Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A CONSPICUOUS EXAMPLE OF GOOD DECORATION - The Wiliard Straight Residence, New York City - MESSRS. DELANO & AlDRICH, Architects

The Willard Straight Residence, New York City MESSRS. DELANO & ALDRICH, Architects

THE great Michael Angelo is said to have been asked how he conceived the design for the colossal structure of St. Peter's. His reply was that his design for the great Roman cathedral was an endeavor to put the Byzantine dome of Santa Sophia on the Roman arches of the Basilica of Constantine. Three hundred and fifty years later the celebrated American architect and interior decorator, Stanford White, was asked how he designed such wonderful interiors without apparently confining his inspiration to any one historical period. His answer is said to have been: "By knowing how."

The most progressive interior decorators today realize that the best work in their profession is produced, not by a slavish adherence to the socalled historical periods, but by a wise application of the wonderful art heritage of the past to the requirements and taste of the present. They realize that color harmony and scale in an interior are of far greater importance than the unintelligent reproduction of decorative motives of any historical period. The decorator who knows how is not confined by one-period methods of decoration in his work. The decorator who is so confined in his work is generally not very successful, because, while he may be able to obtain authentic motives to copy or reproduce, of the period in which he has chosen to work, he may be unable to make a wise selection of motives within that period, and, by making a poor selection, he may obtain poor color harmony and make serious errors in scale.

Some decorators of today think that the problems they are called upon to work out are essentially different from those of previous periods. If these men and women will study the great decorative successes of all times - from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome to the more modern Renaissance and Classic Revival of later Europe - they will discover that the decorators of those periods were confronted with problems no less difficult and no less far-reaching than those to be faced today. Good decoration has always consisted in the ability of the decorator to solve the problems of his day, in the light of past experience and precedent. Every age and every country has produced conspicuous successes in decoration, and it has invariably been the genius who has not been afraid to plan boldly, who has planned with a thorough knowledge of what the past has produced and who has adapted this knowledge to his own purposes, who has been most successful.


INTERIOR decoration today is enjoying a popularity and has acquired a breadth of meaning which it has never enjoyed before. While the employment of a professional interior decorator will always be confined to those who have ample means to pay for such services, still the broad principles of interior decoration are gradually being spread broadcast over the land and applied, at least in a general sense, to the homes of millions of people of moderate incomes. It is the obligation of the interior decorator and the architect, who have exceptional talents, to be leaders in taste and provide the right kind of examples for the eager masses to follow. The influence of the interior decorator should no longer be confined within the small circle of his immediate clients. The interior decorator who today trys to keep his work secret, is pursuing a course which is not only unpatriotic but unwise, as far as his own personal success and the standing of his entire profession are concerned. The interior decorator who views his profession in the right light, will see that it is advantageous for him***or her*** to get as much publicity for his work as he can. The country and his own immediate locality are full of people who have the means to employ his services but who have not yet been sufficiently aroused to do so. To give publicity to his work and thereby show his broadmindedness to help in raising the standard of taste in home making, the decorator will realize that he is building a larger clientele for his profession in which he will naturally share.

The interior decorator who imagines that his profession is so exclusive that his clients do not desire him to give publicity to the work which he does for them is taking too narrow a view of his usefulness to the world. On the other hand, the wealthy client, in permitting the publication of views in his home, has, of recent years, taken a very much more liberal attitude towards this matter. As a rule, people who have splendid homes, beautifully decorated, are now anxious to let other people see how beautiful their homes are, rather than to keep all this beauty secret. Many of them, in fact, are so proud of their homes that they, themselves, seek the widest publicity for them. This tendency may be especially observed in those illustrated journals which devote attention to the doings of the socially prominent.


IT HAS been previously stated that every age and land produces its own peculiar problems for the interior decorator. In this respect, the present is no different from the past and a number of problems which the interior decorator of today is called upon to solve may profitably be discussed. The trend of population towards the cities from the country, during the past decade or two, has been marked. The congestion of population produced by this cityward movement has created problems of great moment to the architect and interior decorator. Especially important among these is the problem of restricted building sites for city dwellings. Every architect and interior decorator knows that the problems involved in designing and decorating a modern city residence in our large centers today is a very different problem from that which was presented to him by a similar residence built a generation ago. City residences today are of necessity built on comparatively narrow lots, with little or no chance of obtaining daylight from the sides. Formerly such residences occupied ample frontages on the street and had facades with many rooms and windows abreast.

The effect which these narrow building lots for city residences have had on their architectural arrangement and their decorative treatment is more marked than the casual observer is inclined to think. The question of lighting has already been mentioned. This presents a double problem, for it is quite as necessary to consider artificial lighting as daylighting. While the question of daylighting has its greatest influence on the architectural planning and arrangement of the residence, the problem of artificial lighting effects particularly the decorative treatment of the interior of the house. Every decorator, of course, understands what an important part artificial illumination plays in a decorative scheme and he can understand that where the conditions of lighting are severe, as in the hemmed-in city residence of today, the effect which artificial illumination and the fixtures through which the light comes, have on the decorative handling of every room, is a problem he cannot afford to neglect. This accounts for the importance attached to artificial illumination during recent years.


Figure 1. Bottom of Main Stair Hall seen through Vestibule.
ONE of the most successful examples of decorative handling, of recent years, in a city residence, which has come to our attention, is that of which we reproduce a number of views with this discussion, the New York house of Willard Straight. The architects of this residence are Messrs. Delano & Aldrich, who are responsible also for the interior decorative treatment and the designing of many of the decorative fitments. It is plain to be seen from the views shown, that the client and the architect cooperated closely to produce the excellent results which have been obtained. A study of the illustrations will reveal interesting solutions of decorative problems to which allusion has already been made in this discussion. No doubt, some of the credit for the success attained is due to intelligent cooperation on the part of the client. Such cooperation is not usual in the cases of wealthy clients who often complicate issues rather than cooperate with their architects and decorators. That is why the most competent interior decorator will sometimes fail in producing a good piece of work. Every interior decorator will recall houses where be knows plenty money has been spent but in which the effects obtained are in no sense commensurate with the expenditure. On the other hand, he also knows of other pieces of interior decoration in which the expenditure has been comparatively modest and the effect exceptionally fine. In the Straight residence ample means were available but the effects obtained have not suffered by unwise expenditure. To study in detail just what decorative problems were met in this residence and how they have been solved, it will be advisable to pursue the various rooms and their decorative treatment, with the aid of the illustrations.


Figure 2.Upper Stair Hall from Second Story..
IT IS becoming increasingly important for decorators to invent practical, ornamental effects that will "light up" easily, as modern city homes are dark compared to the open residences of other days. In this respect the architects of the Straight residence were prompt to meet the requirements of the situation by designing fitting lighting fixtures for each room.
Figure 3. Central Hall on Second story looking towards Stair Hall. The chandelier has been made light in design so as not to interrupt the vista across the room nor mask the potrait panels at either end. A ponerous chandelier would have this.

Figure 4. Central Hall on Second Story looking towards Drawing Room. A variety of clever lighting fixtures are seen both in this room and in the Drawing Room beyond. The color contrast of gay furniture and floor coverings with the quiet walls, is to be remarked.
In the central hall on the second story (Figures 3, 4), a novel, hanging lighting fixture gives brilliancy to what might otherwise have been a sombre interior. This chandelier, at the same time, is so graceful that it does not interrupt the vista across the room nor mask  unduly the two large paintings of Zuloaga, which form the central points of interest in this hall. The clever adaptation of the "Bull Fighter," from the brush of this great Spanish artist, in what might be termed a historically conceived room, illustrates again the great versatility of the architects and decorators. The ornamental wood carvings over the entrance and above the picture at the opposite end of this hall are excellent examples of how fine craftsmanship may be adapted to make agreeable surroundings for pictorial panels. The same success in giving sprightliness and charm to what might easily seem a dry period room is seen in the use of highly ornamental textiles for window hangings and upholstered furniture, which lends this interior a brilliant and splendid charm of color, contrasted with the dark wood paneling of the walls. The possibilities of modern mill craftsmanship are all too seldom appreciated by architects and decorators today.

From this central hall a variety of carefully designed lighting fixtures may be seen. These were executed under the architects' immediate supervision and after their designs. At the center of the hall, where spaciousness is required, the chandelier is made brilliant by strings of crystals and by gilded metal ornaments. The chandelier itself is, however, designed in an open pattern almost lace-like. On the side walls are lighting fixtures of glass, spherical in form, and that scintillate with a brilliant, transparent charm without appearing to encumber the wall surfaces.

Through the door, looking into the stairhall, in Figure 3, another type of fixture is seen. The uneven surfaces of the stairhall, with its many oblique lines, might easily have had a feeling of sliding surfaces. Well-balanced charm, however, has been obtained by hanging from the ceiling, by a substantial chain, a lantern of dignified and ponderous lines.

Again, from this central hall, as seen in Figure 4, looking through the open door into the drawing room, at the end of this rather extended vista, a chandelier appears with crystal ornaments, recalling the chandelier of the central hall. This chandelier in the drawing room, however, is designed to arrest the eye rather than as an open pattern through which vision is carried.

Another extremely useful as well as ornamental type of lighting fixture is discovered on the two wrought metal standards at the right and left of the fireplace in the central hall (Figure 3). These slender upright standards are wired and provided with powerful electric bulbs which throw a strong light through the upper portion of the room without a disturbing glare or undue brilliancy on the floor below.


AT THE opposite end of this same central hall, in Figure 4, the successful use is made of table lamps, where one may sit in comfort and read conveniently. At the same time these table lamps, with their richly-colored silken shades, serve as ornamental notes to accentuate the colorful charm of Zuloaga's paintings. The rich note of the Spanish artist's bull fighters, dressed in semi-Oriental colors, is amplified and rendered more harmonious by the well-chosen damasks, velvets and brocades that repeat, in friendly tones, the colors of the pictures.
Figure 5. From Drawing Room through Reception Hall. Showing Chinese Screens at the Drawing Room entrance.
Other richly-defined ornamental details are found in the ancient Chinese screens at the door of the reception room (Figure 5) and in their Oriental paintings which serve as decorative accents recalling the charm and beauty of Far Eastern handicraft of long ago. The oldest and the newest things in art have here been cleverly combined to meet the home furnishing demands of a cultured family, showing the decorative success that a gifted decorator may achieve for home makers who are able and wise enough to draw upon the whole world's artistic resources and combine the varied periods and styles in a harmonious whole.
Figure 6. Mantel in Sitting Room. The sconces, with painted parchment shades are as effective by day as by night. They also relieve the quiet paneling with a touch of color.
A standing lamp at the corner of the library is another example of ancient craftsmanship applied to modern requirements. Richly decorated with its parchment shade and brilliantly wrought ornamental metal work, it stands as a striking decorative feature of the room both in the day, with its handsome forms and colors, and at night, with its added beauty of artificial light. The wall space in the library (Figure 6) carry lighting fixtures in the form of large sconces, rendered brilliant through the use of small candle shades of delicately-designed painted materials.


THE decorative schemes of the various rooms are a forceful demonstration of the fact that harmony and beauty are not dependent on a strict following of precedent. Color harmony and fitness are the result of skilful planning and inventive genius rather than of slavish copying and stupid reproduction.

In the library, for example, are works of art from the remotest ages of Chinese history, associated with fine old furniture of two or three centuries ago, and supplemented by extremely modern productions of twentieth century handiworkers and mill craftsmanship. All  this wealth of art material has been combined in harmonious arrangements and fitted to the peculiar problems presented by the restricted New York City residence of today.

TOO much emphasis cannot be laid upon the surpassing value of a thorough understanding of scale and color harmony, not only by the architect and decorator, but also by the ambitious dealer in materials useful to interior decorators and house furnishers. An appreciation of color is valuable to salesmen in the drapery departments of house furnishing stores, far more so than a parrot-like knowledge of the historical styles. Scale and color alone make house furnishings appropriate for their surroundings. The most learned research in archaeology cannot produce real beauty in a home unless the decorator understands harmonizing and contrasting colors and the laws of scale in selecting ornamental patterns.


THE central hall on the lower floor (Figures 3, 4) required a plan of lighting different from that on the floor above. The formal marble floor and the well-proportioned arches of the upper hall demanded a central lighting fixture corresponding in scale and general character to the architectural background. This need of the vigorous pendant metal frame carrying the electric bulbs fully supplies. There is no mistaking that this chandelier was planned to hang directly above the center of the patterned marble floor.
Figure 7. From Dining Room through hall to reception Room. The effectiveness of the pendent lantern in the Hall is to be noted.
The view from the dining room, looking through this lower hall into the reception room (Figure 7), shows how satisfactory this lighting fixture is. It does not require much imagination to appreciate the fitness, style and definite location of this fixture in the hall and to determine why it must necessarily be different from that in the less formal hall above, where a more airy chandelier was designed to harmonize with and complement the colorful paintings of the great modern Spanish artist, Zuloaga.


Figure 10. Men's Dressing Room. Details of the mantel and the mouldings of the panels in this room differ slightly from their counterparts shown on the opposite page. Yet the decorator has created two very distinct and charming rooms, each befitting its use.

Figure 9. Ladies' dressing Room. This little oval room, and its companion shown ***above***, show how widely divergent effects may be obtained by the clever decorator working with different materials and color schemes, on practically identical backgrounds.

THE two small sitting rooms to the right and left of the main entrance hall, are worthy of praise for the skill with which they have been worked out from the standpoint of the architect, the decorator and the householder. The room used as the men's dressing room (Figure 10) is simple and dignified but well planned in the style of England's woodworkers of a century and more ago. The ladies' dressing room, on the other side of the street door (Figure 9), is extremely gay and brilliant, both in color and in design, effects obtained through the use of fanciful and romantic decorative paintings executed by the late Howard Gushing. Not only these ornamental wall panels but the woodwork as well radiate a light tone of greenish gold such as may be seen in some of the best of the great Turner's, renderings of fanciful sunsets at sea. The delightful brilliancy of this adroit arrangement of radiant tones makes this room a masterpiece of interior decoration.

If the producers and retailers of wall papers would study the color schemes evolved by great painters, they would find it easier to escape from the dull monotony of the commonplace and be able to lift their special lines beyond the reach of price and quantity competition. Instead of being followers of European styles they might become the leaders of the world.

Such able decorative designers as Delano & Aldrich and such enthusiastic home makers as the owners of the Straight residence lead the way to America's greater prosperity and happiness. The contrasting decorative qualities of the two dressing rooms in the Straight house indicate the wide range of ornamental effects that may be applied to practically the same rooms. Retailers of house furnishings and decorative materials may learn a much-needed lesson from these two interestingly decorated and furnished rooms.

If retailers of home furnishings desire to give lasting satisfaction to their customers they must learn to meet the personal wishes and requirements of different temperaments and of different types of people. The homes furnished with materials from their stores will be gay or solemn, colorful or drab, beautiful or ugly, accordingly as the merchandise they sell meets or fails to meet the requirements of its purchasers.


Figure 11. Reception Room Mantel. The Pictorial Panel over the mirror is a fragment of an old French wall paper, which has here been used as the decorative keynote of the room. In Color and Scale the treatment of walls and the selection of the movable furnishings have been determined by this insignificant though charming bit of decorative composition made originally simply as part of a wall decoration.
The drawing room as decorated by Syrie Maugham for Mona Williams, in a watercolor by Pierre Brissaud.

THE reception room, which adjoins these two small sitting rooms (Figure 11),is charming and gracious. Its fireplace and the overmantel are well planned and suggestive of well-bred beauty. Above is a piece of old French wall paper that is of so charming a pattern that it serves as a criterion for all the other decorative features of this splendid interior. Not many pieces of wall paper now being manufactured will be cherished for a hundred years and then be selected as precious artistic heirlooms about which a future generation can safely build up the color harmonics and ornamental details of a splendid room. On the other hand, some of the lighting fixtures now being produced in the United States may well lay claim to immortality, by virtue of their appropriateness and beauty.

In the sitting room (Figure 7) the colors of the marble mantel suggest an interior of quiet and substantial ease, well expressed by the electric wall brackets to the right and left of the fireplace and in all the ample fittings of the room. The rather somber wooden paneling serves as an excellent background for the brilliant glass and strongly ornamental metal of the lighting fixtures.

Figure 8. Dining Room towards Mantel. The pleasing contrast of light background and colorful furnishings and their masterful selection and placement mark this room as a distinctly successful piece of decorative work.



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Willard Dickerman Straight


  1. A handsome house. After an extensive renovation, it has returned to use as a private residence. I hope I am wrong, but something tells me that little of the original interior detailing has survived.

  2. Oh dear---I was about to speculate the same thing. It just appears that a total gut was performed, and that rather than saving this beautiful woodwork, the usual generic stuff has been used. Do let's hope that we're wrong---for this house was simply the best of the best