Books: Home Improvement

Looking back at a classic primer of American design

The Decoration of Houses
By Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.
Rizzoli, $35


By Edith Wharton

Credit: Books

Most fans of lean, midcentury modern sofas, bark-cloth draperies, and kidney-shaped coffee tables grew up with French provincial bedroom sets or baggy shabby-chic slipcovers. As soon as children know enough to loathe their parents' terrible taste, they long for something completely different—be it gurgling lava lamps or Grandmother's flocked damask wallpaper. The 1897 interior design classic The Decoration of Houses, now available from Rizzoli as a handsome facsimile, works on the same principle. Coauthors Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. skewered the design they'd inherited with the convivial savagery of confidants talking trash about other peoples' taste, which indeed they were.

Noted architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson introduces the new edition. He adroitly traces what's known of the odd collaboration between Wharton—who would later write acclaimed novels, such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence—and New England architect and decorator Codman. Having improved Wharton's Newport house, the duo set out to improve the public's approach to decorating.

The coauthors gleefully attack the mixed patterns, curtained door openings, wall-to-wall carpets with multicolored designs, and ever-present wallpaper of the late Victorian period. "Nothing," they proclaim, "is more distressing than the sight of a large oil-painting in a ponderous frame seemingly suspended from a spray of wild roses or any of the other naturalistic vegetation of the modern wall-paper." Not even the Old Colony style, which Codman himself practiced, escapes undished: It's accused of "attenuated laurel-wreaths combined with other puny attributes taken from Sheraton Cabinets and Adam mantel-pieces."

Taken together, these jibes provide a useful, if unintentional, overview of c.1860-1895 interiors and taste. During that period, design reformers of the Aesthetic and arts and crafts movements taught that a home's decorations and furnishings affected its inhabitants' characters. Good ("artistic") design improved; bad design and shoddy products corrupted. Wharton and Codman scoff at the idea that decoration has moral influence but share the reformers' conviction that design depends on universal principles.

In addition to critiques, they offer their own decorating principles and solutions to pesky problems, such as choosing colors for a small room and arranging furniture in a cavernous one. Yet if The Decoration of Houses only advised, its popularity would be hard to fathom. It lacks the spunky can-do attitude of Candace Wheeler's Principles of Home Decoration (1903) or Sidney Morse's Household Discoveries (1908). The authors often ignore cost or comfort, recommending against central heating and endorsing stone floors, prominent fireplaces, decorative wall painting, and tapestry hangings. Many principles they promote—good design matters more than materials, proper proportion is the key to pleasing design—were old hat in 1897.

Slightly foggy photographs of antique European rooms—rather than tasty examples of well-designed contemporary ones—punctuate the text. But they alert the reader that the book offers a groundbreaking history of interior decoration, introduced by an impressive list of the authors' sources. These include today's documentary gold standard, probate inventories of old houses' contents. Wharton and Codman explain how furnishings, architectural features, and individual rooms have responded to changing culture and technology. Despite heroic efforts to dismiss their parents' taste, these children of the design reform movement can't escape its central premise—that the way people live and the way they decorate are inseparable.

Wharton and Codman, in their turn, recognize past decor as a fossil record of the way people have lived. Sadly, this discovery is still new.  All too often, "restoration" refreshes facades while gutting, stripping, and obliterating original interior decoration. Although Wilson believes The Decoration of Houses had "a major impact in America and England," no one knows exactly how its ideas affected houses decorated on Wharton and Codman's watch. Certainly, interior preservation today owes much to two friends who, while bashing their parents' bad taste, found inspiration and history in decorated rooms.

Jean Dunbar is a Lexington, Va., writer and period-interiors consultant.

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