Ever since Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool we have valued shiny reflective surfaces. While hand mirrors made of bronze, silver and even polished obsidian have been popular since antiquity, it was not until the invention of flat glass in the 14th century that larger mirrors came into play. In 1673 French mirror makers discovered how to cast larger pieces, and in 1836 a German chemist applied silver to mirror backs for the first time. Once the preserve of royalty and the very wealthy, mirrors became available to a wider audience. As the impact of interior design began to be understood, mirrors became an important part of the design repertoire.
In bedrooms and bathrooms, mirrors are a practical necessity, but in the public rooms of a house, they are used for definition and decoration rather than checking one’s reflection.
Ever since I met Diane, I have been aware of the impact of mirrors in our living environment. Over the past 20 years she has become one of the leading experts in the use of mirrors in interior design. Now that she has handed the day to day running of Diane Watts Mirrors to others, she is travelling around North America talking to designers about the value of mirrors in their work. We enjoy the travel. She enjoys the talking. The designers enjoy listening to someone as passionate about their subject as Diane.
Our own townhouse is a typical 15 feet wide, and a long way between the windows at the front and the windows at the back, but it seems much larger and brighter because of the strategic use of mirrors, all of Diane’s own design, each custom made in her Toronto atelier.
We have art on the walls too, but when trying to decide whether to hang a piece of art or a mirror, often a mirror is a better alternative. A beautiful frame and elegant decorative details can transform a mirror into a object of art. These are not mirrors you are going to find in the bargain bin at your local home decorating warehouse. These are luxury items that compare in price to fine art.
Luxury brands used to be about superior quality. They were about painstaking craftsmanship. They were about skills learned over years of experience. Today, many luxury brands have become little more than a logo on a baseball cap.
Dana Thomas says it well in her book Deluxe: How luxury lost its lustre. She writes: “In this day of devalued brands, logos everywhere and knock-offs, the real luxury items are now those custom, hand-made in true craftsmen-style pieces, which are available to the few.”
That describes Diane’s view exactly. She has kept her workshop in Toronto, while others have fled to offshore locations with cheap labour, because she understands the value of quality and the ability to deliver a bespoke product to market efficiently. She has steadfastly held to her core belief in fine work based on the output of a small group of craftspeople, where skilled woodworkers, gilders and glass cutters turn her exacting designs into art.
In an uncertain economy, customers have to be actively sold on the value and quality of luxury items. We are in a mall in Florida, a couple of years ago, in a high-end handbag shop. The salesman knew his stuff and how to sell. He took his time, asked whom the item was for and how they might use it and more. “We could all learn from a salesperson like this,” says Diane. I don’t contribute much to the discussion, as you would imagine, but we end up buying a perfect Coach bag for my eldest daughter.
Clearly mirrors reflect light and provide the illusion of space, as most home owners will readily understand, but placing mirrors to create visual balance is where interior designers come into their own. It’s is simply not enough to hang a mirror on a wall and hope it will act as a space amplifier. It has to be hung with thought and style.
As Diane illustrates so well in our own home, mirrors can help to mask the problems of smaller spaces by bringing additional light into a poorly lit room. Touring Hardwick Hall (see my blog of February 15, 2013) she points out polished brass reflectors behind the candles in wall sconces. Even in mediaeval times, they understood the value of reflective surfaces as light enhancers.
Mirrors can also be used as item multipliers. The simplest illustration of this principle is when the mirror is used with a single large reflection. This could be a vase of flowers directly in front of the mirror on a table or sideboard, or it could be a work of art across the room. In our house a triptych of large mirrors bring the garden into the living room with graceful effect. The scale of the mirror and the reflected objects need to be well considered. Clutter of course can be negatively multiplied in front of a mirror.
Diane’s mirrors are often big, some of them really big, and that’s why most are custom made to fit each customer’s home specifically. The advantage of a Toronto workshop is immediately obvious, when delivery times are compared with off-shore manufacturers.
Perhaps I’ve become too much of a missionary for mirrors, but I’m fascinated by the manufacturing process. I love the way the glass is cut and shaped for some of her more intricate designs. She explains that after the development of a technique for silvering mirror backs in the middle of the 17th century, the French invented plate glass, so called because the molten glass was spread across iron tables known as plates. This allowed for the creation of really large panes of glass. However, production was still tricky and expensive and required days of cooling and polishing. Fortunately sheet glass, a cheaper refinement, was developed in 1838 and glass for windows, and consequently mirrors, became available for all. Because large sheets of glass were not available before 1838, seams between smaller sheets of glass had to be used. In Diane’s reproductions this replicates a charming and authentic antique look, where seaming adds distinction and sophistication to the design.
She lays more history on me, describing a trumeau mirror. By the time Marie Antoinette came to the throne of France in 1774, interior decoration with mirrors had been popular for over a century. Trumeau originally referred to the space between two windows, and this space was hung with highly valued decorative tapestries or canvases framed by carved or gilded mouldings. Later, mirror glass was considered an equally precious commodity, deserving of placement in the trumeau. In the late 18th century, French mirror makers discovered the casting method for making plate glass, and France became the leading producer in Europe, outstripping both the Venetians and the English. The French used mirror glass as part of the architectural framework of a room, in contrast to the English who treated the mirror as an accessory to the furniture. The mirrored trumeaux gathered light from around the room during the day, and redoubled the light from the sconces and chandeliers by night.
Architects and decorators began placing mirrors in the boiserie, or panelling, over mantels to capture a view of the landscape outside, or lengthen the appearance of a room. The painting or carving in the surmount of the trumeau was viewed as part of the decoration of the room, rather than as a work of art in its own right. The French revolution brought a rejection of the taste associated with the three kings named Louis. Homes seized from the aristocracy were stripped of their paneling, and the trumeaux sold separately, so a true antique can be identified by evidence of unfinished edges where it was built into the paneling or wall.
In the 19th century, the trumeau came to be sold in much the same way as its English counterpart – the pier glass. An uninspiring period trumeau may nowadays not sell at as high a price as a skillfully made modern piece. A trumeau mirror is essentially a decorative piece, more valued for its appearance than its utility.
I’m not Narcissus, but I love looking at these splendid mirrors around our home, truly a reflection of Diane’s style and expertise.
PS: Please leave a comment if you found something useful or interesting in this story. Or please add your own experiences with interior design.