WE use the term “period rooms” with full knowledge of the difficulties involved, in defining Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Directoire, Jacobean, Empire, Georgian, Victorian and Colonial decorations. Each period certainly has its distinctive earmarks in line and typical decoration, but you must realize that a period gradually evolves, at first exhibiting characteristics of its ancestors, then as it matures, showing a definite new type, and, later, when the elation of success has worn off, yielding to various foreign influences. By way of example, note the Chinese decoration on some of the painted furniture of the Louis XVI type, the Dutch influence on Chippendale in line, and the Egyptian on Empire.
One fascinating way of becoming familiar with history is to delve into the origin and development of periods in furniture. The story of Napoleon is recorded in the unpretentious Directoire, the ornate Empire of Fontainebleau, while the conversion of round columns into obelisk-like pilasters surmounted by heads, the bronze and gilded-wood ornaments in the form of the Sphynx, are frank souvenirs of Egypt.
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Every period, whether ascribed to England, France, Italy or Holland, has found expression in all adjacent countries. An Italian Louis XVI chair, mirror or appliqué is frequently sold in Paris or London as French and Empire furniture was “made in Germany.” Periods have no restricted nationality; but nationality often declares itself in periods.
That is to say, lines may be copied; but workmanship is another thing. Apropos of this take the French Empire furniture, massive as much of it is, built squarely and solidly to the floor, but showing most extraordinary grace on account of the amazing delicacy of intricate designs, done by the greatest French sculptors of the time and worked out in metal by the trained hands of men who had a special genius for this art. At no other time, nor in any other country, has an equal degree of perfection in the fine chiseling of metals so much as Approached the standard attained during the Louis and the Empire periods.
If in your wandering, you happen upon a genuine bit of this work in silver or ormoulu, buy it The writer once found in a New Jersey antique shop, a rare Empire bronze vase, urn-shaped, a specimen of the very finest kind of this metal engraving. The price asked for it (in ignorance, of course) was $2.50! The piece would have brought $40 in Paris. But the quest of the antique is another story.
When one realizes the eternal borrowing of one country from another, the ever-recurring renaissance of past periods and the legitimate and illegitimate mixing of styles, it is no wonder that the amateur feels nervously uncertain, or frankly ignorant. Many a professional decorator hesitates to give a final judgment.
To take one case in point, we glibly speak of “Colonial” furniture, that term which covers such a multitude of sins, and inspiring virtues, too! We have the Colonial, which closely resembles the Empire, and we have what is sometimes styled the Chippendale Colonial, following Louis XIV, XV and XVI. The Chippendale of England. Our Colonial cabinet-makers used as models, beautiful pieces imported from England, Holland and France by the wealthier members of our communities.
Also a Chinese and Japanese influence crept in, on account of the lacquer and carved teak wood, brought home by our seafaring ancestors. It is quite possible that the carved teak wood stimulated the clever maker of some of the most beautiful Victorian furniture made in America, which is gradually finding its way into the hands of collectors.
Some of these cabinet-makers glued together and put under heavy pressure seven to nine layers of rosewood with the grain running at every angle, so as to produce strength. When the layers had been crushed into a solid block, they carved their open designs, using one continuous piece of wood for the ornamental rim of even large sofas.
The best of the Victorian period is attractive, but how can we express our opinion of those American monstrosities of the sixties or seventies, beds in rosewood and walnut, the head-boards covering the side of a room, bureaus proportionately huge, following out the idea that a piece of furniture to be beautiful must be very large and very expensive! It is to be hoped that wary cabinet-makers are to day rescuing the lovely rosewood and walnut wasted at that time.
The art of furniture making, like every other art, came into being to serve a clearly defined purpose. This must not be forgotten. A chair and a sofa are to sit on; a mirror, to reflect. Remember this last fact when hanging one.
It is important that your mirror reflect one of the most attractive parts of your room, and thus contributes its quota to your scheme of decoration. It is interesting to note that chairs were made with solid wooden seats when men wore armor, velvet cushions followed more fragile raiment, and tapestries while always mural decorations were first used in place of doors and partitions, in feudal castles, before there were interior doors and partitions.
Any piece of furniture is artistically bad when it does not satisfactorily serve its purpose. The equally fundamental law that everything useful should at the same time be beautiful cannot be repeated too often.
Period rooms which slavishly repeat, in every piece of furniture and ornament, only one type, have but a museum interest If your rooms are to serve as a home, give them a winning, human quality, keep before your mind’s eye, not royal palaces which have become museums, but homes, built and furnished by men and women whose traditions and associations gave them standards of beauty, so that they bought the choicest furniture both at home and abroad.
In such a home, whether it be an intimate palace in Europe, a Colonial mansion in New England, or a Victorian interior of the best type, an extraneous period is often represented by some objet d’art as a delightful, because harmonious note of contrast.
For example, in a Louis XVI salon, where the color scheme is harmonious, one gradually realizes that one of the dominant ornaments in the room is a rare old Chinese vase, brought back from the Orient by one of the family and given a place of honor on account of its uniqueness.