Ten Decorating Tips from Edith Wharton, as Interpreted in the 21st Century
Over the past year or two, I’ve dipped in and out of Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses time and time again, until I began to feel like it’s one of the most important books I own. Published in 1897 and co-written with the architect Ogden Codman, it was Edith’s (note: I refer to Edith as Edith because after all these years, she’s that voice of aesthetic wisdom in my head and I feel we’re on more friendly terms than any academic appellation of her last name only) first published book and indeed, the first real guide to interior design. It wasn’t expected to perform well – in fact, as Edith says in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, there was talk of publishers taking it on purely because they were interested in her fiction down the line, but the book was a success that has stayed in print since its publication, providing Edith with royalties all through her life.
Perhaps surprisingly for a book on interior design dating from the Gilded Age, The Decoration of Houses remains rather relevant today as a classic touchstone on the topic. This could be because Edith rejects much of what was accepted practice amongst her contemporaries – something she learned when designing her homes with Codman, first Land’s End in Newport (which you may know about as it recently and loudly hit the market for almost $12 million) and then her far more loved house in Lenox, The Mount. Edith wasn’t one for the gilded surfaces of her era, instead opting for more classic and practical designs that stand the test of time.
As I read The Decoration of Houses while simultaneously and slowly redoing my own space (without a Newport budget), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about her various words and judgements and have internalized them. Here is some of what I’ve learned (and please, if you’re a Wharton academic, please don’t take this seriously):
Doors are important. Privacy is Important. According to Edith, when it doubt, you should move your doors even if it means calling a professional to have them literally destroy your walls so that your doors can be properly placed in a symmetrical manner that also happens to provide privacy for the people inside the room. Not owning my own home and not wanting to rip into definitely-not-symmetrical walls of my triangular home (where I not only don’t have a four room suite as a bedroom as Edith says is ideal, but also have a bed, office, and living space all in one), my ways of dealing with this is to make sure doors remain functional – nothing in the way of them opening (or closing), cozy nooks hidden away from them. One thing is for sure though: Edith would have hated loft living.
Functionality is Key. When you think of Edith Wharton, you probably don’t think of Swedish minimalist design. And you shouldn’t. After all, she is the author of the Gilded Age. But what makes Edith Edith is that she wasn’t a fan of the designs of her time. Just as she viciously satires society in her fiction, she isn’t kind to the excessive interior design trends of her contemporaries in her other writing. One of the first things she tears into is people having absolutely useless knick knacks that serve no purpose whatsoever, especially if they’re cheaply gilded. Think back to the Brys mansion in The House of Mirth and the gilded columns Lawrence Selden felt the need to touch to make sure they weren’t made out of cardboard – architectural knick knacks in themselves.
Clutter is abhorrent. See the above. The only thing worse than those knick knacks are them cluttering every surface of a home. What’s the use of a side table if you can’t place anything on it because it’s covered in tiny objects? I face this by creating balance. I haven’t banished knick knacks altogether (I’m indisputably a maximalist at heart), but I like to use rather than display my vases by keeping fresh flowers or leaves in them and to place my knick knacks on ledges or on top of bookcases, where I don’t need to put down a glass or spread out my books. I like them to live within my room rather than make it feel like a museum or an antique shop.
Natural Materials! Edith says that when on a budget, quality is important and natural materials are the best investments. Wood, wicker, canvas, and even denim. I wouldn’t touch denim in its current state, but wood is my chosen material for furniture, and indeed, wicker is my favorite material to tie things together and make a home cozy. Wicker flower pots. A wicker chair (I recently brought a wicker rocking chair into my favorite cozy nook). Even wicker shelves.
Print on Print on Print, oh my! Reading Edith’s chapter on wall design, I cackled and cackled to myself about how much she’d hate Luke Edward Hall and Duncan Campbell’s home designs. She writes about how prints shouldn’t be super-imposed and art shouldn’t be placed on patterned, papered walls. Textiles in a room should match, etc. etc. Both fortunately and unfortunately for Edith, I like things that go together – even if that means harmonious colors in wildly different prints. (There’s nothing I enjoy more than a LEH decor close-up on Instagram.) What I wouldn’t do for a dark green floral wallpaper on a single wall of my bedroom, even with prints hanging atop it.
S Y M M E T R Y. In case you didn’t get it from all of the above, Edith liked symmetry. Rooms neatly built and tidily designed. To us these days, that might mean matching side tables or matching lamps on each side of the bed. I live in a wildly unsymmetrical home, and symmetry in terms of select decor details is indeed something I appreciate when it comes to making the interior more harmonious. Bedside lamps that match the floor lamp around the corner and across the room make me feel calm.
Warmth. Is your home properly heated? We may not all have fireplaces anymore (that I had them in the US but not in Europe is the great architectural irony of my life), but it’s important to make sure our homes are cozy. For me, that means things like having throws in every room, plentiful cushions (something else I like to keep symmetrical), and candles here and there.
A Turkish carpet goes with everything. Edith says this literally and even references the exact region of Turkey my ancestors came from almost a millennia ago, and believe me when I say it made my year because it is indeed what I believe. A Turkish carpet goes with everything – especially if in red and/or navy and/or green hues. I have them resting all over the parquet in my home, and they tie every room together, giving them life and character and both literal and aesthetic warmth. Unexpected neutrals for every home.
Question your Lighting. Natural lighting would have been key in Edith’s time, just as it is now for any of us who care about mental health or making sure our photographs are well lit. But reading Edith on the topic emphasizes, to me, the importance of lamps. Are you blocking your windows somehow? Are you exclusively using overhead lighting (yikes)? Do you have lamps on surfaces to adapt the light to your needs and not feel like you’re in the middle of a commercial showroom? Lamps and candles and well-placed mirrors are your friends when you aren’t chasing natural sunlight. Keep your bulbs warms and your comfort high.
Books, Baby. Edith didn’t like a book that was decorative for the sake of being decorative, but books make a home. She dedicates a chapter to the importance of libraries as functional rooms, and we all know how much time she spent in her family library growing up. We may not all have libraries in our homes (oh the luxury), but if you’re reading this, you probably have a lot of books. Books line just about every wall in my space, and I love that they make rooms come alive. Edith may not have (definitely would not have) approved, but I love to use my indispensable bookshelves to make things even homier by adding picture frames and yes, even knick knacks (the porcelain Beatrix Potter figurines that line my shelf of favorite childhood books mean as much to me as the books beside them) to the shelves. Nothing stops you from moving them aside and living with your books.
Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She is dedicated to reading her way through the world and trying to stay as calm as possible.