Comfort and Well Being

Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea ends with chapters entitled “Austerity? and “Comfort and Well-being.? Austerity is shorthand for modern. He begins the chapter with a picture of a famous chair, a tubular metal chair that is not known for its comfort. I know because I’ve purchased similar designs twice, but have never spent much time actually sitting in them. Now I know why:

Minimal decor. According to the strict rules of this genre, not only are all decorative architectural elements stripped away, but all personal possessions are made invisible as well. The lights are hidden in the ceiling, books and children's toys are hidden in the cupboards, even the cupboards are hidden behind smooth, usually mat white, doors. Dining rooms resemble monastic refectories. Kitchens look as bare as the other rooms refrigerator, oven, pots and pans, spoons and spatulas are out of sight. In one extreme case of Minimal design the flat of an art dealer in London even the beds are hidden for they consist of cotton futons that are rolled up and put away during the day. In the same home the bathroom is so pristine that it is not provided with shelves or cabinets the owner is obliged to carry the toothbrush and soap with he, in what she calls a "wetpack." If this sounds awkward, we are assured that she "cheerfully insists that the minor inconveniences of her disciplined way of living are worth putting up with for the sake of a highly refined way of life.?

One of the greatest appeals of modern design for me is that it’s easy to keep clean. Someone with allergies does not easily tolerate dust, and clutter, even beautiful clutter, is hard to keep clean. But there’s more to it than that for deep down I like the very idea of austerity. Though I have far too many toys, I often feel best when I don’t buy something I want. Emerson was right when he declared, “"Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." Ideally, I would live a monastic life, much as Thoreau did in Walden. I suspect that’s a large part of the appeal of Taoism or Ch’an Buddhism.

Unfortunately, creature comforts often outweigh other considerations, which would explain why my favorite chair for the last thirty years has been a rocking chair:

One way to accommodate motility is for the chair itself to move. This is what a traditional rocking chair does; its main purpose is not to rock continuously, but to permit the sitter to shift positions and to alleviate stresses, both in the legs and in the back. This is why rocking chairs are often prescribed for people with back problems.

I probably could blame my love of the rocking chair on my herniated disc, but the truth is that I’ve loved them long before that. Nowadays, I generally end up reading on the floor or in my old rocking chair, even eschewing my $800 computer chair.

Reading Rybczynski I wonder if I haven’t been blessed by the fact that I’ve never been able to afford the kind of house that I’ve been most attracted to:

Nostalgia for the past is often a sign of dissatisfaction with the present. I have called the modern interior "a rupture in the evolution of domestic comfort." It represents an attempt not so much to introduce a new style that is the least of it as to change social habits, and even to alter the underlying cultural meaning of domestic comfort. Its denial of bourgeois traditions has caused it to question, and reject, not only luxury but also ease, not only clutter but also intimacy. Its emphasis on space has caused it to ignore privacy, just as its interest in industrial looking materials and objects has led it away from domesticity. Austerity, both visual and tactile, has replaced delight. What started as an endeavor to rationalize and simplify has become a wrongheaded crusade; not, as is often claimed, a response to a changing world, but an attempt to change the way we live. It is a rupture not because it does away with period styles, not because it eliminates ornament, and not because it stresses technology, but because it attacks the very idea of comfort itself. That is why people look to the past.

As an INTP I’m certainly sensitive to the need for “privacy,? though the same tendency probably makes it even more essential that there are attractive shared spaces to draw me out of my introverted shell. I’ll admit that at times I find myself missing old-fashioned television programs where everyone gathered around the television.

In the end, Rybczynski admits that “comfort,? and by extension, “home,? is a nebulous concept:

"Comfort is simply verbal invention," writes one engineer despairingly." Of course, that is precisely what comfort is. It is an invention — a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas — childhood, family, gender — it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history. One dimensional, technical definitions of comfort, which ignore history, are bound to be unsatisfactory. How rich, by comparison, are Baldwin's and Alexander's descriptions of comfort. They include convenience (a handy table), efficiency (a modulated light source), domesticity (a cup of tea), physical ease (deep chairs and cushions), and privacy (reading a book, having a talk). Intimacy is also present in these descriptions. All these characteristics together contribute to the atmosphere of interior calm that is a part of comfort.

No wonder “you can never go home again.?

Still, in a very real sense, this conclusion reminds me of Bachelard’s introduction to The Poetics of Space where he asks, “Transcending our memories of all the houses in which we have found shelter, above and beyond all the houses we have dreamed we lived in, can we isolate an intimate, concrete essence that would be justification of the uncommon value of all our images of protected intimacy??

One thought on “Comfort and Well Being

  1. I found your comments on the modern preference for minimal decor interesting in light of the book I’m now reading by George Weigel called The Cube and the Cathedral. The book opens by comparing La Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris with Notre Dame; it associates the Arche–a flat-surfaced cube forty stories tall– as a symbol for modern thought. The cube, with its enormous opening in the center, is large enough to hold Notre Dame inside, including the towers and spire. Weigel writes that he stood atop the cube and wondered “which culture would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre Dame and the great cathedrals of Europe.”
    I suppose minimal decor and uncluttered surroundings fit more with the rationalist view of the world. With the 20th century, it strikes me that art became less ornamental and more elemental, and I suppose we see an echo of that trend in the preference for sparsely furnished and decorated living spaces.

What do you think?