Saturday, March 16, 2013

From Lobby To Peak: A Rolling Screen

***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 eleven of eleven - published May 17, 1882*** 

WE had occasion in a previous paper to speak of folding-doors—of what might possibly be done to relieve their baldness, and by what devices the great opening which belongs to them might wear decorative treatment. We have now before us, in the larger of the two drawings, another opening of some six feet in width, serving as a passage-way from the library to parlor: it is needed also for free circulation of air, and needed for good distribution of light. But there are times, too, when it is needful to close this aperture for the purpose of securing privacy in one room or the other, yet without entire exclusion of the light.

  A good ease, one might say, for an ordinary pair of doors with their upper halves glazed and opening in the usual matter-of-fact way. But in the present instance—the opening being near a corner—such doors, opened most whiles, would occupy needed space: nor could they be so deftly, and quietly, and unobtrusively closed, as a sudden influx of visitors to the parlor might make desirable.

  Why not then the ordinary sliding folding-doors? Partly for the reason last named, and more urgently because the opening being near a corner there would lie only one way of
sliding, and still more urgently because the partition with which we have to deal here is a old eight-inch brick wall. What then? An adjustment of great convenience is needed
each cannot be met in the usual conventional ways. Is it not a capital occasion to over-leap conventionalities and set about the accomplishment of a desired purpose in the most simple and effective way without regard to the fashions of the modistes in house-furnishings?

  Hence has come, for the needs set forth, that rolling screen which is somewhat rudely figured in the larger drawing. Its wheels, its hanging and its mode of adjustment are as
simple and as practical as the hanging of a barn-door: and if good and sound and little liable to dislocation in such humble and overworked connection, why not good and  commendable, on occasions, in the privacy of home? Of course we would by no means advocate the transfer of the rattling iron trucks, and their paraphernalia of iron rails, from the stable to the house: but if convenience and the limitations of any particular apartment suggest this wheel method of moving door or screen, is there of any good reason against showing frankly and decorously as we can the wheels by which the easy movement sought is effected? It is all in the line of that honest show of constructive features of which we have already dropped a hint or two in our mention of pulleys and weights, and which in the comparatively old times of decorative talk made us welcome the best and sterlingest things in what was called the Eastlake furniture. Tis in the line too of the same large honesty which makes the exposure of the real grain of the wood (showing nature's constructive processes) commendable to all tasteful persons.
 We observe indeed that Mr. Morris in his recent and most agreeable "Hopes and Fears for Art" (perhaps a little over weighted on the sentimental side) declares for covering up
"deal" with paint, because the English deal has no beautiful tint of its own. It is true indeed that the hybrid firs and pines which make up most of what is called deal in England
are without much character, certainly have far less than the white pine (Stubos) of our ordinary carpentry. This latter indeed, if adroitly chosen from the second cuts or sawings
next the exterior surface, shows beautiful convolutions of the which it were a sin to cover with heavy pigments. But whether deal or pine is subject of treatment, there are abundant transparent stains which may serve for multiplication of tints without obscuring that fibrous
structure of the wood which gives it life and character.

  Nothing can be more certain we think, in regard to all decorative processes, as well as, all good architecture, that as we ripen to best accomplishment, constructive details, however homely or however common, will be more and more honestly declared, and imitations and concealments and pretenses go down. Good builders know how to make a water conductor upon the exterior of a house contributory to
architectural effect, and faraway back the water-spouts from the roof leads, under the name of gargoyles, gave charming play to Gothic fancies. Would it be very astonishing  if some day water-pipes within   doors  were put into decorative twists or if gas-pipes or electric conductors show all their contours and serpents heads darting out jets of flame from shapely coils?

  To such decorative times (If they ever come) will belong good honest hinges—of forged work maybe—in place of the best nutts which are best when most hidden, and an iron grip will be put upon the door frame which shall certify to strength and good service  and which by its varying fashion shall pique the ingenuity and the art instincts of the workers in metal. Locks and latches will not be hidden in the thickness of the plank, but show delicate forged work and that ornamentation which, when applied in necessary every-day fixtures like these, is most engaging and most surely and helpfully decorative.

  We come back now in our screen: it rims on wheels, as represented, there can be no good reason—whatever may be true of locks or hinges or pipes—for burying the wheels out of sight. Indeed in the present instance there is a very good reason for keeping them in sight, since their treatment, by which they are made  to simulate an old-fashioned spinning-wheel, makes them mate admirably with the Japanese decorative whirls which appear upon the surface over which they travel, and with the kindred whirls of ornamentation (not shown in the drawing)which upon a golden ground play with a whimsical vagrancy over the whole stretch of frieze.

  We observe again that this screen above the height of the dado is filled with ordinary glass of irregularly shaped rectangular panes (with other surroundings, a brilliant mosaic might supply its place), and this glass is shot over with a tracery of vines in some transparent pigment—perhaps some fantasy of spiders webs across the angles, mingling with the loose vine tracery, neither of these being very distinct  and only taking decided form when the screen is drawn against the wall, whereon all this tracery of the glass is repeated in stronger color, in such way as to double the picture, line by line and tint by tint, so that a withdrawal of the screen across the opening does in fact unrip, or split, this vine picturing on glass and wall, showing then a transparent, flimsy tracery on the glass, against the parlor light beyond  and on the wall a corresponding tracery in deeper tint. A light Japanese silken curtain is attached to the screen by brass rod and rings, and when extended over the glass (as in the drawing) hides the details we have brought to notice.

  The lesser of the drawings shows a heavier curtain, partially covering a window, whose glare has been still further subdued by the painted transom against its upper quarter  Upon this fixed and smaller glass screen are observable again the Japense whirls of figure which link it agreeably with frieze already mentioned. The little book-loving maiden below is seated in a chair to which it may be worth while to call attention as a type of the New England easy-chair of the middle of the last century, its fashioning being very homely, yet not unpicturesque, and its seat and back being formed by one continuous and sloping stretch of stout leather.

  And now let us recount and group in consecutive array some of the features of this library-room, whose special aspects we have been considering. First, their is the broad opening between it and the sunny Breakfast-room, with dividing doors rarely closed, and in great casement of these doors dressed with masses of foliage; next, this foliage runs away in pretty vagrancy and in brown and golden tints over the dun-colored matting that forms the cover of the walls. Again, this matting is made fast by fillets of wood that by their arrangement leave rectangular panels, where paintings are framed and become an integral part of the decoration. A door, in most respects like other doors, has a couplet of little lacquered wickets opening in its upper panels to give glimpse of hall. The fireplace shows the massiveness of iron plates and the bold ornamentation of bolt-heads: a cupboard or two thereabout show iron panels treated simply with rust and lead and silver in patterns of flowers. Over these, books in all guises of back, and bric-a-brac of historic significance centralize interest and justify the title of Library. A screen moved at a touch upon its spindled wheels gives seclusion from the parlor beyond : transoms of colored glass moderate the obtrusive glare of the tall northern windows; a carpet whose severities of tint and figure make it wholly unnoticeable covers the floor: mystic, Oriental disks chase each other round the frieze, and a stanch table, and chairs as stamen have to library work.

Donald G. Mitchell.

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 all earlier posts on Tiffany's Bella penthouse apartment.

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