Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, authors of The Decoration of Houses. Courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Historic New England, respectively.

I live in New York City, a place rich in traditional architecture from centuries past. Each day I leave my nineteenth-century loft in SoHo and walk past Washington Square — the epicenter of old New York, still flanked by neoclassical townhouses — en route to the equally antique building where our design studio is headquartered. But the views of those older structures are shadowed by modern, plain-sided buildings with glass walls. For someone like me, a devout classicist, it’s sometimes disheartening to be constantly faced with millions of square feet of glass towers devoid of any historical reference before say, 1950 (though, in all fairness, sometimes the buildings of old are reflected beautifully in their panes). I recently asked myself why we continue to consider and practice traditional decoration and what can the best treatise on the topic still teach us?

First published in 1897, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.’s The Decoration of Houses is the level-headed, indispensable book on the subject, about which much has been written over the decades. It’s not an overstatement to say that it is the most important decorating book ever written — and there have been many since. The Decoration of Houses is like scripture: it is sometimes called the Bible of interior decoration. Like all sacred texts, it bears regular reading and rereading to find its meaning. Classical Principles is my response, as a practicing decorator, to their work.

Wharton is well known to us now as a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who was sui generis — self-taught and educated, a true autodidact who was able to fully imagine the interior worlds of her largely upper-crust characters. It is with good reason that The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence are still required reading.

But when The Decoration of Houses came out, Wharton hadn’t yet written a novel, and Codman was just beginning a career as an architect. Codman is certainly the lesser known of the pair, a child of privilege and a distant cousin of Wharton. He brought a practical, working knowledge of design to their collaboration, and interior design was really his strong suit. They first interacted professionally when he was hired to work on her house in Newport, Rhode Island. Years later, he helped design her Berkshires home, The Mount. In the wider world, Codman gained fame for his work on the interiors of The Breakers in Newport, the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, the east wing of the Metropolitan Club, and Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller’s house in the Hudson Valley. Personally, Codman was enough of a snob that he refused to rent his mammoth house in the South of France, Villa Leopolda, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

“If proportion is the good breeding of architecture, symmetry, or the answering of one part to another, [it] may be defined as the sanity of decoration.” [The Decoration of Houses (1897), 31.] I first saw this New York drawing room when it was empty and painted white. We glazed the walls and installed new furnishings, including eighteenth-century chairs by Georges Jacobs. The walls are paneled in French boiserie from the mid-twentieth century.

“In decorating the walls of a room, the first point to be considered is whether they are to form a background for its contents, or to be in themselves its chief decoration.” [The Decoration of Houses (1897), 45.] Walls are the essential element that ties all parts of a room together. Here, the wallpaper is a copy of an eighteenth-century American wallpaper in the Webb-Dean House in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It was made by Adelphi Paper Hangings with permission from the Colonial Dames of Connecticut. It serves as the background for South Asian sculpture and American antiques.

In Wharton and Codman’s minds, the design of houses had taken a turn for the worse in the second half of the nineteenth century. Architects forfeited their hold on design for interiors, creating a void that was quickly filled by suppliers of voluminous curtains, tufted furniture, and bric-a-brac. In reaction, our authors proclaimed that interior architecture was not a branch of the upholsterer’s art. Also, they were writing in the midst of a widespread classical revival, just after the watershed of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the construction of fine municipal buildings across the country. As seen in city halls, public libraries, and state capitols, the classical vocabulary became, in many ways, the language of democracy.

It’s true that their ideas for improving certain rooms, such as residential school rooms and ballrooms, may only be marginally useful to us in the early twenty-first century. Though some of their advice pertains to a lost world, they struck a chord that still resonates today, despite the dominant hold that modernism has on many. Wharton and Codman’s book is an elegantly stated argument about the primacy of function, quality, and simplicity, derived from the ancient tradition of classical design. Sometimes their prose, to contemporary ears, is a tad arch and vinegary, but that is one of the joys of the book.

Traditional does not denote elaborate, monumental, or expensive. “[I]n the private house, modest materials should be used elegantly, and elegant materials modestly.” 1

On page 64 of The Decoration of Houses (1897), Wharton and Codman noted, “. . . it is chiefly because the decorative value of openings has ceased to be recognized that modern rooms so seldom produce a satisfactory or harmonious impression.” They maintained that perfectly designed windows did not require curtains for decoration, as in this bay of windows in Maine illustrates.

I find that floors are useful in their ability to impart regularity to a room, holding the space together visually. As Wharton and Codman noted, “Like the walls of a room, the floor is a background: it should not furnish pattern, but set off whatever is placed upon it.” [The Decoration of Houses (1897), 100.] The sitting area of a New York loft features a carpet designed by Jayne Studio and made by Stark carpets.

Wharton and Codman spent less than a few pages on the topic of color, which would be unthinkable in any literature on decoration today. Oftentimes, improving a room’s structure with good details is impossible, and color can be a most helpful decorating component. In this living area, bright squares of color were painted as backdrops to anchor groups of furniture.

It’s worth quoting a still-relevant passage:
Thus all good architecture and good decoration (which, it must never be forgotten, is only interior architecture) must be based on rhythm and logic. A house, or room, must be planned as it is because it could not, in reason, be otherwise; must be decorated as it is because no other decoration would harmonize as well with the plan.

And how far away, really, is the Wharton era? The influence of The Decoration of Houses is potent, and I see it vividly in the work of Jayne Design Studio. In my passion for order and organization, my love for historic forms, and my appreciation for the power of discrete spaces, Wharton and Codman’s wise words are reflected and amplified.

It may surprise people to know I was born in a cradle of modernism — Los Angeles in the 1950s. I have always found it odd that I am fascinated with classical design. But it’s a tradition that takes great surety and confidence, and I also like the challenge of instilling order on irregular situations.

When I was about twelve years old and really starting to look at things, I became fascinated by the way light and shadow fall on shapes and how shapes are abstracted by light. I love the atmospheric effects of traditional design. Anyone who has ever looked at the moldings on a classical building as the light hits them, creating entirely new forms, knows how this can transport the viewer.

Thomas Jayne

Parallel to my personal fascination was, in the general culture, a renewed interest in classical and vernacular architecture beginning in the 1970s, particularly by practicing architects and schools of architecture. Art history began to be reemphasized in the study of architecture—I experienced this when I was a student at Oregon University’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. In our studio work and in the classroom, there was a new and ardent interest in historic buildings led by the pioneering architectural historians Marion Ross, Marian C. Donnelly, and Leland Roth. This was furthered in my graduate fellowship at the Winterthur Museum, where for two years I was surrounded by outstanding examples of historic American rooms. All that was solid groundwork for my first interior decorating job at the august firm Parish-Hadley, which was known for making traditional interiors with modern elements, giving all of decoration new vigor.

Of course, I admire modernism, and indeed it has informed my appreciation of the classical. But my heart resonates with traditional design, in its emphasis on subtle layering instead of stark contrasts and in its literal expression of function. As Wharton and Codman so ably advocated, people should feel at ease and comfortable, both visually and physically.

Maintaining the flame for traditional design and carrying on that legacy, I have also added my own contribution along the way. It’s gratifying to see the traditional design continuum stretching forward even in the face of the powerful towers of glass we pass by daily. I’m especially pleased to see my younger colleagues at Jayne Design Studio steeped in the great decorating traditions and using them brilliantly today. We are grateful too for the patronage that makes this possible. I hope that this book will be a modest connection point through the generations and down to historically informed practitioners of the present.

I have come to see that my work, like Wharton and Codman’s book, exists to empower people to live well and comfortably. In Classical Principles, I hope that I can make a new case for traditional design with the same “irrefutable freshness” (a phrase from one of Wharton’s novels) that I still find in The Decoration of Houses. I like to say that tradition is not about what was. Tradition is an active word — tradition is now.

This is an adapted excerpt from 
Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses by Thomas Jayne, published by The Monacelli Press, 2018.2 Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Classical Principles for Modern Design is on sale January 2018 online and at independent bookstores everywhere. Chapter topics include decorative elements, rooms of a house, and color. 

Thomas Jayne is principle at Jayne Design Studio (jaynedesignstudio.com).

All images courtesy Monacelli Press and Jayne Design Studio.