27 November 2019
De Wolfe, Elsie. The House in Good Taste. New York: Century, 1913.
This book is an instruction manual written expressly for American women in need of decorating a home or apartment. The overall premise is that a woman should use “good taste” to guide herself toward design solutions that reflect “suitability, simplicity and proportion.” Good taste, we learn, is anything French mixed with common sense and American practicality. Also, "good taste" is a skill that can be learned through study and practice - like a foreign language. Please note that in this book home decoration is not presented as a mode of personal expression, spiritual expression or an end in itself - common themes today, but not part of De Wolfe's agenda. Rather, home decoration is presented as a vehicle for cultural and social class enhancement.
The book begins with a general introduction, then leads readers through the various elements and rooms of a typical (upper class) house with instructive explanations and examples. Most often, De Wolfe starts each chapter with a reference to European art history which she then parlays into a decorating principle illustrated by photographs of her own interior design work. Here's a list of chapters:
I The Development of the Modern House
II Suitability, Simplicity and Proportion
III The Old Washington Irving House
IV The Little House of Many Mirrors
V The Treatment of Walls
VI The Effective Use of Color
VII Of Doors, and Windows, and Chintz
VIII The Problem of Artificial Light
IX Halls and Staircases
X The Drawing Room
XI The Living-Room
XII Sitting-Room and Boudoir
XIII A Light, Gay Dining Room
XIV The Bedroom
XVI The Small Apartment
XVII Reproductions of Antique Furniture and Objects of Art
XVIII The Art of Trelliage
XIX Villa Trianon
XX Notes on Many Things
The tone of the book is that of a cultured and slightly eccentric guide who is coaching her younger and more vulgar pupils on the manners of home decoration. De Wolfe is squarely against any overtly ostentatious display of wealth, “cuteness” and clutter - except for when she approves of it. This book seems to be a reproach of the heavy decorating schemes of the Victorian age. It also seems to be a primer for American woman in possession of wealth but not the cultural capital to go along with it. It was written, I assume, for upper middle-class or wealthy women
Notably, this book presents the work and character of a professional and self-supporting female designer at a time when that was particularly rare. Also, we learn that De Wolfe has a longstanding female companion, Miss Marbury, who one might infer is indication of a lesbian relationship.
House does it relate to scenography?
The practical information in this book, such as furniture and room decor, would be specifically useful for naturalistic or realistic set designs for plays set in the Edwardian era. Also, her explanations of the historical use of interior rooms and the subject of trelliage (a standout chapter) would be useful for historical plays. In a larger sense, De Wolfe's incorporation of art history, color sense, confidence and practical design solutions into a single approach would be inspiring to designers who are required to take command of the stage of many different aesthetic viewpoints.
The chapter on interior lighting instructs readers on how to "properly" light a room would be useful to set and lighting designers.