16 July 2009

The Decoration of Houses-Wharton & Codman have their say

...and so goes my little Summer Reading Series- It has morphed into an enormous tome. One of the questions I posed: What is the seminal book in your field or your passion that you would recommend to young would be(s) of the same?

As I thought about this question and what my own thoughts would be - After, thinking Billy Baldwinesque (as in the Aesthete's pick) I kept coming back to The Decoration of Houses. This was the pick of esteemed blogger HOUSE OF BEAUTY AND CULTURE as well. This book is filled with the expected wit, poetry and prose of Edith Wharton and the knowledge and authority of Ogden Codman.

Edith Wharton's THE MOUNT

Edith Wharton's Decoration was realized in The Mount

the Mount today

"Well over one hundred years ago Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, relatively unknown writers set out to destroy every aspect of 19th century decoration and house planning that failed to conform to the best classical principles which were of course, their own. Reading THE DECORATION OF HOUSES a century later is still a bracing experience. The work speaks with wit to the correct uses of rooms one can grow with and not discard like last year's fashion trends. The authors speak to all aspects of what is the best in homes past, although suggestions for the "ball-room"-as such, may not apply in today's homes, the sound principles still do. Read it and you may come away with the urge to rethink your own decoration of houses."*

the Archer Huntington Mansion Staircase designed by Ogden Codman

Applying the principles of THE DECORATION is done today, as witnessed in this article, "The House of Worth" (here). It is the story of the restoration of Bellevue House, a Colonial Revival mansion, in Newport, designed by Ogden Codman in 1910. The house was purchased by Ronald Fleming, a preservationist, who undertook the project with THE DECORATION OF HOUSES at his side.

The Rotunda of BELLEVUE HOUSE in all its glory.

photograph by Andy Ryan

One of the Three
Ceiling Occulus, Ducal Palace, Mantua

"of all forms of ceiling adornment painting is the most beautiful. Italy, which contains the three perfect ceilings of the world"

painted by Andrea Mantegna

photograph from Wikipedia

Quotes from the DECORATION

Proportion is the good breeding of architecture. It is that something, indefinable to the unprofessional eye, which gives repose and distinction to a room... in its effects as intangible as that all-pervading essence which the ancients called the soul.

The decorator is...not to explain illusions, but to produce them.

It is inevitable that the decorator, who comes last, should fare worse, especially as he makes his appearance at a time when contractor's bills are pouring in, and the proposition to move a mantelpiece or change the dimensions of a door opens fresh vistas of expense to the client's terrified imagination.

One of the first obligations of Art is to make all Useful things Beautiful: were this neglected principle applied to the manufacture of housefold accessories, the modern room would have no needof knick-knacks. It is one of the misfortunes of the present time that the most preposteriously Bad Things often possess the powerful allurement of being expensive. One might think it an advantage that they are not within every one's reach; but, as a matter of fact, it is their very unattainableness which, by making them more desirable, leads to the production of that worst curse of modern civilization- Cheap copies of Costly Horrors.

Tout ce qui n'est pas necessaire est nuisible.

Though formal rooms abound in the text- as said- the principles of The Decoration of Houses live on today- and are perhaps more relevant than ever.

*this review was written by my friend Sandford Peele


  1. I understand that this book ended the friendship of Codman and Wharton. Would not you have loved to have been the proverbial fly on the wall when this was written between them?

    Mr. Peele remains elusive, but intriguing.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Wharton and Codman. I must find this book but meantime I enjoyed your quotes from The D of H.
    Sorry I haven't been commenting for a while.. can't keep up with your dazzling posts.



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