Period Decorating from a 1950’s Perspective

On the antique trip to North Central Texas, I bought a book “The Complete Book of Interior Decorating” published in the 1950’s.

The 50’s has been described as the dull decade lost in the lust for conformity, not only in the suburbs, but for the desperate clinging to safety and security. It is not surprising a heavy “complete guide” in interior decorating was published then when middle class Americans flocked to new suburbs. Aligned with the mood, the book has the feel-good cheeriness in all chapters, but it is the “Period Style In Home Decorating” chapter that I read first.

Serious collectors may look down upon interior designers. For them, to own the things overwhelms the furnishing purpose, even though that means the next $50,000 purchase would go directly to  storage. But perhaps most of us are somewhat in between. We neither want a Soprano-wise pseudo-antique look throughout, nor would we sacrifice functionality for purely historical importance.

But the author made a bold statement with which that many collectors, or even interior designers nowadays may not agree:

Living in a world brought closely together by air travel, radio, motion pictures, a home need not express only one national influence in decorating – Spanish, Italian, French, English or any other country – or one definitely limited period. Even one room that is 100% a certain period – Louis XVI, or Elizabethan or Victorian, for example – would have a slightly musty, unlived-in flavor. Decorations too starkly modern, on the other hand, may be too cold in feeling.

Purest selection may not reflect period after all. I do agree on this point. Except those period rooms in museum institutes where rooms are decorated strictly in one period, even from one region, houses that people have lived or are living in, more or less inherit eclectic characters through time, but would multi-national influence be overreaching to the other side?

The author further pointed out that during the Colonial times, cloths from Java and Sumatra, wallpaper from China, rugs from the Orient, drapery fabrics from India provided a mellow and colorful background for Early American furniture mingling harmoniously with quite formal and elegant 18th century English pieces. However, all these multi-national items were contemporary and up to trend at that time.  It is one thing that Colonial Americans served tea in Chinese export porcelain on a tilt-top table, or Victorian squeezed all exotic or foreign things in every inch of the walls, we as humans, especially antiquarians, are historically conscious so that mingling antique furnishings of different regions and eras would immediately trigger our  inherent perception of historical  correctness.

This is not hypocrisy when we all live with double-door refrigerators while spontaneously feeling incongruous when eclecticism of home furnishing goes beyond and falls into monstrous pastiche. The essence of period decorating lies in the fact that it is only within the context of historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

2 comments

I do think that much of the ‘multi-culturalism’ which is being expressed in home decor products, in particular, feels rather unauthentic unless the person has actually traveled there themselves, experienced and understood the culture and yes, contributed to their lives directly in some way. Seeking art, as opposed to decorative do-dads is a wonderful part of travel. Even then, it seems appropriate that it be done in moderation. I am all for eclectic, as long as it seems to make sense in a historical context as well. Nice article.

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