The Relentless Rise of Coffee-Table Cults

Mar 16 2007
The Times Higher Education Supplement
John Storey

Household Gods is engagingly written, well researched and beautifully illustrated.”
It is a commonplace to say we now live in an age of home makeover and do-it-yourself television programmes and at a time when more people go to DIY stores than go to church. Deborah Cohen's wonderful book begins by describing the effort by the Reverend Mark Rylands to reverse these trends. His strangely inappropriately titled "Get a Life" campaign aims to bring God back into our supposedly irreligious consumer culture.

But, as Cohen notes, the pastor is just the latest in a long line of those who see it as their duty to rail against the corrupting influence of earthly consumption. The struggle between godliness and consumerism is at least four centuries old. Although this struggle has a long history, it has probably never seemed so unbalanced in favour of those who worship what Cohen calls "household gods".

The turning point in the struggle is the 19th century. As Cohen explains, it is in the early 19th century that "house-pride came to define what it meant to be British". This may be a slight exaggeration, but it points to a historical truth: it is in the 19th century that modern Britain, recognisable as such, begins to emerge.

Inevitably, given the nature of the 19th century, much of Cohen's story is focused on middle-class self-fashioning; describing what Thorstein Veblen would call at the end of the century "conspicuous consumption". It is only in the second part of the 20th century that the use of consumption becomes, inside and outside the home, a more widespread means of articulating cultural identity. However, unlike more traditional approaches to the subject, Cohen does not discuss only the canonical figures of design history and the objects and things of aesthetic excellence. Her critical narrative embraces the everyday discourses of fashion and demand, and thus includes what many influential voices would dismiss as bad taste. She is very explicit about the implications this has for her historical account.

"Readers will encounter in these pages much more about the ugly and the ephemeral than about the beautiful and the transcendent." And rightly so.

Too often cultural histories, especially literary and filmic ones, focus only on the good texts, and in so doing misrepresent the past.

Household Gods presents a fascinating history of the British domestic interior and its relation to the turbulent terrain of class, status and taste. It reveals a world of objects and things that tell us much about how people responded to the unprecedented productive power of industrialisation, but also about how they sought out objects and things as a means to articulate their sense of individual and group identity in a world that seemed determined to flatten everything and everyone into banal conformity. It was (and still is) against such demands that people used patterns of consumption to insist on difference, and, it has to be said, at times new forms of conformity. In this vital conversation with the world, objects and things had a cultural and social life unimagined by their makers.

Household Gods is engagingly written, well researched and beautifully illustrated. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of consumption, especially in terms of its articulation with domestic space and the making of cultural identities.

John Storey is director of the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, Sunderland University.