Designing the Modern Interior: From the Victorians to Today. Edited by Penny Sparke, Anne Massey, Trevor Keeble, and Brenda Martin.
Oxford and New York: Berg, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1847882882, $150; paper: ISBN 978-1847882875, $49.95. 320 pages.
Review by Paul Ranogajec, City University of New York
Modernity, domesticity, privacy, identity, taste, class, consumption—these are key among the major issues that any discussion of interior space is bound to elicit. Designing the Modern Interior engages these and many other issues; indeed, among its strengths is the breadth of its coverage thematically and also geographically. Despite its professed aims, it does not radically alter the design history field’s focus on the domestic interior as the site for modernity’s encounter with interiority—in fact, eleven of the seventeen essays deal specifically with house interiors, and only one (on Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie) deals with an unambiguously public building. Even more, the editors state that one of their chief aims was to treat interior spaces globally, yet over half of the essays deal with one or another of just three Western nations (Britain, Germany, or the United States), and the book’s reach does not extend to Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East. Overall, despite these relative limitations, the volume is a welcome step in the direction of expanding design history’s geographic and theoretical boundaries. The essays, individually and as a whole, can be taken as both models and foundations for further interdisciplinary and more rigorously theoretical work.
Penny Sparke’s introductory essay is a useful summary of the themes outlined above and serves as an introduction to the organization of the book. It could easily serve, as well, as an overview for an undergraduate course on modern interior design history—even a more general cultural history course that touches upon the themes of domesticity, the private realm, and design—because it offers readers a coherent preface to more in-depth study by laying out the terrain of contemporary scholarship and its theoretical concerns. The book as a whole exemplifies this quality of broad reader appeal: it is organized chronologically into four sections (each prefaced by summary introductions) that trace the rise of the interface between interior spaces and the experiences and ideas of modernity, well-suited to a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in modern design and architectural history.
One of the most promising aspects of the collection is its emphasis on popular and non-modernist design. The editors have included a number of essays that move decisively beyond the modernist-dominated discourse—largely borrowed from conventional architectural history in the mid-twentieth century—as described by the introductory essay for part one by Emma Ferry. As she notes, the study of interiors is now marked by increasing interest in the multifarious contexts of design, moving beyond the appeal to aesthetics or the modernist obsession with technology and authenticity (yet not shying from the ambiguities and problems inherent with such concepts). In reflecting on the essays in the volume, Ferry rightly notes how the volume’s studies benefit from interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives that engage a fascination “with an era of high imperialism, emerging nationhoods, religious revivals and crises of faith, contested gender and class politics and public debates on sexuality” (19). Explorations of the ideological basis of interior design are not lacking among the pages of this volume, and this fact is one of its major contributions. One of the perhaps unintended uses of the book is therefore as an anchor for young scholars in particular—as reference, certainly, but also, in the case of many of the mostly well-written and lucid essays, as methodological and theoretical models. Fiona Fisher’s essay on “public houses” in late Victorian London encapsulates these concerns when she writes of interior spaces as “highly controlled, yet permissive of new forms of social activity,” which can be considered “as sites that express tensions between social autonomy and regulation that are characteristic of modernity and which represent concerns for social status and identity that are a distinguishing feature of consumer culture” (51).
Parts one and two are perhaps the most provocative in the volume. Comprising eight of the book’s seventeen chapters, the essays in these first two sections traverse the highly complex and contested period from 1870 to 1940. The essays explore the continued vitality of popular, historicist design and its confrontation with the formulation and institutionalization of modernism. With a broad-mindedness and diversity of perspectives, these essays negotiate this critical period in the development of modern architecture and design—a period of intense eclecticism alongside the emerging forms of modernism. Fisher’s essay on the negotiation of class and identity in the public houses of London and Christopher Reed’s essay on the “Amusing Style” as championed by the magazine Vogue are both especially rewarding for the ways in which they explore, to use Reed’s words, “the productive diversity of modernisms that flourished in the twenties” (90). The plural in the term “modernisms” underscores the volume’s general sympathy to a wider understanding of modernism itself and to a broader conception of the design possibilities available under the conditions of modernity, thus eschewing the long-held modernist bias against eclecticism or historicism.
The two later sections also contain provocative essays covering the post-World War II period. Especially instructive are chapters thirteen and fourteen—an essay by Anne Massey on British nationalism and the design of ocean liners, and one by David Crowley on the ruined house designs of two mid-century artists (from Russia and Germany) that explore “the condition of the house in fragments—decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties” (234). Chapter fifteen by Sarah Chaplin also merits special mention for its discussion of the production of popular and transgressive social practices in the distinctively postmodern Japanese “Love Hotel.” These essays dramatically expand the discourse on interiors and design beyond the traditional boundaries of home and bourgeois commercial structures and give indications of future research avenues.
Although the volume is by no means stingy when it comes to illustrations (there are 77), all of them are in black and white, and some are of lackluster quality (for instance, many of the photos in chapter six). Nonetheless, the essays are generally models of concision and clarity—most of the essays are seven to ten pages inclusive of illustrations. As an introduction to and expansion of the field of modern design and interiors history, the volume is a welcome addition to the literature.