The Decoration of Houses, that seminal tome by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., is largely devoid of photography. In fact, that’s one of the things Thomas Jayne, who earlier this year penned Classical Principles for Modern Design (The Monacelli Press, $50), a contemporary interpretation of the book, thinks makes it so timeless.
“The book has very few photos, which I think is part of the reason it’s lasted,” Jayne tells AD PRO. “It’s not mired down with photos that date it.” It could be said, then, that the closest thing to a full illustration of Wharton’s design principles is the author’s own home, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Wharton designed The Mount in 1902 in keeping with her preference for classical notions of scale and proportion.
Though Wharton only lived there until 1911 and the home lost most of its original furniture (“She lived there for ten years, then, she was estranged from her husband and she went to France and he sold it – and all the contents – while she was away,” Jayne says. “Enjoy your time in France!”), it’s open now to the public as a house museum, where Wharton and Codman’s ideals about interiors are still on display.
Earlier this summer, Jayne revisited the home, seeing these principles for the first time since he delved so deeply into them while writing Classical Principles for Modern Design. AD PRO caught up with the designer to hear his thoughts on Wharton’s style, how it stands the test of time, and what designers can learn from it.
Jayne in front of the house.
On Taking Wharton’s Advice
“I trained as a historian so I always thought advice literature was insightful,” says Jayne “Of course, advice literature is not always followed. People proffer opinions, so you have to read these with a lens of, not disbelief, but a sort of checks and balances. Wharton famously said, ‘I don’t always follow my own advice.’ So she wrote herself a disclaimer in her own advice book! And I think all advice is really best paired with your own personal views and how it works for your community.”
“One of the most interesting things about the house is that it was built into a rock, so it was impossible to have a classical entrance,” Jayne notes. “So Wharton had to compromise a front hall for practical reasons. Her architect wanted her to blow up the stone, but it was too expensive. She made the small hall charming, though, by building it into a small grotto.”
Though Wharton was by no means a struggling artist, she didn’t have unlimited funds – and budgetary restrictions played into her sense of aesthetics. “The public rooms of The Mount aren’t that big by the liberal standards of today,” Jayne says. “That’s something that Wharton advocated; she said, ‘I’d rather have a beautifully proportioned house that’s smaller than a large room that is not.’ Particularly, she said the American bedroom has become ever larger. She said she would rather have a small bedroom with a sitting room than a huge bedroom. And that happens today. You know, what are you doing in these bedrooms? You’re not Louis XIV giving your grand toilette!”
“So the takeaway is: Larger is not necessarily better,” the designer continues. “If you make it smaller, you can make it nicer. And you know, The Mount is not a small house. But look at the Biltmore! It’s not near the mansions that are contemporaneous to it. It’s great that it’s preserved, because we tend to save the really luxurious houses and not regular people’s houses. Not that Edith Wharton was regular, but she certainly had a budget.”
The gallery at The Mount.
“The gallery, what would be the piano nobile, is where you really see her sense of planning manifest,” says Jayne of what is perhaps the home’s most grand room. “It’s arguably the most successful room. There’s a beautiful terrazzo floor and there’s glass reflecting the garden. That’s the room you feel the most holistically reflects her principles.”
Interestingly, though, several rooms in the home boast ornate ceilings and other ornamentation, details not entirely in keeping with the more sparse style Wharton proffered – a true example of the author not taking her own advice. “I keep on going back to that whole point of how we think of her as this great classicist, free of clutter, but her taste was much more Victorian than what we would think of as clean and modern,” Jayne notes. In the gallery, though, a light hand with furnishings balances this. “Part of why the gallery is so successful is that there isn’t very much furniture,” says Jayne.
Jayne talks to visitors in the study.
“The study is lightly furnished also, and that’s a really successful room as well because it’s classically paneled, just exactly as she and Codman advocated,” Jayne says. “It’s a textbook example of all the principles that they advocated.” Jayne himself decorated this room for a fundraiser in 2012, when The Mount enlisted designers to reimagine Wharton’s home in keeping with her design principles. “They offered me that or the staircase, and I said, ‘Since she didn’t really advocate decorating staircases, I’ll take the study,” quips Jayne.
The Color Scheme
Though The Mount’s foundation has lately been focused on repairs to the home’s foundation, Jayne has another worthy cause he wish they’d take up: “I think a reasonable goal is to repaint the rooms the way Wharton had them,” he says. “That’s my quiet campaign! Why repair the foundation? If the rooms are painted the right color the house can fall down!”
Jayne admiring a fireplace.
On Noticing the Details
“As you walk through the house, you look at things and realize how important they were to her: The fireplaces, the windows,” Jayne says. I ask what other details visiting designers should note. “She picked out some wonderful French hardware,” he says. “And the chimney pieces are especially handsome.”
On Creative Freedom
“I think the great thing about visiting the house, especially for designers, is that because relatively little is there, you can read into it what you want,” Jayne muses. “You can bring your own aesthetic to fill in the blanks.”