The Decoration of Houses (The Original 1897 Edition)
Amidst today’s seemingly endless supply of domestic guides and treatises on interior decoration, Edith Wharton might be surprised that her The Decoration of Houses (co-authored with architect Ogden Codman, Jr.) would still be as relevant and necessary as it is a century after its first publication. Long before “simplicity” and “classic” became catchwords for branding, Wharton took a public stand against the bland, trite excesses of Victorian décor in America. Favoring the considered, informed and complex processes of design rooted in architectural principles, her graceful humility was matched only by her assertive plea against the contemporary dominance of thoughtless, conspicuous consumption visible in New York society. As she determinately decreed: “According to the creed of the modern manufacturer, you have only to combine certain ‘good’ to obtain a certain style.”
Often associated with the frivolity connected to historical descriptions of femininity, this volume might be a surprise for those who prefer to view Wharton as a New York literary powerhouse. While her 40 books in 40 years (many of which were devoted to travels through European residences and gardens) are a testament to the force of her pen, it’s the themes of beauty, pleasure, societal indulgence, cultural education and cosmopolitanism in America’s modernity that make her analysis, and eventual ruling on the importance of design and space, a necessary extension of her literary thought. As she aptly begins her historical and aesthetic analysis, “Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally dependent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.” And it’s through these sixteen chapters that reflect on everything from the front door to the dining room to bric-a-brac that she offers readers a glimpse at the historic function of furnishings, as well as her claims about taste, beauty and the impact of residential design.
The Italian, French and British capacity for decorating in accord with the Grecian edict of “wise moderation,” so admired by Wharton, is illustrated by black and white plates. The illustrations also reveal that the author’s penchant for “classic” beauty wasn’t about recreating kitschy historic facades or stoic sparseness. Rather, a considered pleasure seems to be her goal as she concludes, “There is no absolute perfection, there is no communicable ideal; but much that is empiric, much that is confused and extravagant, will give way before the application of principles based on common sense and regulated by the laws of harmony and proportion.” True to her appreciation for sincerity in the application of decorative principles, readers can see the realization of her rules if they visit the Mount, a 113-acre Lenox estate designed by Wharton in 1902.
Recreated by Rizzoli using photographs of the original 1897 pressing, the only change made by the publishers in this edition is the use of the original interior dust jacket as the model for the printed design that now covers the book. But I don’t think Wharton would mind, as she truly believed that design was about the external reflection and illumination of what’s on the inside.