Edgar Allan Poe, Interior Design Critic | Design | Smithsonian
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A room furnished according to Poe's "The Philosophy of Furniture" for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum)

Edgar Allan Poe, Interior Design Critic

What scared the author of 'The Pit and the Pendulum'? Bad design.

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In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Landor’s Cottage,” the author paints an idealized picture of his own New York Cottage. He describes the building in painstaking--some might even say excruciating--detail, but Poe also devotes a short paragraph to cottage’s furnishings:

“On the floor was an ingrain carpet, of excellent texture - a white ground, spotted with small circular green figures. At the windows were curtains of snowy white jaconet muslin: they were tolerably full, and hung decisively, perhaps rather formally, in sharp, parallel plaits to the floor - just to the floor. The walls were papered with a French paper of great delicacy - a silver ground, with a faint green cord running zig-zag throughout. Its expanse was relieved merely by three of Julien’s exquisite lithographs….One of these drawings was a scene of Oriental luxury, or rather voluptuousness; another was a ‘carnival piece,’ spirited beyond compare; the third was a Greek female head - a face so divinely beautiful, and yet of an expression so provokingly indeterminate, never before arrested my attention.”

This description doesn’t exactly match with the spartan furnishings that currently fill Poe’s cottage, nor is it likely that it corresponds with its decoration during Poe’s residency. However, it does line up exactly with Poe’s personal tastes and his very strong opinions on interior design, which he described in his authoritative, humorous, and confidently written piece of design criticism “The Philosophy of Furniture,” originally published in the May 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine

In Poe’s view, the interior of the English apartment is the pinnacle of good taste. Everything else is hardly tolerable. With great wit, Poe decries the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italians, who “have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours and Dutch, who in Poe’s opinion, “ have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage.” But no culture has worse taste than Americans. Poe believes that because there’s no aristocracy to imitate or aspire to, Americans created an “aristocracy of dollars” resulting in a display of wealth in lieu of a display of taste.

A room furnished according to Poe's "The Philosophy of Furniture" for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum

Like any good critic, Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions. He describes his ideal room, a place where every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space. And it all begins with the carpet. Carpet selection is of paramount importance. It is the soul of the room, for its color, thickness, and design influence everything else - “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” says Poe, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” But an ideal room is more than just carpet of course. It must be shaped to afford “the best (ordinary opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” Poe prefers “massive” floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a veranda. What follows is a slightly abbreviated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”:

Their panes are of a crimson-tinted glass, set in rose-wood framings, more massive than usual. They are curtained within the recess, by a thick silver tissue adapted to the shape of the window, and hanging loosely in small volumes. Without the recess are curtains of an exceedingly rich crimson silk, fringed with a deep network of gold, and lined with silver tissue, which is the material of the exterior blind. There are no cornices; but the folds of the whole fabric (which are sharp rather than massive, and have an airy appearance), issue from beneath a broad entablature of rich gilt-work, which encircles the room at the junction of the ceiling and walls. The drapery is thrown open also, or closed, by means of a thick rope of gold loosely enveloping it, and resolving itself readily into a knot; no pins or other such devices are apparent. The colours of the curtains and their fringe — the tints of crimson and gold — appear everywhere in profusion, and determine the character of the room. The carpet — of Saxony material — is quite half an inch thick, and is of the same crimson ground….The walls are prepared with a glossy paper of a silver gray tint, spotted with small Arabesque devices of a fainter hue of the prevalent crimson.

Many paintings relieve the expanse of paper. These are chiefly landscapes of an imaginative cast — such as the fairy grottoes of Stanfield, or the lake of the Dismal Swamp of Chapman. There are, nevertheless, three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty — portraits in the manner of Sully. The tone of each picture is warm, but dark. There are no “brilliant effects.” Repose speaks in all. Not one is of small size. Diminutive paintings give that spotty look to a room, which is the blemish of so many a fine work of Art overtouched. The frames are broad but not deep, and richly carved, without being dulled or filagreed. They have the whole lustre of burnished gold. They lie flat on the walls, and do not hang off with cords. The designs themselves are often seen to better advantage in this latter position, but the general appearance of the chamber is injured. But one mirror — and this not a very large one — is visible. In shape it is nearly circular — and it is hung so that a reflection of the person can be obtained from it in none of the ordinary sitting-places of the room.

Two large low sofas of rosewood and crimson silk, gold-flowered, form the only seats, with the exception of two light conversation chairs, also of rose-wood. There is a pianoforte (rose-wood, also), without cover, and thrown open. An octagonal table, formed altogether of the richest gold-threaded marble, is placed near one of the sofas. This is also without cover — the drapery of the curtains has been thought sufficient.. Four large and gorgeous Sevres vases, in which bloom a profusion of sweet and vivid flowers, occupy the slightly rounded angles of the room. A tall candelabrum, bearing a small antique lamp with highly perfumed oil, is standing near the head of my sleeping friend. Some light and graceful hanging shelves, with golden edges and crimson silk cords with gold tassels, sustain two or three hundred magnificently bound books. Beyond these things, there is no furniture, if we except an Argand lamp, with a plain crimson-tinted ground glass shade, which depends from the lofty vaulted ceiling by a single slender gold chain, and throws a tranquil but magical radiance over all.

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