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Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Would Edith Wharton Say?

Dearest Edith,

I am writing to inform you that formal living rooms are no longer in fashion. Well, at least in the 21st century. Well, at least at my house. And, perhaps a few million other people.

A formal living room that Edith would certainly have enjoyed.

Please don't faint when I tell you that the living room, formally known as the parlour, has far too often become a large box devoid of all architectural detail,  fireplaces and appropriate furnishings. Well at least (no fireplace) at my house. And, perhaps a few million other people.

I have read your book, like any decorator should, cover to cover.

It's incredibly sad. And incredibly liberating! You would be quite shocked to learn that people rarely dress up and entertain in the living room except perhaps during the holiday season. I must confess I often wear pants or jeans, a silk blouse and heels while entertaining. I know you don't know what jeans are and that's just as well. If you did, you would likely gasp. Pants are like men's trousers, but for women. With the exception of hiring the occasional caterer, I do all the cooking for parties. I have no servants. People often gather in the family room (which should really be called the living room because it's where we do most of our activities), libraries and kitchens. Probably because of the lack of servants. Well at least at my house. And, perhaps a few million other people.

Classic yet modern in it's multi-purpose function of working, dining and whining. I love the idea for this space, but I would whine without at least two comfortable chairs next to a fireplace to enjoy my favorite bottle and a good book!

Even though I have a library, it has been my dream for far too long to convert our seldom used living room into a large library/office. The current library is small does not have adequate bookshelves, but it is a wonderfully cozy room with a fireplace and a large window overlooking the backyard and we use it in every season,  every day. It's probably my favorite room. I love to shut the french doors read, listen to music, enjoy my favorite elixirs and even work. A larger library would better suit our particular lifestyle. I don't know if we'll have the chance to fulfill our dream of converting the living room in this house, but it's high on the list for the next one! I think you (and hope architects of the future) understand this preference and shift and would be proud that we (decorators) will strive to include appropriate architectural details and volumes of books.  And of course only a few, well chosen biblots and most definitely keep the bric-a-brac to a minimum!

A devoted reader

PS: I do understand that not everyone would agree with me on this point. And I have seen and been a guest in some beautiful, well appointed living rooms that the occupants use for formal entertaining. And although it's not for me, as I prefer a room that serves more than one function, I still appreciate the beauty when I sit in one that is well done and love to help clients create one if it's part of their design dream and lifestyle. After all, life unfolds in the rooms we use and love the most. It's where our memories are made and the details of our stories are gathered for future generations. I know dearest Edith, you would approve of that sentiment.


  1. Interesting point...I don't totally agree but i don't disagree either :) I think living rooms have changed a lot, many are multi functional use spaces..but I also know many including my own is just a living room but sadly does not see as much use as it should given how much we put into making it pretty!! I do think the super duper formal rooms have become less common, people seem to be opting for more casual looks, not the fussy window treatments but simple panels, etc.....I dont' think they are gone as much as I think they have evolved, good or bad, times are a changing!

    Hope you are well...enjoy your day!

    1. TEH,
      Agree and it is amazing just by eliminating fussy window coverings a room feels more modern and certainly less stuffy. I think if you have a formal living room by choice, you must force yourself to use often- even if that means just one little cozy corner of it!

  2. Hmm - I get what you're saying and agree with it all but remember Wharton was ground breaking in her day! She was trying to get rid of the formality, clutter, and dark-ness of the Victorians! I think she's be totally modern today and who knows what she could teach us now!

    1. Stephen,
      Yes she was indeed a pioneer and I too think she would be relevant today. Which is to my point- that she believed houses should be built for the individual and their needs. If anything, I think she would be surprised (excluding custom homes or where an architect has brought in to modify an existing one) that home design and layout over the last several decades has not seen a significant change. And, I definately think she would be saddened by the lack of archtitectural detail in the average home.

  3. If you haven't read The Custom of the Country by Wharton, it is an eye opener and tells us what she really thinks of the formality and upper class of her era. For my lifestyle now, living spaces should be comfortable full of warmth and multifunctional. That said I do love to see elegant homes that have formal rooms even though it makes me sad that often they are only once or twice each year!

    The Arts by Karena

    1. Karena,
      I have not, but I think The House Of Mirth certainly gives us more than a glimpse of her thoughts on both subjects. I do think any room that is not used is sad.

  4. I agree with Stefan that Edith would be a pioneer of her times—whatever time that was. Always loved how houses in her books helped to define the characters in her books. She might be initially be miffed about the lack of ornamentation, but I suspect she would see how that has evolved, sigh and move on. Since Wharton used to write in bed, I think she might have sympathy for using rooms as we need to use them.

    Love the picture of the library-dining room above. I am in the process of making my dining room (with fireplace) into a library with a dining table... and the walls are black. Lovely way to put the books in the focus in the day time and dreamy shadows at night.

  5. Here at The Mount we still revel in the architectural purity of the rooms she designed while adding some modern elements to reflect the woman she was: brave, innovative, entertaining. She collected modern art, wrote in bed, preferred a picnic with three friends to a grand dinner party. We think she would bring her classic eye and love of symmetry to a modern living room, but still enjoy the informality of a more comfortable space, a cozy fireplace, and a little dog at her feet.

  6. We decided to build our living room in the center of the house. Because we have three children who play the piano, and hours of piano practice a day, the living room is really more of a music room. In fact, after 2+ years in our 'new' house, the only things in the living room are the grand piano, and a beautiful rug custom created for the room. During the winter, I place an old wing chair in front of the fireplace, as I love to sit by the fire (with gas logs). We will finish the decor in 2015, which means we will get living room furniture - but I will actually miss having the open space, the salon of sorts, as it is wonderful when we entertain - we set up the bar in the living room and it becomes a receiving room of sorts.

    Because the living room is at the center of the house, and because it is also a passageway, we are in it and use it every day. However, most people I know never use their living rooms, as you describe in your post!

    - Holly


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