Last week, design intellectuals gathered at New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) for a discussion focusing on Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s book, ‘The Decoration of Houses.’ Panelists Richard Guy Wilson, architectural historian; Pauline Metcalf, historian and author; Charlotte Moss, interior designer; and Mitchell Owens, Architectural Digest special projects editor, reflected on the topic: Is the book and its design theories still relevant in today’s world?.
Wilson, who authored ‘Edith Wharton at Home,’ moderated the panel and kicked it off with three questions: When did you first encounter Wharton’s book? Did it influence you? And, do you think it’s still relevant today?
Fascinated by the book’s history, Metcalf agreed that it had a great deal of influence on her, but that she had mixed feelings about whether it was really relevant in today’s ever-changing world.
On one hand, she said the very classic and traditional designs are relevant to the people who yearn for that type of design today, but in a very modern world this doesn’t always work.
Slide juxtaposing a current kitchen with a traditional dining room
She also agreed that rooms are being used for the same things, although the technology and times are changing. In one slide, she juxtaposed a dining room from the 1800’s with a kitchen in 2013. The kitchen table had computers, cell phones and tablets spread across it, while the dining room had stacks of books, paperwork and writing utensils. So although times have changed, the main purpose of the room remains the same.
Moss, who was up next, pulled some of her favorite quotes from the book. She laughed about the outdated language and some of the sexist comments that she does not agree with, but overall she worships Wharton and the book, having first read it in the ‘80s. Moss has found the book relevant to her as not just a designer, but also an author.
Moss' slides showed quotes from the book
The book was originally created for wealthy, socialite, aristocratic people who understood the language and had the need for grand interiors. Today, of course, there are still people like that and there are others who want beautiful interiors, but not on a grand scale, so you take the key principles from the book and adapt them to your specific client, according to Moss.
Owens was the last to present and he used Facebook to source opinions on the book. Everyone who commented concurred that the book is indeed relevant, and that it shouldn’t even be a question. Owens, who couldn’t agree more, refers to the book as his bible.
Rooms aren’t on as grand of scale today as they were in the 1800s and no one really has a ballroom anymore, but if you strip those things away, any of the principles Wharton talks about in the book can be adapted for today.
Wharton talks about using less of the budget on paint and decorative pieces, and more on comfortable chairs and sofas—the things that you will be spending time ‘living’ on. “What could be more relevant than that?” Owens asked.
Owens, who scored his first job this year as an interior designer, said he pulls out the book now more than ever to get inspiration.
Many other issues were brought to the table including how people live today, privacy in interiors, the way the internet plays into the role of design and so on.
Moss feels that due to texting, tweeting and constant emails, people seem to yearn for more privacy when they come home at night—and that’s something that was important in the 1800s.
Overall, each of the panelists agreed that the core principles the book addresses: getting back to the basics, keeping it simple, creating truly functional spaces and proportion are all things that matter very much in design today.
Wharton's foyer featured in Edith Wharton at Home
Ballrooms and large foyers aside, if you can get through the outdated language, the book will have a huge impact on designers, and is the “single best book on interior design ever written,” as Wilson put it.
After the thought provoking discussion, guests were able to join the panelists for a reception and had the chance to get a copy of Edith Wharton at Home with Wilson’s signature.
For more information about the NYSID’s spring programming, visit the website.