Of the Room and Furniture

THE transient tenure that most of us have in our dwellings, and the absorbing nature of the struggle that most of us have to make to win the necessary provisions of life, prevent our encouraging the manufacture of well-wrought furniture.

We mean to outgrow our houses—our lease expires after so many years and then we shall want an entirely different class of furniture; consequently we purchase articles that have only sufficient life in them to last the brief period of our occupation, and are content to abide by the want of appropriateness or beauty, in the clear intention of some day surrounding ourselves with objects that shall be joys to us for the remainder of our life. Another deterrent condition to making a serious outlay in furniture is the instability of fashion: each decade sees a new style, and the furniture that we have acquired in the exercise of our experienced taste will in all probability be discarded by the impetuous purism of the succeeding generation.

At present we are suffering from such a catholicity of taste as sees good in everything, and has an indifferent and tepid appreciation of all and sundry, especially if consecrated by age.

This is mainly a reaction against the austerity of those moralists who preached the logic of construction, and who required outward proof of the principles on which and by which each piece was designed.

Another cause prejudicial to the growth of modern furniture is the canonisation of old.

That tables and chairs should have lasted one hundred years is indeed proof that they were originally well made: that the conditions of the moment of their make were better than they are now is possible, and such aureole as is their due let us hasten to offer. But, to take advantage of their survival and to increase their number by facsimile reproduction is to paralyse all healthy growth of manufacture.

As an answer to the needs and habits of our ancestors of one hundred years ago—both in construction and design—let them serve us as models showing the attitude of mind in which we should meet the problems of our day—and so far as the needs and habits of the present time are unchanged, as models of form, not to be incorporated with our vernacular, but which we should recognise as successful form, and discover the plastic secrets of its shape.

With this possession we may borrow what forms we will—shapes of the Ind and far Cathay—the whole wide world is open to us—of past imaginations and of the dreams of our own.

But without this master-key the copying is slavish, and the bondage of the task is both cruel and destructive.

Cruel, because mindless work can be reproduced more rapidly than thoughtful work can be invented, and the rate of production affects the price of other articles of similar kind, so that the one dictates what the other shall receive; and destructive, because it treats the craftsman as a mere machine, whose only standard can be mechanical excellence.

Now, all furniture that has any permanent value has been designed and wrought to meet the ends it had to serve, and the careful elaboration of it gave its maker scope for his pleasure and occasion for his pride.

If a man really likes what he has got to do, he will make great shifts to express and realise his pleasure; he will choose carefully his materials, and either in playfulness of fancy, or in grave renunciation of the garniture of his art, will put the stamp of his individuality on his work.

An example of living art in modern furniture is a costermonger’s barrow. Affectionately put together, carved and painted, it expresses almost in words the pride and taste of its owner.

As long as we are incapable of recognising and sympathising with the delight of the workman in the realisation of his art, our admiration for his work is a pretence, and our encouragement of it blind—and this blindness makes us insensitive as to whether the delight is really there or no; consequently our patronage will most often be disastrous rather than helpful.

The value of furniture depends on the directness of its response to the requirements that called it into being, and to the nature of the conditions that evoked it.

To obtain good furniture we must contrive that the conditions of its service are worthy conditions, and not merely the dictates of our fancy or our sloth.

At the present moment modern furniture may be roughly divided into two classes: furniture for service, and furniture for display. Most of us, however, have to confine ourselves to the possession of serviceable furniture only; and a more frank recognition of this limitation would assist us greatly in our selection. If only we kept our real needs steadily before us, how much more beauty we could import into our homes!

Owing to lack of observation, and of experienced canons of taste, our fancies are caught by some chance object that pleases—one of that huge collection of ephemeral articles which “have been created to supply a want” that hitherto has never been felt—and as the cost of these fictions is (by the nature of the case) so low as to be of no great moment to us, the thing is purchased and helps henceforth to swell the museum of incongruous accumulation that goes by the name of a “furnished drawing-room.”

A fancy, so caught, is soon outworn, but the precept of economy forbids the discharge of the superfluous purchase, and so it adds its unit to the sum of daily labour spent on its preservation and its appearance. This burden of unnecessary toil is the index of the needlessness and cruelty with which we spend the labour of those whom need has put under our service.

And the sum of money spent on these ill-considered acquisitions which have gone to swell the general total of distress, an ever-widening ring of bitter ripple, might, concentrated, have purchased some one thing, both beautiful and useful, whose fashioning had been a pleasure to the artificer, and whose presence was an increasing delight to the owner and an added unit to this world’s real wealth.

Such indiscriminate collection defeats its own aim. Compare the way Giovanni Bellini fits up St. Jerome’s study for him in the National Gallery. There is no stint of money evidently; the Saint gets all that he can properly want, and he gets over and above—the addition born of his denial—the look of peace and calm in his room, that can so seldom be found with us. Another reason why our rooms are so glaringly over-furnished is, that many of us aim at a standard of profusion, in forgetfulness of the circumstances which created that standard. Families, whose descent has been historic, and whose home has been their pride, accumulate, in the lapse of time, heirlooms of many kinds—pictures, furniture, trinkets, etc.—and as these increase in numbers, the rooms in which they are contained become filled and crowded beyond what beauty or comfort permits, and such sacrifice is justly made for the demands of filial pride.

This emotion is so conspicuously an honourable one that we are all eager to possess and give scope to our own, and so long as the scope is honest there is nothing more laudable.

But the temptation is to add to our uninherited display in this particular by substitutes, and to surround ourselves with immemorable articles, the justification of whose presence really should be that they form part of the history of our lives in more important respects than the mere occasions of their purchase.

It is this unreasoning ambition that leads to the rivalling of princely houses by the acquisition of “family portraits purchased in Wardour Street”—the rivalling of historic libraries by the purchase of thousands of books to form our yesterday’s libraries of undisturbed volumes—the rivalling of memorable chairs and tables, by recently bought articles of our own, crowded in imitation of our model with innumerable trifles, to the infinite tax of our space, our patience, and our purse.

Our want of care and restraint in the selection of our furniture affects both its design and manufacture.

Constantly articles are bought for temporary use—we postponing the responsibility of wise purchase until we have more time, or else we buy what is not precisely what we want but which must do, since we cannot wait to have the exact things made, and have not the time to search elsewhere for them.

Furniture, in response to this demand, must be made either so striking as to arrest the eye, or so variedly serviceable as to meet some considerable proportion of the conflicting requirements made on it by the chance intending purchaser, or else it must fall back on the impregnable basis of antiquity and silence all argument with the canon that what the late Mr. Chippendale did was bound to be “good taste.”

“There should be a place for everything, and everything in its place.” Very true. But in the exercise of our orderliness we require the hearty co-operation of the “place” itself. ‘Tis a wonderful aid when the place fits the object it is intended to contain.

Take the common male chest of drawers as a case in point. Its function is to hold a man’s shirts and his clothes, articles of a known and constant size. Why are the drawers not made proportionate for their duty? Why are they so few and so deep that when filled—as they needs must be—they are uneasy to draw out, and to obtain the particular article of which we are in quest, and which of course is at the bottom, we must burrow into the heavy superincumbent mass of clothes in our search, and—that successful—spend a weary while in contriving to repack the ill-disposed space. It can hardly be economy of labour and material that dictates this, for—if so—why is the usual hanging wardrobe made so preposterously too tall? Does the idiot maker suppose that a woman’s dress is hung all in one piece, body and skirt, from the nape of the neck, to trail its extremest length?

The art of buying furniture, or having it made for us, is to be acquired only by study and pains, and we must either pursue the necessary education, or depute the furnishing of our rooms to competent hands: and the responsibility does not end here, for there is the duty of discovering who are competent, and this must be done indirectly since direct inquiry only elicits the one criterion, ominpotent, omnipresent, of cost.

The object to be gained in furnishing a room is to supply the just requirements of the occupants, to accentuate or further the character of the room, and to indicate the individual habits and tastes of the owner.

Each piece should be beautiful in itself, and, still more important, should minister to and increase the beauty of the others. Collective beauty is to be aimed at; not so much individual.

Proportion is another essential. Not that the proportions of furniture should vary with the size of the rooms: the dimensions of chairs, height of tables, sizes of doors, have long been all fixed and, having direct reference to the human body, are immutable.

Substantially, the size of man’s body is the same and has been the same from the dawn of history until now, and will be the same whether in a cottage parlour or the Albert Hall. But there is a proportion in the relations of the spaces of a room to its furniture which must be secured. If this is not done, no individual beauty of the objects in the room will repair the lost harmony or be compensation for the picture that might have been.

A museum of beautiful objects has its educational value, but no one pretends that it claims to be more than a storehouse of beauty.

The painter who crowds his canvas with the innumerable spots of colour that can be squeezed out of every tube of beautiful paint that the colourman sells, is no nearer his goal than he who fills his rooms with a heterogeneous miscellany of articles swept together from every clime and of every age.

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