Edgar Allan Poe Offers Interior Design Advice and Blasts American Aristocrats in “The Philosophy of Furniture” (1840)


Edgar Allan Poe isn’t read much as an essay­ist, which is too bad. His essays reveal a quick and iron­ic cast of mind where his dark poet­ry and sto­ries often mark him as a sin­gle-mind­ed hyper­sen­si­tive, “like a peony just past bloom.” Where Poe the poet can be lugubri­ous, Poe the essay­ist is brisk, inci­sive, and, well… kin­da cat­ty. Take the fol­low­ing apho­ris­tic wit­ti­cisms from his 1846 “A Few Words on Eti­quette”:

Nev­er use the term gen­teel — it is only to be found in the mouths of those who have it nowhere else.

Green spec­ta­cles are an abom­i­na­tion, fit­ted only for stu­dents of divin­i­ty.

Almost every defect of face may be con­cealed by a judi­cious use and arrange­ment of hair.

Are these casu­al bon mots or seri­ous pre­scrip­tions? Why not both? An edi­tor at the Edgar Allan Poe Soci­ety of Bal­ti­more notes that the eti­quette essay “bears much the same humor­ous tone and mix­ture of gen­uine and satir­i­cal com­men­tary as Poe’s essay ‘The Phi­los­o­phy of Fur­ni­ture’ from 6 years ear­li­er.” Indeed, in that ear­li­er crit­i­cal work on inte­ri­or design, Poe makes con­fi­dent judg­ments, leaps from point to point with delight­ful­ly spe­cif­ic exam­ples, and employs a mix of lev­i­ty and grav­i­ty.

Poe begins “The Phi­los­o­phy of Fur­ni­ture” with “a some­what Colerid­e­gy asser­tion” from Hegel then launch­es into a piti­less cri­tique of var­i­ous nation­al styles. His last point—“The Yan­kees alone are preposterous”—is the basis for what fol­lows, a dis­qui­si­tion on the sad state of Amer­i­can inte­ri­or design, brought about by “an aris­toc­ra­cy of dol­lars” in which “the dis­play of wealth” takes the place of her­aldry. His cri­tique recalls (and per­haps alludes to) Eng­lish poet Alexan­der Pope’s “Epis­tle to Burling­ton,” whose satir­i­cal tar­get makes such a taste­less mess of his vil­la that his neigh­bors cry out “What sums are thrown away!”

In Poe’s case, the offend­ing estate is “what is termed in the Unit­ed States, a well-fur­nished apart­ment.” He decries the inju­di­cious use of cur­tains, the poor dis­play of car­pets (“the soul of the apart­ment”), and the prob­lem “of gas and of glass.” Poe deli­cious­ly details the dec­o­rat­ing habits of a par­venu Amer­i­can aris­toc­ra­cy, whose defects are dis­cern­able by even the “ver­i­est bump­kin.” But he offers more than snark. “Like any good crit­ic,” writes The Smith­son­ian, “Poe doesn’t just con­demn, he offers solu­tions.” In the final, lengthy para­graph of “The Phi­los­o­phy of Fur­ni­ture,” Poe turns his tal­ent for vivid descrip­tion to a por­trait of his per­fect boudoir. Above, you can see a 1959 recre­ation of Poe’s “small and not, osten­ta­tious cham­ber with whose dec­o­ra­tions no fault can be found.” But this may be redun­dant. Poe fur­nish­es us with suf­fi­cient fine detail that we can bet­ter cre­ate his ide­al room in our  imag­i­na­tion. See the excerpts below, and read Poe’s com­plete essay here.

The pro­pri­etor lies asleep on a sofa — the weath­er is cool — the time is near mid­night: I will make a sketch of the room ere he awakes. It is oblong — some thir­ty feet in length and twen­ty-five in breadth — a shape afford­ing the best (ordi­nary) oppor­tu­ni­ties for the adjust­ment of fur­ni­ture. It has but one door — by no means a wide one — which is at one end of the par­al­lel­o­gram, and but two win­dows, which are at the oth­er. These lat­ter are large, reach­ing down to the floor — have deep recess­es — and open on an Ital­ian veran­da. 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 car­pet — of Sax­ony mate­r­i­al — is quite half an inch thick, and is of the same crim­son ground, relieved sim­ply by the appear­ance of a gold cord (like that fes­toon­ing the cur­tains) slight­ly relieved above the sur­face of the ground, and thrown upon it in such a man­ner as to form a suc­ces­sion of short irreg­u­lar curves — one occa­sion­al­ly over­lay­ing the oth­er. 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 […]

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.

Again, the Edgar Allan Poe Soci­ety edi­tor help­ful­ly notes that “Poe, in this arti­cle, has adopt­ed an inten­tion­al­ly humor­ous tone.” Should we take this seri­ous­ly or treat is as Poe-ean satire? Why not both?

Works by Poe can be found in our col­lec­tions of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

via Smithsonian.com

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Edgar Allan Poe Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Read by Christo­pher Walken, Vin­cent Price, and Christo­pher Lee

Edgar Allan Poe & The Ani­mat­ed Tell-Tale Heart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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