What is authentic decor? Part I: Authentic materials

Ever since I first ran across Peter Thornton’s Authentic Decor (see my review of the book here), I’ve been absorbed by the question, What do we mean by authenticity in interior design? What characterizes decor that is “authentic,” and what might this look like in practice?

 This painting of a seventeenth-century Dutch interior by de Witte contains all the authentic materials discussed in this post: wood, stone, metal, glass, ceramic tiles, and natural fibers.

This painting of a seventeenth-century Dutch interior by de Witte contains all the authentic materials discussed in this post: wood, stone, metal, glass, ceramic tiles, and natural fibers.

This blog, in fact, owes its existence to my thinking about that question. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly in this social- and visual-media-soaked age, I first began to process the question on an eponymous Pinterest board several years ago. In writing a description to accompany the board, I very quickly ran out of room, and that’s when I first began to see the multiple dimensions of the problem. I write all the captions to my pins, so I was able to begin thinking through these questions that way.

My exploration of what constitutes “authentic” decor will most likely spill over into several essays, of which this is the first. So let me begin by once again paying homage to Peter Thornton and considering what he may have meant by the title of his book.

Authentic Decor is a history of Western interior design spanning three centuries. Like any good historian, Thornton is concerned with patterns of continuity and change over time. For him, each image of a room, whether it be an architectural rendering or a painting of a finished interior, represents a particular moment in design history. Thornton considers only images of rooms produced close to the time the rooms were actually decorated, and though he never says so explicitly, this is what he means by authentic decor. A room is an “authentic” representation of its period style to the extent that it typifies that style. Of course, as Thornton acknowledged, a spectrum of variation exists within each style and each historical period, but that does not prevent the design historian from positing general characteristics he or she finds to be emblematic of the style or period.

Thornton’s concept of authentic decor presumably arose out of his book project, which was strictly historical in nature. He does not extrapolate beyond the period he’s studying or make pronouncements on contemporary design. My consideration of authenticity in interior design, by contrast, takes the discussion out of the context of a strictly historical study and moves it into the realm of contemporary design and design theory. I simply use Thornton’s phrase as a springboard for other questions, and I hope that, were he alive today, this would please him.

All styles and modes of expression are contingent products of their historical development, with a significant degree of personal idiosyncrasy thrown in

I must finish laying the groundwork for this discussion with a caveat. In no way do I mean to construct an elitist distinction between decor that is authentic and decor that is somehow unauthentic or contrived. My exploration of authentic decor will inevitably reflect and, to an extent, define my own personal taste, but this in no way implies that styles or designs I don’t happen to prefer are somehow less authentic. Thornton would certainly have agreed that there is no such thing as “pure” style. All styles and modes of expression are contingent products of their historical development, with a significant degree of personal idiosyncrasy thrown in; to mix styles or periods is in no way to detract from the authenticity of a design or a room.

Let me start, then, with the basics.

Authentic decor, for me, starts with authentic materials. Here’s where my own personal bias comes in. I believe that rooms comprised of objects made entirely from natural materials are inherently calming and visually attractive. I think every room should have just a little of each of the following, and to each one in turn, I will give my unashamedly biased and untutored consideration.

Wood. Is there any more fundamental element of architecture and design? A room entirely devoid of wood, to me, feels cold and comfortless. Wood absorbs light and gives it back to you altered and softened. There’s almost nothing you can’t make out of wood, and best of all, it improves with age. There is no substitute for wooden furniture, and I submit, there never will be. Wood will never go out of style.

Stone, metal, glass, and ceramics. Like wood, these may be integrated into the architecture or simply used decoratively. Here, I must admit, my principal concern is to have as little plastic as possible in a room. Objects made from materials like untreated stone, polished metals, and glazed ceramics provide texture and weight in ways that plastics just can’t.

Natural fibers. I am a sucker for natural fibers. In fact, I insist on them. Natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wool, and silk play with light in unmistakable ways. I’ll also include leather in this category. I love embroidery, but few things bother me more than embroidery done with artificial fibers. It just catches the light all wrong. Natural fibers are pleasing to the touch and easy on the eye. When it comes to textiles that come in contact with the body, such as upholstery, cushions, sheets, and blankets, natural fibers are especially important. Wool traps heat and repels moisture and dirt; cotton, like wool, is durable and soft; linen is warm in winter, cool in summer, and delightful to touch at all times; and silk—well, what’s more luxurious and beautiful than silk?

Decorating with only authentic materials, as I have defined them, doesn't have to be hard and fast rule. I think of it simply as a general guideline for my choices. I gladly admit that the clear acrylic side table is a landmark of design history, and I’ve seen it incorporated into some much more sophisticated spaces than I’ll ever live in. The point is that good craftsmanship is worthwhile, and natural materials have a special kind of class and staying power. We are talking of the stuff of our physical existence, after all, and if it’s not pleasant to the touch, if it doesn’t reward gazing and handling, then why keep it around?

Finally—and here the historian in me comes out once again—for the vast, vast majority of human history, the basic, natural materials I’ve described above were all humanity had to work with. We didn’t have plastics or artificial fibers until the twentieth century, and both were developed in the context of the World Wars. Is that the kind of legacy I want sitting around my house? Authentic materials keep us in touch with our deeper past, and bespeak a closer connection to the earth and its bounty. That, to me, is an authenticity worth preserving.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: 

Book review: Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior, 1620-1920

“To write about the history of interior decoration no longer needs justifying,” wrote Peter Thornton in the preface to his 1984 design classic Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior, 1620-1920, “but to do so in anything like a serious vein may still require an apology.”

 "Authentic" decor at its finest: A Dutch interior painted by Pieter Janssens in the 1660s

"Authentic" decor at its finest: A Dutch interior painted by Pieter Janssens in the 1660s

Today, thirty years after Authentic Decor was first published, serious academic investigation of the history of interior design no longer requires even an apology. Anthropologists and archaeologists have taken the investigation of material culture and domestic goods very seriously since the eighteenth century. Until relatively recently, historians, in the tradition of the celebrated nineteenth-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke, have prioritized textual sources over images and material culture. The last two or three decades have seen increased methodological cross-fertilization in the fields of history, anthropology, and to a lesser extent, archaeology—a welcome development, and one to which my own scholarly work is significantly indebted.

Historians, as well as anthropologists and designers, then, will find much to praise in Authentic Decor. The book surveys the decoration and arrangement of private domestic interiors in Europe and North America between 1620 and 1920. Thornton worked very hard to include only images that were made around the time the rooms he features were actually decorated. Many images included in this volume are published here for the first time, making the work a valuable collection of primary sources for historians and indeed anyone interested in period design. All spaces inhabited by humans evolve continually, as Thornton acknowledges, and he has done his best to capture these rooms in a state as close as possible to that envisioned by the architect or decorator. To that end, he does not include modern images of period rooms. Though he is not explicit on this point, I believe this is what he means by “authentic” decor. (I reflect further on this theme of what makes interior decoration "authentic" here, here, and here.)

Thornton acknowledges that there have always been a multitude of ways to arrange and decorate a room. “Nevertheless,” he wrote, “each period of history has its own way of seeing things—its own ‘period eye,’ as it were—which, by some strange process, seems to affect pretty well everyone. This in effect means that people in circles who react to fashion, even when it is only to quite a limited extent, possess a common way of viewing rooms—and, indeed, much else.” Accordingly, Thornton structures his book chronologically in half-century periods, regardless of whether or not these correspond with stylistic categories that were imposed later.

Who created these spaces? Finished rooms were generally the fruit of collaboration between architects or upholsterers and their clients. In the eighteenth century, architects commonly headed teams of builders and laborers, and produced plans and designs for their clients’ approval. Colors, patterns, and other features of moveable furniture were largely the domain of upholsterers, and their work, according to Thornton, is often the most obvious feature of a finished room.

The upholsterers’ influence on the appearance of the final product sometimes led to conflicts with architects who felt their designs had been compromised by the upholsterer’s choices. The battle between architects and upholsterers for influence in the elite domestic spaces of Europe and North America continued throughout the nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, some upholsterers had begun to call themselves “decorators,” and a unified concept of “interior decoration” was beginning to emerge. This sometimes exacerbated divisions between decorators and architects, especially because decorators were generally not trained in the principles of architecture. Thornton believes that “the most successful schemes of interior decoration have usually been those where an architect collaborated closely with a skilful [sic] upholsterer, guiding the latter and respecting his skills.”

Each chapter of Authentic Decor is subdivided under the same three subheadings. After introducing each chapter with a general survey, Thornton begins with a consideration of “planning and arrangement,” in which he considers the architectural discourse of the period and uses plans and drawn designs to tease out underlying social and cultural assumptions. Next he considers “the architectural shell,” which includes such elements as chimneypieces, panelling, wallpaper, and flooring. Each chapter concludes with a section on loose furnishings, in which textiles (a specialty of Thornton’s) play a prominent role.

The final chapter, covering the half century between 1870 and 1920, offers a refreshing look at the styles that immediately preceded twentieth-century modernism. Here, for the first time in the book, photographs are included. Thornton offers his readers no conclusion, for, as he states in the preface, “Nothing helpful can be said about general principles in a survey such as this, and the allegorical significance of the most important schemes executed as paintings or sculpture has usually been the province of art historians.”

Thornton eschews a totalizing grand narrative, which would almost inevitably have resulted in the assignation of value judgments to period styles. Instead, Thornton allows the “authentic decor” documented in his richly illustrated book to speak for itself, and this, I argue, is what gives this mid-1980s coffee table book its freshness and relevance. Thornton's book, like the interiors it describes, is timeless.

A Family of Three at Tea

This painting is an interesting representation of English tea culture in the early 18th century. I could say a lot about this painting, but what principally interests me is the silver tea kettle.

 "A Family of Three at Tea," attributed to Richard Collins, c. 1727

"A Family of Three at Tea," attributed to Richard Collins, c. 1727

The first English silver teapot, which, like the kettle pictured here, had a wooden handle, was manufactured no later than about 1670. (Here's an interesting early example from the V&A Museum.) The decade of the 1680s also saw the first large importations of Chinese porcelain to England and the Netherlands. The English fell for porcelain, hard, but lacking the technology to produce it (porcelain manufacture would not take off in Britain until the 1750s), the English made their first teapots out of silver. The earliest English silver teapots often had handles made of wood, to insulate them from heat; another alternative was to cover the metal handles with leather for comfortable handling.

The kettle pictured features a spirit lamp (that apparatus underneath the teapot), which was probably a predecessor to the English tea urn, which seems to have appeared during the first decade or so of the 18th century.

In the late 1720s, around the same time this painting was made, the first Russian silver teapots were manufactured. Like the English variety, they featured wooden handles and sometimes spirit lamps (konforka). Later, the teapot-and-konforka combination would come to be known in Russia as a bul′otka.