Devoted Jot101 followers will perhaps recall a previous jot of about a year ago which featured some unusual photographs of three ‘ women home decorators’ going about their work inside a what appeared to be a Georgian town house. The snaps, which appear to date from the late twenties or very early thirties, were attached to a short handwritten article composed by a women of feminist sympathies outlining the rewards and pitfalls of self-employment for a woman intent upon a career as a decorator. It is not known whether the article was ever published—possibly not, as the manuscript was recovered from an archive of various material. Anyway, here is the article in full.
Home Decoration as a Career.
‘House Decorations is a most enthralling & interesting business, but let no-one imagine it is not a very serious undertaking.
Its aims are artistic, its ideas are artistic, but in the carrying out of these ideas stern business ability is required and no-one need undertake it who does not realise this.
Plain Business means incessant work, physical and mental control, knowledge of men & things, and insight into the character of others.
Artistic Business means besides this, education & travel combined with natural artistic tastes.Therefore before house decoration is taken up as a serious business it is as well to consider whether one has artistic instinct, adequate knowledge, good health, insight into character and sufficient capital. It has been necessary to say all this which may seem serious because so often people come & say “I hear you have a shop. What fun to keep a shop!”
It is not fun to have a heavy rent to pay which is dependent upon your own exertions. It is not fun to have shareholders imagining they are going to lose their money. It is not fun to have perhaps £100 a week in wages with no money in the bank until the customers have paid. It is not fun to have clients who don’t know what they want and are horrified at new ideas. It’s not fun to have your workmen staying away drunk just when there is pressing work in hand. It is not fun to get up & be at your work every day at 10 o’clock whether you are well or ill, whether it is wet or fine, and to work until the work is done without rest or amusement; and yet although it is not fun it is the greatest and most interesting undertaking in the world. If you are whole hearted you can’t be dull for a moment & if you have a sense of humour you can’t help laughing at things which would otherwise be heartbreaking.
Before starting be sure that you have at least three years rent & taxes in hand besides what would be considered a sufficient sum to stock the business in a way suitable to the locality in which it is situated and also something for everyday expenses.
Whatever assistants you go without to start with, never imagine that you can do without a qualified secretary or book keeper. It is fatal to start wrong with the accounts. Have a proper balance sheet drawn up by an accountant yearly. Arrange to take out the smallest possible living wage for yourself to start with, remembering that a business will show a satisfactory profit for three years and realising that it is foolish to drain a young business.
So many women don’t realise this and just take the money and spend it as it comes in without remembering that all expenses must be paid before anything else goes out.
But given the education & knowledge required, “Courage & good manners will carry you through “.
The knowledge required in this business is varied.
It is necessary to have a knowledge of the styles of furniture, of styles of decoration; to have seen the best at home and in other countries; to know about materials and the correct ones to use with certain periods and it is a great help to be able to draw interiors and perspective as well as to have some knowledge of drawing to scale & also of making working drawings. Some architectural knowledge will be found useful to enable you to hold your own with architects with whom you are bound to come in contact. It must be remembered that the decorator has to be in touch with electricians, cabinet makers, metal workers etc and be able to talk to them intelligently about their own work.
Imagine the difficulties of the woman who has to do all this with no real knowledge of anything at all, which is the case of most women of the so called educated classes.
Next the knowledge of men and things comes in. Assistants and customers must be deftly handled. With regard to assistants, they must be treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Choose those with character & some knowledge and give them their heads as much as possible. Make them responsible. Let them know the ins & outs, the difficulties of the business—in fact make them your friends. There would be no labour disputes if this were done more often. The working man and woman will work late & early for anyone who treats them well and fairly and when he knows he is being used as a reasonable human being and not as a hand.
If, by chance, a bad choice has been made, dismiss that assistant at once. Never put up for one moment with an unsympathetic or hostile assistant, however clever. It is ruination to a business. Keep the spirit of the business lofty & clean.
The treatment of customers is perhaps hardly worth mentioning, but politeness without servility is the most necessary qualification. Good manners are absolutely essential to success and it is also necessary to make people feel that they personally are of interest and their work the most important thing to you at the moment. As a matter of fact, it really is if you are going to be successful. In case of dispute absolute calm is imperative. Never show heat or irritation. Wait, things will smooth themselves. If an irritated client calls you “an insolent woman” just smile & say nothing. Acknowledge any mistake and stick to the truth—it is the best policy. Don’t pretend to know everything, for it is very easy not to know in a decorating business when at any time someone may come in & ask for a room to be done in the style of Henri Quatre ; and the intelligent customer doesn’t believe that anyone knows everything about every style and every period that he may ask about.
Never press people to buy what they don’t want; they won’t come again.
Never make a breach if it can’t be helped and
Never leave a thing badly done ; it is wiser to lose money over the alterations than to get a reputation for bad work. The thing that is badly done will never be forgotten, while all the good work will never be mentioned again.
In case these notes may be considered too severe, I want to make one or two hopeful remarks before closing. Somebody the other day used to me words to this effect:
The joy of the house decorator is the joy of the creator. He often creates beauty out of nothing, just by means of a skilful arrangement of a lamp or a chair, or by the introduction of a colour, of shining silver or of delicate china.
He rouses wonder as to why certain touches happen to be precisely in the right places. He rouses the love of place, so that nothing is wanted but the place.
He also creates a setting for beautiful people & rustling brocades & clicking heels; he lights a little hall by a single lamp which glimmers redly against a background of old oak panelling; he is in fact an artist.
See what comfortable words I have quoted from memory at the end and the hope of making all the hard things I have said in these notes seem as nothing against the joys of creation & artistic success.’
With such excellent advice to guide them it would be difficult to imagine any prospective female ( or even male ) decorator failing in their career. If any Jotwatcher can identify who may have provided these wise words we at Jot101 would love to hear from them. And the same goes for the aesthete who is cited by the writer at the end of the piece. [R.M.Healey]