What the Golden Age can teach us about interior design

Morgan Spector as George Russell.

Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa

In fact, Wharton left Newport in 1899 when the view from his elegant octagonal veranda was compromised by the construction of a house by a designer who clearly had not yet absorbed his design principles. And yet the “new” Wharton abhorred was the oppressive Victorian of the day, and we think she would rather have admired the Russells/Vanderbilts. (Although Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of Alva and William – who could therefore be Gladys Russell in the Fellowes series – did not like Wharton. She wrote about her meeting at glitter and gold and complained that Wharton was studying him forensically. Which she was, of course.) Anyway, there’s a good game of Edith Wharton bingo to play while watching Golden ageaccording to the rules below.

Only settle for the best…

Use and buy the best you can afford – and if you can afford it, it’s your civic duty: “When a rich man asks for good architecture, his neighbors will get it too. . . Every good molding,” writes Wharton, “every carefully considered detail, demanded by those who can afford to indulge their taste, will in time find its way to the cottage built by the carpenter. The Russells, of course, complied with that. These ladies of the world really should have used their ballroom for this fair.

… but be modest in appearance

And even . . “In townhouses, especially, any outward display of wealth should be avoided; the use of elaborate lace curtains, in addition to obstructing the view, seems an attempt to project the luxury of the interior onto the street. We don’t know what Wharton thought of the magnificent facades of these Newport cottages. Maybe this rule didn’t apply to the seaside, or only applied to curtains? Either way, these days billionaires are seeing their homes removed from Google Street View, which could be considered the modern equivalent.

Originality is the key

“It seems easier for most people to design a room like someone else’s than to analyze and express their own needs. Men, in these matters, are less demanding than women, because their demands, in addition to being simpler, are not complicated by the feminine tendency to want things because others have them, rather than to to have things because they are desired. In other words, stop yearning for what other people have. If the Russells could employ Stanford White – who, if we look again at reality, had not yet designed any major buildings in New York City at that time, only a Methodist church in Baltimore – then we too can walk to our and fit out our houses according to our desires to live, and “the more closely we follow this rule, the easier our rooms will be to furnish and the more pleasant to live in”.

Some rules cannot be broken

That said, there are universal regulations which Wharton says are to avoid unnecessary window treatments, to provide privacy with doors that close (no open plan for her; moreover, doors must open in a room and mask off the part of the room where occupants usually sit) and make sure tables aren’t “so littered with trinkets” that there’s no room for books. She remarks that the parlor of some houses “is still considered sacred to gilding and discomfort” and complains of the modern upholsterer who “stuffs and puffs his seats as if they were to form the furniture of a madman’s cell” . She also hated extendable dining tables.

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