and Ogden were advising the uber-rich, Elsie was talking to every woman. In influence, she was the Joanna Gaines of her day, though her artistic, architectural and cultural knowledge was every bit as deep as Edith and Ogden’s. The difference, maybe, was that she seemed more able to translate that knowledge into the practical solutions required by people on a budget. Though she created some beautiful dining rooms, Elsie was famous for serving her guests in any room she pleased. She also loved to eat outside, which was pretty unusual for her time. At Edith’s Lenox house, the dining room is smaller and simpler than you might expect. It’s roughly square, with a round table. It’s light in color with plain curtains that can be pulled completely away from the multiple sets of glass doors opening out of the room onto the big terrace. Even if she didn’t seat everyone outside from time to time, she could throw these doors open and the whole mood would be changed.

As a note before we dig into some of Edith and Ogden’s specifics on dining rooms a little deeper, it’s tough to create an indoor-outdoor connection like I’ve just mention if the dining room is at the front of the house. It’s kinda weird to be eating at the table and watch someone walk up to the front door. What if you’re in the middle of a meal and you don’t want to answer? Are you going to make everyone duck and pretend no one’s home as my mom did every time the Schwan’s man came to our door? If you’re working on a house and its plan isn’t totally solidified, consider placing the dining room where its view is more private and expansive. Or maybe, your clients don’t actually want a room that’s just for eating. I think the formal stand-alone dining room was probably a lot more fun when there was someone to do the serving. Now, if you ever do eat in the dining room, someone’s always jumping up to grab the ketchup or whatever.

My great aunt Katy lives in one of those Upper West Side New York apartments from the 1930s that has a small entry vestibule that opens into a dining gallery separated from the sunken living room by a wrought-iron railing. What a joke the dining gallery in these apartments is. There’s barely enough width to squeeze a table in there and still move. Whenever she had us over for dinner, Aunt Katy would move the table into the living room and leave a console in the little dining space for people to serve themselves from. She threw the most fun dinner parties. We’d eat and play charades and then walk the 5 feet to the sofa and chairs where everyone would laugh until they were sleepy-eyed and it was time to go home. Nothing ever felt stiff and transitioning from one activity to the next was effortless. Partially, it was her, but it was also the way she’d laid everything out to encourage people to feel free.

Okay, let’s talk about some of Edith and Ogden’s specifics for dining rooms. As the dining room as we understand it finally did take its form, it was usually decorated with a regular rhythm of pilasters with niches between where statues would be placed. Often, the only thing that really signified it was a dining room and not some other space was the presence of a wall-fountain where wine was kept cool for serving. I’ve worked with a lot of pretty practical people, but I can’t think of one who wouldn’t be captivated by the idea of a fountain from which to serve their wine.

Edith and Ogden recommended light colors for the walls and shun the dark dining room as a modern invention made possible by electric light. The dining room, they say, should be lit by candlelight or natural light. The fewer candles, the better, as this is a room where heat and smell is not comfortable. I know enough about the psychological effects of color to know that deep red dining rooms encourage us to mingle and stay and even perhaps eat a little more than we would in say, a blue dining room. But I do sort of wonder how cozy a white or pale green dining room might have felt in candlelight. Maybe our contemporary tendency to be more open to deep hues in this room is more a result of trying to warm up artificial light than we realize. Growing up, we had a neighbor who had a candlelight chandelier on her screened porch and eating under it was really one of the most romantic things I remember. Likewise, sitting at a table in the morning with the lights off and the warm sun streaming in is a nice way to start a day.

On the subject of art in the dining room, somewhat as they did in the hall, Edith and Ogden recommend works of superficial subject matter. I once did a rendering for a dining room where the designer was specifiying a gigantic painting depicting predatorial animals descending upon their prey. I have to say I still think that’s a fantastic subject for the dining room. What fun and how tongue-in-cheek. But I imagine Edith and Ogden would say it’s not appropriate and depictions of fruit and flowers will prove more amicable day in and day out. I’m sure it’s very contemporary of me, but I can’t think of anything more boring, unless these were treated like specimens as in the fantastic Marianne North Gallery in London’s Kew Gardens, which everyone should visit. I will say, I think the dining room is a really weird place for family photos. How strange to be watched by all your friends and family while you shovel food into your mouth. Even more uncomfortable if you’re a guest. Human subject matter is probably the hardest to do well in any room. Maybe I just hate family portraits. When I have a family, I plan to insist we all wear paper bags or lampshades over heads for all our posed photos, and let people guess which one of us is which. I imagine I’ll feel differently when the time comes.

Again, Edith and Ogden recommend the floor of the  dining room should be of marble or limestone. An area rug is nice, but definitely no wall-to-wall carpet. Back in Edith’s dining room, she an open hearth, with a marble fireplace surround, but in the book they recommend fine European porcelain stoves instead. Not only are these beautiful works of art in their own right, but they fit nicely into a niche and disperse heat more evenly than an open flame. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at the very thought of exploring this with a client today, but there are some absolutely fantastic renderings from the Mid-century of very sleek rooms, where Modern furniture and glass and steel juxtaposed with antiques like this bring a space to life. Also, I know I’ve already referenced this movie in a previous episode, but in The Sound of Music, the dining room, which is Austrian Baroque as seen through 1960’s Hollywood, has a pair of narrow double doors opening into vestibule and centered on a cream and gilt porcelain stove. Hard to think of anything more glamorous, if that’s what you’re after. And, there are plenty for sale on 1stdibs.

While sideboards for serving were common in England, they were pretty unusual in continental Europe. Edith and Ogden describe a marble shelf attached to the wall and set into a niche used for a similar purpose. We had buffet built into a large elliptical niche in the dining room in the house I grew up in, which used to have a secret panel that opened from the kitchen, so food could magically appear. Brilliant, not hard to plan for, and very architectural.

They give a little advice on dining chairs, which is basically they should be Louis XIV – XVI and the dining table with no leaves is obviously better. This sums up our look at dining rooms, and I think the main take away here, is that departing from the traditional dining room is no big deal. It’s construct was a blip in time.

  Moving on to the bedroom. The two parts of a house that really sell today are the kitchen and the primary suite. It’s like you can’t pour enough money into these two spaces. I don’t know why. I prefer the living room, but whatever. We already know Edith and Ogden aren’t going to have anything for us on the kitchen, but their thoughts on the suite provide some practical insight for today.

As with just about everything else, they say Americans of their day have it all wrong. Rather than a very large room opening immediately off the hall, a suite should be a set of three or four more moderately sized rooms, separated from the hall by a vestibule. Following their book, this layout gained a lot of popularity and I can’t quite figure why it seems to have fallen out of favor again. Like the vestibule transitions the house from its public façade to its more private interior, the bedroom vestibule transitions from a space used by everyone in the house to one reserved for one or two people. It is a way, way, way more luxurious thing than the obnoxious, 6-foot-wide double door opening that sometimes marks the primary suite today. It’s also a sound barrier. Particularly in a main floor suite, you’ve got to figure out a way to remove the bedroom far enough from the public part of the house that sleep can happen even if people might still be socializing in the next room. The vestibule is your answer. From this vestibule, you can access a small sitting room or boudoir as we discussed last week, as well as the bedroom, followed by the bathroom and the dressing room. These last two pieces of this ensemble, we in the United States have become completely addicted to.

While I used to think gigantic bathrooms were stupid, I have come to realize this is where we start and end our days. Because of this role, the bath, more than any other space has the ability to set our mood for the day and to help us transition to deep sleep at night. For this reason too, it tends to be the most complicated room to create for a client. They have a lot of feelings about how it should be and these are often based on very specific negative experiences they’ve had in previous bathrooms they’ve suffered through. That is to say, they are practical concerns. The lighting needs to be right, they need a mirror to see the back of their head. The sink has to be big enough that someone with huge hands doesn’t splash water everywhere. They’ve just seen a shower system you’ve never heard of in your life and they don’t know the name of its manufacturer but you have to find it for them or else how can you even call yourself a designer.  The list can go on and on and on, as you know. Second to these practical concerns they have, is the use of the coolest, most up-to-date materials and fixtures. Edith and Ogden identify the people of their day as prioritizing these same concerns too. Not that I’m saying you don’t want to use the coolest materials, but you definitely don’t want them to be the only driver. No matter the material, Edith and Ogden point out the American bathroom is usually not considered architecturally. I’ve been in so many bathrooms where this is totally true. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into every tiny detail and the whole thing is laid out completely unintelligibly to accommodate every perceived need. A bathroom is a room and it needs symmetry and balance too. Edith and Ogden reference a bath in the Pitti Palace, which with its Corinthian columns, coffered barrel vaults and thermae windows is likely a bit much for even the most grandiose client. But have you seen the incredible bathrooms at the Villa Necchi, built in the 1930s in Milan. They are as fresh today as they were 90 years ago and I think Kelly Wearstler’s been taking notes. Gigantic slabs of book matched marble delineate a central niche for the tub directly opposite the vanity. Both tub and sink are surmounted by gigantic mirrors, expanding the space infinitely. On either side of the tub niche is the shower and toilet room fully walled in marble. A free-standing dressing table is at the far end. The floor plan of these bathrooms could not be simpler, do not take more space, and their effect is 50 times more than a bathroom of the same size where things have not been worked out to align symmetrically with one another. For Edith and Ogden, tight geometry remains key even in this functional space.

I think we are too practical in our closets too. These are great opportunities for jewel box level detail. The idea of a dressing room is a lot nicer than a room full of shelves everywhere. Even if your client doesn’t have the budget for nicely detailed cabinetry in this room, there is ready-made shelving that can be arranged in an orderly way, and complimented by a piece of art or two, a chair to sit and put their shoes on, a full-length mirror to see themselves in and give the perception of more space. It doesn’t all have to be built in either. Maybe you find a great old cabinet and design the rest of the storage with this in mind. Then the closet is a room to be in, like the dressing room of Edith and Ogden’s day, and not just a place to pick out clothes and hurry through.

Finally, the bedroom itself doesn’t need to be huge. Most big bedrooms today aren’t big enough to introduce a whole seating area. If they are, awesome. If they’re not, you end up with some space that’s not doing anything for anyone. Edith and Ogden tell us that in the Renaissance, when important bedrooms were huge, their decoration was often divided into two parts. The main part of it was paneled, while a raised alcove, separated from the rest by a balustrade and columns, and completely enveloped in heavy curtains contained the bed. How decadent, but really this was very practical, as heating the whole room was just impossible. The curtained alcove was critical to comfort. As time marched on, this alcove was translated into the canopy bed we understand today, and there was probably not a single other piece of furniture more lavishly treated. Often, the canopy might be attached to the ceiling or may have been supported by four posts. The curtains of this were incredibly elaborately embroidered and the posts carved of or inlaid with exotic and expensive materials. This expense was because the bedroom continued to be a social room, especially for women. Often, they would sit on their beds as they entertained their guests.

Edith and Ogden don’t explain why, but this trend shifted and these rooms became groups of smaller rooms comprising the suite we talked about earlier. As this happened, the heavy velvet curtains so elaborately detailed, were replaced by lightweight, unlined cottons and linens that better suited the daintier decoration of these littler, likely less difficult to heat rooms. These are the ideal bedrooms in our authors’ minds. They suggest such rooms should be simply detailed and everything should be slip covered in matching fabrics that can be changed out with the season. Here, they get into a problem of pattern, which I think is spot on.  That is, patterns, should not be too realistic or too geometric. I think the same really for all drawing. There is a of French rendering method that is almost photorealistic, and leaves very little to the imagination. The problem is, we engage too much with these things. They’re confrontational. If a representation of nature or a human figure conveys the vague idea of that thing, that’s plenty for our imagination to work with. More is tiresome. When the human figure was included in old patterns, these were done either in a single color, or in such exuberant colors as to never be construed as representing reality. It’s sort of a weird place to leave off on bedrooms, but actually a nice one, because the bedroom is the one place where sumptuous, dreamy fabrics never seem out of vogue.

We’ve got just a few more chapters to cover in The Decoration of Houses next week, which I think we’ll supplement by giving a bit more background about who our authors actually were and what else they accomplished beyond this important book. Then, it’s on to Elsie de Wolfe and “The House in Good Taste,” which sounds ominous, but is really quite fun.

See ya next week!

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