British Interiors

Jan 14 2007
The New York Times
Ligaya Mishan

[A] “witty and beguiling history of a hundred years of British domestic interiors”
“Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle,” a new manifesto declares. “People find their place in the world through intelligence and taste.” The author of this treatise is Ian Schrager, better known as a hotelier than as a political theorist — and, on closer inspection, his proclamation proves to be a sales brochure for a condominium project. One suspects that luxury apartments aren’t quite the solution to class struggle Marx had in mind.

Had Schrager lived in 19th-century Britain, he might well have delivered his rallying cry from a pulpit. As Deborah Cohen informs us in “Household Gods,” her witty and beguiling history of a hundred years of British domestic interiors, preachers were at the forefront of the country’s interior-design revolution. While the evangelicals of the early 1800s frowned on ostentatious display, by midcentury the rapid expansion of the middle class meant most ministers were suddenly beholden to a newly affluent flock. They swiftly enshrined shopping as a moral obligation: if you were surrounded with beautiful things, you were less likely to commit sin. Some clerics even equated bad taste with “moral turpitude.” In this they found a secular ally, the design reformer Henry Cole, who organized an exhibit in London with a chamber of horrors featuring some of the most cherished decorative flourishes of the day. To live among “aesthetic atrocities” like chintz, faux marble and vases shaped like fish was to be exposed to a miasma of deceit.

The public was not amused; people liked their clutter. The backlash was immediate, helped along by other social changes. For most of the 19th century, men had made the decorating decisions, but with the growth of suburbia they commuted farther to work and spent less time at home, leaving these matters in the hands of their wives. Good housekeeping was followed, somewhat surprisingly, by suffrage, as women fought to enter the interior-design business and, simultaneously, the polls. In 1885, Emmeline Pankhurst, that “inveterate window-smasher and imprisoned hunger striker,” opened a furnishing shop.

If the ample collection of illustrations here is any indication, the attempt to rein in British bad taste failed miserably. Cohen warns at the outset that “readers will encounter in these pages much more about the ugly and the ephemeral than about the beautiful and the transcendent.” The pictures she has chosen are alternately delightful and horrifying. At the turn of the century, a precursor of Martha Stewart advised readers about the latest fad: munitions, preferably shipped “from stirring scenes of strife” and “carelessly grouped” with hanging brass lamps. The connoisseur was directed to acquire a “life-size Negro, dressed in the latest fashion, and sprawling in a cane chair.”

The era’s “excesses of individuality,” Cohen writes, were “a subject for admiration or despair, depending upon one’s perspective.” She appears to side with the admirers, ending with a regretful chapter on the “blandification” of modern British taste. Sales of a tepid shade of cream paint were, she notes bleakly, up 25 percent in 2005.

Ligaya Mishan is on the staff of The New Yorker.


Penelope Green, “Getaways for Stay-at-Homes,” New York Times, 7 December 2006.

Cohen “cheerfully explores a century of thinking about home in England”.


WHEN Oscar Wilde declared, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” he was giving impish voice to the cultural anxiety of Victorians who were newly awash in the stuff of the 19th-century manufacturing boom. Taste was a serious business, debated from the pulpit and in the university and the popular press, and even decorating magazines urged readers to buy furniture with care, so their choices wouldn’t adversely affect the moral health of their families and neighbors.

By the close of the 19th century, however, incredible prosperity had trumped piety, the department store (and the model room) had been invented and one’s things and how they were arranged were seen to be an expression of another new invention: personality.

These are the themes of HOUSEHOLD GODS: THE BRITISH AND THEIR POSSESSIONS (Yale University Press, $40), by Deborah Cohen, a historian at Brown University who cheerfully explores a century of thinking about home in England, from 1830 to 1930, with a focus on the raucous period of “bad taste” — when rooms become choked with bric-a-brac, draperies and dried flowers — around the turn of the century. The idea that one’s surroundings and possessions tell a story also runs riot through a teetering stack of home-minded books that are out just in time for the holidays. Some are solemn, some giddy, but all offer varying perspectives on the ways people’s things still define them.