One hundred sixteen years ago today, Edith Wharton published her first book. It wasn’t a novel, or a collection of short stories, but rather a treatise on The Decoration of Houses. Written with an architect she’d use in the decoration of her own houses, the book proved immensely popular and has been periodically reprinted. Wharton wasn’t exactly a minimalist, but she preferred simplicity and functionality in design to ornamentation. A lot of her views on those subjects pop up in subsequent novels, where she sometimes comments on the decor of a character’s home. Things have changed since Wharton’s time in the furniture industry, in terms of aesthetics, so we decided to take a bunch of her best and most authoritative lines from the first chapter of the book — “Rooms in General” — and juxtapose them with rooms as styled by those current experts in home decor, catalog stylists. The results were… mixed. Have a look for yourself.
“The vulgarity of current decoration has its source in the indifference of the wealthy to architectural fitness.”
“That cheap originality which finds expression in putting things to uses for which they were not intended is often confounded with individuality; whereas the latter consists not in an attempt to be different from other people at the cost of comfort, but in the desire to be comfortable in one’s own way, even though it be the way of a monotonously large majority.”
“Men, in these matters, are less exacting than women, because their demands, besides being simpler, are uncomplicated by the feminine tendency to want things because other people have them, rather than to have things because they are wanted.”
“To go to the opposite extreme and discard things because they are old-fashioned is equally unreasonable.”
Design Within Reach
“The fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme of arrangement.”
Room & Board
“Most rooms contain a mixture of good, bad and indifferent furniture. It is best to adapt the decorative treatment to the best pieces and to discard those which are in bad taste, replacing them, if necessary, by willow chairs and stained deal tables until it is possible to buy something better.”
“When a room is to be furnished and decorated at the smallest possible cost, it must be remembered that the comfort of its occupants depends more on the nature of the furniture than of the wall-decorations or carpet.”
“All this showy stuff has been produced in answer to the increasing demand for cheap ‘effects’ in place of unobtrusive merit in material and design; but now that an appreciation of better things in architecture is becoming more general, it is to be hoped that the ‘artistic’ furniture disfiguring so many of our shop-windows will no longer find a market.”
ABC Carpet & Home.
“Concerning the difficult question of color, it is safe to say that the fewer the colors used in a room, the more pleasing and restful the result will be. A multiplicity of colors produces the same effect as a number of voices talking at the same time. The voices may not be discordant, but continuous chatter is fatiguing in the long run.”
“The use of such poetic adjectives as jonquil-yellow, willow-green, shell-pink, or ashes-of-roses, gives to these descriptions of the ‘unique boudoir’ or ‘ideal summer room’ a charm which the reality would probably not posses. The arrangements suggested are usually cheap devices based upon the mistaken idea that defects in structure or design may be remedied by an overlaying of color or ornament. This theory often leads to the spending of much more money than would have been required to make one or two changes in the plan of the room, and the result is never satisfactory to the fastidious.”