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An Aesthetic ‘Promised Land’

An Aesthetic ‘Promised Land’

Who were some of the pioneers of interior design?

Before she became an esteemed novelist, Edith Wharton was a practicing decorator and designer — interests to which she was passionately dedicated. Rather than innovating new styles, however, what Wharton and her collaborator and friend, the architect Ogden Comden Jr., sought to do was re-establish the “grace and timelessness” of home decoration that would stand in stark relief against the tawdry and obnoxious ways families such as the Vanderbilts were flaunting their wealth and status at the end of the 19th century.

The pair wrote a book in response to this threat of bad taste, The Decoration of Houses, which remains the keystone among books on interior design and architecture published since. Wharton wanted to educate the rich by promoting the beauty and efficiency of “well-made, well-mannered” spaces and pieces versus what she deemed to be their conspicuous flaunting of the vagaries of the Gilded Age. Among the original recommendations, many still adhere: the sanity and security of investing in comfortable couches and chairs rather than souvenirs and novelties; designing homes that are useful to the needs of its inhabitants instead of overzealously adopting what is currently in vogue; striving for an easy proportionality within a room as a way to nourish inner calm and contentment. Indeed, the sensibility of these ideas remains inarguable.

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