- The Poetic Home: Designing the 19th-Century Domestic Interior by Stefan Muthesius
The First word that springs to mind about this book is “magisterial,” not only in terms of its size and weight but also in terms of scholarly depth. The Poetic Home represents an act of faith and commitment on the part of Thames and Hudson, particularly so in a time when we are often forced by our publishers to “cut our coats according to our cloth” and reduce illustrations to the barest minimum. Flying in the face of this trend is this beautiful, high-quality publication, printed on the finest stock, with attractively typeset text and 396 illustrations, 120 of them in colour. In terms of value it easily matches—in both physical and scholarly heft—its precursor tomes, such as Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau (1964), Peter [End Page 239] Thornton’s Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior 1620–1920 (1984), and Charlotte Gere’s Nineteenth-Century Decoration: The Art Of The Interior (1989). Reasonably priced and weighing in at several kilos, this book will become required reading for any student of the Victorian period.
The Poetic Home is a sort of Origin of Species for the modern home. It achieves nothing less than the answer to the thorny question of how today’s personalized, individualized interior came into being, tracing it back to key shifts in the concept of home that occurred in Europe in the nineteenth century. In a sequence of closely argued points encompassing broad-ranging social, political, cultural, and artistic factors, Muthesius traces the evolution of various qualities that contributed to the “poetic home.” The Victorians, he argues, developed new vocabularies to convey these qualities, and their meanings will still be familiar to amateur and professional homemakers seeking advice and inspiration today. These qualities—colour, flatness, texture, atmosphere, and character—helped support the modern phenomenon of the psychologically moving interior, which, as a concept, progressed, slowly at first and then with greater rapidity, throughout the nineteenth century. The uniquely individual spaces that resulted provided the right mood and support for individual self-reflection within the hustle and bustle of peaking industrialization and urbanization across Europe and North America.
The nineteenth-century home (poetic, psychologically sympathetic, and private) replaced the eighteenth-century home, where both ordinary and aristocratic dwellings contained multi-purpose spaces that could be zoned as private or public according to whim and that were pierced by holes and spaces for voyeurism, according to Robert Darnton and Jean Marie Goulemot (1996 and 1994, respectively). In contrast, the nineteenth-century home tied decor and occupational use tightly to the mental, physical, and spiritual sphere of the family and to the concept of refuge from the outside world.
Muthesius argues that the seeds of the psychologically moving interior were sown through the “elevation of the home by moralists, sociologists and poets, as well as by designers, to a position where the notion of lowness no longer applied” (27). The home could be thought of as resembling a poem—that is, its appearance could influence the mood and psychological well-being of the occupant. As Muthesius explains in the introduction, while not blind to identity frameworks such as race, class, and gender, he is mainly interested in a sustained interrogation of the advice and trade literature on the home in the period and what such literature reflects about changing concepts of interiority.
The Poetic Home demonstrates strengths over and above its great seriousness and comprehensiveness in regard to the genesis of the poetic home; for example, it focuses genuinely on the whole of the nineteenth century. Muthesius gives equal weight to developments in the home in the 1820s as he does to the home at the end of the century (when historical records are more plentiful). Thus the book also offers required reading for those whose focus is on the long nineteenth century. [End Page 240]
Muthesius’s superb illustrations are drawn primarily from trade journals and pattern books and...