The Modern Interior (review)
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The Modern Interior. By Penny Sparke. London: Reaktion Books, 2008; distributed by University of Chicago Press. Pp. 240. $29.95.

Books with modern or interior in the title are usually one of two types: surveys of stylistic movements meant for students’ bookshelves or illustrations of exclusive environments targeted at the coffee table. This book is neither. It is a serious text by a serious scholar of modernism, discussing an impressive number of publications on late-nineteenth, twentieth-, and now twenty-first-century design and its relationship to consumption and to gender. These are the topics analyzed here.

Penny Sparke’s entry into the argument seems an artifact of her earlier training in French literature, borrowing, if not always explicitly, from Walter Benjamin’s unfinished essay-sketches on nineteenth-century Paris arcades (The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin [1999]). Benjamin used these precursors of the enclosed shopping mall—simultaneously street and store, outdoors and in—to reflect on the nature of the marketplace, construction methods and materials, and the advent of domesticity. Sparke uses Benjamin (and the unacknowledged Jürgen Habermas) to reflect on the development of the modern interior as a “two-way movement between the private and the public spheres” (p. 16), which she traces to the exteriorization of the (male) workplace in the late nineteenth century and the increased interiorization of the (female) domestic environment. By the beginning of the twentieth century, she argues, the industrialized products and rationalized planning characteristic of the office and the factory floor were entering the home, while the comfortable attributes of home (among them pattern, plants, and soft seating) were making their way into tea shops and department stores, and are now found in sites as disparate as restaurants and medical facilities.

In Sparke’s presentation, the first penetration (public to private) happened when housewives responded to a characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement—moralistic criticism of Victorian aesthetics, and of themselves for countenancing such aesthetics—by becoming consumers. (This is not so frivolous a role as it may first appear, involving as it did, and does, a constellation [End Page 954] of financial transactions and communication methods.) Women are not assigned so explicit a role in the countermovement (private to public). Homes are another story: theory-driven architects (and, to a lesser extent, designers) used them as three-dimensional canvases for their visions of appropriate living patterns and spatial form. That their application of these theories was paternalistic, egoistic, and more than somewhat misogynistic goes unacknowledged. What is rightly acknowledged, however, is the effect of their theories on the aesthetic psyche in England and the United States, ubiquitously illustrated as they were through media that included international expositions, window displays, and printed advice. One of the results, Sparke says (without undue emphasis), was the adoption of one or more lifestyles recommended by the design elite and promoted by merchandisers.

Sparke’s text is less appropriate for those inquiring into technology’s effect on design than for those content with more familiar intersections of design and culture. Technological products and processes are mentioned rarely and indirectly: we are reminded that designers adapted the tubular handlebar to seating and are given a brief comparison of the assembly-line production of Fords and furniture. What all readers can admire is the rationalized presentation. By their nature, interactive constellations of events and attitudes are not best served by the linear treatment typical of design texts, and here we have multiple intersections of architectural theory and philosophy with domestic and commercial environments.

Even though Sparke does use chronology to locate human and architectural design icons, her real focus is the trends they represent. While she uses linearity to anchor particular points within her narrative, linear presentation cannot fully clarify the constellations of intersecting themes. To avoid wandering in what at first appears a repetitive universe, readers can profit by progressing not only from introduction through conclusion, but by following an alternative system of point and counterpoint. This is signaled in the table of contents, where we see that The Modern Interior offers a dichotomy of inside-out/outside-in, each half consisting of five chapters identical in...