A carpenter can make a wainscoting which may be painted white or stained. When wood is impossible, a dado of some stuff, or burlaps, or velours, may, in ordinary houses, take the place of the wood. The object of either is twofold, - to lift the wall-decoration to a level with the eye, and to form a background for the pieces of furniture placed against it. Nothing, for instance, is so ugly as a long, narrow room with a very light paper running down to the base-board, while against this paper and all around the room pieces of dark furniture are shown, - tables and chairs with slim legs. One is always seeing the light walls between the legs. The eye is distracted, whereas the object should be to leave the eye free to rest upon or to follow the wall-decorations above, - the pictures or bronzes. Low bookcases running around a room serve the same purpose, and like a wainscoting or a dado, keep the lower part of the room as it should be kept, in a lower key.
When costly woods are employed on a wall, or when marbles appear, an architect or designer must be consulted. The woods generally used are French walnut, mahogany, chestnut, oak, brown ash, California redwood. These woods may appear as a wainscoting, be made to run all the way to the ceiling, or, stopping a few feet below, be finished with a shelf or moulding under a frieze of plaster, Spanish leather, tapestry, stucco, silk, or occasionally a piece of cretonne of particularly good color or design. When wood is put to other uses and elaborate designs are followed for the inlay of mirrors, tapestry, silk, or brocades, the whole room must be carefully designed, and by an artist. A room, so treated, is of itself the finished whole. No liberties should be taken with it. No pictures should be hung on its walls at the whim of the householder, and never unless a space has been specially created for such a purpose by the architect, and the design of the wood or stucco has been made to form the frame of that which is to be placed in it.
The every-day householder should attempt no elaborations of her ceilings. When she desires beams or panels, or stucco on her ceiling, she should seek the guidance of a well-trained designer. Had builders and contractors been as careful, we might have been spared the horror of many a ceiling in the old-fashioned houses, - coves, cornices, and ornate plaster scrolls treated with applications of fantastic tints. A misunderstanding of this subject, indeed, swept a generation of moneyed people off their feet, leaving us to deplore the results which still afflict us long after their perpetrators are dead and gone. One man had his ceilings painted to reproduce the floral designs of his carpet, so that one walked through his rooms with a dizzying sense of being suspended in mid-air, flowers above and flowers below, or, worse still, of not knowing whether one were walking quite in the proper place - everything seemed topsy-turvy. Another man painted his ceiling to look like "the blue vault on high" - the blue solid and studded with gilt stars.
Many years are required for a recovery from evil examples like these, especially when they have been all about us. Bad colors, proportions which defy every law of grace or beauty, over-elaboration of the trivial, if they have been part of the environment in which we have been born and bred, come to be accepted as our standard. Time seems to have sanctioned their use, the approval of our ancestors has given them weight and value. A more enlightened generation suffers and questions, but only a revolutionist or a prophet can bring about a new order. For this reason we have considered stucco and stencilled ceilings a necessity, and have been long discovering the beauty of simplicity in contrast to elaborations not directed by an experienced touch.
The ceilings of an ordinary country or town house should be treated with great discretion; never trusted to a painter who will insist on some stencilled design for which he has a partiality. If the ceiling is low, the effect of such a design is of something pressing down on the head. The ordinary ceiling ought never to be accentuated. When both the walls and the wood-work of the room are of one tone - a green, for instance - the ceiling should be slightly tinted with green, but merely enough of it used to carry the tone away from the white. If, on the other hand, the walls are green and the wood-work is white, then the ceiling should be white. Height is diminished by bringing the ceiling color down to the picture-moulding. The ceiling can then be finished with a wash or covered with a paper. In some rooms a flowered paper is used in this way, the color of the paper below repeating that of some detail in the ceiling-paper. This treatment is best suited to bedrooms, bathrooms, and parlors. A paper showing flowers or foliage too heavily massed, without space between, is not desirable. The idea is to produce the impression of an arbor with vines interlaced overhead. A flowered paper of conventional design can be used on the ceiling where a decoration of bands or figures would be impossible. The flowers would give an idea of space overhead, while the stencilled design would tend to oppress you as though a box-cover had been put over your head.
When the room is ready for the furniture and hangings, all the tact of the householder will be required. She must never be impatient of results nor think that she has attained her object with a first trial. She must live in a room to make it thoroughly habitable, live there in imagination as-well as in person. She must shift her furniture about, try it in this place and that, and never rest until she is satisfied. When a room is small she must strive for compactness; when it is large, for comfort - but whatever she does she must not only work with a reason for each act and selection she may make, but she must be able to prove her reason for every move. She must, too, interest herself constantly with a question of vistas, until the various openings from her rooms frame a series of pictures. To do this she must sit in different parts of a room and study effects through open doorways, or at the end of some line of division. If a mirror is hung, the mirror must be full of pleasant reflections. Just as the French in the country put statues at the end of avenues so that the eye may be carried to something which will make an agreeable resting-place, she must see to it that in her house the vision is led to nothing suggesting discomfort or unpleasantness. I was once in a house in which several rooms opened out of each other. The colors were charming, the arrangement tactful and agreeable, except for one blot. In an angle near the doorway of the farthest room, a large blue jar, in perfect harmony with the room in which it was placed, formed a discordant note with the lovely color combinations of the intervening chambers. As this blue jar was at the end of the line of vision, I could see nothing else, and still more unfortunately, when I turned away I could remember nothing else - none of the lovely carvings, none of the hangings - only that miserable blue jar at the end of the vista.