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.
Photo: Eric Limon
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.