Friday, 17 January 2014

Books about the House

I wrote this piece for the Guardian Online:

10 of the best books about the home…

The Great Indoors explores changes in domestic life over the last hundred years or so, and it does so room by room (starting in the hallway and ending in the attic). I was interested in how these “living” rooms have been used, what they have been filled with and what they felt like across the twentieth century and into the twenty first.
My concern was with the house as it was imagined by advertisers and designers as well as the house as it has actually been lived, and this took me to a variety of archives: the V&A archives in the fantastic Blythe House, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, and that treasure trove of the ordinary the Mass-Observation archive at the University of Sussex. I was also interested in how home interiors have been the stage for domestic dramas, and for this I looked at novels and films, and especially, sit-coms.
Along the way I grew a fondness for these fellow travellers in scrutinising the domestic scene:

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Today The Road to Wigan Pier is often dismissed as part of a 1930s social adventurism performed by posh Oxbridge types who wrote for a left-leaning London audience about the horrors to be found ‘Up-North’. Actually the book is both a fastidious examination of how humiliation is given material form by impoverished housing and how class might be less a form of consciousness and more a deeply ingrained and embodied set of habits.

W. J. Turner, Exmoor Village
This book came out in 1947 as part of the work of Mass-Observation. It is an audit of one rural village at the end of the war, accompanied by some tremendous photographs by John Hinde. The village was not supplied by mains gas or electricity, and everybody washed in the scullery sink. Turner’s book tells you what was contained on the bookshelves of the villagers and what furniture they had.

Barbara Vine, The House of Stairs
Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is brilliant at capturing the uncanniness of some houses. Freud wrote a famous essay on the uncanny and reminded us that the German word for the uncanny is literally translated as un-homely. For him what is unnerving about the uncanny is that this is strangeness found in familiar places. If you want a sense of that experience then read The House of Stairs.

Judy Attfield, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life
Judy Attfield was a design historian who followed ordinary domestic objects into the home. She was less concerned with what designers intended when they produced chairs or rugs, than how people used their objects and what these objects meant to them. She was particularly interested in how we get attached to the material world around us, and in one memorable passage she writes about her recently deceased dad’s jumper, and how it was the touch and the smell of it that held the trace of him.

Brian Dillon, In the Dark Room
I read a number of autobiographies when I was researching The Great Indoors, nearly all of them had incredibly affecting descriptions of the author’s childhood home (but sparse description of other homes that the authors must have lived in). Brian Dillon’s book is a distillation of this aspect of autobiography, and a wonderful reflection on the power of childhood domestic space to shape and evoke memories. 

Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave: The Mechanization of Household Work
Christina Hardyment has published a small raft of books about the history of domestic life. She mines archives to show us what we used to eat, how we use to raise babies and small children and how we have conducted the management of the household. This book is full of great turns of phrase like “gimcrack gadgetry”, but the real story is how nineteenth and twentieth century “labour-saving” came with a whole host of added expectations that fulfilled Betty Friedan’s reworked Parkinson’s Law: “Housewifery expands to fill the time available”.

Michael McMillan, The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home
Michael McMillan’s book is a sumptuous array of domestic photographs and oral history telling how Caribbean migrants fashioned their houses in a cold and often unwelcoming Britain in the postwar years. It is interesting to see that in many ways these families were even more traditionally British than their contemporary white peers, and while most white families had given up the “kept for best” parlour by the 1960s many Caribbean families maintained these more traditional domestic practices.

John Braine, Life at the Top
John Braine’s had a massive success with Room at the Top. This is the sequel and Joe Lampton is living in middle-class suburbia. It is great on the way that success is sometimes measured in the material accoutrements of domestic life (TV, expensive sofas, and drinks cabinet). In Life at the Top it seems that these furnishings offer no comfort for his emotional restlessness. 

Deborah Sugg Ryan, The Ideal Home through the Twentieth Century
The Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition has been since 1908 (with a few gaps) a perennial showcase of all that is new in home furnishings and domestic culture. It has been an important agent for popularising new fads, such as DIY. There is something magical about the show – the streets of fake-real houses in the main hall – and something banal about the relentless commercialism of it. Deborah Sugg Ryan’s magnificently illustrated volume is a rip-roaring tour of both sides of the exhibition.

Penny Sparke, As Long as it’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste
It is no wonder that most of the best writers about the house are women – the house has always been the stage for performing our expectations and perceptions about gender – and for this the stakes have been higher for women than for men. When second wave feminism said the personal is political then the logical object to look at is the home. Penny Sparke shows how the world of interior design and household advice is peppered with gendered assumptions, and how “taste” was used to reinforce gendered differences.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Mood Barometers and Emotional Weather

Tom Harrisson feigning fear

For anyone interested in mood as a cultural phenomenon and as a living and imaginative national form, the Second World War is undoubtedly the ‘go to’ historical period to look at. Remembering his wartime involvement with Mass-Observation and the Home Intelligence department of the Ministry of Information, Tom Harrisson claimed that they ‘sought to supply accurate observations of everyday life and real (not just published) public moods’. Mood, or morale as it was usually called during the war, was a high stake in a war that was being fought at home by civilians as well as by the services, and was understood as a ‘war of nerves’.
            Of course it is easy to distrust the idea of a national mood, and Home Intelligence was, I think, distrustful of any single unified mood. What they did instead on an almost daily basis was to get a sense of different regional moods and the variations of mood in relation to class and gender. It was Mary Adams who was responsible for setting up Home Intelligence and for collating the daily reports from various officers around the country who eavesdropped at bus queues, listened-in to conversations at the post office and quizzed neighbours and workers.
            One interesting aspect of their work for people today who are thinking about mood and how to attend to it, is their use of metaphors relating to weather to describe the measurement and description of mood. Mary Adams describes the task of Home Intelligence as ‘to provide an assessment of home morale. For this purpose it is necessary to study immediate reactions to specific events as well as to create a barometer for the purpose of testing public opinion on questions likely to be continuously important, e.g. pacifism’. A barometer is also the metaphor of choice that Mass-Observation uses when it claims in 1940 that ‘one of the vital needs now in this war is that the Government should be fully aware of all the trends in civilian morale. They need an accurate machine for measuring such trends; a war barometer’.
            Mass-Observation was established in the early months of 1937 with a sense that war was on the horizon and that little was known about how people felt. In trying to gather such nebulous materials as ‘feelings’ and ‘moods’ the leaders of Mass-Observation knew that they were dealing with materials as all-encompassing, as hard to predict, and as inconsistent as the British weather: they would be ‘the meteorological stations from whose reports a weather-map of popular feeling can be compiled’. But it should be noted that while a storm was gathering in Europe Mass-Observation was as interested in the ordinary grey day as they were in chasing tornados or trying to fashion unusually blue skies. Indeed in a war as long and as aggressive as World War II an overcast sky with slightly blustery wind was going to be as good as it gets.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Net Curtains

Net curtains are an imperfect solution to the real problem of negotiating privacy and light in houses whose interiors can be seen quite easily by passers-by. Terraced houses come in many different forms but the smallest of them have no front garden or wall to separate the front window from the pavement. It is not that the pavements of Britain and elsewhere are thick with dedicated nosey-parkers and irrepressible sticky beaks, it is just that it is almost impossible not to be drawn into taking a quick peak into someone’s front room when you are so close and it is un-netted.
Yet while something like a net curtain must surely be essential for these cottage-style terraces (the ones down the road from my house were built for railway workers) the net curtain of popular culture is often associated with more substantial properties, in areas of suburban splendour. Here the net curtain isn’t so much a protection from the nosey but an aid to nosiness. Here the net curtain is forever ‘twitching’ (usually from a first floor bedroom window) as moral arbiters look on and record the goings-on of wannabe libertines or fun seeking youngsters. This net curtain doesn't hide private joys and pleasure but the polar opposite – frustrations, bitterness and repressions.   

Net curtains seem to belong to a Victorian age, and usually their patterns, when they aren't simply plain, seems to follow the patterning of other Victorian era textile items like antimacassars. I was interested that Terence Conran in his early years as a designer, a decade before he started Habitat, designed net curtains. The net curtains he designed are from 1953 and are interestingly asymmetrical and favour spiky, irregular patterns that evoke the harsher aspects of the natural world – icicles, flint shards and so on. Whatever else you could say about his net curtain it would be hard to imagine them being constantly twitched by disapproving, pleasure-fearing neighbours.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Putting the kit in kitchens

The Times ran a piece I wrote on my top six innovations in the kitchen. This is what I wrote:

The desire for convenience, for labour-saving devices, has been a dream that has shaped the modern kitchen. Sometimes labour-saving was merely labour-displacing: a 1950s dishwasher had a cycle of just three minutes (compared with an average of ninety minutes today) but every single item had to be packed in its own separate plastic container and then unpacked afterwards. But labour wasn't the only thing that needed saving – so too did space and money. Space was saved with items and devices that could have multiple functions – a stool that was also an ironing board as well as a step ladder, for instance. Money was saved, not just through scrimping but also by spending. At least that’s what the advertisers were telling us: buy this expensive food processor and save, save, save.
Kitchen devices came with a price tag that was social as well as financial. Fridges and freezers, for instance, sounded the death knell for neighbourhood shops and announced the era of the supermarket. And all the gizmos that found a place in the post-war kitchen could be seen as an attempt to return women to the kitchen to create more and more complex dishes after a wartime spent out of the house in paid employment.
While gadgetry has put the kit in kitchens, changes in energy and the introduction of new materials that have had the most significant effect. The shift from solid fuels (primarily coal) to piped and wired fuels (gas and electricity) was decisive, but it wasn't till after World War Two that many rural communities would be on the grid. Today it is probably hard to imagine kitchens without a host of synthetic materials like Teflon and silicone; in the 1950s and 60s it was new forms of plastic that transformed the kitchen.    

1.      Electric Kettle. This electric kettle from the 1920s would have boiled water much faster than a pan on the stove. It would also have been cleaner because most stoves used solid fuel in the 20s. Ubiquitous electricity was needed for the electric kettle to become an everyday reality.

2.      Fridge-Freezer. The first fridges were often gas powered, but it was the electric version that came to stay. My parents bought me a small fridge in 1987 and it cost exactly the same amount as the first fridge they had bought when they got married thirty years earlier in 1957.

3.      The food mixer. If you could afford it US imports like the Sunbeam Mixmaster were available in Britain from the 1930s. They could ‘mix drinks, grind coffee, open cans, turn ice cream, polish silverware, sharpen knives and scissors’. A home-grown version became popular in the 1950s when Ken Wood developed his Kenwood Chef.

4.      Spitfire saucepans. These saucepans from the 1946 exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’ utilised a manufacturing process discovered while trying to develop longer lasting exhaust stubs for Spitfires during the war. Other domestic appliances that were developed during the war included the electric blanket, for pre-central heating living.

5.      Plastics. New synthetic material such as composite vinyl and melamine transformed the kitchen in the 1950s and 60s. Here Dunlop claimed that their 1967 Vynolay range could ‘cover a fair-sized kitchen floor for as little as £5’.

6.      Vegetable Peeler. The Rex vegetable peeler (from the Swiss company Zena) is a classic design: simple, cheap, and superbly functional. It was first produced in 1947 and soon found its place in kitchens all over the world. Sometimes it is the small and modest that makes the difference.