Irrefutable Freshness––Edith Wharton's Style Lives on
Wharton’s "Decoration of Houses" is key to this designer’s style
On June 28, Thomas Jayne will discuss how The Decoration of Houses both complements and diverges from his interpretation of interior design.
Photos provided by Jayne Design Studio
Prior to being included in the pantheon of American writers, Edith Wharton was relegated to the sole creative outlet deemed appropriate for women of Old New York society: the decorating of houses. Wharton, inspired by the clean lines of Classical design, denounced all things Victorian, calling the era itself “over-stuffed and over-tufted.” Her first book, The Decoration of Houses, published in 1897, was a collaboration with Ogden Codman, an emerging Boston architect who shared Wharton’s innovative ideas on beauty and proportion. It quickly became a manual of interior design that has proven to be timeless, and, in the words of award-winning designer Thomas Jayne, of Jayne Design Studio in New York, the book is “the most important decorating book ever written.”
It comes as no surprise that Jayne’s new book, Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses, revisits the classic in a way that introduces modern readers to basic design principles that have gracefully withstood the test of time.
“When you look at something that has good proportions, there’s a satisfying response that’s beyond intuition, and that’s the main thesis,” says Jayne of Wharton’s most fundamental and timeless design principles. “The argument Wharton makes is that proportion, in the end, will supersede everything.” This is indeed an abstract idea—not easily quantified or proven—but evident at The Mount, rooted in beauty and structure, where Wharton put good taste and common sense to use.
“Wharton was pushing the envelope the whole time,” says Laura Foote, house manager at The Mount. While on the one hand she liked the order of society, on the other hand Wharton rebelled against it. This, coupled with being a woman of great command—an intellectual of whose brilliance men often tired—it was in the decoration of her home that she was able to expend her creative energy. Wharton had what has been called a photographic memory of the rooms and houses that she visited in the United States and abroad, and she brought those ideas to Lenox, where she was very much involved in the building and design of her summer home.
Permeating the interior spaces at The Mount, where Wharton was in residence for a scant decade between 1902-1911, reveals her keen eye for symmetry and order. “We have to make things beautiful; they do not grow so of themselves,” quips Wharton in her book. That said, she set out to fill the nearly 17,000-square-foot estate with clean lines, unadorned windows, rooms that opened onto one another, and light. Her genius lay in taking what she learned abroad—in France, Italy and England—and applying those principles to her native soil. Simplicity, proportion, practicality and harmony with nature are immediately evident in both the home’s design and decoration.
Wharton’s vision, one of perfectly proportioned rooms where the house and gardens, seen as extensions of the interior spaces, were in perfect harmony with art and nature, is evident. This understated approach allowed Wharton’s design of The Mount to move away from the overly ornate nature of the past by stripping away the excess. The Mount, when compared with neighboring “cottages” of the Gilded Era, was considered modest in both size and cost. It was a space created for Wharton’s own use—a space in which she enjoyed spending time—and one that in many ways was a reflection of the woman who lived there. The unassuming entrance, for instance, has a slightly guarded façade, not unlike Wharton. Once invited inside, however, the best parts are revealed.
“Before beginning to decorate a room, it is essential to consider for what purpose the room is to be used,” writes Wharton in The Decoration of Houses. Jayne concurs: “The idea of having spaces that are appropriate for their use is okay. Everything doesn’t have to be a multipurpose room—which is counter-trend right now.”
As to the paragon of Wharton’s approach? “You really feel like you are in a place; you feel like you are in a room that is handsome,” says Jayne. “The fact that they are under furnished, and they still look good, is sort of telling as to how valuable good architecture and proportions are. A small room can be equally handsome as a grand room; dependence upon square footage for impression is often misplaced.”
Jayne’s book traces contemporary ideas about design and decor back to Wharton and Codman, showing where the old and new approaches coincide and diverge. His table of contents, organized in the same fashion as its predecessor, has distinct chapters on walls, doors, windows, ceilings and floors. It deviates only in the addition of kitchens and the use of color—two significant aspects of modern home design not addressed by Wharton and Codman.
Jayne, whose interiors reflect his passion and wide-ranging knowledge of classical traditions, will visit Wharton’s home on Friday, June 28. His illustrated presentation will explore the timelessness of the principles found in Wharton and Codman’s The Decoration of Houses, and how those principles both complement and diverge from his interpretation of classical interior design. The lecture, which begins at 4 p.m., will be followed by a light reception and book signing.