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Historic Values for Home Decorating

Excavating deeper from the archives of historical writing on the making of a home, the thoughts and ideas of writers from years gone by continue to echo with intriguing relevance for today.

In this pursuit, I am not offering a critical appraisal of historical works. Set to a different socio-cultural context, much of what these historical writers are communicating is outdated. But in the search for inspiration, I am deliberately selecting to highlight only those ideas that hold relevance today.

While there is no doubt that the idea of home is a dynamic and evolving concept, many thoughts and concerns that are on our minds today have accompanied those interested in homemaking since the industrial revolution changed the nature of home.

The understanding that topics discussed today were as relevant a few hundred years ago has significance. The industrial revolution had a wide-ranging impact in the Western World on everything from the nature of home, to manufacture and consumption. Today we still grapple with the challenges these changes brought with them and some of the issues have become increasingly pressing as the impact of our production becomes increasingly important to consider.

Walter Shaw Sparrow, a British writer on art and architecture, published a book in 1909 titled ‘Hints on House Furnishing.’ In the introduction to his book he shares his concern that the industrial revolution had so rapidly taken hold, that the new ways of living which were replacing established traditions, had come about without time to ensure they were established with care:

“Then the revolution took place in social life and was so complete that it spared only the good old-fashioned cottages and farmers. Steam and machinery passed from one conquest to another: a wonderful industrialism swallowed up large country districts; and by this means, with amazing rapidity, a new civilisation was made in the rough, for there was no time to build with care.”

Sparrow’s statement, written over a century ago, holds as much relevance today as it did in his time. The speed of change we are grappling with in all areas of life from production to social change leaves us with a challenge: on the one hand tradition alone is not enough to guide modern-day thought and conduct through all of the challenges that arise in modern life. On the other hand, discarding the past completely simply because many aspects seem outdated, irrelevant or unsuitable for modern living leaves us with the monumental task of having to recreate everything from scratch. While not everything from the past can or should be applied to modern living, there are timeless lessons in historical writings that hold true through changing times and changing fashions.  

I am curious about the essence of good design. What advice has stood the test of time and can serve us today in our efforts to make more conscious decisions and create homes that will serve us as well as possible for as long as possible? What thoughts and ideas from the past ring as true today as they did in decades and centuries gone by? What aspects of the historical context of homemaking can help us to understand more about where we find ourselves today?

In ‘Hints on House Furnishing’ Sparrow highlights three values which he deems essential for good design that hold as true today as they did 110 years ago:

1. On the value of common sense (ie thoughtfulness) as a design principal 

What has captured my imagination in historical writings on design is the emphasis placed on thoughtfulness. Like Mary Eliza Haweis before him, Sparrow argues for the importance of using common sense ie being thoughtful, when it comes to the design of our homes. In offering advice on home decorating he makes the point that while tastes differ, and there are countless variations in style to which home décor can adhere to, a starting point of common sense or thoughtful design should be considered a valuable starting point for all.  

“The greatest connoisseurs hold very different views on styles of decoration, and quarrel over them with blind pugnacity, forgetting that discordant tastes are not reconciled by arguments; and so our aim must be to look for a court of arbitration where peace may have a chance of reigning, and this court we find in common sense.”

Both Sparrow and Haweis before him, argue that good design must be informed by more than aesthetics alone, taking into consideration the functional and emotional benefits that design can provide.

“The difference between good and bad furnishing is quite easy to state; the one gives comfort to the body and pleasure to the eye, while the other does not, but wastes money on jerry-made work, as if ugliness and discomfort were not like gambling debts, which give hostages to ill-luck”.

This point is as relevant a guiding principle today as it was in 1909: design which merely looks good but does not enhance our life in terms of providing functional and emotional benefits will always fall short of being able to be classed as good design.

2. On value for money 

Sparrow states that ‘good taste is merely an appreciation of good work’, pointing out that by placing value on quality and craftsmanship, the decoration of our home is far more likely to be tasteful.

He goes on to argue that good, tasteful design has less to do with the amount of money spent and more to do with an understanding of value for money at all of the different price points. Whether we have a large or a small budget, Sparrow’s point is that what constitutes savviness within the process of design is striving to obtain the highest possible value within our given budget.

“Of course the investment may be either large or small as far as money is concerned; still, whether small or large, it should yield the highest possible interest in the way we expect, if only because a small sum of money to the poor is all-important, as much so, perhaps, as fifty thousand pounds may be to a millionaire. The principle here is not affected by wealth and poverty. A cottage may be furnished with fifty pounds or with five hundred thousand; the problem is that nothing should be chosen which is not the best of its kind at the price paid for it. If we pay little or much for discomfort we still buy discomfort, and our purchase, vide the proverb, is a double loss; our money is gone and there is nothing to represent it worthily.”

Therefore, investing time and care into the purchases we make, ensuring that the objects we buy are items likely to serve us long and well, as well as objects likely to bring us pleasure and joy, are key components of good design.

“Yet the common belief that wealth is the basis of household comfort is not, of course, borne out by experience. The art of furnishing is, indeed, the judgement with which we accept our lot in life and do with success what we can afford to attempt. Some persons would begin to pine after Windsor Castle if they inherited the finest mansion in Park Lane… only a person here and there makes a home in keeping with his social position. Most of us attempt too much, and failure is the inevitable result.”

Sparrow provides examples of homes furnished cleverly and tastefully on a modest budget and draws our attention to the fact that it is always easier to pine for more, convincing ourselves that if only we had more at our disposal we would be able to achieve the results we dream of. But in a world of endless choices, it can often be precisely the limiting forces which end up being most helpful in providing a structure and helping us to organise our design process and decision making. His point is that if we work within our means embracing them as guiding forces rather than trying to work against them, it is possible to create good design within even a small budget.

3. On the value of patience

Many people rush to finish their design project as quickly as possible. But finding the right pieces at the right price for both our homes and our lives takes time. He highlights the design process of a young couple with modest means who, rather than filling up their home with second rate items, bought what they could, then decided to wait to acquire the rest.

“There was more than space enough to be furnished, but the young couple went to work in a traditional way and set a good example to those of us who live in towns, making up their minds to be pleased with the little they could do well, and not to buy anything because “it would fill a place…Some women are ashamed if they have empty rooms in their houses, while this good farmer’s wife said simply, “We’ve plenty of empty rooms; there was no need to furnish them all at once; we’re young and can wait.”

He continues to illustrate the value of allowing for time, not just within the design of our homes but also within the crafting of objects themselves.

“I will quote here the opinion of an excellent craftsman and expert, Mr Stephen Webb: “Good furniture cannot be made rapidly. All wood, no matter how long it is kept, nor how dry it may be superficially, will always shrink again when cut into. It follows that the longer the interval between the cutting up of the wood and its fitting together, the better for the work. In the old times the parts of a cabinet lay about in the workman’s benchway for weeks, and even months, and were continually turned over and handled by him while he was engaged on the mouldings and other details. The wood thus became really dry, and no further shrinkage could take place after it was put together.”…But “the introduction of machinery for mouldings, which left only the fitting and polishing to be done by craftsmen, and which enabled manufacturers to produce two or three cabinets in the time formerly occupied in the making of one, was all against the quality and stability of the work”…. These technical matters are helpful to us [so] we know why good furniture cannot be made rapidly…”

Rushing the process of making, inevitably results in a compromise of quality. But allowing time for the slow and thoughtful process necessary for good design, whether that be in the crafting of objects or within the design of our home, is far more likely to result in favourable decisions.

Thoughtfulness, patience and an understanding of value strike me as guiding principles that are as relevant for the process of design today as they were in Sparrow’s time. Embracing the limits of our reality, whether that be budget, space or any of the other constraints we all have to work within while striving to compensate for these limits with thoughtfulness and a willingness to embrace a slower approach to the crafting of our home, are guiding principles which have stood the test of time and are therefore most likely to produce results we will be satisfied with for longer.

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Images above show our Belgian Linen Throw Blanket in Ecru, Hand Dyed Velvet Jewel Cushion Covers in Jordaan (on bed) and Walden (on chair), Extra Large Handwoven Cotton Cushion Covers in Breton Stripes, Parade Plant Pot small, Handmade Petite Bowl in Fig, Handmade Breakfast Bowl in Fig, Handmade Merino Wool Blankets (coming soon), Heritage Brass Water Mister, Firesand Snowflake Crackle Glaze Plate, Tall Helene Plant Pot, Stone Washed Flatware Set, Classic French Table Glasses, Natural Shuro Palm Trivet, Woven Kettle Holder and Belgian Linen Napkin in Ecru (used as  tray base).

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