When the Modern Home Began

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We take many things for granted in our homes. As the new year approaches, I've been able to catch up on some reading and was able to go through Joan DeJean's fascinating bookThe Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual -- And the Modern Home Began. DeJean traces the layout of our homes back to 17th Century France with the first sofas on record.

Imagine life without a sofa! Well, can you imagine what life was like when the first ones came into the home? The sofa completely changed the way families lived and turned everything we know about interior space upside down. The sofa single-handedly

  • brought comfort and casualness into the home
  • introduced the first piece of furniture designed to accommodate two people
  • contributed to an awakening of conversation between people in a room
  • invited courtship, wooing, and seduction between couples
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This time in France saw an amazing revolution in the way people live, with architects, the first interior designers, stylish trendsetters, and two royal mistresses (the Marquise de Maintenon and the Marquise de Pompadour) leading the charge. This era also saw the introduction of bathrooms (tubs with hot water and the flush toilet), living rooms, convenience furniture, home heating, and private bedrooms!

Fascinating Snippets from The Age of Comfort

The private bedroom acquired its distinctive personality between 1710 and 1730. Gone were the balustrades and columns. As visible proof of the room's new mission, the bed was tucked away in a cozy niche or nook (literally a recessed portion of the room) -- hence the new room's name: a chambre en niche, or niche bedroom. The niche bed was placed sideways in the niche rather than facing out into the room and was thus protected from drafts, thereby eliminating the need for heavy curtains.

We don't know how many modern bathrooms and tubs resulted from water's easier availability, although in 1782 still another expert did claim that "the public's new predilection for very frequent baths" meant that "every new home now includes a bathroom." At the very highest end of the new bathroom spectrum belong the spaces created for that great bath fanatic the Marquise de Pompadour. . . . The marquise [see photo below] had her first bath built [at Versailles] in 1747-1748. It had green and white marble tiles and a single tub, with the tanks and heater on the floor above. On September 11, 1748, a master metalworker named Martin delivered a "faucet shaped like a swan's neck" for the tub. From then on, everywhere she went, Pompadour immediately ripped out the old bath. Thus, when she took over the Hotel d'Evreaux, she moved the bathing suite from its original location near the fabulous garden to a more modern spot, off her bedroom.

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Between 1675 and 1740, people went from living with only a few stiff chairs with no padding to being literally surrounded by a truly dizzying array of well-stuffed and padded, curvy, and "orthopedically" proportioned seats: from armchairs and sofas to daybeds and chaises longues. And this new seat furniture -- the first true designer furniture, the first furniture ever designed with comfort in mind -- was abundant, present in all interior rooms (even bathrooms), so that private life could be carried out in perfect ease. In addition, the original modern seat furniture positively forced people into a new take on life. Stuffy, formal ways were swept away as soon as straight-backed seating was replaced by designs in which it was impossible to sit bolt upright, designs that for the first time ever made more casual posture the norm. Well-padded seats encouraged people to lean back, even to lounge. They forced the French, formerly the most magnificent people in Europe, to learn to relax. The new seat furniture, in short, was responsible for a revolution in style, lifestyle, and consumerism on a scale rarely equaled.

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By 1738, one thing was absolutely clear: the building boom that had reconfigured the cityscape of Paris was over. If French architecture was to remain prominent, a new direction had to be found. Interior decoration was thus brought to the rescue to teach people that even if they had a new home, they could not simply rest on their laurels: its interior style had to be kept up-to-date.

By the mid-eighteenth century, interior decoration had become what we think of as a field. For the first time, objects were valued not as dazzling showstoppers, but for their ability to work in a context and thereby to make a room into both a personal statement and a place that enhanced and facilitated daily life. For the first time, there were individuals whose business it was to help others choose their decoration, to have objects made to fit their clients' interiors, and to arrange them in their homes. For the first time, the world of style opened up to design in a new sense of the word, one that included the arts of design, those based on the union between form and function. The new field also gave official recognition to the fact that French craftsmen and designers were establishing the first industry of the decorative arts.

Jay JohnsonComment