Several publications arose in response the burgeoning 19th-century middle class seeking advice on how to create beautiful and effective interiors in their homes. One in particular stands out as an early guidebook for emerging designers and their patrons. Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture, by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett, describes the home, how it can be improved and finally, both the costs and lasting impression of home decorative design.

English cousins Rhoda Garrett (1841 – 1882) and Agnes Garrett (1845 – 1935) opened ‘R & A Garrett’ the first design company run by women in Great Britain in mid-1875. Both recognized interior designers, the cousins apprenticed under London architect John McKean Brydon (1840-1901). Their apprenticeship was revolutionary at the time, since the study of architecture was not deemed appropriate for women. Noted suffragettes, Agnes and her sisters were members of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage, and Agnes served as part of the first executive committee.

Image features title page of book with art of home ribbon with a potted tree

Title Page of book, Art at home ribbon with a potted tree

Agnes and Rhoda co-wrote this short treatise on general decorative guidance as part of the “Art at home” series. Providing useful hints for good taste, they spoke of the consequence of a cluttered home, and stressed the importance of highlighting the harmony of furniture, drapery, and paint to embrace an authentic interior. They list three concrete rules to follow for the decoration and furnishing of the middle class home: seek the general effect of the home wished to be produced, trust the designer (but do not hire them if you do not), and do not impede their execution.

Interestingly, Rhoda and Agnes address the need for the decorator to appease the owner of the home, but also to stand their ground to maintain the spirit of their work. Critical of the trend toward mass-produced furniture, they promoted good quality and authenticity in decoration, color and style.  This book is as much for the professional decorator as it is for the home owner seeking personal decorative tips on enhancing the natural beauty and integrity of their interiors.


Nilda Lopez is the Library Technician at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.

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