Monday, October 5, 2009

screen story - la suite

Screens have divided and conquered Eastern and Western living spaces through the ages. With their distant origins in China dating to the 300B.C., their use became more widespread in the 7th century China. First heavy, lacquered, relatively stationary objects, they became truly mobile when made of beautiful papers and cloths later in 8th century Japan. Their easy transport made them ideal for tea ceremonies or as backdrops for religious ceremonies, dance and theatrical productions. The wild enthusiasm for all Oriental articles of luxury and refinement of the late 17th early 18th century naturally included not only porcelains, lacquer furniture and silks, but also screens. It seems to me their introduction into Western living spaces altered our relation to those spaces.
( European illustration for a fan, 1700,Victoria & Albert Museum)

This very simple screen made from a frame with dark green fabric nailed through a ribbon on to it seems to show that the utility of screens had been known for some time already; a screen wasn't only a highly ornamental piece from the Orient. Homemade would do. (Gérhard ter Borch 1665)

Mme de Rambouillet (1588-1665) is thought to have first brought screens into fashion in France. Their introduction into living quarters coincides with the start of a new desire for privacy in a world where personal isolation was yet unheard of. Interiors were teaming with humanity. Aristocratic circles were surrounded by servants and constant social movement and in simpler home settings, one room served for everything and everybody; living was a collective venture. Folding screens could designate a more intimate space. Behind the protection of its shielding presence, one could listen and dream unseen. (Francois Boucher 1743)

Vast rooms would begin to be marked off with areas for particular domestic functions. The notion of comfort had started to make headway. Daybeds and low slung fauteuils encouraged a different kind of posture and less self-conscious behavior. One could set off precious chosen company as jewels in front of its richly decorated folds, the better to appreciate glittering banter or stylish readings. Luxury had met with a new sense of douceur de vivre, stiff etiquette could be relaxed here.

(Jean Francois de Troy 1679-1752)

With the progression of the home to a personal sanctuary, privacy became more and more natural to the point of being taken for granted. The 19th and 20th centuries saw homes become increasingly the expression of their owner's personalities and this as a prerogative for many.

The use of screens on the stage has long been known as a simple way to change scenery. To those who approach life as an art form, screens seem an especially fitting accessory for the home. You have only to provide the theatrics before the backdrop of your choice. Here's quite an example to follow with Dame Edith Sitwell in this famous photograph by Cecil Beaton.

Anna de Noailles, poetess with a flair for exotic costume. Many photographs show her with this screen positioned behind her daybed or her bed.

It's so much more effective to strike a pose against the vibrant color of a Chinese screen - a method tried and true for us in Western interiors for 400 years. Women's magazines throughout the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were filled with projects for homemade screens using postage stamps, wallpaper, or prints - just as today we may see similar projects using stencils, photographs or storage pockets.

André Arbus proves the utility of screens even in a very streamlined setting. There are no paintings on the walls but a screen of the same cream tones as the walls sets the accent on the sofa, giving it importance and a level of comfort that it would lack without it.

Click for more information on screens


  1. Superb post and beautifully illustrated. I have just acquired some 1940s wallpaper - a mural, in fact - and had thought of making a screen out of the panels but they will hang on the wall under glass as art.

  2. Decisions, decisions...Hanging them will probably preserve them better, but my new obsession has me thinking that each well-loved home needs a screen!

  3. This is so wonderful. What more?
    I love(need I say) all the historic design images-I may be able to add to your list- We shall see.GT

  4. Goody -can't wait to see. Maybe I'll have enough for a book.

  5. Wow! This post was most interesting!

    Good point: each well-loved home does need a screen.