Lifted from February’s Architectural Digest:
Hundreds of interior design books are published every year, from nitty-gritty how-to guides to lavish volumes that are the publishing world’s answer to lifetime achievement awards. But they all owe their existence to a pioneering guide that was all the rage in 1897: The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.
Wharton, at the time, was a 30-something Manhattan society matron with a keen interest in architecture and interior design, rather than the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist she would become. Codman was a blue-blooded architect, one year her junior, with whom Wharton and her husband were remodeling a summer place in Newport, Rhode Island. Poor taste and vulgarity of all kinds reigned in that New England resort town, thanks to an influx of Vanderbilts and other newly moneyed clans anxious to put their lucre to conspicuous use, so much so that Wharton and Codman decided to write a book about how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness. It would, they hoped, lead its readers out of what Wharton called (pace the Vanderbilts) a “Thermopylae of bad taste” and into an aesthetic Promised Land.
Today, however, not many people read the 198–page book. But last week I was delighted to participate in a panel discussion about it at the New York School of Interior Design. The talk was sponsored by The Mount, a historic house museum in Lenox, Massachusetts, that was once Wharton’s country residence and, like the book, was another Wharton-Codman collaboration, at least at first. (The persnickety pair’s relationship eventually proved combustible, so the architect ended up losing the job to a less-volatile competitor.) Architectural historian, University of Virginia professor, and Wharton expert Richard Guy Wilson was the moderator, and my co-panelists were the interior designer Charlotte Moss and writer/decorator Pauline C. Metcalf.
The subject of the talk was whether The Decoration of Houses, now nearly 120 years old, still had any relevancy in the Age of IKEA. The general conclusion was a qualified “yes.” Wharton and Codman’s book does have drawbacks, we all agreed. Its tone can be superior and schoolmarmish. Its photographs are black-and-white, which many people today cannot abide in a book about interior design. Its examples of good taste are invariably the ballrooms, antechambers, staircases, and other grandiose spaces in European palaces and villas—not exactly what today’s average homeowner finds particularly inspirational. Perhaps most damning, The Decoration of Houses is devoid of how-to projects and idiotproof color schemes. So why do Moss, Metcalf, Wilson, and I revere this relic of late-Victorian days? (Which, it was quickly pointed out, is still in print.) Well, because practicality and common sense are never out of fashion.
The Decoration of Houses is like the King James Version of the Bible. Thousands of interior design books have come and gone since, but most, I would argue, merely repackage Wharton and Codman’s lessons in brighter colors and snappier prose. Today we all know, to a degree, that pleasingly proportioned rooms inspire, almost magically, a sense of calm. That it is best, when on a budget, to invest in comfortable chairs and sofas rather than flashy knickknacks. That we should build and decorate houses based on our individual needs rather than popular trends. (Not for nothing was Wharton born a Jones, a New York society family whose indulgences, architectural and otherwise, reportedly led to the coining of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”)
Such advice, and so much more in Wharton and Codman’s pages, seems so basic, so obvious. But it wasn’t in 1897, when many wealthy individuals, the target of the barbed arrow that is The Decoration of Houses, were doing all they could to build opulent houses glittering enough to do justice to the Gilded Age. Wharton and Codman wanted to educate the rich, to challenge them to build beautiful, practical, and pleasing residences whose details, from meaningful moldings to efficient floor plans to well-made, well-mannered furniture, would trickle down into every neighborhood in America in one form or another.
They were, of course, being irrationally optimistic—our time is as plagued with domestic horrors as was the 1890s. That said, sound advice has timeless value, which is why the book’s commandments, suggestions, and observations remain insightful and inspiring, whether your taste is ancien régime or ultramodern. After all, as Wharton and Codman wrote in their introduction, “Architecture and decoration, having wandered since 1800 in a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism, can be set right only by a close study of the best models.” Who would disagree with that?