This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
A feeling is, I trust, being gradually awakened in favour of 'art furniture.' But the universal obstacle to its popularity up to the present time has been the cost which it entails on people of ordinary means. And this is a very natural obstacle. It would be quixotic to expect any one but a wealthy enthusiast to pay twice as much as his neighbour for chairs and tables in the cause of art. The true principles of good design are universally applicable, and, if they are worth anything, can be brought to bear on all sorts and conditions of manufacture. There was a time when this was so; and, indeed, it is certain that they lingered in the cottage long after they had been forgotten in palaces.
Every article of manufacture which is capable of decorative treatment should indicate, by its general design, the purpose to which it will be applied, and should never be allowed to convey a false notion of that purpose. Experience has shown that particular shapes and special modes of decoration are best suited to certain materials. Therefore the character, situation, and extent of ornament should depend on the nature of the material employed, as well as on the use of the article itself.
On the acceptance of these two leading principles - now universally recognised in the field of decorative art - must always depend the chief merit of good design. To the partial, and often direct, violation of those principles, we may attribute the vulgarity and bad taste of most modern work.
Let us take a familiar example of household furniture by way of illustration. A coal-box, or scuttle, is intended to contain a very useful, but dirty, species of fuel. It is evident, looking to the weight of the substance which it is destined to hold, that iron or brass must be the best and most suitable material of which a coal-box could be made. It is also obvious that if it be invested with any ornamental character beyond that which may be afforded by its general form, such ornament should be of the simplest description, executed in colour of the soberest hues. But what is the coal-box of our day ? Brass has been almost entirely discarded in its manufacture, and though iron is retained, it is lacquered over with delicate tints, and patterns of flowers, etc. utterly unsuitable in such a place. Nor is this all. Of late years, photographs have been introduced as an appropriate decoration for the lid and sides. Could absurdity of design be carried farther ? We might, with as much artistic propriety, make papier-mache pokers, and hang our chimneypieces with Valenciennes.
Almost all the 'fashionable' shapes for fenders, grates, and fire-irons, are selected on a principle which utterly ignores the material of which they are made. The old type of fender in use about fifty years ago, consisted of thin iron plates, perforated and framed between bars of brass or steel. It was not very graceful in design, certainly, but it was infinitely better art than the curvilinear and elaborate monstrosities which are produced in Birmingham and Sheffield at the present time. Moreover, it answered the purpose of protecting women's dress from contact with the fire much more effectually than they do.
In this and a hundred other cases the taste of the public and of the manufacturers has become vitiated from a false notion of what constitutes beauty of form. Every article of upholstery which has a curved outline, no matter of what kind the curve may be, or where it may be applied, is considered 'elegant.' Complexity of detail, whether in a good or bad style of ornament, is approved as 'rich,' and with these two conditions of so-styled elegance and richness, the uneducated eye is satisfied. With regard to the special instance in question, it happens that as coal was not commonly burnt in English dwelling-houses before the close of the seventeenth century, the form of fender now in use was not invented until after the decline of decorative art. It has therefore never assumed a satisfactory form for ordinary sale. Some good examples, indeed, are occasionally to be met with at the mediaeval metal-workers'; but their present cost is, on an average, about three times that of other fenders. While such extravagant prices are kept up for articles which, if supplied in the ordinary way of trade, would be as cheap as anything else, it is impossible to expect a thorough reform in household taste.
The absurd fashion which regulates the arrangement of modern window-hangings cannot be too severely condemned, on account both of its ugliness and inconvenience. Curtains were originally hung across a window or door, not for the sake of ornament alone, but to exclude cold and draughts. They were suspended by little rings, which slipped easily over a stout metal rod - perhaps an inch or an inch and a half in diameter. Of course, between such a rod (stretched across the top of the window) and the ceiling, a small space must always intervene; and, therefore, to prevent the chance of wind blowing through in this direction, a boxing of wood became necessary, in front of which a plain valance was hung, sometimes cut into a vandyke-shaped pattern at its lower edge, but generally unplaited. As for the curtains themselves, when not in use they hung straight down on either side, of a sufficient length to touch, but not to sweep the ground.
Now, observe how we have burlesqued this simple and picturesque contrivance in our modern houses. The useful and convenient little rod has grown into a huge lumbering pole as thick as a man's arm, but not a whit stronger than its predecessor; for the pole is not only hollow, but constructed of metal far too thin in proportion to its diameter. Then, in place of the little finials which used to be fixed at each end of the rod, to prevent the rings from slipping off, our modern upholsterer has substituted gigantic fuchsias, or other flowers, made of brass, gilt bronze, and even china, sprawling downwards in a design of execrable taste. Sometimes this pole, being too weak for actual use, is fixed up simply for ornament - or rather, let me say, for pretentious show - while the curtain really slides on an iron rod behind it. Instead of the wooden boxing and valance, a gilt cornice, or canopy, is introduced, contemptible in design, and worse than useless in such a place; for not only does it afford, from the nature of its construction, no protection against the draught behind, but, being made of thin sharp-edged metal, it is liable to cut and fray the curtain which it crowns. The curtains themselves are made immoderately-long, in order that they may be looped up in clumsy folds over two large and eccentric-looking metal hooks on either side of the window. The result of this needless and ugly complication is that in a London house the curtains are seldom drawn: dust gathers thickly in their folds, the stuff is prematurely worn out, and comfort as well as artistic effect is sacrificed to meet an upholsterer's notion of 'elegance.'