Home: A Short History of an Idea
Designs for Interiors: Catalog to the Exhibition
“Let Nellie Melba sing that home-sweet anthem over our great land again—we are safe from the depredations of art,” writes William Gass on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, dissenting from the implications of Witold Rybczynski’s amusing book Home. Rybczynski has two aims, first to trace the history of our ideas of comfort (and the corollary notions of domesticity, coziness, intimacy) from their beginnings in hovels and chill medieval halls where people were indifferent to them, or knew no better, and lived in the presence of dozens of other people, slept many to a bed, and staved off drafts with portable hangings. Rybczynski has discovered many absorbing facts about our domestic evolution, and shows what a lot of human thought has gone into the modern chair, or attitudes about fresh air, or a room of our own.
His second aim is to rebuke modern architecture—modernism, which we might have thought was a dead horse anyway—for having ignored these highly evolved human desires for coziness and comfort, now that we have them, by tyrannically putting people in white boxes and saying, to add insult to injury, that they ought to like white boxes for political and moral reasons to do with progressive thought and art. William Gass takes the modernist view, and it is Gass who articulates the issues more clearly, for Rybczynski is better at anecdote than theory or documentation.
Most of us will probably come down on the side of Rybczynski and coziness, but there is more to be said than he says, and he is given to wildness (“Jane Austen single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing,” “the first original English contribution to European culture—the Romantic Movement,” “privacy…the Dutch interior, the Rococo salon, the servantless household—all were the result of women’s invention”) and contradiction, saying, for instance, both that “women understand comfort better than men,” and also that women were behind the desire for efficiency, which became functionalism, the enemy of comfort in the sense that emerges from his pages.
Never mind. It seems captious and complaining to find fault with such an unpretentious and well-meant book. But its effect is to inspire the wish that it were better, or that the author had had time or inclination to dig deeper into the interesting matters he raises. So caught up are we as we read, so full of reservations, additions, and questions, that it is evident that we have wandered into one of those large and untried subjects, something primordial and insistent, and are left with the sense that there is much that has resisted deft analysis, contradicts his conclusions, and has eluded his musings. Actually, you find yourself wishing Home had been written by Roland Barthes.
The wide, favorable attention by Mr. Gass and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times and by John Lukacs in The New Yorker, and much else, confirms the interest we …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.