10 decorating lessons from edith wharton
Published Dec 18, 2015 5:00 AM
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text by MAYRA DAVID
Whoever said there is no accounting for taste must have never read “The Decoration of Houses”, by Edith Wharton. As the first woman to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel, of course she is best known for works for her fiction like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But Wharton was actually a design enthusiast and published several books on interior design and landscaping. The book (co-authored with Architect Ogden Codman) is still in print today and it’s not hard to see why their ideas endure to this day. Simply put: they were right.
Domino was given a private tour of Wharton’s Lenox, Massachusetts house called The Mount. The building is a monument to all the design details Wharton held dear. (It’s incidentally also one of only 5% of National Historic Landmarks dedicated to a woman.) While the book offers one feisty opinion on home design after another, here are just ten from Wharton’s definitive guide to functional, classy, gorgeous home of your very own.
- KEEP UP WITH THE JONESES Funny, considering Wharton’s family is widely believed to be the wealthy Jones family referenced in that idiom. Wharton believed that good design in interior architecture precipitated from noble, stately homes into the homes of the lower classes. “One generation is more likely to live like the nobility of the previous generation.” It was important, therefore, for those with access to great design aesthetics and the means to employ true craftsmanship, to leave good examples for others to learn from. And there should be no shame in copying and learning from the best.
- “PROPORTION IS THE GOOD BREEDING OF ARCHITECTURE.” Proportion was everything to Wharton. According to her, the true style and soul of a room could be found in the “scientific adjustment of voids and masses,” and that “even to those who think themselves indifferent to such detail, much of the sense of restfulness and comfort produced by certain rooms depends on the due adjustment of their fundamental parts.” The relationship between empty wall space and the entrances, the placement of the fireplace, the height of the ceilings, the size of the windows, in short, the true style of the room, she said, doesn’t lie in the frilly decoration but in its construction and how it was proportioned. This must always be taken into account when decorating and furnishing it.
- “SYMMETRY IS THE SANITY OF DECORATION.” Even back then, many professional designers pointedly avoided symmetry. They thought symmetry was too stiff, not artistic enough. But Wharton believed that the desire for symmetry – “the answering of one part to another”- was “the most inveterate of human instincts.” This didn’t mean having two of everything. Balance could be found in the lines of a room. If a room had features (windows, doors, etc.) that threw off the symmetry of a room, then balance could be achieved by echoing that feature with furniture, mirrors, art, etc.
- DON’T BE VULGAR Wharton had a healthy disdain for vulgarity and the “cheap effects” of the “pinchbeck article flooding our shops”. To her, vulgarity was a sort of lie. She didn’t like rooms or objects that pretended to be what they were not and to look more expensive than they were while being of poor quality. Of course, we know that something – be it in art, furniture, etc. – doesn’t have to be expensive to be beautiful and well-designed. When Wharton talks in her book about avoiding buying cheap, gilded figurines and furniture, in essence, she was advocating honesty in creating your personal space. Buy the best that you can afford, and what you think is beautiful. Don’t bother with items you don’t need or want, just to show off. “Beauty lies in its appropriateness,” she said. And a room with comfortable chairs, and plenty of lamps and books “is sure to be comfortable and can never be vulgar.”
- HONOR CRAFTSMANSHIP Above all else, quality craftsmanship had to shine through in a room’s architectural details, as well as in its furnishings. It is one of the legacies of great house decoration. Of course, back then, “machine-made” furniture was very inferior to the pieces craftsmen were turning out. Nowadays, we scour the internet, flea markets, and thrift stores for vintage pieces that show craftsmanship and quality. But we’re not above mass produced stuff either. And, actually, neither was Wharton. Instead, she wanted the modern public to be educated and observant of quality and to be fastidious in demanding it. That way, she said “it would soon be easy to buy good furniture for a moderate price.”
- FIGHT TYRANNY Wharton said that everyone was unconsciously tyrannized over by “the wants of the dead and gone predecessors, who have an inconvenient way of thrusting their different habits and tastes across the current of later existences.” She warned against designing a home with the view toward being equipped for all eventualities. If you entertain large crowds once a year, do not gear everything in your home to be able to accommodate large crowds and then end up with a rooms and items that remain largely unused the rest of the time. In other words: It’s your space: do you! For example, in her own grand home, she controversially placed a round table in the dining room, fit for only six guests. When most such home would have long, rectangular tables with twelve or more place settings, Wharton refused to follow the convention. She only liked to host small parties, where there was equality among guests (no places of honor), most conducive to lively conversation. And no unflattering electric lights overhead either! “The golden mean lies in trying to arranged our houses with a view to our own comfort and convenience; and it will be found that the more closely we follow this rule the easier our rooms will be to furnish and the pleasanter to live in.”
- THE HEARTH IS THE HEART “The fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme of arrangement,” Wharton declared. “Nothing can be more cheerless and depressing than a room without fire on a winter day.” That said, many of us don’t have the luxury of a wood burning fireplace in our home. But I believe, what she is talking about here is ensuring a room has a cozy center that will invite people to gather together for warmth and protection.
- PRIORITY ON PRIVACY It’s a safe bet that Edith Wharton would not know what to do with herself among all our open-plan living spaces. She liked doors and walls for one main reason: privacy. The point of a room was to provide comfortable privacy. She lamented the fact that some decorators neglected to consider which way doors should open to a room. (They should open into a room and in a way such that the people within would not be visible as soon as the door was cracked open. While open-plan, loft-like living spaces are both modern, efficient and pretty cool, it still makes sense to create a sense of separation between areas according to function. We use rugs to designate them, and furniture, plants and other dividers to provide mental separation. By giving an area a purpose of its own, we create separate, private spaces fit for modern living.
- MIRRORS: USE THEM Of course, anybody who has lived in small spaces knows the ol’ make-a-room-look-bigger-with mirrors trick. Well, Edith Wharton used the same tricks in her humongous, gorgeous home. She used mirrors to reflect and bring the outdoors into the house and to make her grand hallways appear larger. She used them to create the illusion of more windows. In her study, she had a mirror built into the wall opposite the windows, at waist height. This seems to be an odd height for a mirror, until you realize it’s the perfect height for somebody sitting at the desk: from that position, the mirror reflects the outdoors, surrounding the writer with eye-relaxing views.
- INDIVIDUALITY OVER ORIGINALITY Wharton hated the notion of “that cheap originality often confounded with individuality”. She championed individuality, that is, creating spaces that function for its inhabitants and provide them with joy, comfort, and privacy. Individuality, she said, was “not 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.” If a room’s decor and arrangement served no other purpose than to be different or unusual then such spaces would end up uncomfortable, impersonal and unused. When thinking about the room being decorated, she advised to think of the rooms not as “the library” or “drawing room”, but more specifically as the library or drawing room of the people living in them.