Read CHAPTER XVI of The House in Good Taste, free online book, by Elsie de Wolfe, on


This is the age of the apartment. Not only in the great cities, but in the smaller centers of civilization the apartment has come to stay. Modern women demand simplified living, and the apartment reduces the mechanical business of living to its lowest terms. A decade ago the apartment was considered a sorry makeshift in America, though it has been successful abroad for more years than you would believe. We Americans have been accustomed to so much space about us that it seemed a curtailment of family dignity to give up our gardens, our piazzas and halls, our cellars and attics, our front and rear entrances. Now we are wiser. We have just so much time, so much money and so much strength, and it behooves us to make the best of it. Why should we give our time and strength and enthusiasm to drudgery, when our housework were better and more economically done by machinery and co-operation? Why should we stultify our minds with doing the same things thousands of times over, when we might help ourselves and our friends to happiness by intelligent occupations and amusements? The apartment is the solution of the living problems of the city, and it has been a direct influence on the houses of the towns, so simplifying the small-town business of living as well.

Of course, many of us who live in apartments either have a little house or a big one in the country for the summer months, or we plan for one some day! So hard does habit die we cannot entirely divorce our ideas of Home from gardens and trees and green grass. But I honestly think there is a reward for living in a slice of a house: women who have lived long in the country sometimes take the beauty of it for granted, but the woman who has been hedged in by city walls gets the fine joy of out-of-doors when she is out of doors, and a pot of geraniums means more to her than a whole garden means to a woman who has been denied the privilege of watching things grow.

The modern apartment is an amazing illustration of the rapid development of an idea. The larger ones are quite as magnificent as any houses could be. I have recently furnished a Chicago apartment that included large and small salons, a huge conservatory, and a great group of superb rooms that are worthy of a palace. There are apartment houses in New York that offer suites of fifteen to twenty rooms, with from five to ten baths, at yearly rentals that approximate wealth to the average man, but these apartments are for the few, and there are hundreds of thousands of apartments for the many that have the same essential conveniences.

One of the most notable achievements of the apartment house architects is the duplex apartment, the little house within a house, with its two-story high living room, its mezzanine gallery with service rooms ranged below and sleeping rooms above, its fine height and spaciousness. Most of the duplex apartments are still rather expensive, but some of them are to be had at rents that are comparatively low rents are always comparative, you know.

Fortunately, although it is a far cry financially from the duplex apartment to the tidy three-room flat of the model tenements, the “modern improvements” are very much the same. The model tenement offers compact domestic machinery, and cleanliness, and sanitary comforts at a few dollars a week that are not to be had at any price in many of the fine old houses of Europe. The peasant who has lived on the plane of the animals with no thought of cleanliness, or indeed of anything but food and drink and shelter, comes over here and enjoys improvements that our stately ancestors of a few generations ago would have believed magical. Enjoys them they do say he puts his coal in the bath tub, but his grandchildren will be different, perhaps!

But enough of apartments in general. This chapter is concerned with the small apartment sought by you young people who are beginning housekeeping. You want to find just the proper apartment, of course, and then you want to decorate and furnish it. Let me beg of you to demand only the actual essentials: a decent neighborhood, good light and air, and at least one reasonably large room. Don’t demand perfection, for you won’t find it. Make up your mind just what will make for your happiness and comfort, and demand that. You can make any place livable by furnishing it wisely. And, oh, let me beg of you, don’t buy your furniture until you have found and engaged your apartment! It is bad enough to buy furniture for a house you haven’t seen, but an apartment is a place of limitations, and you can so easily mar the place by buying things that will not fit in. An apartment is so dependent upon proper fittings, skilfully placed, that you may ruin your chances of a real home if you go ahead blindly.

Before you sign your lease, be sure that the neighborhood is not too noisy. Be sure that you will have plenty of light and air and heat. You can interview the other tenants, and find out about many things you haven’t time or the experience to anticipate. Be sure that your landlord is a reasonable human being who will consent to certain changes, if necessary, who will be willing for you to build in certain things, who will co-operate with you in improving his property, if you go about it tactfully.

Be sure that the woodwork is plain and unpretentious, that the lighting-fixtures are logically placed, and of simple construction. (Is there anything more dreadful than those colored glass domes, with fringes of beads, that landlords so proudly hang over the imaginary dining-table?) Be sure that the plumbing is in good condition, and beware the bedroom on an air shaft better pay a little more rent and save the doctor’s bills. Beware of false mantels, and grotesque grille-work, and imitation stained glass, and grained woodwork. You couldn’t be happy in a place that was false to begin with.

Having found just the combination of rooms that suggests a real home to you, go slowly about your decorating.

It is almost imperative that the woodwork and walls should have the same finish throughout the apartment, unless you wish to find yourself living in a crazy-quilt of unfriendly colors. I have seen four room apartments in which every room had a different wall paper and different woodwork. The “parlor” was papered with poisonous-looking green paper, with imitation mahogany woodwork; the dining-room had walls covered with red burlap and near-oak woodwork; the bedroom was done in pink satin finished paper and bird’s-eye maple woodwork, and the kitchen was bilious as to woodwork, with bleak gray walls. Could anything be more mistaken?

You can make the most commonplace rooms livable if you will paint all your woodwork cream, or gray, or sage green, and cover your walls with a paper of very much the same tone. Real hard wood trim isn’t used in ordinary apartments, so why not do away with the badly-grained imitation and paint it? You can look through thousands of samples of wall papers, and you will finally have to admit that there is nothing better for every day living than a deep cream, a misty gray, a tan or a buff paper.

You may have a certain license in the papering of your bedrooms, of course, but the living-rooms hall, dining-room, living-room, drawing-room, and so forth should be pulled together with walls of one color. In no other way can you achieve an effect of spaciousness and spaciousness is the thing of all other things most desirable in the crowded city. You must have a place where you can breathe and fling your arms about!

When you have it really ready for furnishing, get the essentials first; do with a bed and a chest of drawers and a table and a few chairs, and add things gradually, as the rooms call for them.

Make the best of the opportunities offered for built-in furniture before you buy another thing. If you have a built-in china closet in your dining-room, you can plan a graceful built-in console-table to serve as a buffet or serving-table, and you will require only a good table not too heavily built and a few chairs for this room. There is rarely a room that would not be improved by built-in shelves and inset mirrors.

Of course, I do not advise you to spend a lot of money on someone else’s property, but why not look the matter squarely in the face? This is to be your home. You will find a number of things that annoy you life in any city furnishes annoyances. But if you have one or two reasonably large rooms, plenty of light and air, and respectable surroundings, make up your mind that you will not move every year. That you will make a home of this place, and then go ahead and treat it as a home! If a certain recess in the wall suggests bookshelves, don’t grudge the few dollars necessary to have the bookshelves built in! You can probably have them built so that they can be removed, on that far day when this apartment is no longer your home, and if you have a dreadful wall paper don’t hide behind the silly plea that the landlord will not change it. Go without a new gown, if necessary, and pay for the paper yourself.

Few apartments have fireplaces, and if you are fortunate enough to find one with a real fireplace and a simple mantel shelf you will be far on the way toward making a home of your group of rooms. Of course your apartment is heated by steam, or hot air, or something, but an open fire of coal or wood will be very pleasant on chilly days, and more important still your home will have a point of departure the Hearth.

If the mantel shelf is surmounted by one of those dreadful monstrosities made up of gingerbread woodwork and distressing bits of mirrors, convince your landlord that it will not be injured in the removing, and store it during your residence here. Have the space above the mantel papered like the rest of the walls, and hang one good picture, or a good mirror, or some such thing above your mantel shelf, and you will have offered up your homage to the Spirit of the Hearth.

When you do begin to buy furniture, buy compactly, buy carefully. Remember that you will not require the furniture your mother had in a sixteen-room house. You will have no hall or piazza furnishings to buy, for instance, and therefore you many put a little more into your living-room things. The living-room is the nucleus of the modern apartment. Sometimes it is studio, living-room and dining-room in one. Sometimes living-room, library and guest-room, by the grace of a comfortable sleeping-couch and a certain amount of drawer or closet space. At any rate, it will be more surely a living-room than a similar room in a large house, and therefore everything in it should count for something. Do not admit an unnecessary rug, or chair, or picture, lest you lose the spaciousness, the dignity of the room. An over-stuffed chair will fill a room more obviously than a grand piano if the piano is properly, and the chair improperly placed.

In one of the illustrations of this chapter you will observe a small sitting-room in which there are dozens of things, and yet the effect is quiet and uncrowded. The secretary against the plain wall serves as a cabinet for the display of a small collection of fine old china, and the drawers serve the chance guest for while this is library and sitting-room, it has a most comfortable couch bed, and may be used as a guest-room as well.

The bookshelves are built high on each side of the mantel and between the windows, thus giving shelf room to a goodly collection of books, with no appearance of heaviness. The writing-table is placed at right angles to the windows, so that the light may fall on the writer’s left shoulder. There is a couch bed over three feet wide, in this room, with frame and mattress and pillows covered in a dark brocaded stuff, and a fireside chair, a small chair at the head of the couch and a low stool all covered with the same fabric. It really isn’t a large room, and yet it abundantly fills a dozen needs.

I think it unwise to try to work out a cut-and-dried color plan in a small apartment. If your floors and walls are neutral in tone you can introduce dozens of soft colors into your rooms.

Don’t buy massive furniture for your apartment! Remember that a few good chairs of willow will be less expensive and more decorative than the heavy, stuffy chairs usually chosen by inexperienced people. Indeed, I think one big arm chair, preferably of the wing variety, is the only big chair you will require in the living-room. A fireside chair is like a grandfather’s clock; it gives so much dignity to a room that it is worth a dozen inferior things. Suppose you have a wing chair covered with dull-toned corduroy, or linen, or chintz; a large willow chair with a basket pocket for magazines or your sewing things; a stool or so of wood, with rush or cane seats; and a straight chair or so perhaps a painted Windsor chair, or a rush-bottomed mahogany chair, or a low-back chair of brown oak depending on the main furniture of the room, of course. You won’t need anything more, unless you have space for a comfortable couch.

If you have mahogany things, you will require a little mahogany table at the head of the couch to hold a reading-lamp a sewing-table would be excellent. A pie-crust or turn top table for tea, or possibly a “nest” of three small mahogany tables. A writing table or book table built on very simple lines will be needed also. If you happen to have a conventional writing-desk, a gate-leg table would be charming for books and things.

The wing chair and willow chairs, and the hour-glass Chinese chairs, will go beautifully with mahogany things or with oak things. If most of your furniture is to be oak, be sure and select well-made pieces stained a soft brown and waxed. Oak furniture is delightful when it isn’t too heavy. A large gate-leg table of dark brown oak is one of the most beautiful tables in the world. With it you would need a bench of oak, with cane or rush seat; a small octagonal, or butterfly oak table for your couch end, and one or two Windsor chairs. Oak demands simple, wholesome surroundings, just as mahogany permits a certain feminine elegance. Oak furniture invites printed linens and books and brass and copper and pewter and gay china. While mahogany may be successfully used with such things, it may also be used with brocade and fragile china and carved chairs.

Use chintzes in your apartment, if you wish, but do not risk the light ones in living-rooms. A chintz or printed linen of some good design on a ground of mauve, blue, gray or black will decorate your apartment adequately, if you make straight side curtains of it, and cover one chair and possibly a stool with it. Don’t carry it too far. If your rooms are small, have your side curtains of coarse linen or raw silk in dull blue, orange, brown, or whatever color you choose as the key color of your room, and then select a dark chintz with your chosen color dominant in its design, and cover your one big chair with that.

The apartment hall is most difficult, usually long and narrow and uninteresting. Don’t try to have furniture in a hall of this kind. A small table near the front door, a good tile for umbrellas, etc., a good mirror that is all. Perhaps a place for coats and hats, but some halls are too narrow for a card table.

The apartment with a dining-room entirely separated from the living-room is very unusual, therefore I am hoping that you will apply all that I have said about the treatment of your living-room to your dining-room as well. People who live in apartments are very foolish if they cut off a room so little used as a dining-room and furnish it as if it belonged to a huge house. Why not make it a dining-and book-room, using the big table for reading, between meals, and having your bookshelves so built that they will be in harmony with your china shelves? Keep all your glass and silver and china in the kitchen, or butler’s pantry, and display only the excellent things the old china, the pewter tankard, the brass caddy, and so forth, in the dining-room.

However, if you have a real dining-room in your apartment, do try to have chairs that will be comfortable, for you can’t afford to have uncomfortable things in so small a space! Windsor chairs and rush bottom chairs are best of all for a simple dining-room, I think, though the revival of painted furniture has brought about a new interest in the old flare-back chairs, painted with dull, soft colored posies on a ground of dull green or gray or black. These chairs would be charming in a small cottage dining-room, but they might not “wear well” in a city apartment.

If your apartment has two small bedrooms, why not use one of them for two single beds, with a night stand between, and the other for a dressing-room? Apartment bedrooms are usually small, but charming furniture may be bought for small rooms. Single beds of mahogany with slender posts; beds of painted wood with inset panels of cane; white iron beds, wooden beds painted with quaint designs on a ground of some soft color all these are excellent for small rooms. It goes without saying that a small bedroom should have plain walls, papered or painted in some soft color. Flowered papers, no matter how delightful they may be, make a small room seem smaller. Self-toned striped papers and the “gingham” papers are sometimes very good. The nicest thing about such modest walls is that you can use gay chintz with them successfully.

Use your bedrooms as sleeping-and dressing-rooms, and nothing more. Do not keep your sewing things there a big sewing-basket will add to the homelike quality of your living-room. Keep the bedroom floor bare, except for a bedside rug, and possibly one or two other rugs. This, of course, does not apply to the large bedroom I am prescribing for the usual small one. Place your bed against the side wall, so that the morning light will not be directly in your eyes. A folding screen covered with chintz or linen will prove a God-send.

Perhaps you will have a guest-room, but I doubt it. Most women find it more satisfactory and less expensive to send their guests to a nearby hotel than to keep an extra room for a guest. The guest room is impractical in a small apartment, but you can arrange to take care of an over-night guest by planning your living-room wisely.

As for the kitchen that is another story. It is impossible to go into that subject. And anyway, you will find the essentials supplied for you by the landlord. You won’t need my advice when you need a broom or a coffee pot or a saucepan you’ll go buy it!