In 1897 when the iconic book The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. was published, one critic bemoaned its focus on beauty as a guiding principle. Thankfully many others embraced this approach and understood that the book’s thesis, if you will, had to do with restraint (at a time when that was not in vogue) and as Wharton put it, “the supreme excellence in simplicity.”
Designer Beth Webb is of this school. And her recently published book An Eye for Beauty: Rooms that Speak to the Senses offers us a modern take on Wharton’s theory. Ms. Webb, formally trained in the arts and antiques, grew up in the South before moving to New York and establishing herself as an interior designer. Her rooms are spare and elegant; they are classic with a modern note and a softening of the edges. Beauty, for Webb, has to do with how well a space responds to our senses. And I found this approach to be quite refreshing, especially in the way that Ms. Webb gets us to think about it.
Here are 5 things that An Eye for Beauty: Rooms that Speak to the Senses inspired me to think about:
- Pay attention to detail: Because Webb’s rooms have a minimalist look, adding details—lime washed walls, velvet upholstery, decorative trim, a piece of driftwood, a simple bouquet, a small painting, the perfect light fixture—create interest and subtle texture that take each space to another level in a nuanced way.
- Consider the vistas that make up your home: Houses have a flow that we feel with our feet and see with our eyes as we go from room to room. Beth Webb encourages us to take note of the views from windows and doorways, and thoughtfully consider how they interact with our sense of a place.
- Remember that homes have sounds: Old houses have creaking floors and rickety doors, and all houses have the sound of the landscape—city, country, seaside, and so on. (This notion was one that I had never really thought about but how true it is. Our house sounds like acorns falling and branches blowing and steps moaning in certain spots.)
- Embrace an era that you love: For Webb the era is the 1920s, which she loves for its architectural details, its “breathtaking refinement and restraint.” And I love this era too, but what I think matters is finding an era that speaks to you and making use of it in the way you approach styling and decorating.
- Don’t overlook the power of our sense of smell: We think of flowers and perfumes and candles as ways to add scent to our homes, and they certainly do. But Webb reminds us also of the way books and fires burning in every room and just polished wood smell. Scent is very much a part of the present and also the past—scents conjure up memories—and that, for many, is what home is all about.
The book itself is beautiful. Organized around the five senses and highlighting specific projects—we are taken into rooms where the narrative unfolds quietly. They are soft, light, textured, and tailored. Webb writes about her own mother knowing and teaching about beauty but living in a dark home. As a result, she craves natural light, muted tones, a sense of order and calm. And all of the rooms featured have a sense of this, and of restraint and serenity.
As I was enjoying Webb’s book, Wharton came to mind again when she says: “If art is really a factor in civilization, it seems obvious that the feeling for beauty needs as careful cultivation as the other civic virtues.”
Have a beautiful Sunday.
* All images from An Eye for Beauty: Rooms that Speak to the Senses