Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interior Decoration

The White House State Dining Room after
Louis Comfort Tiffany got done with it, c. 1880
There's some disagreement among those who worry about such things, as to who first came up with the Modern Art incantation, "Less is More." Some credit it to Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus School, while others tack it on to the lengthy list of quotations from Frank Lloyd Wright (joining a lot of other things he probably didn't say). I'm not sure who said it but I have a pretty good idea why. It probably came from a young, post-WW I artist retreating in horror from a room "designed" by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who, quite apart from his exquisite stained glass, is credited with having been the first "interior decorator." His unspoken philosophy, and undoubtedly that of his robber baron clients during the second half of the nineteenth century, was "More is More." Or, as Mae West once put it, "Too much of a good thing is a good thing."

The Cactus Room, El Marisol (the Herter estate), 
1914, Christian Herter
To our modern eyes, heir to, and accustomed to "modern" design, it's easy to gasp in amusement or dismay at the Victorian ostentation, clutter, and pretension of early interior decorators such as Tiffany, Christian Herter, and Charles Locke Eastlake (famous for his ornate, Victorian sofas). Our homes today may not be masterpieces of modern art but they do boast, for the most part, a comfortable "lived-in" look that is surprisingly, quite a modern concept. Few homes today could pass for Victorian museums or antique shops where one is afraid to move for fear of breaking something. For many of us, if we were to describe the style of our interior decor, the word "eclectic" would be often used. And that's ironic, because during the Victorian period, both here and in Europe, the same word would also apply to their interior decoration. Yet the effect is radically different.

A typical Eastlake interior, c. 1890
A Tiffany drawing room might have Persian carpets, Japanese fans, Chinese ceramics, an American sideboard, peacock feathers, Neoclassical marble statues, English wallpaper, Italian tiles, Indian ivory, Moorish brass, Renaissance paintings, and of course an obligatory stained glass window. Okay, so maybe the definition of eclectic back then was closer to that of a world's fair. In today's world, even the phrase "interior decorator" is antique. Now we call them environmental designers and with the more modern assignation comes a totally different approach. The Victorian interior decorator was charged with taking an empty room and chucking it full of "stuff," often with no other goal than showing off the owner's great wealth, presumed good taste, and collecting persistence. Whereas the modern designer starts by working with the building's architect in creating the living area itself (often not really a single "room"in the traditional sense), based upon the purpose for which the interior space will be used, then designing the content and environment to make that experience as pleasant and practical as possible. The decor might still be eclectic, but at least the Modern (or Postmodern) "lived-in" look indicates a human presence other than that of a museum curator
Post-modern eclecticism. Modern interiors (mid-20th century),
 though eclectic, were often far more austere than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment