Co.Design

Edgar Allan Poe: Great Writer, Lousy Interior Designer

The only thing scarier than Poe's stories are his design theories.

"The true genius shudders at incompleteness—imperfection—and usually prefers silence to saying the something which is not everything that should be said."

That's the sort of sentiment you could almost imagine coming out of the mouth of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, but it's actually a quote from Edgar Allan Poe, who in addition to being one of the greatest poets and storytellers of the 19th century, dabbled in interior design theory on the side. But while they agreed on some things, Gropius and Edgar Allan Poe would have likely come to blows about others.

An article over at the Smithsonian Magazine highlights some of Poe's more interesting theories on interior design, as written in his essay "The Philosophy of Furniture," originally published in May 1840.

Decrying the homes of Americans as representing a tasteless "aristocracy of dollars" and the Dutch as a people "with a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage," Poe believed that an ideal room was one in which "every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space." He believed that the ideal room should let as much light in as possible thanks to "massive" floor-to-ceiling windows. Even in the 21st century, these design principles seem decidedly modern: ponderous verbiage aside, you might easily read them as design tips in the latest issue of Dwell.

But he also thought that the choice of carpeting was the "soul of the room," as its color, thickness, and design would influence everything else, from the room's appearance to its sound and stillness. “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” Poe says, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” Poe felt that, as a genius himself, he was up to the task. But here is where his tastes and that of the founder of the Bauhaus school begin to diverge.

Not only does Poe believe that the carpet of the ideal room must be crimson, but so should the glass in the windows and the drapes covering them. In fact, Poe's ideal furnishings were almost entirely crimson and gold, from the upholstery to the gilt-work encircling the walls. Even the centerpiece of his ideal room, an octagonal table, could only be "formed altogether of the richest gold-threaded marble." So much for eschewing the aristocracy of dollars.

Poe also had, er, intriguing ideas about the sort of paintings you should hang in a room. The frames must be extremely broad, richly carved similarly massive, being finished with the "lustre of burnished gold." The paintings themselves should be as big as possible, since "diminutive paintings give that spotty look to a room, which is the blemish of so many fine work of Art overtouched."

As for the paintings' subjects, Poe insisted only that they be "warm, but dark" with "no brilliant effects." Fairy grottoes, dismal swamps, and at least "three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty" were acceptable hangings, in Poe's mind.

There's much more, but in short, despite a stated taste for minimalist design, Edgar Allan Poe thought that a home should be furnished in roughly the same style that Tim Burton and the Vampire Lestat would agree upon if they decided to be roommates. That's probably exactly what you'd expect from the author of The Conqueror Worm, but over a hundred years later, it's hard not to imagine Walter Gropius reading Poe's essay, feverish in his Breuer lounge chair and clutching at his heart. "Nevermore!" he might have gasped. "Nevermore!"

Read more of Edgar Allan Poe's ideas about interior design here.

[Image: Edgar Allan Poe, 1898 via Wikipedia]

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