Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
The Simple Home
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


WHEN the home is built, it must be occupied. It is to be used, lived in, made a part and expression of a family circle. First of all, it must be furnished, and the taste and thought revealed in this task determines in no small degree the character it will assume and impress upon its occupants. It is therefore of the first importance that the furnishing be done deliberately, step by step, piece by piece, so that it becomes a growth and expression of the interests and ideals of the family. The thoughts that I have endeavored to make clear concerning the building of the home apply equally to its furnishing. Simplicity, significance, utility, harmony — these are the watchwords!

Although the furnishment may better be a matter of deliberate growth rather than of immediate completion, it by no means follows that the work should be haphazard and without plan. On the contrary, just as the painter in creating a picture may not know in advance all the details and subtleties which he is to embody, but nevertheless has his general composition and color scheme well in mind, so should he who fits out a room consider in advance the underlying idea of tone and form. The first object is to create an atmosphere. How often we enter an apartment, full of elegant and beautiful things, in which there is no continuity of idea, no central thought which dominates the place! And when we come upon some simple room about which there is a sense of rest and harmony, we do not always stop to analyze the effect to see how it is produced. We feel that there is an intangible idea back of all the detail, and it pleases us, although we know not why.

As a rule it will be found that the harmony of an apartment is determined by its color scheme. An illustration of a gross violation will serve to enforce the point. If the window curtains were of so bizarre and unassorted a character that upon each window hung a drapery of a different color, some figured, some striped and others plain, even the most unobservant eye would detect that the room looked absurdly ill furnished. Upon the substitution, for this motley array of curtains, of some warm, quiet fabric without ornamentation, an appearance of harmony would at once seem dawning upon the room. But if the walls were of white plaster or of some crude figured wall-paper, the desired unity would be but dimly felt. What a change is wrought by covering the entire wall-space with a good warm color, either in harmony with or in judicious contrast to the curtains! It is the background of the picture, the dominant note of the chord, the underlying idea of the room, which needs only elaboration and accent to produce a finished whole.

This matter of color scheme is so fundamental to any successful results in furnishing that it may be well to consider a little more in detail what colors to use and what to avoid.

No definite and final rules can be formulated on this subject, for in the last analysis taste is the only guide. In general, however, I should begin by excluding white. A large mass of white on the walls makes a glare which is extremely fatiguing to the eyes. The light is too diffused and is far more trying than a blaze of sunlight streaming through a mass of windows. A similar effect may be noted out of doors upon a hazy day when the sun is but thinly veiled behind a white mist. On such occasions the glare is positively painful. While a large mass of white is thus to be avoided for physiological reasons, even a small spot of it will often be objectionable from an artistic point of view. The eye as it ranges freely about the room is unduly arrested by the bit of white which fails to fit into its proper relation with the whole. How seldom does a painter venture to use untoned white in a picture, and how carefully he leads up to it when he does introduce it! The same principle applies to the color scheme of a room. A picture surrounded by a white mat stands out of all relation to the environing walls. Indeed, I should use white as part of a decorative scheme only where the idea of great cleanliness needs emphasis, or in making a human figure the culminating note in the home picture. A white spread for the dinner table, setting off the glint of silver and cut-glass or the color of patterned dishes, has an appropriateness all its own, especially when the room is artificially lighted. For breakfast and lunch, during the daylight hours, the bare wood table, with dishes upon mats, always seems to me more attractive.

Cottage of Wood with Exterior Open Timber Work
Cottage of Wood with Exterior Open Timber Work

The next guiding thought, although any such may have its exceptions, is that cold colors are to be avoided and warm tones used instead. Pale blues, grays or greens are not as a rule cheerful, while buff, brown and red, or occasionally deep blue or rich green, are full of warmth and brightness. It is always safe to be conservative in the background color, and a neutral tone is therefore preferable to a color aggressively pronounced.

It will now be apparent why a wood interior is so satisfactory. The color of the natural wood, and especially of redwood, makes a warm, rich and yet sufficiently neutral background for the furniture. Some of our lighter woods, notably pine and cedar, may be stained or burned to a dark tone as already specified in the preceding chapter, provided that no glazed surface be put upon them with varnish or polish. A slightly irregular texture. is more interesting on a wall than an absolutely uniform finish. Natural wood with its varied graining is one of the most charmingly modulated surfaces. Painted burlap glued to the wall makes an attractive finish on account of its coarse, irregular weave. Japanese grass-cloth has a similar interest, and is very effective. in combination with gilding. I know of a plaster ceiling painted with liquid gold which is beautifully harmonious and elegant in combination with redwood paneled walls. Rough plaster may be toned with calcimine to any appropriate shade, while smooth plaster is better when covered with cartridge paper or with some plain fabric.

Although many architects of admirable taste may not agree, I venture to suggest the elimination of figured wallpaper, and indeed of all machine-figured work about the home. Most papers are undeniably bad; a few are equally undeniably beautiful in design. But if the contention for which I am standing has any weight — namely, that ornament should be used with reserve and be studied for the particular space it is to fill — then even an unquestionably good wall-paper is inappropriate for three reasons, — because the ornament is used too lavishly and indiscriminately, because it cannot be turned out by machinery suited to the particular wall upon which it is to be imposed, and, furthermore, because it detracts from any ornament which may be put next it. A picture or a vase, for instance, is never so effective when placed against a patterned background as when surrounded by a plain tone of appropriate color.

But enough of walls and surfaces! Let us assume that a good color has been secured and in a soft, unobtrusive texture. Attention may next be given to the draperies. Many people insist on window shades that shoot up and down on rollers — smooth, opaque, characterless things that give a stiffness and mechanical rigidity to the windows. Curtains hung by brass rings upon rods are all — sufficient to cut out the sun by day and to exclude the view of outsiders by night, and they are far more graceful and soft in effect. The only difficulty is to get material that will not fade when left in the steady glare of the sun. All the so-called art — denims and burlaps with which I have had experience are so badly dyed that a very short exposure bleaches them beyond recognition, but the coarse dark blue Chinese denim is very serviceable. The satin-finish burlap, undyed, is also satisfactory on account of its permanence. Linen crash of an ecru color, Japanese grass-cloth, and some coarse, simple ecru nets are most effective. Curtains made of fine strips of bamboo lashed together give a soft, pleasing light in the room, but do not completely cut out the sun. They may be used to great advantage in combination with some heavier material, such as colored ticking or corduroy. Soft leather in the natural tan makes elegant and substantial curtains, but is rather expensive. Pongee is good, although, like all silks, it rots after long exposure to the sun.

In addition to window curtains, portiéres are often useful draperies, for giving privacy to an alcove, or between apartments where a door is unnecessary. Oriental hangings, such as Bagdad curtains, if made with the old dyes, are especially effective, but a plain chenille curtain, or even one of such coarser material as burlap, is always safe if its color harmonizes with the room. When hand-made Oriental hangings cannot be afforded and some ornament is desired, a conventional decoration in gold cord can be stitched to the border, or a little color, preferably in dark rich tones, may be cautiously added in embroidery or appliqué.

I assume that the floor of our home be of natural wood, shellaced and waxed, and afterwards polished with a friction brush. Cleanliness, if not an aesthetic impulse, should prompt this. One or two fine Oriental rugs — Bokbaras, Cashmeres, or Persians, for example — made with the old dyes, are a great addition to any room, but a rag carpet serves as a passable substitute. It will hardly be necessary after all that has been said about machine ornament, to urge the exclusion of all modern patterned rugs and carpets. These are generally characterized by bard, set designs, mechanically precise, made in crude colors that fade ere long to sorry-looking tones. Better far is a piece of plain Brussels carpet of good color.

Having attended to the background, and the window curtains, portiéres and rugs in harmonizing tones, with here and there a note of accent or of contrast, if this be skilfully managed, the atmosphere of the room is established. It now remains to introduce the furniture. Much of this can be built in to the special places designed for it. Still the restraint in ornament should be kept steadily in mind. The first essential of the furniture is good, simple design and thorough-going workmanship, — no veneer, no paint or varnish, no decorations stuck on to give the piece a finish, but plain, honest, straightforward work!

The kinds of furniture which most readily lend themselves to being built permanently into the house are window- and fireplace-seats, book-shelves, and sideboards. The seats can be made quite plain, and if hinged serve the additional purpose of store chests. Book-shelves call for little or no ornament, although the end boards may be massive and carved if desired. There is much opportunity for making the sideboard picturesque, with paneled or leaded-glass doors, attached with ornamental strap hinges of wrought iron or hammered brass. The arrangement of shelves and cupboards in a sideboard gives great scope for effective design.

With such pieces built in, and with a good tone to the rooms accented by rugs, portiéres and curtains, the home begins to assume a furnished aspect, and it is easy now to see what is needed and what will harmonize. Furniture made to order by a cabinet-maker, or even by a good carpenter, will be found of especial interest if simple models are followed. In the furniture as in the house itself it is well to emphasize the construction. Panels held together with double dove-tailed blocks, joints secured with pegs, and tenons let through mortises and held with wedges, are always evidences of good honest workmanship.

As to the design of such furniture, straight lines expressing the construction and utility in the most natural manner are safest, and only an experienced artist can safely deviate from such. There are a few exceptions, however, which are not only justifiable but often desirable. A round top for a dining-table is very pleasing on account of the feeling of equality of all who sit about it. It seems in a way more sociable than a table with a head and foot. A small square table can be made with two or more round tops of different sizes which fit down upon it, to be used as occasion requires. While a chair with square legs is massive and dignified in effect, the rounded legs give lightness and grace. A light and very inexpensive chair which might well be in more general use in California is the simple form made with strips of rawhide for a seat. It is a relic of the mission days, I believe, and is thoroughly appropriate to the style of house we are contemplating. Rush-bottom square-post chairs are substantial, comfortable and most harmonious in the simple room. A chair with the seat sloping backward and with the back at right angles to the seat is more comfortable than one with the seat parallel to the floor, which makes one sit bolt upright. Italian chairs carved of black walnut have a grace and elegance that give a touch of luxury to the most unpretentious home.

It would be possible to consider furniture in endless detail, but my object is rather to get at certain principles and ideals that will form a basis for working out the minutiae, according to individual taste. The chest is a good old-fashioned piece of furniture that may well be revived. Any good, well-made hinged boxes, and especially those of white cedar and the Chinese camphor-wood chests, are useful and attractive. The Chinese chests are covered with an ugly varnish which can be removed with strong lye, carefully rubbed on with a stout swab. Chests covered with leather and bound in brass are very elegant when they can be afforded. Wood-boxes near the fireplace may be left plain, or stained, carved or burned in ornamental designs. In a large room screens can be used to advantage. They may be made of big simple panels of wood, or of leather, either plain or ornamented with burning and coloring.

Chinese teak-wood furniture is generally good in design and may be had very richly carved. Old-fashioned mahogany bedsteads, bureaus and chairs are often beautifully simple in their lines and appropriate to the setting I have endeavored to picture. Oak furniture is now obtainable made in the "old mission" style, which is so good in form and workmanship that it leaves nothing to be desired.

The various handicrafts are brought into play in the furnishing of the home. Metal work is as indispensable as wood work, and again the same general principles should govern selection — good work, good form, simple design. The plainest are the safest. Locks, catches and fixtures of black iron, or of solid brass without ornament, are sure to be unobjectionable. The andirons may also be plain, or they may be ornamented as richly as taste suggests, provided the work be hand-wrought.

Library of Wood with Interior Timber Work Exposed
Library of Wood with Interior Timber Work Exposed

I have often been asked if the use of electric lights in a house which thus emphasizes the handicrafts was not out of harmony with the spirit of the place. Personally, I am fond of candles in brass, bronze or silver candlesticks, but the light is neither strong nor steady enough to satisfy the practical needs. I have found the pleasantest results in lighting to be attained by the use of electric lights subdued by lanterns. If the electric bulbs are suspended some six or eight inches from the wall on brackets, they may hang as low as desired without being in the way. Various types of Chinese, Japanese and Moorish lanterns can be found which give a soft, pleasing light and are very decorative. Old brass and bronze lanterns are the most beautiful, but many simpler and less costly substitutes will be discovered by those who search in our Oriental bazaars. Good lamps with artistic shades are hard to find, but there is an improvement in these to be noted which promises better things ere long. Covers for gas and oil-stoves made of sheet brass riveted into cylinders and ornamented according to the skill and ingenuity of the maker would be a most acceptable addition to our furniture.

To write of vases and other pottery would call for one or more separate chapters, but a hint or two may not be out of place. At the risk of repetition I would say again that unless the ornament be unquestionably fine, do with none at all. Chinese ginger jars, earthenware pots, Italian wine flasks with straw casings, are all better than showy vases that are not good in color, form or workmanship. The Japanese and Chinese are the master potters, and if the detestable stuff which they manufacture for the American trade be eliminated, their work is generally good and often exquisitely beautiful. Much excellent pottery is now made in our own country, and the number of genuinely refined and simple wares is constantly increasing, showing a gradual elevation of taste among our people.

Of other useful ornaments may be mentioned bellows, South Sea Island fans, baskets, especially those of our own misused Indians, and hanging Japanese baskets for plants. Potted plants add a touch of life and color which cannot be otherwise given to a room. Masses of books have an ornamental value which is heightened by the idea of culture of which they are the embodiment.

It remains now to consider only the purely non-utilitarian ornament — statues, pictures and wall decorations. Since most dwellers in simple homes cannot afford great works of art, they must enjoy these in museums, and for their homes content themselves with reproductions. Plaster casts toned to a soft creamy shade and surfaced with wax are, if well chosen, a most effective form of ornament.

The pictures a man selects to hang upon his wall are a perpetual witness of his degree of culture. They are ever present as an unconscious factor in shaping our lives and thought. They serve no useful purpose and have no meaning except as they bring before us something of the ideal. The test of a good picture is its inexhaustible quality, both of form and of content; but time alone can make this test. When the work of a master has been handed down through centuries, when it has been copied and scrutinized and criticized by generations and still holds its place, we may be sure that it contains something that will enrich our lives. If the world has lived with it for ages, it needs must profit us to dwell in its sight. We cannot have the original picture, but a photograph giving all but its color may be obtained for a mere trifle. Thus our walls may be graced with the thought of Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael and Michael Angelo, just as readily as with the commonplace work that so often passes current for genuine art. When we have lived with the masters for years, and have absorbed their message, then we may trust ourselves to test the work of the moderns in the ,light of the insight we have gained from their predecessors. It may be urged that we want color on our walls, and that tinted casts and photographs of the masterpieces fail to give this. In vain I point to the Oriental rugs, the colored curtains, the green of the potted plants — still the demand for colored pictures must be satisfied, and this without great cost. If one really loves form and color for themselves, I know of but one means of satisfying this adequately and inexpensively. Japanese prints are seldom great in idea, and they therefore miss the highest quality of art expression, but for delicacy and subtlety of coloring and grace of form they are unexcelled. A few prints selected with discrimination and simply framed will give just the touch of accidental color which the room seems to require.

California has harbored a number of painters of exceptional ability, and those who can afford original paintings by our best local artists need not go abroad for their pictures. America has produced but one Keith, and his work has been done in San Francisco.

Many of our artists are now looking toward decorative work as a field of activity, instead of confining their attention to easel pictures, and this is a most wholesome change. A decorative frieze or a set piece designed to occupy a given space in a room, and conceived in harmony with its setting, is apt to be far more effective than a number of small detached pictures scattered at random about the walls.

A word on framing pictures and our cursory survey of house furnishing must come to an end. The old-fashioned idea seemed to be that a picture was merely an excuse for displaying an elaborate frame. Now people have come to realize that the frame is nothing but the border of the picture. Here again a simple form is always safe. A plain, finely finished surface without ornamentation is never out of place. In choosing the color of a frame, the middle tone of the picture is the best guide. Thus in framing a brown photograph, a brown mat intermediate in tone between the high lights and the deepest shadows will probably be found most effective. The wood is least obtrusive if toned to match the mat or just a shade darker. Photographs look well framed in wood without a mat, but with a fine line of gold next the picture. Gold frames are scarcely in keeping with a simple home, but if used should be of the finest workmanship and the most chaste design. They are, as a rule, inappropriate except on oil paintings, although a gold mat with simple gold border occasionally looks well on a water-color.

I know it is not safe to lay down the law where matters of taste are involved, but my excuse must be that it is better to convey a definite impression, even though it be a narrow one, rather than to be so broad that all concreteness vanishes in glittering generalities. Many types of homes may be good and beautiful which do not come within the compass of this sketch. I have tried only to give some tangible expression of my own conception of the simple home, trusting that the practical hints embodied may be the means of showing some people who have felt the need of more artistic surroundings a tolerably secure means of attaining them.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.