July 14, 2024


Do you know Interior

How Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s Lasting Design Principles Still Have Impact Today

Photo credit: Designed by Victor Maze
Photo credit: Designed by Victor Maze

From Veranda

For VERANDA Sip and Read Club’s June pick, we threw it back with one of the most influential interior design books of all time: The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. Published in 1897, the pioneering guide focuses on a more simplistic approach to decorating with symmetry, balance, and proportion being its leading principles. In his own book, Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses, Thomas Jayne reflects on the influence Edith Wharton has had on the history of interior design and even his own work. Below is an excerpt from the New York–based decorator’s book.

I live in New York City, a place rich in traditional architecture from centuries past. Each day I leave my nineteenth-century loft in SoHo and walk past Washington Square—the epicenter of old New York, still flanked by neoclassical townhouses—en route to the equally antique building where our design studio is headquartered.

But the views of those older structures are shadowed by modern, plain-sided buildings with glass walls. For someone like me, a devout classicist, it’s sometimes disheartening to be constantly faced with millions of square feet of glass towers devoid of any historical reference before say, 1950 (though, in all fairness, sometimes the buildings of old are reflected beautifully in their panes).

As I was writing this introduction in a country house built in 1834, I asked myself why do we continue to consider and practice traditional decoration and what can the best treatise on the topic still teach us?

First published in 1897, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.’s The Decoration of Houses is the level-headed, indispensable book on the subject, about which much has been written over the decades. It’s not an overstatement to say that it is the most important decorating book ever written—and there have been many since. The Decoration of Houses is like scripture: it is sometimes called the Bible of interior decoration. Like all sacred texts, it bears regular reading and rereading to find its meaning. This book [Classical Principles for Modern Design] is my response, as a practicing decorator, to their work.

Wharton is well known to us now as a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who was sui generis—self-taught and educated, a true autodidact who was able to fully imagine the interior worlds of her largely upper-crust characters. It is with good reason that The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence are still required reading.

But when The Decoration of Houses came out, Wharton hadn’t yet written a novel, and Codman was just beginning a career as an architect. Codman is certainly the lesser known of the pair, a child of privilege and a distant cousin of Wharton. He brought a practical, working knowledge of design to their collaboration, and interior design was really his strong suit. They first interacted professionally when he was hired to work on her house in Newport, Rhode Island. Years later, he helped design her Berkshires home, The Mount.

In the wider world, he gained fame for his work on the interiors of The Breakers in Newport, the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, the east wing of the Metropolitan Club, and Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller’s house in the Hudson Valley. Personally, Codman was enough of a snob that he refused to rent his mammoth house in the South of France, Villa Leopolda, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Photo credit: DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY – Getty Images

In Wharton and Codman’s minds, the design of houses had taken a turn for the worse in second half of the nineteenth century. Architects forfeited their hold on design for interiors, creating a void that was quickly filled by suppliers of voluminous curtains, tufted furniture, and bric-a-brac. In reaction, our authors proclaimed that interior architecture was not a branch of the upholsterer’s art.

It’s true that their ideas for improving certain rooms, such as residential school rooms and ballrooms, may only be marginally useful to us in the early twenty-first century. Though some of their advice pertains to a lost world, they struck a chord that still resonates today, despite the dominant hold that modernism has on many. Wharton and Codman’s book is an elegantly stated argument about the primacy of function, quality, and simplicity, derived from the ancient tradition of classical design. Sometimes their prose, to contemporary ears, is a tad arch and vinegary, but that is one of the joys of the book.

Their perspective on decoration was partly a reaction against the ornate Victorian era and its over-ebullience. Also, they were writing in the midst of a widespread classical revival, just after the watershed of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the construction of fine municipal buildings across the country. As seen in city halls, public libraries, and state capitols, the classical vocabulary became, in many ways, the language of democracy.

It’s worth quoting a still-relevant passage:

Thus all good architecture and good decoration (which, it must never be forgotten, is only interior architecture) must be based on rhythm and logic. A house, or room, must be planned as it is because it could not, in reason, be otherwise; must be decorated as it is because no other decoration would harmonize as well with the plan.

I first read those wise words as an architecture and art history student. Then, early in my career as a decorator, I returned to them when I was asked to redecorate a room at The Mount. The room was the study of her husband, Teddy. We repainted it in pale colors
that were sympathetic to the older era, and used furniture forms she would have admired, employing a hard-wearing sofa and chairs in suede, following her dictum about masculine dens. For a jolt of energy, the desk was contemporary. Later, I wrote an essay on her lasting influence in Designers on Designers: The Inspiration Behind Great Interiors.

Photo credit: Paul Highnam
Photo credit: Paul Highnam

And how far away, really, is the Wharton era? I’m fascinated by how close some of its characters seem at times. Once, the legendary socialite Brooke Astor asked me if I knew Mrs. Wharton personally. Of course, she did, but unfortunately the great novelist died in 1937, twenty years before I was born. Through The Decoration of Houses, I do feel I know and have a kinship with Wharton. You could say I was born twenty years too late, but really there are only a few generations between the era of Wharton and Elsie de Wolfe (author of the influential 1913 work The House in Good Taste, which relied heavily on Decoration, and whooften considered the first American decorator) and the present day.

The influence of The Decoration of Houses is potent, and I see it vividly in the work of Jayne Design Studio. In my passion for order and organization, my love for historic forms, and my appreciation for the power of discrete spaces, Wharton and Codman’s wise words are reflected and amplified.

It may surprise people to know I was born in a cradle of modernism—Los Angeles in the 1950s. Even I have always found it odd that I am fascinated with classical design. But it’s a tradition that takes great surety and confidence, and I also like the challenge of instilling order on irregular situations.

When I was about twelve years old and really started to look at things, I became fascinated by the way light and shadow fall on shapes and how shapes are abstracted by light. I love the atmospheric effects of traditional design; I still have a watercolor of the facade of MGM’s Beaux-Arts Los Angeles studio in the rain, which once hung over the fi replace in my parents’ house. It’s now in my office. Anyone who has ever looked at the moldings on a classical building as the light hits them, creating entirely new forms, knows how this can transport the viewer.

Parallel to my personal fascination was, in the general culture, a renewed interest in classical and vernacular architecture beginning in the 1970s, particularly by practicing architects and schools of architecture. Art history began to be reemphasized in the study of architecture—I experienced this when I was student at Oregon University’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. In our studio work and in the classroom, there was a new and ardent interest in historic buildings led by the pioneering architectural historians Marion Ross, Marian C. Donnelly, and Leland Roth. This was furthered in my graduate fellowship at the Winterthur Museum, where for two years I was surrounded by outstanding examples of historic American rooms.

All that was solid groundwork for my first interior decorating job at the august firm Parish-Hadley, which was known for making traditional interiors with modern elements, giving all of decoration new vigor. I worked with Albert Hadley, and I recall him describing how he moved to New York in the 1940s and made a pilgrimage to meet Elsie de Wolfe and the other great designers of the period. I still see my good fortune to know Albert as part of what could be called the Apostolic succession of decorators.

At Parish-Hadley I worked with a group of architects and designers also captivated by classicism, including Mark Ferguson, John Murray, Oscar Shamamian, and John Tackett. All later went on to found their own fi rms committed to creating new architecture with historic forms. Along with architects Peter Pennoyer, Richard Cameron, and Richard Sammons, a group of like-minded people formed an alliance that, in 2002, became the Institute of Classical Architecture, now merged with the pioneering Classical America as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, which has been an effective voice in turning the public’s attention to traditional design.

Photo credit: Pieter Estersohn
Photo credit: Pieter Estersohn

Of course, I admire modernism, and indeed it has informed my appreciation of the classical. But my heart resonates with traditional design, in its emphasis on subtle layering instead of stark contrasts and in its literal expression of function. As Wharton and Codman so ably advocated, people should feel at ease and comfortable, both visually and physically.

Maintaining the flame for traditional design and carrying on that legacy, I have also added my own contribution along the way. It’s gratifying to see the traditional design continuum stretching forward even in the face of the powerful towers of glass we pass by daily. I’m especially pleased to see my younger colleagues at Jayne Design Studio steeped in the great decorating traditions and using them brilliantly today. We are grateful for the patronage that makes this possible.

I hope that this book [Classical Principles for Modern Design] will be a modest connection point through the generations, from Wharton, Codman, de Wolfe, and Hadley down to historically informed practitioners of the present.

I like to say that tradition is not about what was. Tradition is an active word—tradition is now.

And I have come to see that my work, like Wharton and Codman’s book, exists to empower people to live well and comfortably. In these pages, I hope that I can make a new case for traditional design with the same “irrefutable freshness” (a phrase from one of Wharton’s novels) that I still find in The Decoration of Houses.

This excerpt is from Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses (The Monacelli Press) by Thomas Jayne.

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