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.