What the Sofa Said

Lives of Houses

edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee
Princeton University Press, 297 pp., $24.95
Susan Sontag’s living room, Manhattan, 1995
Dominique Nabokov
Susan Sontag’s living room, Manhattan, 1995

I’ve never seen it mentioned in a book or magazine about home design, but among the greatest contributions to that literature is Zora Neale Hurston’s term “will to adorn.” She coined it in her 1934 essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” to describe a habit of embellishment she deemed central to African-American expressiveness. Hurston spots the trend in black vernacular locutions in which one word becomes two—“sitting-chairs,” “hot-boiling,” “chop-axe.” Likewise, when one decorative pocket hanging on the wall might do, there are several. Perhaps this “idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards,” she writes, “but it satisfies the soul of its creator.” To prove her point, she describes her visit to the home of a black woman in Mobile, Alabama:

The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of the Mobile Register. There were seven calendars and three wall pockets. One of them was decorated with a lace doily. The mantel-shelf was covered with a scarf of deep home-made lace, looped up with a huge bow of pink crêpe paper. Over the door was a huge lithograph showing the Treaty of Versailles being signed with a Waterman fountain pen.

“The sophisticated white man or Negro would tolerate none of these,” Hurston notes, “even if they bore a likeness to the Mona Lisa. No commercial art for decoration.” But she was there to analyze, not cast aspersions. For Hurston, appreciating the aesthetic appeal of a butcher’s announcement and hanging a doily on a wall pocket—“decorating a decoration,” as she puts it—are instances of creative elaboration. “The feeling back of such an act,” she writes, “is that there can never be enough of beauty, let alone too much.”

This is a gratifying example of finding words for a form of everyday behavior that tends to defy articulation. As with deciding what clothes to wear before leaving the house or what to eat for lunch, the choices we impose on our living spaces are at once personal and inescapably social, a jumble of instinct and cultural expectation so complex that for most of us they play out, proprioception-like, beneath the radar of conscious thought. Until the fairly recent rise of environmental psychology and design psychology, much of the thinking and writing about this amorphous realm was confined to the bourgeois sensibility of “shelter magazines,” in which surfaces are served up as aspirational images and dissected according to principles of color, scale, and proportion, rather than mined for deeper meanings. If your desire for ornament extended to reading insightful discussion of it, literature was the main place to go—Edith Wharton wrote trenchantly on this subject, as did Virginia Woolf and Henry James.

At least, that’s how it was for me. I came across Hurston’s essay in early 2009, in the midst of the subprime mortgage…


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