Saturday, August 4, 2012

From Lobby to Peak - On The Threshold

***From Lobby to Peak - a series of illustrated articles in Our Continent - by Donald G. Mitchell - describing  the New York City  apartment of Louis Comfort Tiffany - progressing from room to room - Mitchell describes the essence of Tiffany's style - part one of eleven - published  February 15, 1882***

On the threshold of our subject, and on the threshold of what ever dwelling we may choose to enter in quest of what may serve - in way of fixture, color, arrangement - to make a home picturesque.

It is by no means a new quest : it is as old as the times when people first built houses and first set themselves with zeal and faith to the work of making them year by year more livable and more lovable. In the older days indeed of what we call classic art, decoration was lavished more upon temples and public buildings than upon private homes. It was not good citizenship in earlier Athenian times to consider individual interests even in the adornment of one's house; all was subordinated to the state. But with growth of luxury there came an Aleibiades who kept an artist prisoner in his dwelling till he had completed the decoration of its walls. There was a Roman Praetor too who brought such a monolith of China marble through the streets of Rome to build into his home has endangered the sewers over which the huge weight was dragged. Then, if we had space to go wandering into the past for further illustration of the universal quest of things picturesque with which houses may be equipped, there is the story of the home splendors of the Roman Lucullus, the fresh walls dug to life from the grave of Pompeii, and the long series following after of Medieval beauties. We bow reverently to the memory of these. We may return to them some day, but now and here we invite the reader to cross the threshold of a modern home, a city home and a modest one. But it is to no "show-room'' of the fashions if this matter that the reader is invited; ten to one not a fashionable suggestion will be made from first to last.   For this we ask pardon in advance of all the modistes.

It is indeed quite possible that hints may be dropped into the current of our talk, so far divergent from current practice, that they will call out from the dilettante exclamations of horror. Do we assume then that we therefore are teaching a new gospel and that all is valueless in the old? By no means. We shall fail sadly of our purpose if we do not make apparent an exceeding love for good old forms, if we do not lay hold upon them and grapple them to our purposes. But this will not forbid - ought not to forbid - a grafting upon them of such new forms, tints, treatment as shall be in harmony with them and yet widen their reach up to the full breadth of those modern requirements which cannot be wholly fulfilled or made good by the exact following after of old methods.

No excellent, no thoroughly good thing in this way can be done in any time without keeping abreast of the practical wants of the day and supplying them and meeting them with features that shall mate with the best spirit of old work. We shall speak our thought honestly, whatever may come of it. 'Tis possible too that we may bring into our discussion a virtuoso friend who clinging to old formularies, may criticise what he may count our barbarian disregard of the unities and sanctities of the schools. We shall give him free range for his talk, if only it be helpful and suggestive.

Still further, in our liberalism with respect to decorative art, we shall allow and invite some good single-thoughted materfamilias, who is bred into a practice and a love of all the mysteries of house-keeping and house-fittings, to have her interpolation of critical speech in testing the practicalities of what we may suggest, and if need be to fire off  a whole broadside of pretty objurgation upon our pictures or our screed.

Again, and on the threshold, we wish to say further that what ever appears on this "Peak and Lobby" page in way of illustration is of things real and of things put to real service. They are not dainty fancies, not one is taken by photograph or faithful limner (whose name is a guarantee of fidelity) from things as actual and palpable as the types with which we undertake here, in columns  flanking them, to preach the sermons of which they shall serve for texts.

Again, these sketches are not only real, but they belong to the actualities of a living household. Children's feet patter over the floors we shall see; visitors may drop any day into this chairs we shall range for them; if symbols of wall or mantel show that we have fallen upon a dining place, we may be sure that knives and forks are put to an everyday clatter there; if we show a "high-poster", sound sleepers enjoy it. 

The dotted partition was removed to give breadth and character to the hall.

*Its position is indicated on the ground-plan by black dot with rays. 
Even the altar-like flame* which glows here beside us on the printed page and which sends its flicker into the peak of enclosed gable is a real live fire that each night lifts up its ambient blaze to light the threshold of a real home.

This is as it should be, and all the best art and picturesqueness which belong to house decoration should have somewhere showing through them a homely matter-of-fact basis. There may be richness, fullness, largeness, expression of luxury and wealth, but if there be nowhere a possible reading "between the lines" of a domestic purpose, of the sanetities and privacies and enjoyments of home-life as well as of large hospitalities, 'tis an idle art and an idle setting forth of splendors.

We shall not take it upon ourselves to defend very pertinaciously the pictured exhibits upon this page or any page to follow. If they will not sustain themselves it will be hardly worth our while to bolster them with any praises. Yet for all that we shall not keep silent if a good thing specially impresses us, or if any good thing which shall come to loss under the gravey wants the emphasis of a descriptive word. Whatever shall look disorderly and uninviting in black and white will look disorderly in earnest. Be sure of that.

A direct imitation or repetition of what may be set forth we do in nowise commend, but hope rather that it may quicken new suggestions and may open the eyes of house-builders and house-owners to wider ranges of thinking and of work. For ourselves we shall not keep closely to the black and white texts set in the page for us by the wood-cutters. They shall not keep us to wordy descriptions and repetitions of themselves, but shall put us upon the scent of all related  picturesqueness and all related adaptations. So we shall wander out of leash as we will, but be always reverent of that
directness and those simplicities of art which most dignify and beautify a real home and which make pertinent and true the pretty gush (shall we call it?) of Robert Burns:

              To make a happy fireside clime
    To weans and wife, 

    That's the true pathos and sublime
    Of human life. 

Donald G. Mitchell was a close friend of Tiffany's. Our Continent was a new magazine covering history, literature, science and art. Click HERE to view a earlier post on Tiffany's apartment titled "the fly eye of New York".

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