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??

Those Pragmatic Americans

Perhaps not surprisingly considering how long it took America to develop a literature of its own, it was nearly the 20th century before American preferences began to show up in American homes:

The great American innovation in the home was to demand comfort not only in domestic leisure, but also in domestic work. Giedion makes the point that the organization of work in the home was well under way before mechanized tools became available. He should have added “in America,” for the introduction of efficiency and comfort into housework occurred first in that country. The earliest exponent of what would come to be called home economics was Catherine E. Beecher, who wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School in 1841. Although it was concerned primarily with managing the household, this textbook also included a chapter “On the Construction of Houses.” Like her English contemporary Robert Kerr in The Gentleman’s House, Beecher emphasized the importance of health, convenience, and comfort in house planning, although she placed a good deal less emphasis on “good taste,” holding it to be “a desirable, though less important, item.”

Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidental that the American philosophy of
pragmatism was developing as Beecher was writing her treatise, for there seems to be several parallels between her ideas and theirs.

Considering our own recent trend towards larger homes, it’s interesting to note that Beecher advocated smaller homes than had previously been stylish:

Beecher’s obsession with reducing the size of the house was not simply a question of saving money though a small house always costs less to build than a large one. She was suggesting something different: that a small house, because it was easier to take care of and use, could be more comfortable than a larger one. The disadvantage of a large house, she wrote, was that “the table furniture, the cooking materials and utensils, the sink, and the eating room, are at such distances apart, that half the time and strength is employed in walking back and forth to collect and return the articles used. This appreciation for smallness was something that had disappeared from the domestic scene since the snug Dutch home. Its reappearance marked an important moment in the evolution of domestic comfort. In this, as in so many things, Beecher was ahead of her time, for the nineteenth century still associated comfort with spaciousness, and the idea of living in a reduced area would have been difficult for most people to accept. But it was only a question of time.

I know when I look at huge mansion-like homes I’m not at all envious, but, instead, wonder who has the time, or desire, to clean that big of a house. Surely, there must be better things to do. Of course, I’ve always considered a living room a waste of space and money considering how seldom it is used.

Although I find myself drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright, and other high-tech, homes, looking at the new homes that surround me suggests that Rybczynski is right when he argues that efficiency has become more important than design in modern homes:

This was where Le Corbusier parted company with the domestic engineers. He was still, in a sense, a nineteenth century architect, fighting the battle of the styles. That was what the New Spirit was all about a new style, a style suited to the twentieth century, a style for the Machine Age, a style for more efficient living. His was not simply a modern home, but a home that looked modern. He was right about the need for domestic efficiency, even if that was not always evident in practice, but he was wrong about its effect on the appearance of the home. Efficiency did not depend on what the interior of the home looked like, but on how work was organized within it. If the kitchen was planned according to the principles of scientific management, it really did not matter if the cupboards had colonial trim or flowered porcelain handles, just as long as things were in the right place and not too far apart. And if people felt more comfortable, and worked better, with patterned tiles or cheery curtains, well, that was efficiency too. It was not the absence of wallpaper and ogee trim that made a house “modern,” it was the presence of central heating and convenient bathrooms, electric irons and washing machines. Like most architects, Le Corbusier did not understand, or would not accept, that the advent of domestic technology and home management had put the whole question of architectural style in a subordinate position.

Obviously no one style has come to dominate the American home, but God help the architect who’s kitchen is too small, too inefficient, or too far from the serving area. No matter how beautiful a home may be, most Americans wouldn’t buy it if lacked adequate closet space.


When I read the Witold Rybczynski’s chapters entitled “domesticity? and “commodity and delight? I immediately identified with the Dutch definition of home because it dovetailed so nicely with my own definition of home:

The Dutch loved their homes. They shared this old Anglo Saxon word ham, hejm in Dutch with the other peoples of northern Europe.* “Home” brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. “Home” meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home. The Dutch affection for their homes was expressed in a singular practice: they had elaborate scale models built of their houses. These replicas are sometimes inaccurately referred to as dollhouses. Their function was more like that of ship models, not playthings but miniature memorials, records of dearly beloved objects. They were built like cupboards which did not represent the exterior appearance of the house. But when the doors were opened the entire interior was magically revealed, not only the rooms complete with wall coverings and furnishings but even paintings, utensils, and china figurines.

It was quite late in my life before I ever identified with a particular “house,? but I’ve always identified with this definition of home, particularly when you accompany it with the other characteristics the Dutch admired:

It is precisely because Holland’s scrubbed floors and polished brasswork did not reflect a profound understanding of health or hygiene that they are significant. The cleanliness of the Dutch interior was not simply a part of the national character, nor a response determined by external causes, but evidence of something much more important. When visitors were required to take off their shoes or put on slippers, it was not immediately on entering the house the lower floor was still considered to be a part of the public street but on going upstairs. That was where the public realm stopped and the home began. This boundary was a new idea, and the order and tidiness of the household were evidence neither of fastidiousness nor of a particular cleanliness, but instead of a desire to define the home as a separate, special place.

Though I’ll have to admit I often got in the way of my mother’s attempts to keep our house spotless, it wouldn’t have been home otherwise. We lived in some pretty shabby neighborhoods when I was growing up, but our house was always spotless, or at least it was once my mother had cleaned up after me or gotten me to clean up after myself. If cleanliness is really next to godliness, my mother was a real saint.

Add that to the Dutch belief that:

… the kitchen was the most important room; according to one historian, “the kitchen was promoted to a position of fantastic dignity and became something between a temple and a museum.? Here were located the cupboards that held the prized table linens, china, and silver. Copper and brass utensils, brightly polished, hung on the walls. The chimney piece was enormous and elaborately decorated overly so to modern tastes and contained not only he hearth with the traditional hanging pot, but also a simple kind of stove. The sink was copper, sometimes marble. Some kitchens had interior hand pumps (one is visible in de Witte’s painting) and even reservoirs with a continuous supply of hot water. The presence of such amenities signified the growing importance of domestic work and the premium that was beginning to be placed on convenience. This was natural. For he first time, the person who was in intimate contact with housework was also in a position to influence the arrangement and disposition of the home. Servants had to put up with inconvenient and ill thought out arrangements because they had no say in the matter. The mistress of the house, particularly when she was as independent minded as the Dutch woman, did not.

and it would be hard to find a closer definition of my idea of home. My fondest memories of childhood are centered in the kitchen. No matter how boke we were, we ate well, even if most of the food came from our fishing and gardening. My grandmother had worked as a cook for several years before getting married, and she passed her best recipes down to my mother. Nothing says love more clearly than blackberry pies, even if picking the small berries meant fighting garter snakes off with a stick while fighting your way through blackberry brambles.

I acquired my love of homegrown, natural, foods from my dad and my appreciation of fine cooking from my mom:

The notion that what is artless must be better than what is not requires a precarious leap in reasoning, but for all that it carries great weight with the American public at least judging from the dozens of advertisements that extol “being natural.” It is a shallow conceit. A little reflection shows that all human culture is artificial, cooking no less than music, furniture no less than painting. Why prepare time consuming sauces when a raw fruit would suffice? Why bother with musical instruments when the voice is pleasant enough? Why paint pictures when looking at nature is satisfying? Why sit up when you can squat?
The answer is that it makes life richer, more interesting, and more pleasurable. Of course furniture is unnatural; it is an artifact. Sitting is artificial, and like other artificial activities, although less obviously than cooking, instrumental music, or painting, it introduces art into living. We eat pasta or play the piano or sit upright out of choice, not out of need. This should be emphasized, for so much has been written about the practicality and functionality of (particularly modern) furniture that it is easy to forget that tables and chairs, unlike, for example, refrigerators and washing machines, are a refinement, not a utility.

Though I would argue that nothing could taste better than a couple of ears of corn picked fresh in the garden, a plate full of freshly sliced garden tomatoes and cucumbers, and a small steak; I still love chicken simmered in a complex mole sauce or Thai beef salad dressed with fresh mint, cilantro, fish sauce, and lime juice. What could be better than eating great food in a beautiful, harmonious environment?

Living in The Dark Ages

Before moving on to some titles specifically linked to the Pacific Northwest, I decided to read Witold Rybczynski’s Home, a book Jame recommended a while ago, and I’m enjoying it a lot — though not as much as walking in the crisp, fall sunshine we’re experiencing right now.

To begin with, there’s the sheer fun of learning historical facts I’ve never encountered before, either in the literature I’ve read or the year of college-level European history I took. His description of the poor, the vast majority of the people in the Middle Ages, reminded me of the villagers I saw in Vietnam, a grinding poverty that made any hope of real democracy an obscene joke:

The poor were extremely badly housed. They were without water or sanitation, with almost no furniture and few possessions, a situation which, in Europe at least, continued until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the towns, their houses were so small that family life was compromised; these tiny one room hovels were little more than shelters for sleeping. There was room only for the infants the older children were separated from their parents and sent to work as apprentices or servants. The result of these deprivations, according to some historians, was that concepts such as “home” and “family” did not exist for these miserable souls. To speak of comfort and discomfort under such circumstances is absurd: this was bare existence.

I must admit that before reading this chapter I really couldn’t imagine life without concepts like “home? and “family.? It’s clear, though, that even if they did have such concepts they could not be the same as our concepts of home and family.

Perhaps it’s even more shocking to hear that:

… words such as “self confidence,” “self esteem,” “melancholy,” and “sentimental” appeared in English or French in their modern senses only two or three hundred years ago. Their use marked the emergence of something new in the human consciousness: the appearance of the internal world of the individual, of the self, and of the family. The significance of the evolution of domestic comfort can only be appreciated in this context. It is much more than a simple search for physical well being; it begins in the appreciation of the house as a setting for an emerging interior life. In Lukacs’s words, “as the self consciousness of medieval people was spare, the interiors of their houses were bare, including the halls of nobles and of kings. The interior furniture of houses appeared together with the interior furniture of minds.?

While I can imagine living without “melancholy,? and certainly without “sentimental,? the INTP in me can’t for a moment imagine living without “self confidence? or “self esteem,? much less without an “interior life.?

While it makes sense that,

Comfort in the physical sense was still awaiting the eighteenth century and the improvement of such technologies as water supply and heating, as well as refinements to the internal subdivision of the home. But the transition from the public, feudal household to the private, family home was under way. The growing sense of domestic intimacy was a human invention as much as any technical device. Indeed, it may have been more important, for it affected not only our physical surroundings, but our consciousness as well.

it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world where “domestic intimacy? doesn’t exist. I’m still not sure I can get my mind around the concept that “ domestic intimacy was a human invention.?

The thought certainly puts Bachelard’s belief that poetry begins in the house, in the shelters of the home, into a new perspective, doesn’t it?

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