Candace Wheeler was one of the originators of the notion that women should construct “homes” for their husbands and families through attention to decorating and design. Not to be dismissed for spawning the likes of Martha Stewart, Wheeler actually helped to institute interior decorating as a viable career path for women at a time when women largely didn’t work outside the home. She published Household Art in in 1893 and Principles of Home Decoration in 1903, which gave specific instruction, both to emerging decorators, but also to women, now encouraged to think of themselves as makers of their homes. These are just some of the patterns she created for her female-run design firm, Associated Artists. Nice work that somehow doesn’t betray its age.
“It is all very well to plan our ideal house or apartment, our individual castle in Spain, but it isn’t necessary to live among intolerable furnishing just because we cannot realize our castle.”
That lovely morsel comes from Elsie de Wolfe, who, following closely in the wake opened up by Candace Wheeler, published The House in Good Taste in 1913. The book was influential, railing against, among other things, Victorian design, William Morris and the ugly tastes of “average” millionaires.
“It is no longer possible, even to people of only faintly aesthetic tastes, to buy chairs merely to sit upon or a clock merely that it should tell the time. Home-makers are determined to have their houses, outside and in, correct according to the best standards. What do we mean by the best standards? Certainly not those of the useless, overcharged house of the average American millionaire, who builds an furnishes his home with a hopeless disregard of tradition. We must accept the standards that the artists and architects accept, the standards that have come to us from those exceedingly rational people, our ancestors.”
And what, you may wonder, did such standards look like?
Not too shabby, Elsie–I endorse her penchant for checkerboard floors. But, I wonder where we’ve gone in the intervening 100-ish years. From these books and these women, we’ve seen an entire industry emerge. We now live in a world flush with advice on how to improve our homes: House & Home, Style at Home, Better Home and Garden, Architectural Digest, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, HGTV offers an entire channel dedicated to home decorating programming, not to mention the Martha Stewart empire/debacle. Yet still, somewhere in all of this, we’ve lost our way home. Or, perhaps all of this has emerged out of our growing sense that “home” is no longer a stable place, that it needs shoring up. Perhaps we believe that if we make our homes soothing, beautiful, interesting enough, they will be less likely to fall apart.