This section is from the book "Modern Buildings, Their Planning, Construction And Equipment Vol6", by G. A. T. Middleton. Also available from Amazon: Modern Buildings.
(Contributed by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, MM.S.A.)
In a work which is intended to be a collection of practical treatises, a chapter on styles and periods in decoration, and interior fittings and fixtures, would be rather out of place. A disquisition upon the methods and materials used by painters and decorators, cabinetmakers, or any of the allied trades, is also outside the scope, if not of the book itself, at any rate of this chapter. It is more our purpose to summarise such conclusions as have been arrived at practically unanimously by all who have seriously studied these things, and to give a few guiding principles and a few facts, avoiding all controversial matters. Much that we shall say will therefore inevitably seem trite and stale.
It is better not to ornament at all, unless we can have really good ornament, - that is, ornament which is in the true meaning of the words, "A work of art"; and the only possible work of art is something which it has given pleasure to the worker to produce. This artwork may be reproduced by more or less mechanical processes, and still be something we are justified in using; but somehow, only that which has given joy in the making can in its turn give joy in the using, and, as a rule, the pleasure taken in producing a thing which passes through many mechanical processes before it reaches the user becomes so remote as to be almost negligible. This depends somewhat, of course, upon how mechanical the processes are. Some processes of reproduction involve so much art in their carrying out that they, as it were, keep the art in the thing alive. Many branches of printer's work, such as wood-block printing, say in wall-papers and fabrics, various lithographing and engraving processes, and so on, while they are means adopted whereby to multiply a thing indefinitely, require so much exercise of artistic feeling on the part of the craftsman, if they are to be successful, that the art is, to some extent, kept alive. Therefore this is a test we can safely apply to anything we propose to use in decorating our rooms. Has it given joy to the producer ? And if the answer is no, we know that it is not a work of art. We shall come to feel that it has no beauty, and if we ever took any pleasure in it, that pleasure will not last. William Morris once said: "Have nothing in your rooms which you do not either know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," and he would have always admitted that the first of these really includes the second, as the sphere of usefulness of the Beautiful is merely on a higher plane. Broadly speaking, the right method is to make the necessary and useful things in a room beautiful, and to be chary of introducing things we know to have no practical utility but which we believe to be beautiful. Even if we decide to admit things which we do not consider to have practical uses, but which we do believe to be beautiful, there are few of us who, on looking round our rooms, would not be surprised at the number of things we could find whose presence was justified neither by use nor beauty. All that enormous profusion of so-called ornament, mechanically produced and quite lifeless and useless, which is spread over everything, would have to go; and the relief we should feel to have substituted for it plain surfaces, and a little decorative painting, embroidery, carving, or metal work, done by the artist's own hand, would indeed be very great.
One reason why mechanically produced repeating ornament, such as we get in wall-papers, covering materials, many kinds of carpets and so on, can never be truly artistic is, that the ordinary use of these involves slicing through the ornament wherever the material is cut. In a floral wall-paper we get rows of mutilated forms along the lower edge of the cornice and the upper edge of the skirting, round every window and door, which the dulling of our artistic perceptions by use and custom alone makes us able to tolerate. The ornament in machine-made mouldings has to be cut through, no matter how bad the effect, at any point where it requires to mitre or terminate, and a border round a carpet often cuts the filling design in a barbarous way. This reference to carpets reminds us that anything that must be looked at from many different points of view should never be so designed as to look right only when seen from one point of view, therefore a vertical design is never right in a carpet, where it will as often be looked at upside down, or sideways, as the right way up.
Again, it should ever be borne in mind that almost all decoration, at any rate all decoration of walls, floors, and other large surfaces, is only rightly regarded when considered as merely a background for other things, and especially as a background for human beings; it should never be looked upon as complete in itself, but should always be thought of as part of a whole, complete only when all is there that is eventually to come into the room it decorates.
Another golden rule to apply is Owen Jones' time-honoured maxim: "Ornament construction; do not construct ornament." This is a rule which it will not be found difficult to apply. It is pretty easy to see that we are constructing ornament when we have reached a point at which we begin to pile up, say, cabinetmaker's work which is not going to fulfil any such useful function as holding our books and papers, our cruet and salt cellars, or clothes and needlework, and so on, and cannot be said to be fulfilling the uses on a higher plane which belong to the work of art. If we make the lines of a chair such that we are unable to construct it in the simplest and most direct way that will ensure the most adequate fulfilment of its functions, we are constructing ornament. If we erect a pediment or piece of wall carried up above the eaves and roof of a building that we may form a niche in it in which to place a piece of sculpture, we construct ornament; if, however, we form a niche in which to place a piece of sculpture, in a wall which is really one of the walls of the building, we are ornamenting construction.