I only recently learned that the first book Edith Wharton ever published was an interior design manual called The Decoration of Houses, with Ogden Codman Jr., the architect who designed her Newport home. I also just moved, so I was interested to see if Wharton and Codman’s 1897 manual had any relevance to a Crown Heights apartment in 2020.
Here’s what I discovered.
Your trinkets make Edith Wharton uncomfortable.
“There is no necessity for having bad bric-à-brac. Trashy ‘ornaments’ do not make a room more comfortable; as a general rule, they distinctly diminish its comfort.”
On the other hand, don’t let Edith Wharton tell you how to live your life!
“But it must never be forgotten that every one is unconsciously tyrannized over by the wants of others,—the wants of dead and gone predecessors, who have an inconvenient way of thrusting their different habits and tastes across the current of later existences. The unsatisfactory relations of some people with their rooms are often to be explained in this way.”
When in doubt: marble.
“The walls of the staircase in large houses should be of panelled stone or marble.”
“The inlaid marble floors of the Italian palaces, whether composed of square or diamond-shaped blocks, or decorated with a large design in different colors, are unsurpassed in beauty.”
Just shut up and get it in marble.
“Modern dancers prefer a polished wooden floor, and it is perhaps smoother and more elastic than any other surface; but in beauty and decorative value it cannot be compared with a floor of inlaid marble.”
If you find yourself struggling to write, it could be because your piano and silver-table are sabotaging you.
“The writing-table might find place against the side-wall near either window; but these spaces are usually sacred to the piano and to that modern futility, the silver-table. Thus of necessity the writing-table is either banished or put in some dark corner, where it is little wonder that the ink dries unused and a vase of flowers grows in the middle of the blotting-pad.”
Your patterned stair-carpets are exhausting everyone.
“Stair-carpets should be of a strong full color and, if possible, without pattern. It is fatiguing to see a design meant for a horizontal surface constrained to follow the ins and outs of a flight of steps.”
Don’t spend too much time worrying about the boudoir—you’re only going to use it to interview servants.
“Though it may preserve the delicate decorations and furniture suggested by its name, [the modern boudoir] is now generally used for the prosaic purpose of interviewing servants, going over accounts and similar occupations.”
Buy better books.
“Plain shelves filled with good editions in good bindings are more truly decorative than ornate bookcases lined with tawdry books.”
Your terrible taste is stunting your children’s aesthetic growth.
“The daily intercourse with poor pictures, trashy ‘ornaments,’ and badly designed furniture may, indeed, be fittingly compared with a mental diet of silly and ungrammatical story-books.”
Especially when you give them tacky shit for their birthdays!
“Many children, besides being surrounded by ugly furniture and bad pictures, are overwhelmed at Christmas, and on every other anniversary, by presents not always selected with a view to the formation of taste.”
For the love of God, just buy your child a French bust.
“The money spent on a china ‘ornament,’ in the shape of a yellow Leghorn hat with a kitten climbing out of it, would probably purchase a good reproduction of one of the Tanagra statuettes, a plaster cast of some French or Italian bust, or one of Cantagalli’s copies of the Robbia bas-reliefs—any of which would reveal a world of unsuspected beauty to many a child imprisoned in a circle of articles de Paris.”
“The promiscuity of the hall.” That’s all.
“Indeed, so varied were the uses to which the chambre au giste was put, that in France especially it can hardly be said to have offered a refuge from the promiscuity of the hall.”
At the end of the day, Edith Wharton just wants you to have a beautiful, minimal living space. (Preferably one made entirely of marble).
“The supreme excellence is simplicity.”