Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A question of balance

"Everyone who comes in here wants to re-arrange the furniture," was the complaint of an irritated attendant in a demonstration room. The reason was only too apparent. With too many of the heavy pieces of furniture at one end of the room, the room seemed to tip, and the visitors had an unconscious impulse to correct the fault. Balance in design is so natural that one is not even aware of it when it is present, but when it is violated there is a sense of discomfort or annoyance.

"Stated briefly, balance is rest or repose. This restful effect is obtained by grouping shapes and colors around a center in such a way that there are equal attractions on each side of that center."

" .... In placing the furnishings of a room, the architectural openings must be taken into consideration. Very often balance is secured by having a large piece of furniture on one wall of a room as a balance to an opening on an opposite wall. The large pieces of furniture should be placed first, with regard to balancing centers of interest in the room. The smaller movable objects would then be arranged so they will make convenient groups as well as balanced units. After the furniture has been arranged the attention is turned to the balance within each group. A well-balanced wall will have the same amount of attraction on both sides of the center line. A well-balanced room will have approximately the same amount of attraction on opposite walls and, although the two side walls  may be somewhat heavier than the end walls, there should be the feeling that the attractions are about equally distributed around the room."

Above the sofa in our sitting room hangs a grid of four long rectangular frames encasing twelve engravings of 18th-century Rome. Three engravings per frame, floating, edges lifting away from light purple-grey silk, surrounded by silver frames – and totally wrong for the room. It's not the engravings that are wrong, rather it's the way these 18th-century versions of Grand Tour postcards are overwhelmed – something we didn't see in our enthusiasm at the framer's – by their containers. The prints recede and the frames come forward and the fault, the imbalance, further emphasized by the grouping of four frames above a sofa less wide than the grouping.

It is a classic example of how what looks good on paper doesn't necessarily work on the wall. In fact it's a classic case of imbalance for, since the frames were hung, the room has not held together – it has tipped in a direction neither of us wished for: more traditional than contemporary, heavier in tone, overloaded, absorbent of light, and a commensurate loss of the delicacy the room once had. The tipping of the balance, with the extremes coming to the fore and thus denying the room "its rest and repose," has made the room look old-fashioned.

I thought it might be an interesting diversion, whilst remaining on the subject of timelessness, to look at some rooms redolent of their period – the antithesis of timeless. I'm not going to dissect the rooms, but merely indicate what it is about them that pins them in time like specimen butterflies in their cases.

To my eye the yellow and grey room – a combined drawing room, bedroom, dining room and playroom – designed by Anthony Collett is as impressive today as it was when I first saw it nearly thirty years ago. Arguably, then, this room has stood the test of time, yet there are two things that date it: the Post-Modern-incluenced inclusion of large scale architectural elements (storage, radiator covers, etc) and, secondly, the glut of paint finishes on every available surface, including a canvas floor cloth. Paint finishes speak loudly of a rage that turned craft into hobby and made everyone with or without a smattering of creativity into artists and artisans – a word nowadays used to describe cheese and sausage makers. (And I will confess I played my own part in this folie.)

Imitation of ancient surfaces, preferably Tuscan, Pompeiian or Lower East Side Slum rampaged across walls on both sides of the Atlantic, as did frolicsome marbleizing along many a baseboard, dado and cornice, under painted skies afflutter with putti, birds and butterflies. Judgement or restraint, in many ways, were untypical of the 1980s.

It could be said that the room above, inundated in chintz though it is, is restrained – in the sense that limiting patterns to fourteen is restraint – and there is a certain harmony of color. But it cannot be said the room has not dated. The style, now known as "English" is still with us but it was the multiplicity of the version here – an overstated and overrated emphasis on traditional aristocratic values through yardage that brought the English-speaking world, in the 1980s, through a recrudescence of chintz (in my understanding, a glazed, printed floral cloth), to a floral pratfall. Laid to rest when toile de Jouy (reputedly Marie Antoinette's favourite for milkmaid's frocks) took the gilt off the gingerbread, chintz is still occasionally mentioned by associate editors in their more desperate moments as coming back in style. If it is, I hope judgement and restraint will be salient elements of the restoration of a beautiful textile with an interesting history.

Post-Modernism, such as Charles Jenck's Californian bedroom, has not improved with time. The etiolated, facile, symbolist references to Classical architecture are as as big a mystery to me now as nearly thirty years ago. And there's the point, I suppose: I did not understand then and do not now why anyone took this stuff seriously. Post-Modernism is of its time, much as was Memphis, and it had a definite intellectual appeal to the urban design acolyte. Thankfully, the style has not been resurrected.

Last and certainly not least, a window treatment. Normally, when describing windows I would be satisfied with words like curtains, draperies, pelmets, cornice boards, swags and jabots, because, it must be said, "window treatments" drives me to distraction. In a decade when fabric yardage could have been the most expensive part of an interior, and no window however lowly or ill-proportioned went unobscured by grand curtains and draperies, this window treatment from 1980s London, remains a low point. Something from the imagination of H.R. Geiger, perhaps?

Quotation about balance from Art in Everyday Life, Fourth Edition, Harriet & Vetta Goldstein, MacMillan 1954 (first published 1925)

Image of engraving of the Flavian Amphitheatre from Google.

Photograph of yellow room by James Mortimer to accompany article Championship by Mirabel Cecil for The World of Interiors, July–August 1985

Photograph of chintzed room by James Mortimer to accompany article High Church Chintz by Peter Reid for The World of Interiors, September 1985.

Photograph of Charles Jenck's bedroom by Tim Street-Porter accompanying an article, In Arcadia Ego, by Colin Amery for The World of Interiors, March 1985.

Photograph of the window treatment from The House and Garden Book of Classic Rooms, Robert Harling, Leonie Highton, John Bridges, Chatto and Windus, London 1989.

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