The Decoration of Houses: Why Walls Are Really Columns

The Decoration of Houses: Why Walls Are Really Columns

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Hey fellow interior designers and design enthusiasts. Welcome to the second episode of 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. 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 your host, Peter Spalding and some listeners have suggested they’d like a quick word about me: I founded Daniel House with my brother Alexander in 2015. Together, we worked on a range of residential design projects from tiny apartments and historic houses to 12,000 sq foot new builds.

While I continue to take design projects here and there, in 2019 Alex and I converted our business to become a wholesale resource for designers like us, because we figured if they spent half as much time looking for and purchasing from the best resources for their clients as we did, they’d be grateful for a new method of procurement. Before that, I worked for some great architecture and design firms in New York City, where I also received my BA in Urban Design & Architecture History at NYU. Before leaving New York, I found the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, where I learned about the incredible world of Classical Design. Even though none of my recent projects have been overtly classical, I rely on the principles I learned there every day in my own practice. So, I am really excited to continue reading and discussing the lessons found in socialite Edith Wharton and achitect Ogden Codman’s 1897 design classic, The Decoration of Houses.  FYI, from here on I’m just going to call them Edith and Ogs, because constantly saying Edith and Odgen is a mouthful. I’m sure they’d hate my informality.

If there is one lesson to learn from The Decoration of Houses, it is this: the walls of classical houses are always treated as an order. Now, this is a bit of a heady lesson, so fasten your seat belts. In case you don’t remember from that one or two-day period in history class when your teacher touched on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, orders have to do with columns. There’s the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite and I have just listed them in order from simplest to most elaborate.

If you don’t remember, don’t feel bad. My 7th grade history teacher introduced them by saying, “those Greeks were pretty artsy-fartsy and kept finding new ways to make their buildings stand up.” Artsy-fartsy has remained my least favorite expression ever since. And once you get to design school, the subject of the orders is basically taboo. “Those were for another time,” your professor may have said. But it was a mistake for them to have been so callous, because the truth of it is, there are still an awful lot of clients out there who want a house (new or old) that falls into the realm of the classical, and you can’t really give it to them if you don’t have some sense of the orders. Beyond that, they are great tools to learn about systems of proportion that can be applied to any work you take on. You may be thinking back to a couple of nice colonial revival houses you’ve visited and saying to yourself, “I’ve been in plenty of classic houses with no sign of the orders.” But, you haven’t. Even if there isn’t a column in sight, every element of the wall of a good classically inspired house is anticipating the possibility of a column and Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman will explain how in their third chapter titled, “Walls.”

Understanding walls as orders as Edith and Ogs want us to is sort of a tricky concept initially, especially if you’re not super familiar with all the elements of an order, so conjure in your mind for a second, the clearest picture of a classical Greek temple front you can and let’s compare it to a classic interior from the ground up. If you can’t form a picture, google, “Parts of a Greek Temple,” and you’ll find tons of labeled drawings to help you. First, a temple sits on a lovely plinth called a stylobate or a series of steps. The top of this is the floor of your room, or in some cases as we’ll see, everything above what is now commonly called the “chair rail” in contractor language, but which Edith and Ogden and sophisticated architects refer to as “the dado.”

Above this, we have the base of the column. If you’re looking at a picture of a Greek Doric temple, there’s a good chance you won’t see a base as those huge, fluted columns die right into the stylobate. Compare that to an image of a temple in another order and you’ll definitely find a base. This is what has been abstracted to form the details of the baseboard of your room. Start looking around at old buildings, especially where columns are attached to walls and you’ll see this in action everywhere.

Directly above the base is the tall shaft that is what we think of first when we visualize a column. Very often, if you’re looking at an elevation drawing of a temple front, between the columns, you will see the blocks of a wall. So, when a column is not present, it is replaced by a wall. AKA, the column and the flat wall occupy the same place in all classical architecture. Remember this.

Now, above the column shaft, you have the capitol. Column capitals are the most iconic indicator of which of the five orders you are looking at. Though you shouldn’t take this analogy far, they are the hats of the shafts. Tuscan and Doric columns have simple, serious capitols, Ionics have beautiful scrolling ones, and Corinthian and Composites have exuberant, sky-bound foliage that is occasionally combined with various life forms. Each presents a different attitude and is appropriate to convey varied moods.

Everything above the column capital is called the entablature and its three most important parts from bottom to top are architrave, frieze and cornice. The architrave is a fairly plain horizontal band that sits just above the capitals. The frieze is above that and is the next best indicator of the order dominating a building. I say dominating, because it is totally possible, especially in really expressive architecture of the Renaissance, that multiple orders are in play at once. If the order is Doric, the frieze often has a back-and-forth rhythm of triglyphs and metopes (subject for another time). If it’s Ionic, a pulvinated frieze, one that looks sort of bulging under the weight of what’s above, is often used.  In a very fine classical interior, frieze and architrave are included as part of the crown of a room.

Finally, we arrive at the cornice. On a temple with a pitched roof, a portion of the cornice, follows the roofline and creates a triangular space for sculpture called the tympanum. When we are faced with no pitch, we find all the ingredients that make up the true crown of an interior space.

I know that was a lot to take in with hardly any breath at all, but it’s important we understand the orders as more than just artsy-fartsy supports for Greek temples. They are entire kits of parts that allow for the designer to create endless combinations inside and outside of a building or house.

In our last episode we talked about Edith and Ogden’s belief that no matter the quality of the decoration of a room, its liveableness relies mostly on the position of its doors, fireplace and windows. The locations of the opening within a wall are important for another reason too. In classical work, the space between columns is called intercolumniation and the dimension of this space is not arbitrary. The dimensions of every element including the intercolumniation are usually calculated from the diameter of the column in play. Now, once you know what this ideal space between columns is, you can break the ideal for any number of good reasons, but you have to realize you’re doing it and create some piece of visual interest that holds where a column may otherwise have appeared. A window or door in a classical room, as we will soon see, is a great opportunity for an order to make itself known, so its position is very important.

In all likelihood, you’re not being hired to build a room with columns, but that’s okay because our authors make the argument that it’s not the material that’s important, just the lines. What they mean is that it makes no difference if you have a real column on the wall, or a frescoed one, or even one woven into tapestries applied to the wall. They hadn’t lived through the terrible mural paintings of the 1980s and 90s to know how badly things could go off the rails.

But all that stuff sucked so much because not only had the art of decorative painting greatly diminished, so too had our understanding of the proportion of the elements being painted (as well as our ability to understand foreground middle ground and background, but that’s for another time). I think we could carry Edith and Ogden’s line of thinking a bit further. Let’s think about a contemporary wood paneled room. You don’t have a lot of elaborate moulding profiles, but you may have panel breaks or reveals and you don’t allow the location of those breaks or reveals to be completely arbitrary. Instead, you relate them to door and window openings, the corners of a room or the center or a wall. If you allow a panel break over a major doorway, you produce a sort of authoritative dissonance. If you center a panel over the same door, you have repose. These are current-day expressions of the same thing Edith and Ogden are discussing. They are much more successful if the door and window openings are in the right place to make their calculation simple. Having a major doorway slightly off from a panel break is a big bummer that even the average Joe will sense if only subconsciously.

Since I mentioned the dado, we had better address it before moving on. The word dado in architecture refers to the space between a base and a cornice of a pedestal on which a column or statue may be placed. It’s usually roughly cubic in shape, but when extruded along a wall plane it forms a pedestal for all the decoration of a room we just discussed. This device is used to raise all the wall decoration above the level of the furniture. So, far from being a piece of moulding you pluck from a catalogue to protect your walls from dining chairs banging into them, the chair rail is the indication of a pedestal lifting your whole room up.

            There is more in the chapter dedicated to walls, including building paintings into the walls, filling spaces between openings as well as a lot of ranting against wallpaper. But, I think you probably won’t build paintings into your client’s walls tomorrow and you need only visit Old Westbury on Long Island to see that sometimes boldly patterned paper is the perfect backdrop for paintings. It’s always good to keep the context of the authors in mind. They are writing against Victorian architecture, which we know to have been one the most oppressively patterned styles in history.

Okay, moving on from walls to doors. I had a great professor who said, “architecture is all about frames, framing frames, framing frames.” Frames transport us, or at least our eyes from one place to another. Nowhere do we have a more potent opportunity for a frame than a great doorway. Of course, we need to consider the significance of the door we are framing. We don’t want a monumental frame on a broom closet, because everyone will try to go in there, only to feel duped into cleaning. On the other hand, we don’t want to provide so underwhelming a frame that it’s difficult to find the front door of a house (unless we’re following in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright).

            As we’ve already seen, the openings of a room present the clearest chance for an order to appear. It is common in classical rooms to have doors surrounded by columns or at least partial columns. Even if the room is not fancy and columns are nowhere to be found, Edith and Ogden say one thing must be maintained. That is, a connection of the door surround with the mouldings on the ceiling. They go on and on about these stupid 19th century curtain makers wasting everyone’s money on very elaborate, immoveable curtains hanging around doorways that don’t even have actual doors. As these miles of expensive, useless yardage needed a place to be attached to the wall, the details linking a door frame to the ceiling mouldings were sacrificed and never returned to use after the garish curtain fad was over. Why is this a problem? I mean, apart from the apparent likelihood of the temple ceiling falling to the floor? Because those vertical lines lifted the ceiling higher. An 8 or 9 foot high room with vertical lines going all the way from the base to the ceiling will look taller than the same room without, and may even look taller than a 10 or 12 foot room with no vertical articulation because the eye has no signals with which to engage at that lofty height.

            I’m going a bit out of order in this chapter and I will return to some of the specifics they provide as far as really nice dimensions, but this brings us to the author’s engagement with what at the time was a fairly new concern: a conflation of moral law with the actions of an architect or designer. We talked a bit about authenticity and originality last time, as well as the notion that form follows function, which hopefully you debunked after taking a look at the famous Seagram’s building. In stark contrast to this adage, this book says, “Architecture addresses itself not to the moral sense, but to the eye.” Just a chapter before it similarly said, “it is part of the decorator’s mission, not to explain illusions, but to produce them. It compares this to the role of a storyteller, who can take his or her readers as far as he or she can make them believe. If height is your goal and you are able to make your client’s room look much taller without raising the ceiling, or losing the faith of your audience, why wouldn’t you? If you don’t want to draw attention to a closet, why treat its door as a door at all when you could obscure it as part of the rest of the wall. These sorts of devices are not trickery. They are acknowledging some larger goal.

            Now, let’s get practical. First and more important than specific dimensions, Edith and Ogden say there is almost never a case where one large central passageway into a room would be preferable to two smaller openings at either end. These two passages will move more people to more places and will leave the center of the room available for furniture. 12 feet is reaching the upper limit of the ceiling height in a residential setting and the best doors in rooms of that height are no taller than 9’. This allows you the room you need to get the overdoor and crown moldings in without crowding.  The best geometry for a doorway is a rectangle that is two times as tall as it is wide, which means the widest a residential passage from one room to the next ever needs to be is 4’- 6 tall. This is surprising, given how many gaping holes from one room to the next I’ve addressed in my own work. It is a bit frightening, but recently I’ve been doing a lot of 4’-6 openings and the results are really very perfect. As long as these smaller openings create vistas from one space to the next and connect to the ceilings, the impression, surprisingly, is more space, not less.

            The actual door that swings on a hinge should never be more than 3’. Any opening wider requires double doors. This is never really explained, except I am sure by centuries of supporting evidence, but I would say it is to maintain vertical, rather than horizontal lines. What is addressed is a peculiar habit developed by the English to give the impression of a double door by the addition of a center stile to a single door. In case you’re unfamiliar, the raised or thickest vertical elements of a door are called stiles, while the raised horizontals are called rails. Sometimes, this center stile was further divided by a very narrow bead running down its center, adding to the illusion of two doors. If this center stile arrangement sounds familiar, it should, as these four and six panel doors are some of the most ubiquitous in the United States. And some of the ugliest in the eyes of our authors, because their panels are too close in size to one another.

            In classical design, where something is divided into parts, one part must obviously be the most important, and therefore substantially larger than the others. In French and Italian doors, the top panel is so obviously larger than the other panels that it is clearly understood as most important. I have used this principle most in designing walls with central fireplaces. I would never divide the length of the wall into three equal parts to begin my scheme. Instead, I would divide it into ten equal parts and then group those in a 3-4-3 rhythm. So, if my wall is 15 feet long, I would have a six-foot-wide hearth, with 4’-6” wall spaces or bookcases or whatever on either side. In this way, the fireplace is the clear focus of the overall composition instead of each element fighting for attention.

            For a final word on doors, Edith and Ogden address color and material. They don’t like the English very much as they pick on them again for their stark color choices. Only there, and here in the states, are doors made of dark, highly polished mahogany and surrounded by white painted casings. In France, doors and their surrounds are almost always painted the same color and in Italy the trim is of warmly colored stone and the doors are of similarly colored walnut. Good decorators never fall for shiny things, they say. If this info doesn’t help you in your design work, it will at least help you identify the origins of one thing over another.

Okay, now for Edith and Ogs on windows. I always tell people the quickest way to ruin an historic house is with new windows and I think they would agree. I might actually say it’s the quickest way to ruin any house. Choosing the right style and scale is totally essential to the success of a project. Edith and Odgen didn’t have Prairie, craftsmen, farm house, etcetera, etcetera to contend with, so their argument is boiled down to the difference between French and English or casement and sash, and the dreaded plate glass.

            Let’s get plate glass out of the way first. When our authors were writing, it was a very new material and its use symbolized wealth and status, particularly with the newly rich. Changes in glass production allowed really huge sheets of glass to be made and installed with no mullions destroying the view. It sucks as much out of classical design now as it did when it was new. It’s awesome in the modern-est of modern, but even then, I think casements with tiny metal mullions are much more engaging. From the exterior, it means there’s nothing to look at for huge periods of time. From the interior, while it allows unbroken views of the nature beyond, it likewise creates a huge gap in whatever scheme you’ve created. Panes of glass, Edith and Ogs say, serve to connect the interior with the exterior, and continue the rhythm you’ve established. There is a particularly offensive application of plate glass on the colonnade that extends off the north end of the front façade of the Frick Museum on 5th Ave in New York. Where once there was a rhythm of light and shadow, now only light and glare. Casements would have been much more successful.

            Since I’ve continuously mentioned casement windows, we should probably make sure everyone’s familiar. These are the windows that are set in a frame and hinge in or out to open. Sash windows, most frequently double hung, are the ones that slide up and down. Casement windows are used throughout continental Europe and sashes are much more common in England and America. Once again, Edith and Ogs slightly favor the Continent, presenting all the common complaints related to casements and providing the solution to each one. While they don’t really say this, I think their best argument for the casement over the double hung is that they, as they do with doors, say windows should connect to the cornice of a room. All the windows should begin at the same height, but their relationship to the ground can be more varied depending on the situation. On the front of a house, which is usually more exposed to the public, they recommend stopping windows two-and-a-half or three feet above the floor, to keep people from seeing in. But on the more private sides of a house, windows could go all the way to the floor. So, by using double casements, you suddenly have something closer to a door than a window, which really creates a nice connection to the outdoors. That said, there are triple hung, counterweighted sash windows that function as doors too. The designer Bunny Williams had them on her house in the Dominican Republic and they were used on the ground floor of a Victorian house museum I visited a lot when I was a kid. They are awesome, but definitely more custom.

One more case they make for casements comes in the form of another attack on curtains. In the old days, they say, “curtains were treated as a necessary evil.” Very simply done to block light. But there are some examples of casement with solid interior shutters that serve the same purpose. I’ve stayed in a couple Italian houses that have these and, apart from being totally light blocking, they certainly maintain a more architectural feel than curtains.

Their chapter on fireplaces departs a little from an emphasis on orders and connection from floor to ceiling in order to give a quick tour through the progression of its design and function. Basically, in Medieval times the fire was an open thing in the middle of the room and the smoke went up through a hole in the roof, until someone, I’m not sure who or why, decided to move it to the wall and have the smoke exit through a chimney instead. The fire sat on the floor and was surmounted by an enormous hood. At first there was a mistaken correlation between size and warmth, so these things were big. But it was soon realized that the bigger the chimney and opening, the greater the draft.

In Italy, thickly constructed walls allowed the fireplace to be fully sunken into the wall so the architecture of the room would not be interrupted by a chimney mass. The giant hood was replaced by none other than an entablature supported by pilasters on either side. Edith and Ogs seem to recognize the completely sunken solution as the most elegant.  As this great size was reduced, mantels became much more refined. In France, the practice of placing a mirror over the fire emerged, requiring the mantel to be low enough that one could see over it and look into the mirror.

            Up to this point, all mantels were made of some kind of stone. Only cheaply built houses in England had wooden mantels protected from fire by the use of delft tiles. In big English houses, the fireplace was often used as another opportunity for columns or pilasters linking from floor to ceiling which, if occasionally awkward, made quite an impression, but where wood was used to replicate smaller mantels, the entablature had to be set back to the wall in order not to catch fire. And this long evolution brings us to the mantel we know so well in the United States. Not frequently protected by delft anymore, we typically have a firebox surrounded by some sort of tile or marble, then a wood surround that is almost flat to the wall on top and sides, and finally a projecting piece that we fill with candles and pictures and stuff.

If you grew up in a colonial revival house build any time between 1900 and 1990, you’ll likely know exactly what I’m talking about. But, I think it is important to acknowledge that fireplace design is now so varied that this classic picture may not resonate with everyone anymore. Still the crux of our authors story is whether big or small, in classical work, the fireplace too is detailed based on the orders.

            And that brings us to the finish of Edith and Ogden’s chapters on walls, doors, windows and fireplaces. In case you didn’t catch it, the main point here is that in classically influenced houses, walls are orders and all the doors, windows and fireplaces are placed and proportioned with this fact in mind. Join me next week as we explore their chapters on Ceilings and Floors, Entrance and Vestibule, and Hall and Stairs.


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