Introduction

Howsoever wonderful the nineteenth century may have been as an era of phenomenal material progress and of unprecedented mechanical, engineering and scientific achievement, it was distinctly not a period kindly to architecture or to any of the allied arts, and the art of interior decoration fared worse, if such a thing were possible, than any of the others. After about 1830 architecture, furniture design and the practice of decorative furnishing slumped into a dismal vale of barrenness or of revolting vulgarities and simpering inanities; a deplorable state with almost no bright spots at all to relieve the artificiality, dreariness and stupidity. Prom the day of the so-called "carpenters' Classic99 style in domestic architecture and the synchronous gobby, clumsy and tumid mahogany-veneered travesties upon the Empire style in furniture, both of which spread over the United States about the date above mentioned, there was a dreary procession of one abnormality after another until near the very end of the century - in architecture, the Gothic revival with its wooden crenellations painted and sanded to simulate stone, and jig-saw tracery and fretwork, the mansard roof episode with its attendant bastard Rococo enormities of decorative detail, the still more atrocious whimsicalities of the Centennial fashion with bird-box masses and details that were a most unhappy medley derived from Gothic tracery, Moorish fretwork and Hamburg edging, and next following this nightmare the aberrations of the "dreadful 80's"; in furniture, the rosewood fantasticalities, the black walnut perversions when designers so frequently adapted and parodied the least inspired eighteenth century Italian and Spanish precedents - an exhibition not of ignorance but of abysmal bad taste - the East-lake trivialities, the golden oak brutalities of unhappy memory and still more unhappy survivals; and, to complete the tale of iniquities, the shocking "art nouveau" demonstrations of what an utterly unbalanced and depraved, and we might add starved, imagination could descend to. Even in the last decade of the nineteenth century and after the beginning of the twentieth, when the invitable but long delayed reaction against all the preceding abominations had set in and the trend towards reasonable taste and sane furnishing had gained appreciable impetus, occasional discouraging reversions to mobiliary imbecility were to be noted and, along with them, reversions to decorative imbecility as well. Witness the extravagances and faddish, inane gaucheries perpetrated under the inspiration of Viennese influence.

Bad as things were in America, conditions were little if any better in England or on the Continent. As a fit accompaniment to the ill-shapen furniture, the acme of decorative effort in Great Britain seems to have been reached in a very orgy of kakochromous needlework in Berlin wool and a dolorous achievement of dexterity in decalcomania plastering, to be followed slightly later by a succession of equally unedifying performances. Like absurdities made their appearance locally elsewhere. And in all this mad age, which seems to have run riot in a delirium of delight over the fancied possibility of creating art by purely mechanical processes, there was a drab, unmitigated monotony of decorative horrors relieved only by such infrequent and sporadic episodes as the Biedermeier period in Bavaria or some of the better efforts of William Morris and his contemporaries in England. One of the most deplorable and pathetic features of the period was the universal self-satisfaction and the universal striving to attain the smug and genteel - verbum hor-ribilel - result There was no lack of mental capacity among decorators and designers - would that there had been! The outcome might have been less appallingly hideous, but the mental capacity was prostituted to the pursuit of copious and banal activity wholly devoid of imagination and of worthy ideals. The minds of those who should have created worthy things were grovelling in a moil of the grossest mechanical materialism.

Architectural Background And Methods Of Fixed Decoration

During the period of "carpenters' Classic" ascendancy there is little that can be said, in a positive way, of the architectural background. Its qualities were chiefly negative. Apart from the rectangular door and window openings with their rectangularly detailed and perfunctory trims and rectangularly detailed, perfunctory and flat fireplace surrounds and mantels to match, there was little that could be dignified by the name of interior architecture. The best that can be said of these items of equipment is that they were simple. The rooms were apt to be lofty and of fairly good proportions and the door and window openings were generous; so that, despite the lack of any real spirit of inspiration, there was a certain amount of dignity because there was no great pretense. To be sure, it was the dignity of a large box, an altogether passive and negative dignity. The soul of the room was often throttled by blocking up the fireplace and substituting an hot-air register to serve in lieu of the living fire. The walls were merely expanses of white plaster above an insignificant baseboard and the cornices, while respectable, were neither impressive nor of any positive decorative value.

Succeeding this period of "carpenters' Classic" dominance, when the woodwork was customarily painted an unobtrusive white or cream and the walls were either painted or else papered in banal or even worse than banal taste, came an era of the same barren walls which offered an expansive opportunity for the display of atrociously hideous wall-paper, soulless registers set beneath vulgarly proportioned marble mantels, and pompous, tumid, ill-detailed woodwork executed either in expensive walnut or else fashioned from some humbler wood and painted white or dirty chocolate brown or grained. The finishing touch to this delectable interior would be a grotesque and pretentious chandelier dropping out of a no less grotesque and pretentious cast plaster centre-piece affixed to the middle of the ceiling. At this same time we often find doors and windows with heads either semicircular or else showing the segment of an are, supposedly conveying a bit of distinction, and, when affluent vulgarity was minded to splurge in elaboration of woodwork, there were sometimes added borders of heavy machine-carved flowers, thick rope mouldings and heavy gad-rooned edges, borrowed unintelligently from eighteenth century Italian models of not the best type. City houses of the brown-stone-front vintage supply plentiful examples of these depressing items.

The next phase of ugliness was the Centennial episode with nothing new or better to contribute to the architectural background and only a variation in the matter of fretted gingerbread woodwork more plentifully diffused, besides the supplementary horror of so-called frescoes consisting of awkward designs printed on paper and pasted on ceilings. An Eastlake spirit also manifested itself in the woodwork. Next came the dreary, ponderous and stupid period of the 80's with its attendant monstrosities of wainscot, grotesque galleried and fussy mantel-pieces and overmantels with mirrors; stair rails and grilles with multitudinous spool and globular turnings; panels and fireplace hoods with muscular griffins and caryatides and a maze of foliations and grisly masques derived from clumsy mediaeval German motifs, all substantially wrought in golden oak or, perhaps, in red-stained mahogany. A frequent piece de resistance of fixed decoration at this time was a terrifying composition in "stained" glass of virulent colouring or else a bewildering maelstrom of much be-leaded fragments of thick white glass, set in unusual shaped windows on stair landings or above sideboards. Almost synchronous with this hectic era was the "Art Nouveau" craze with its attenuations, its contortions and its misshapen sinuosities that closely resemble hanks of molasses toffy being pulled at a candy frolic

From all this moil of aberrations there was bound to be a revulsion of feeling and a recrudescence of sanity; the human mind had done its worst and the pendulum was due to swing back to better things. The day of better things had dawned, there were searchings among the saner precedents of the past and considerable progress had been achieved when there arose a brief reversion to anarchy in the extravagant gauche-ries of the ultra-Viennese school, an isolated ebullition, however, which endured in vigour for only a brief season and did not serve to stay or seriously hinder the course of decorative progress to which we have since held.