Decoration As Art


Candace Wheeler



Undoubtedly the largest proportion of successful as well as unsuccessful domestic art in our country is due to the efforts of women. In the great race for wealth which characterizes our time, it is demanded that women shall make it effective by so using it as to distinguish the family; and nothing distinguishes it so much as the superiority of the home. This effort adheres to small as well as large fortunes, and in fact the necessity is more pronounced in the case of mediocre than of great ones. In the former there is something to be made up—some protest of worth and ability and intelligence that helps many a home to become beautiful.

As I have said, a woman feels that the test of her capacity is that her house shall not only be comfortable and attractive, but that it shall be arranged according to the laws of harmony and beauty. It is as much the demand of the hour as that she shall be able to train her children according to the latest and most enlightened theories, or that she shall take part in public and philanthropic movements, or understand and have an opinion on political methods. These are things which are expected of every woman who makes a part of society; and no less is it expected that her house shall be an appropriate and beautiful setting for her personality, a credit to her husband, and an unconscious education for her children.

But it happens that means of education in all of these directions, except that of decoration, are easily available. A woman can become a member of a kindergarten association, and get from books and study the result of scientific knowledge of child-life and training. She can find means to study the ethics of her relations to her kind and become an effective philanthropist, or join the league for political education and acquire a more or less enlightened understanding of politics; but who is to formulate for her the science of beauty, to teach her how to make the interior aspect of her home perfect in its adaptation to her circumstances, and as harmonious in colour and arrangement as a song without words? She feels that these conditions create a mental atmosphere serene and yet inspiring, and that such surroundings are as much her birthright and that of her children as food and clothing of a grade belonging to their circumstances, but how is it to be compassed?

Most women ask themselves this question, and fail to understand that it is as much of a marvel when a woman without training or experience creates a good interior as a whole, as if an amateur in music should compose an opera. It is not at all impossible for a woman of good taste—and it must be remembered that this word means an educated or cultivated power of selection—to secure harmonious or happily contrasted colour in a room, and to select beautiful things in the way of furniture and belongings; but what is to save her from the thousand and one mistakes possible to inexperience in this combination of things which make lasting enjoyment and appropriate perfection in a house? How can she know which rooms will be benefited by sombre or sunny tints, and which exposure will give full sway to her favourite colour or colours? How can she have learned the reliability or want of reliability in certain materials or processes used in decoration, or the rules of treatment which will modify a low and dark room and make it seem light and airy, or "bring down" too high a ceiling and widen narrow walls so as to apparently correct disproportion? These things are the results of laws which she has never studied—laws of compensation and relation, which belong exclusively to the world of colour, and unfortunately they are not so well formulated that they can be committed to memory like rules of grammar; yet all good colour-practice rests upon them as unquestionably as language rests upon grammatical construction.

Of course one may use colour as one can speak a language, purely by imitation and memory, but it is not absolutely reliable practice; and just here comes in the necessity for professional advice.

There are many difficulties in the accomplishment of a perfect house-interior which few householders have had the time or experience to cope with, and yet the fact remains that each mistress of a house believes that unless she vanquishes all difficulties and comes out triumphantly with colours flying at the housetop and enjoyment and admiration following her efforts, she has failed in something which she should have been perfectly able to accomplish. But the obligation is certainly a forced one. It is the result of the modern awakening to the effect of many heretofore unrecognized influences in our lives and the lives and characters of our children. A beautiful home is undoubtedly a great means of education, and of that best of all education which is unconscious. To grow up in such a one means a much more complete and perfect man or woman than would be possible without that particular influence.

But a perfect home is never created all at once and by one person, and let the anxious house-mistress take comfort in the thought. She should also remember that it is in the nature of beauty to grow, and that a well-rounded and beautiful family life adds its quota day by day. Every book, every sketch or picture—every carefully selected or characteristic object brought into the home adds to and makes a part of a beautiful whole, and no house can be absolutely perfect without all these evidences of family life.

It can be made ready for them, completely and perfectly ready, by professional skill and knowledge; but if it remained just where the interior artist or decorator left it, it would have no more of the sentiment of domesticity than a statue.



You can read the whole book on Project Gutenberg:

An excerpt from Principles of Home Decoration (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1902)