“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,1 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 all feel in matters of home and dećor—the Victoria and Albert Museum speaks of “obsession.” Perhaps, also, we are seeing a new or recaptured interest on the part of men in housework and style. Men, Rybczynski tells us, before they were put outdoors by their wives in the seventeenth century because they wanted to smoke, had always been the ones to decide what the furniture would be like. Women reading this book may know many things in it already, and feel no more admiration than for their husband’s salad dressing.
“Domesticity” is a set of felt emotions to do with “family, intimacy, and a devotion to the home, as well as with a sense of the house as embodying—not only harboring—these sentiments.” Rybczynski says that the concept did not exist in caves or at Versailles, but took a big step forward in seventeenth-century Holland when women did their own housework, and, to make things easier on themselves, encouraged smaller, more manageable rooms dedicated to sleeping or sewing or whatever their purpose. Smaller rooms led in turn to intimacy and the desire for privacy, and these led to a sense of identity, the human personality thus changing along with its domestic arrangements.
The idea of “comfort” was what attracted Rybczynski in the first place, when he noticed that the subject had come up only once in architecture school. His gallant conclusion, that the architect ought to be concerned with comfort, is one with which this reader did not come to agree. Rybczynski believes that comfort is an objective condition:
If comfort were subjective one would expect a greater variety of attitudes toward it: instead, at any particular historical period there has always been a demonstrable consensus about what is comfortable and what is not.
Is this true? Take the “comfortable” modern reclining chair in the ads on TV, intended, apparently, for the older man (designed, perhaps, to immobilize him, by the Dutch housewife in her sly bid for ascendancy). In this chair one is suspended in a padded structure in a position in which it is impossible to do anything, a position symbolizing wealth, or the right to do nothing, but in its confines resembling the grave itself. To sit in it would drive many people mad with anxiety and boredom.
Rybczynski is entertaining on the subject of furniture, especially the chair, a clever and by no means obvious device which, since it has taken human ingenuity centuries to perfect, argues his evolutionary notion of comfort.2 Western societies sit, but the chair has eluded or been rejected by some cultures that continue to squat, a division of the human race which neither climate, size, nor intellectual factors serve to explain. “The coincidence of all the factors necessary to comfortable sitting is so unlikely, the probability of awkwardness and discomfort is so great, that it is not hard to imagine that many cultures, having had a try at it, would abandon the effort and wisely resort to sitting on the ground.” He says that solutions to sitting comfort found in the eighteenth century have never been improved upon, and points out how horrid our modern butterfly chairs, or even Barcelona chairs, are to sit on. He doesn’t agree with Philip Johnson that “comfort is a function of whether you think a chair is good-looking or not.”
Here many of us would agree with Johnson. There seem to be many situations where some other consideration than comfort—sentiment or economy or aesthetics or ostentation—prevails over the convenient or comfortable in the matter of choosing or furnishing a room. As an architect, Rybczynski resists this conclusion a little, and professes surprise, where technology provides a convenient solution to heating or plumbing, that people do not immediately and joyfully employ it, instead of fearing its power to disrupt cozy old ways of doing things.
Which brings us to “coziness,” a word which seems to describe something nice, nestlike, warm, and familiar. The idea of familiarity and tradition may provide an answer to his question, “Is it simply a curious anachronism, this desire for tradition, or is it a reflection of a deeper dissatisfaction with the surroundings that our modern world has created?” To put the question this way of course greatly oversimplifies the answer. Of course we are dissatisfied with our modern world. He notes the great success of the new line of Ralph Lauren home furnishings—a line of traditional, Anglophile, pretty sheets and wallpapers in showrooms furnished with antiques, Oriental rugs, brass bedsteads, and wicker. “What are we missing that we look so hard for in the past?” Why would most people “prefer to live in homes that look like their grandfather’s”? Edith Wharton believed this to be an innate human propensity, with Ptolemaic Egyptians mad for Thebes and so on, but a modern architect faces only reluctantly that there are forces at work, of instinct, individual personality, and natural cycles of fashion, as well as economic factors, against which such a high-minded movement as modernism could never have prevailed anyway.
Despite fashion, most of us have gone along making ourselves cozy in our separate ways, accommodating the old chairs and family photos life sends our way; but most of us have also been victimized by modernism’s stern aesthetic (“sterile impasse,” says the V & A). Architect Rybczynski feels guilty that modern architecture has, in his view, failed to provide for our real needs. This weighs more heavily on the spirit of the apostate than on those of us who have never had faith. Something of his idealism is shown in the false but honorable premise with which he begins: “Like justice in law or health in medicine” (things which have nothing to do with each other) so ought comfort be to architecture. But it really seems that architecture’s charge is beauty, and comfort is the province of others—of decorators, art historians, upholsterers, and above all of householders themselves.
William Gass holds precisely the view that Rybczynski has been trying to talk himself out of. He thinks we “ought” to like modern architecture and interiors, because they are “art,” and bourgeois taste is incompatible with “art.” People’s dream rooms show moral sloth and bad taste. People would be absolutely better off without the knickknacks. As wrathfully as any Adolf Loos or Ruskin, he rails against all those ugly houses in Beverly Hills: “There’s not a modern house among them, not a single disturbing object of artistic interest. But are they comfortable? You bet.” He argues that we should give the International Style a chance—it has been ruined by its imitators, by its heavy hand on the design of public buildings, by our Reaganesque politics of “longing and disregard,” but we shouldn’t throw it out with the bathwater. Granted that people don’t like the “all-white Mod box,” they should. He deplores our pervasive frailty—that the Breuer chair is “not ubiquitous; the backyard barbecue is…. The good has never once driven out the bad—not so far as the stoop”—and scorns the comfy Art Deco interior by Ruhlmann instanced by Rybczynski, “over whose fireplace hung a huge painting of parakeets by Jean Dupas.” He defends the “good” in the Le Corbusier interior derided by Rybczynski: “I can see the exquisite configurations of the Thonet side chair, paintings by Amédée Ozenfant and Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier, Berber carpets and a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz,” and other expensive art objects upon which the modern interior depends. No mention here of how the “good” is to be afforded by most of us, or of how it was the poor, Légerless in their housing projects, who were among the first to rebel against the International Style. A lot of us already have in the attic grandfather’s painting of parakeets. It should console Mr. Gass that Le Corbusier is doubtless somebody’s grandfather.
But Gass’s essay raises questions that persist: Does that Léger belong in a private house instead of a museum? Why is it “the good” and does it make people better or happier? Does good art make them better than kitsch does? Is one person’s art another’s kitsch? After all, those de rigueur Senufo birds in their native context beloved of modern architects are kitschy ritual objects, like plastic madonnas. Would you be a better person without your grandfather’s parakeets? (Every teacher of literature knows that good literature has no improving effect whatever—at least to judge from our own character, and those of our colleagues.)
What is missing from both Gass’s and Rybczynski’s discussions is any sense of the home as process, as an expressive activity, an artistic activity, an existential meditation, a topic. Yet these are the things a house is. “It does not matter one marble splinter whether we have an old or a new architecture,” is what Ruskin really said. When Gass says, “The home is a haven to be sure. There neatness scrubs away history like grease while retaining the polished signs of the past and reifying the timeless. There one may shed the worries of the world and be warm,” one wonders about whoever does the scrubbing, for whom the home is the worry. He sounds like someone who has always lived in a hotel, with no more sense than a guest or client of how things get polished and reified, or of the process of deciding what to do with the old chair mother always liked, or the color of the bedroom curtains. Like a man excluded, proposing the house as museum or temple of art. A stroll in the flea market reminds us of the material existence of the household world. What happens to the old, the odd, the out-of-fashion, the things relinquished by death, bearing virtue or value, needing care? Until war or shipwreck, these things are there. Modernism, as the V & A points out, is “just another style, like chinoiserie,” and will learn to live happily with others. The new Barney’s in New York, one notes, has chairs by Josef Hoffmann and Ruhlmann both.
Rybczynski believes that “women understand more about domestic comfort than do men,” and though much in his book contradicts this—we see that Ralph Lauren, Dürer, and Rybczynski, as well as thirty-one Englishmen and the majority of the important decorators, are men—it does seem true that women in our society, whether by instinct or delegation, generally do the dreaming, deciding, and buying for their rooms. (“Men,” Edith Wharton believed, “are less exacting than women because their demands, besides being simpler, are uncomplicated by the feminine tendency to want things because other people have them.”) This view, so patronizing to both sexes, is what many men believe themselves, at least in America. If, as the philosopher says, the house is a metaphor of the body, have American men been de-homed and disembodied? Rybczynski traces the process by which women seized moral and aesthetic control, but it seems reasonable to imagine that now that most women go out to work and men are becoming interested in breast-feeding, men will want some say. You see them in antique shops—single men, gays, insider traders awaiting indictment, crack dealers—browsing around furniture, newly enabled, maybe, by Ralph Lauren’s macho image.
Tracy Kidder’s book House, “a New York Times bestseller for six months,” has just been issued in paperback. It’s an account of the process or drama of building a house—a masculine drama, and a patriotic one (“the home…plays the chief role in the development of the children of our nation for stability and uprightness”: Calvin Coolidge). House is told from the points of view of the clients (a young couple with children), the four “hippie carpenters” who build it, the young postmodern architect who designed it. Anyone who has ever built a house will be interested to learn that here it is the carpenters who are victimized by the client, an unpleasant-sounding lawyer who wants them, for instance, to put an extra coat of paint on the house, though the contract only calls for one, arguing that the contract also says “workmanlike.” He says things like, “I’m very angry to deal with this on this basis, I’ve had a lot of stress the last two days” (though, to be fair, he did eventually pay for the second coat, and the carpenters also talk human potential talk: “I let go of a lot of the anger that I carried”). The mild builders are no match for the aggressive professionals.
This excellent book is a salient reminder that in all discussions of the architecture people ought to have or wish to have, interior or exterior, the imperatives of money, human error, human good will, and above all somebody’s hard work are too easily forgotten. House incidentally confirms two of Rybczynski’s theories, that modern architects are too domineering (the architect here, Bill, comes out and says “fascistic”), and that the client couple divide their concerns along predictable lines: the husband makes decisions about exterior paint, “the aesthetic is usually Judith’s turf.” Today this society has almost ceased to think of Home in Calvin Coolidge’s sense. It has no status in law. Judges in divorce cases seem no longer even to try to preserve it or to consider “the development of the children.” Kidder’s protagonists all are concerned with durability of the House, the building itself, its permanence and design. Whatever happens to the people, the House will pull through.
To show the evolution of comfort, Rybczynski describes the austerity of Dürer’s study compared to his own cozy one, full of loved objects and comfortable, useful furniture, shabby and messy—an elegant desk, his grandfather’s box, a word processor. In my morning paper an article “Wearing your Hearth upon your Sleeve,” by Ona Murdoch,3 pop-psychs rooms like this; “English Country” is the category to which Murdoch would assign Rybczynski’s room. Such a room shows a person “basically spontaneous, warm and relaxed” (or else—rather cruelly—who “may be accused of pretentiousness in trying to create an impression of old money”). People who choose “modern” “tend to be strivers and hard workers.” Setting aside the question of whether one actually chooses a style or merely is landed with one through experience and circumstance, we can all accede to the general principle that a room reflects its owner.
Besides the rooms we have, most of us have a vocabulary of remembered rooms, rooms actually seen or seen in pictures, in which we can imagine living. Some are timeless rooms—the pretty white-walled rooms at Kelmscott, with their bright embroidered hangings, or the Grand Trianon. Some are associated with memories of our own—but it is in all these rooms that we rummage when it comes to making our real rooms. The thirty-one Englishmen in The Englishman’s Room, being English, don’t feel at risk of being thought pretentious in their cozy, cluttered, faded, ornamented “English Country” rooms—the very look Ralph Lauren has divined our longing for—and the Englishmen are aware of the “pathos of our vulgar homages,” to borrow John Updike’s wonderful phrase. Like Rybczynski in his study, these men claim to have created their rooms themselves—these are creative, sophisticated men, to be sure, not weak male victims of female usurpers but men in touch with their inner décor, with a patriotic sense of what constitutes an English, as opposed to a Chinese, room—and a willingness to let it be photographed for the masses who read the London Sunday Times. Most, even the three decorators (Tom Parr, David Hicks, David Mlinaric), claim to be undecorated—and most think that the owner should do his own, too, taking seriously the aesthetic and practical demands of self-expression that the project of a room imposes. If women had a hand in any of these rooms, like buying the carpet or arranging for the delivery van, we don’t hear about it.
Most of the favorite rooms are small and cozy: “I don’t like being by myself in a large room,” says the Hon. David Herbert. Despite its grand scale, the Earl of Harewood’s large library “began gradually in my subconscious mind to assume the position its chosen refuge does to an animal.” Many refer to a subconscious or dream connection with their rooms: “The vision of the kitchen that I would have one day was always the same” (Tom Parr). None of these men, it appears, was ever tempted by an Eames chair. (“I have absolutely no sympathy for that austere, puritanical, joyless approach that demands no clutter and just a few choice objects in a room of awful, boring whiteness”—Gavin Stamp.) Travel mementos are precious to island dwellers. Several emphasize their wanderings in Persia or France to acquire what John Harris refers to as “le vrai goût,” quite confident that such a thing exists.
Amid his array of Ming pots and Cycladic pestles, Richard Buckle says, “Of course I should prefer Louis Seize furniture. Who wouldn’t?” Ralph Lauren’s chosen look for Americans is “English.” While all take cognizance of the role of tradition, no one mentions the curious force of someone else’s tradition—for these Englishmen, as for Americans of Edith Wharton’s day, it was the French who had le vrai goût, and you could have it too if you were rich. Most of us regard it with republican diffidence as “too fussy.” Despite their notions of gloire, the French seem these days to be going through a British phase too—a Paris Ralph Lauren on the rue Royale; even, in the Paris Marks and Spencer, in the “Vêtements Hommes” section, an array of kilts. And it would take a Barthes to unravel the complex of psychosexual Anglophiliac/phobic messages in the Brummel ads at every bus stop, which show a young man dressed in Englishy tweeds, widely smiling and at the same time catching in his gleaming wolf teeth the filmy lace sleeve of a young woman bending over him in a bridal gown, and the caption: Homme Sweet Homme. In France as in England and the US there are boatloads of stripped pine cupboards called “le style Anglais,” which really come, it appears, from Scandinavia, the last source of antiques for the modest householder who wants to be cozy.
“Our rooms are sleeping inside us,” writes the gallery curator John Harris. “For most there is no awakening, or else it is left to some decorator to sound reveille.” In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, noting the rise of the interior decorator as “one of the most intriguing of the social and artistic phenomena of the century,” has hung a small exhibition of drawings by influential decorators, to suggest the diversity of decorative styles and approaches today, “the extraordinarily complex relationship existing between the past and the present,” and “our current nostalgic obsession with traditional forms.” The styles discussed are Classical and Neo-classical; Grand Luxe (Arab palaces, Parisian luxury hotels); Haut Décor (a fashionable decorator for rich, visible clients); Moderne; Postmodern; and the New Baroque (“the look of a ruined palazzo in a post-Holocaust landscape”).
The drawings were chosen, and the catalog written, by Stephen Calloway, who explains the rise of the decorator as being connected to the willingness of the decorator to defy the isms and dogmas of modernism. (Now, though, “the heroic years of the modern movement already have for us in 1986 a certain period charm.”) Moderne can soon come back as nostalgia—as indeed it is beginning to do, despite its unsympathetic decline into being “the only aspect of decoration and design directly patronized by governments.”
Calloway has chosen an array of sumptuous drawings and envelope jottings—whether of Prince Charles’s best bedroom curtains (by John Fowler, category Haut Décor) or by Manuel Canovas for a fabric—by important designers and architects from the US, England, France, and Italy. Of all the styles, the most exciting and curious is the New Baroque, with its “perverse romantic attitude to urban wreckage,” in which “luxury, or indeed, adequate comfort or practicality, is eschewed in favour of the visionary,” despite Mr. Rybczynski. The essence of the new style is “a new grandeur and a new theatricality,” despite Mr. Gass. These strange and rather beautiful and ominous interiors, misty like Turbeville photos, are eerily peopled by headless statues and ornate but shredded draperies, influenced, says the compiler, by Fellini and Derek Jarman. They suggest, certainly, the final demise of modernism, but also express anxiety, and a determination to hold on to civilization in the face of its likely defeat.
December 4, 1986