Edgar Allan Poe, Design Critic

A room furnished according to Poe’s “The Philosophy of Furniture” for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

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.

Like any good critic, Edgar Allan 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.

Continue reading on Smithsonian for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”

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From Pits and Pendulums to Pastoral Porches: Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx Getaway

The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.
The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.

Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet’s old forgotten home.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village – better known today as the Bronx.

The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year – no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold “The Raven,” his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic “Annabel Lee”

This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”.  What follows is the narrator’s depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions. Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:

The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.

The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room….

The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.

The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.

Despite the patoral setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.

Read the full article at Smithsonian

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The 64-Square Grid Design of ‘Through the Looking Glass’

 

alice chess
“For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country – and a most curious country it was. There were a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook. ‘I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!’ Alice said at last.” (original drawing by John Tenniel)

Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.

It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”

alice chess problem
You haven’t read Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.

This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:

As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.

So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.

Through the Looking Glass
“Here are the Red King and the Red Queen,” Alice said (in a whisper, for fear of frightening them), “and there are the White King and the White Queen sitting on the edge of the shovel—and here are two Castles walking arm in arm….” (original illustration by John Tenniel)

Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.'”

You haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.
You haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.

There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.

This article originally appeared on Design Decoded

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A Portrait of a House, excerpts from Absalom, Absalom!

[Robert W. Tebbs, photographic survey of a Louisiana Plantation (1926); via]

I’m currently reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! It’s a incredible book. A visceral portrait of a haunted, Civil War era American South. I haven’t finished it yet, so this post is pretty much spoiler-free, but I was so impressed with the depictions of the mansion around which most of the story’s central tragedies unfold that I couldn’t wait to post its description. Known as Sutpen’s Hundred, the 100 acre plantation is imbued with a personality and life that reflects the disposition of its builders and the futility of struggling against the destiny it inflicts upon its unfortunate occupants.
Continue reading “A Portrait of a House, excerpts from Absalom, Absalom!”

Michael Chabon’s Lost Tale of Architecture and The Perfect Baseball Park

Apparently, one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, had at one point intended to write a book about an architect (among other things)

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

He started working on his second novel. He had seen a picture of the original plans for the city of Washington, D.C., and he got an idea for a novel about an architect. Chabon later said, “It was a novel about utopian dreamers, ecological activists, an Israeli spy, a gargantuan Florida real estate deal, the education of an architect, the perfect baseball park, Paris, French cooking, and the crazy and ongoing dream of rebuilding the Great Temple in Jerusalem. It was about loss: lost paradises, lost cities, the loss of the Temple, the loss of a brother to AIDS, and the concomitant dream of Restoration or Rebuilding.

He called the novel Fountain City. He spent five years working on it and wrote 1,500 pages of manuscript. He felt he just couldn’t put the pieces together and then one night got an idea for a whole different story and decided to follow it. He wrote 15 pages in four hours. He kept working on it in secret for the next few weeks. He didn’t tell anybody. He said, “I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing or what the critics would think of it and, sweetest of all, I didn’t give a single thought to what I was trying to say. I just wrote.

He finished the book in seven months. The novel was Wonder Boys.

The perfect baseball park? A complete 1500 page manuscript? Will this potential anti-Fountainhead ever see the light of day? Ms. Rand’s text has already brainwashed too many impressionable young architecture students. It sounds like there are really a lot of great ideas in this story. Chabon deserves all the praise he has receieved and I would love for this book to get published some day.