Q: I want to expand my knowledge of historic American furnishings and interiors, but I have absolutely no interest in going back to school. How can I learn more about these subjects while also picking up practical tips that could be useful in my own home?
A: The first stop should be the local public or university library. Most of these facilities have a section on the decorative arts or interior design.
Check to see whether the library has a copy of "A Documentary fTC History of American Interiors," by Edgar N. Mayhew and Minor Myers, Jr. (Scribners). This is one of my favorite source books. It pays a good deal of attention to the Colonial period. But what I most value about this work is its fine survey of the decades following the Civil War, when wonderfully eclectic interiors were in fashion.
Many metropolitan areas also have at least one major museum that houses a good collection of American furniture. In smaller communities, there's often a historic mansion that has been lovingly restored by local groups. Such settings are usually furnished with original period pieces. A visit to these institutions may well yield insights and inspiration that can be applied in one's own home.
Williamsburg, Va. -- a fully restored community -- and the Winterthur Museum are two examples that come to mind. I especially recommend a trip to Winterthur, Del. The museum there has acquired more than 60,000 antiques, many of them from the golden age of American decorative design (1740-1850). Several items from the Winterthur collection -- such as furniture, clocks, textiles and porcelains -- have been reproduced for sale to the public.
The photo shows a formal setting in the Winterthur Museum that exemplifies the look of the traditional American interior. It's worth noting, however, that combinations like printed cotton chintz and satin fabrics were actually derived from English interiors, as were most of the furnishings.
Bits and pieces of Chinese export are also visible, along with items influenced by the Dutch and French decorative arts.
That knowledge may be reassuring to those who are afraid to deviate, even slightly, from a period look. Our predecessors were not in the least reluctant to borrow from various sources and to do a bit of experimenting of their own. Like them, we should be striving to create living environments that are expressive of individual tastes and contemporary attitudes.
Finally, I do want to encourage you to investigate a more formal course of study.
At least look through the continuing education catalogs of your local college or university. I suspect you may come across a class in the decorative arts that you'll find intriguing, despite your avowed intention of not returning to school.