Arts and Leisure

Edith Wharton Offers Decorating Tips For the Rich and Famous

Before she won acclaim as a novelist, Edith Wharton advised wealthy people about how to decorate their mansions. She wrote a book called the Decoration of Houses with architect Ogden Codman, Jr.

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Edith Wharton

Wharton came from an old-money family, the Joneses of New York. Their lavish lifestyle supposedly inspired the expression, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.’

Young Edith Jones frequented the grand homes in Newport, R.I. and palaces in Europe, which sharpened her eye for interior decoration.

Though the book spawned the profession of interior design, not everyone found it useful. Wharton aimed Decoration of Houses at people who could afford to build bookcases like Louis XVI’s at Versailles. Or maybe they wanted to decorate their bathrooms like the one in the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy. Today it offers a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the 1890s.

No wallpaper on these walls  at the Mount.

Decoration of Houses hit the bookstores in 1897, the year Edith Wharton bought a mansion called Land’s End in Newport from a future governor of Rhode Island. She thought it incredibly ugly and completely redesigned it.

In 1902, she designed and landscaped The Mount, a country estate in Lenox, Mass. She called it her first real home. Today it functions as a house museum, open in the summer.

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The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Berkshires home

Edith Wharton, Decorator

Decoration of Houses rejected fussy Victorian interior design. It advocated simple, balanced rooms with good antique furniture and strong architectural detail. Edith Wharton had strong opinions about fin-de-siecle decorating. She complained that architects of the day treated interior design as a branch of dressmaking. They filled homes with curtains, lambrequins, wobbly tables covered with velvet and festoons of lace.

She also hated wallpaper, and even called it unsanitary. She viewed sliding doors as an abuse in house planning. And muslin curtains – never! Instead, old handmade New England blinds with wide fixed slats should be used, NOT the frail machine-made substitute!

Here, then, are a baker’s dozen decorating tips from Edith Wharton.

Gilt, Stucco, Marble

  1. Oriental rugs are always appropriate, but they must be antique since their quality deteriorated when the rug makers started using aniline dyes.
  2. If andirons are gilt, they should be of ormolu. Fire screens should use French designs, but the wood box should be Italian.

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    A recommended wood box

  3. Hardwood floors are a necessity in a ballroom, but marble floors are preferable in the vestibule, dining room and staircase. And, after all, marble is easy to clean!
  4. The vestibule in a country house can be less formal than in a town house, but a villa in a waterfront resort should have a vestibule more like a town house. The vestibule should have an inner glass door a few feet from the entrance to keep the house warm and shelter the servants who have to wait outside during a party.
  5. Renaissance stucco designs are appropriate for ceilings. For smaller rooms, use designs in arabesques from the reign of Louis XIV.
  6. The design of shovel and tongs should accord with that off the andirons. In France ‘such details are never disregarded.’
  7. Spiral staircases are a no-no unless used for secret communication or servants.
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    Edith Wharton’s built-in bookcases at the library at The Mount.

    Vases, Pokers and Bookcases

  8. Bedrooms should be suites that boudoir, dressing room and bathroom. Walls should be plain and paneled with chintz or cotton hangings. Furniture should be 18th century antique, with slipcovers that match the curtains.
  9. Framed prints look well in small entranceways if hung on plain walls; Mantegna’s “Triumph of Julius Caesar” is recommended, but NOT Durer’s etchings.
  10. An 18th-century bergere is appropriate for the family drawing room, and 18th-century English furniture is not out of place, despite its poverty of ornament.

    Arabesques from the appropriate era, at the Mount.

  11. Ballrooms should have mirrored walls like the Borghese Palace in Rome, with pilasters of marble separated by marble niches containing statues. The ceiling should be domed and frescoed in bright colors, the floor should be inlaid marble and the room should ALWAYS be lit from the ceiling and NEVER from the walls, for no ballroom is complete without its chandeliers.
  12. In the library, built-in bookcases are preferable to movable ones, and all books should have ordinary bindings of half morocco or vellum ‘to form an expanse of warm lustrous color.’
  13. The guest parlor should have a light wall, handsome cabinets and imposing vases and candelabra. The room should be lit with wax candles to flatter the antique furniture.

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    Land’s End

Images: The Mount CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3620748; Land’s End By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57308528. Living room at the Mount By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57310953. Dining room at the Mount, By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57310954. This story was updated in 2021.

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