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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 204-227

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Gimme Shelter: At Home with the Millennium

Chris Cullens *


What Foucault found to be true for the histories of sexuality, criminality, and sanity, is exemplified as well in the history of modernist art, architecture and design. The domestic, perpetually invoked in order to be denied, remains throughout the course of modernism a crucial site of anxiety and subversion.

(Reed 16)

Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are "housed." Our soul is an abode. And, by remembering "houses" and "rooms," we learn to abide within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them.

(Bachelard xxxvii)

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in the branch of the popular periodicals industry known, now, as shelter publications. A cursory survey of the local newsstand, bookstore, or even supermarket will yield not only the traditional standbys, including Better Homes and Gardens, House and Garden, Interiors, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest, but also specialized issues addressing everything from Feng Shui for modern living, to the American bungalow, to complete do-it-yourself kitchen and bathroom remodels, as well as, increasingly, the British, French, Italian, and Australian interior design spin-offs of international conglomerates like Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire. This expansion has [End Page 204] been paralleled by the book industry's attention to this field: certain companies, such as Taschen, Stewart Tabori and Chang, Rizzoli, Chronicle Press, and Crescent, have made lavishly illustrated interior design and "lifestyle" volumes a high-profile part of their total imprint. Over two decades ago Terence Conran (now Sir Terence) led the way in showing how publication could be joined to chain retailing to educate a generation of ready consumers in the acquisition and deployment of affordable good design. In his wake, lifestyle mavens, including Martha Stewart, the more countrified Mary Lou Emmerling, and Tricia Guild in Britain, have built personal empires around advising magazine and book buyers on every aspect of gracious domestic existence. Furthermore, the preoccupation with shelter has been absorbed by other, nontraditional informational channels. Almost twenty years ago, CNN's fashion reporter Elsa Klensch realized that interior design could furnish excellent material for "infotainment"; now "the 24-hour demand for home design shows" is supplied by a specialized network, HGTV ("TV Decorating" 28). Finally, e-commerce has also moved quickly into furniture and home item retailing. The current public preoccupation with domestic space and artefacts is in fact so noticeable that it has led Andrée Putman, decorating doyenne of high-twentieth-century minimalism, to declare in an interview:

"We don't have so many fashion victims anymore. Now you have an amazing amount of design victims. . . . The dictates come from the interior and product designers now: 'You must have this.' . . . The 1980s made designers like gurus. We've replaced intellectuals; we're like a sect. Some of us are like rock stars." (132)

Putman's observations suggest that what Gaston Bachelard referred to in The Poetics of Space as "topophilia" remains an affectively powerful, and perhaps oppressively disciplinary, as well as economically lucrative, drive. Bachelard's mid-century poetics of "felicitous space" lent legitimacy to a "topoanalysis" defined as "the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives" (8). In practice, "felicitous space" meant inhabited space, because it is in this space, according to Bachelard, that "the imagination," securely sheltered and granted the solitude for reverie, takes root. Famously asserting that "the unconscious is housed," and moreover that "it is well and happily housed, in the space of its happiness," Bachelard celebrated the primal sense of individual (Well-)Being that reigns "in a sort of earthly paradise of matter, dissolved in the comforts [End Page 205] of an adequate matter" (10, 7). Hence his consideration encompasses domestic sites and quotidian objects ranging from houses, cellars, garrets, corners, and rooms to closets, drawers, locks, caskets, and boxes. While Bachelard's analysis generally ignored, or domesticated, issues of labor, gender...


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pp. 204-227
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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