By Design

An Edith Wharton classic still relevant for this modern moment

by Patricia Cove
Posted 3/9/23

"The Decoration of Houses” continues to be an exact and authentic classic, and is arguably the most important book of its kind.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
By Design

An Edith Wharton classic still relevant for this modern moment


“Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by superficial application of ornaments totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features, which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”

This is the first line of the Introduction to “The Decoration of Houses” by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr.  Although the title of this book may give the impression that it is just another decorating book, it continues to be an exact and authentic classic, and is arguably the most important book of its kind ever published.

I acquired a revised and expanded edition of the book several years ago. It was originally written in 1897, and is still often cited for its relevance when it comes to architectural features within a building, especially those of a certain age. 

When interior architects and designers are faced with critical decisions about interior architectural features, it is often pointed out that the standards for interior architectural features are much less critical than those for the exterior. But in “The Decoration of Houses,” and through explicit historical detail, the book identifies and describes a series of significant interior features that are not only integral to the architecture of the building itself, but could be considered significant works of art on their own.

Its detailed chapters focus on such individual features as fireplaces, ceilings, floors, halls and stairs, and trims, and are of greatest value to professionals as well as any individual passionate about interior architectural elements. It may be considered a carefully reasoned tome that relays fascinating historical information about the layouts and composition of building interiors.

The chapter on “Halls and Stairs” for example, explains that prior to the 1700s, due to the value of space, stairways were “carried up spirally” and that it was not until the Italians began to feel that more attention was needed toward comfort and dignity that staircases received the much more prominent locations that we are familiar with today. Palladian style architecture placed the entire staircase within an imposing entrance hall.

A chapter entitled “Rooms in General” goes into much detail about the specific placement of architectural features. The fireplace, for example, should become the focus of every arrangement, and should never be placed between two doors, as it would then be impossible to sit comfortably around the hearth. The chapter also expounds upon the importance of window and door placement, and how their locations can create the most comfortable space.

There are, of course, many references to the relevance of decorative furnishings.  There is an image of a tapestry covered sofa, with its specific length designed to accommodate a lady’s “pannier,” the excessively wide undergarment that extended from a women’s dress. A photograph of a pair of ornate bronze locks, suitable for a cabinet or passage door, accompanies a detailed description of various door designs.

“The Decoration of Houses” might easily be considered a reference book of sorts. Its explicit examples of building details and the social and political influences of the time make it much more than a text. 

Although the descriptions of interior features are certainly based on historical references, the information within resonates today as an elegantly stated argument about the function, quality, and simplicity that is derived from the tradition of classic design - and especially how the architectural features of the interior provide as much historical impact as those of the exterior.

Patricia Cove is the Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website: