In 1897, when the great novelist Edith Wharton and her friend, architect Ogden Codman Jr., published The Decoration of Houses, the world hovered on the brink of new movements, technologies, and modes of production that would radically transform the built world. Wharton and Codman sought to make sense of both this ferment and the past—recent and distant—for the lay reader, purporting to set forth the rational relationship between structure and surface, architecture and ornament. Wharton proclaimed, “It is with the decorator’s work alone that these pages are concerned,” and in so doing, she established her book as the springboard from which any informed knowledge of interior decoration began.
The twentieth century saw a great many interior decorators who carried Wharton’s precepts forward through their own aesthetic lens: Elsie de Wolfe, Rose Cumming, Eleanor Brown, Frances Elkins, Dorothy Draper, Sister Parish, Albert Hadley, Joe D’Urso, Angelo Donghia, Ward Bennett, Michael Taylor, Billy Baldwin, and Mark Hampton, among others. Some of these designers wrote landmark books setting forth their own conception of interior design, such as Billy Baldwin Decorates, Mark Hampton on Decorating, and de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste.
By the late 1980s, interior design had hit its stride, bringing with it an outpouring of monographs, as the design of one’s own space had become a national, if not a global, obsession. Yet there have been few attempts to provide, in the manner of Wharton and Codman, a comprehensive account of what the industry’s finest practitioners believe works in interior design today, and why. While I would not attempt to draw a direct comparison to The Decoration of Houses, I have always envisioned Interior Design Master Class as a modern-day answer to Wharton and Codman’s accomplishment by applying their room-by-room and element-by-element organization of the subject of decoration to its contemporary creators. In the voices of more than one hundred preeminent American designers, this is a comprehensive guide to the elements of interiors, including planes, portals, furniture, and color, to name a very few, as well as a meditation on related subjects such as archaeology, psychology, and literature.
Today, the welcome democratization of decoration that has taken place since the advent of the internet continues to expand, and more people than ever are interested in the design of their home. Interior Design Master Class offers a view into the world of the finest practitioners in the decorative arts, uncovering the intellectual and philosophic roots of this most ancient and necessary of arts. My hope is that it will instruct and inspire a wide audience, from the curious layperson to students of design as well as practicing professionals.
We all inhabit dwellings of some kind; the more thoughtful the attention we exert upon them, the more our infrastructure—our whole built world—is beautified.