Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


These are the words of the Bourgeois, the fictive character in Le Corbusier’s seminal book, The Decorative Art of Today. Le Corbusier’s witty attack on curtains was common in the dominant rhetoric of modern architecture in which drapes and curtains were regarded as superficial, fleeting, and effeminate. In spite of this, curtains were never a legitimate discussion among modern architects. Conceivably this explains the lack of scholarship on the use of drapery and curtains in modern architecture. In this paper I will deal with domestic interiors; exploring the correlation that exists between the re-presentation and function of curtains in modern architecture: display, excess and luxury. I will not offer a history of curtains, but I will explore certain aspects of them and the ways in which they have been used in the domestic interiors of the early twentieth-century. How did they emerge? What roles do they play? How do we define “modern curtains”? Tracing the different roles drapes and curtains played in the domestic interiors of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century, I will show that curtains – as opposed to drapes – reappeared, yet in a different role, namely practical, anonymous, impermanent, and unobtrusive.

Curtain Wars The primary association of curtains with windows is comparatively recent. Before the seventeenth-century curtains were rarely present in domestic interiors. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries saw an abounding presence of curtains and draperies, which caused a persistent tension between architects and interior designers. This tension (what Joel Sanders called “Curtain Wars”) turned into clear attacks by the mid-nineteenth-century and continued in the early twentieth-century (Fig. 1). These attacks on curtains by A. Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris become apparent when one looks more closely at a group of writings by these architects. The most prominent British architect of the 19th century, Pugin, for example, wrote in 1841 on the real use of curtains accusing the upholsterers of his time:

All the modern plans of suspending enormous folds of stuff over poles, as if for the purpose of sale or of being dried, is quite contrary to the use and intentions of curtains, and abominable in taste; and the only object that these endless festoons and bunchy tassels can answer is to swell the bills and profits of the upholsterers, who are the inventors of these extravagant and ugly draperies, which are not only useless in protecting the chamber from cold, but are the depositories of thick layers of dust, and in London not infrequently become the strong-holds of vermin.