In what way is life different from what it was? In the first place, the physical conditions of life to-day are enormously different from what they were, and they are different almost wholly because of power and the machine. These two factors have changed the face of the earth and given us modern transportation and communication which allow people to meet and obtain new ideas as they never could before. They make possible our modern dwellings. They provide us with our clothes and our household fittings and furnishings.
Then, again, a large fraction of us live in cities where room becomes more and more at a premium. This has made the apartment house our typical living arrangement, with the constant tendency to smaller and fewer rooms. Furthermore, household service, because of higher wages and changed social attitudes, becomes increasingly difficult to afford.
All these things require that we have fewer and smaller pieces of furniture. We no longer have space for the chaise longue or for couches. We must put up with fewer great chairs or tables. What furniture we have must function effectively and its material must be used economically and according to its qualities. If one material is not fitted for a purpose, we find another. These conditions outlaw carving and deep moldings that catch dust and require constant cleaning.
On the other hand, our mental attitudes are different from those of past generations. We live more intensely and our daily experiences are much more varied and of a transient nature. Our conversation is much more direct and simple as the demands of many brief contacts require. The flapper of to-day frankly reveals (I am not referring wholly to her dress) much that was concealed in former times.
On the whole, we face life more simply and directly, and all this tends to reflect upon our applied art. It tends, for one thing, I think, to make us less satisfied with ornament that covers up and overlies the structure of our household belongings, and inclines us to prefer the aesthetic appeal that comes from expression of the structural material itself.
We see this in contemporary furniture, silver, glass, ceramics, and in building. A potter to-day, making stoneware in the high fire kiln, almost inevitably expresses himself in terms that are the quintessence of modernism - that is, through glazes that are part of the substance of his creations. It is safe to say that over three-quarters of the pieces shown in the International Ceramic Exhibition, .... are of this character.
These, as I see them, are some of the tendencies that are present in the best of the modern work in three-dimensional things. These tendencies do not comprehend decoration in the old sense. Perhaps that will come later - I do not know. But they include, necessarily, it seems to me, scrupulous attention to appropriateness of form, firmness of proportion, elegance of line, and the discreet use of structural material for surface decorative effect.....
On the continent of Europe one finds varying expressions of the modern movement. Probably in no country are there more than one or two designers producing things fine enough to have a universal appeal, but for the most part the creations are at least sane and practical.
One thing that marks much of the English, German and Viennese work is the familiar quality of the chairs. This, it seems to me, represents much good sense. When, for no earthly good reason, we try to make a chair that is entirely unlike any chair produced before 1900, we generally achieve something that is both uncomfortable to sit in and uncomfortable to look at. Why not drop this frenzied effort at mere novelty? We do not need forms never before seen. We need old forms simplified or modified better to meet present-day needs. As a matter of fact, there is much of Sheraton and of Hepplewhite and a deal of Early American that meets the requirements of modern life most admirably.
The making of furniture in any important way to-day is a matter of quantity production. Of all peoples in the world, we are the one that should, by virtue of our special genius and social conditions, best express modern tendencies. At the moment we seem to be held back by a false conception of what these tendencies mean. Many of our manufacturers are rushing in with a hope to derive benefit from a fad, but utterly failing to appreciate that true modernism in applied art is not a matter of freak-ishness, queerness and novelty, but an expression of fundamental tendencies in our modern life. It seems evident that the time has come for the American furniture industry to apply some real courage, some real thinking, and some real taste to this situation and to tackle the problem of working out modern expressions of furniture in terms of our own demands and tastes with a seriousness worthy of the need. It is surely not too much to say that if our furniture manufacturers and designers, instead of seeking something merely bizarre and eye-catching, would take lessons from the best of our city architecture, from our fine automobiles, from modern ceramics, silver and glass and from woman's street dress, they might in time succeed in making American furniture the finest expression of the modern spirit. A few, sadly few, of such instances of appreciation are beginning to appear. From these we may take a measure of encouragement, at least, but a fine understanding of the situation seems to come all too slowly.
One of the first considerations in treating interiors is to plan for the proper relationship between the architectural treatment and the furniture. A well-designed room must have a harmonious relation between the various furnishings and the details of the architectural scheme. If there is an architect and a decorator they should collaborate.
Quantity production now makes it possible for many more families to have good furniture than in earlier days. In buying furniture utility and design are the two important considerations. Furniture woods should be properly cured or the wood may shrink, swell, crack, or warp. Modern use of veneers, plywood, inlay, and many lasting finishes all have been means of improving furniture. Lamination is the process of gluing together thin sheets of wood, layer upon layer. The abuse of veneers has brought them somewhat into disrepute, but veneer is the only means by which some of the beautiful effects in wood may be obtained. Both solid and veneer construction have many good points and certain advantages over each other. Joinery is of marked importance if furniture is to last and give good service. In upholstered furniture correct tying of the springs is essential for durability and satisfaction.
In arranging furniture the first consideration is the space to be occupied. Usefulness and beauty are the two main essentials to be observed. Unity is produced by emphasizing one important element throughout with all other elements subordinated to it. Variety which is the element of contrast should be used sparingly. By careful selection and arrangement of furniture a room of poor proportions may be greatly improved. Color, form, texture, and contrast are effective in obtaining balance. Color is one of the most expressive elements in decoration; intense colors, however, should be used in small proportions and their use should be to add life, interest, and character to a room. Contrasting harmony is much more difficult to use than harmony of likeness but it may be made very effective. A room without design lacks individuality; "spottiness," however, should be avoided. In arranging large pieces of furniture place them parallel to walls, small pieces should be grouped according to use and attractiveness and with reference to the various centers.
Since the hall, owing to its location, creates the first impression of the house interior it is important to strike the right keynote in its furnishings and decoration. The living-room interior, however, is undoubtedly of the greatest importance since it is the gathering place for family and friends, and should be interesting and satisfying. Light and cheerfulness are desirable results to be obtained in furnishing the dining room, and restfulness and simplicity are the chief considerations in the treatment of bedrooms.
Changes in living conditions have had their effect on the present modernistic movement in furniture and furnishings. Less space and more intense living, new use of materials, and new materials have influenced furniture design.