Overrated: Home

The over-familiar pleasures of domesticity

Stephen Bayley

The pleasures of domesticity are well-known. And civilised folk know how to cultivate them. Surely that must be true. But of late, “homesickness” has taken on a rather different and less agreeable meaning than its conventional one of wistfulness and longing. Over-familiarity with our surroundings has forced an awareness of deficiencies.

Rather than a tearful urge to return to a dreamworld imprecisely located in distant space or time, “homesickness” is edging nearer to the sense of “cabin fever”, that destructive mania brought about by too strict a confinement within four mean walls. And for too long.

We make our environments and then our environments make us. The signal text of the Garden City Movement was The Art of Building a Home, published in 1901. Here we read that, “The influences which our common every-day surroundings have upon our characters, our conceptions, our habits of thought and conduct, are often very much under-rated.” Yes indeedy.

Yet, as a wandering youth I remember the original sense of homesickness well. I’ll never forget that clammy wistfulness attending early—possibly over-ambitious—travels abroad as an independent adult. Sitting, aged 18 and very much alone, on the Île de la Cité, certain I was soon to die of appendicitis, I felt the physical twinges and the emotional pangs. But did I want to go back to the home I had made such efforts to escape? I am not sure I really did.

The kindliness of parents and the comforts of home were not what I wanted, or not what I wanted at that time. The Île de la Cité was where I really wanted to be even if it made me feel exquisitely vulnerable and sad. The ruefulness probably had another source, not yet identified. Something I am—we all are—still perhaps looking for.

If not the recent prison of Government fiat, “home” is what exactly? How do we define it? “Home” has a more fugitive sense than is conventionally believed. No-one reads Theodor Storm nowadays, but he is good on this subject: his home is defined by a person. “Ich gehe in die Welt hinaus/Wo du bist, bin ich zu Haus.” Whenever I go out in the world, Wherever you are, I am at home. That works for me.

Meanwhile, new dimensions of “home” are being discovered. Who’s not utterly up-to-here with domesticity after nearly a year of politically mandated incarceration in its alleged sweetness? Kafka once described a cage looking for a bird. Well. Here we all are.

And let’s not forget the concept of domesticity, at least as defined by design, is a fluid one. And of recent invention. Our idea of home is pretty much a Victorian one: indeed, about 90 per cent of what we regard as tradition, public schools for example, is actually a product of the 19th century.

Even in the Renaissance, there was no fixed idea of what a “home” should be. Research into auctions in cinquecento Italy suggests that concepts of domesticity, at least as defined by material things, were fluid and fragmented. Even fixed architectural features—doors, window cases, chimneys and so on—were under continuous revision and for sale.

But something in the tormented psychology of the Victorian middle-classes demanded that things be fixed. In a world of turbulent values, it was surely comforting to have, at least, the architecture and furniture static. The home was a haven, an escape from public anxiety and a theatre for the expression of personality through decoration.

The Modernists rebelled, as Modernists were inclined to do. Le Corbusier, after studying the catalogue of a plumbers’ merchant and doing a lot of plane-spotting, decided a house must be “a machine for living in”. In his 1965 essay “A home is not a house” Reyner Banham took this notion to the limit.

He explained that you didn’t need walls and a roof if you were surrounded by efficient Mechanical & Electrical services. Francois Dallegret did the illustrations: a naked hominid is crouched in a structure defined not by masonry, but by microwave antennae and satellite dishes.

We are there now. By about 1985, an ordinary car, a Ford Escort, say, descendent of the Model-T that “enthroned” the ordinary American citizen, offered a higher standard of living than most houses. Air-con, excellent sound-system, ergonomic seats. Who has these benefits at home? Someone with £10,000 to spend could enjoy them in a new Ford.

The maverick Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, a disruptive wizard whose second language was irony, demanded: “Why should homes be static temples?”

Why indeed? Our popular concept of home is not much more than a Victorian status relic, as redundant now as the anti-macassars, gasoliers, brown furniture and elephant foot umbrella stands that furnished it.

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