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15 November 2022

What our homes reveal about ourselves

Living Rooms explores what domestic spaces say about class and belonging, from chintz to cleanfluencers.

By Matthew Lloyd Roberts

Our anxiety about fashionable décor and what it says about our place in the world has a long history. In the 1750s Adam Fitz-Adam surveyed the state of the Georgian interior in his acerbic polemic The World: “A few years ago every thing was Gothic; our houses, our beds, our book-cases, and our couches were all copied from some parts or other of our old cathedrals… According to the present prevailing whim every thing is Chinese, or in the Chinese taste: Chairs, tables, chimney-pieces, frames for looking-glasses, and even our most vulgar utensils are all reduced to this new-fangled standard.”

The pace of fashion has been accelerated by 21st-century media. Sunset lamps, “cottagecore” and “Japandi” (a fusion of Japanese and Scandinavian style): on the internet, fads supersede each other at a rate of which Country Living could only dream. With this intensification comes new problems for the consumer determined to remain ahead of the trends.

But addressing the world of interior design in these shallow terms leaves us with a niggling sense that we are missing something important. This is certainly the case for Sam Johnson-Schlee, the author of Living Rooms, which explores domestic space and what it reveals about our relationship with capitalism, gliding with ease from Constable to Ikea, Gracie Fields to A$AP Rocky. It is a book that wears its deep scholarship lightly, as Johnson-Schlee relates ideas from psychoanalysis or the writings of Walter Benjamin to the life of the contemporary home.

Johnson-Schlee’s book often uses his grandparents’ homes as a starting point for its explorations of interiors. It is an approach that feels intuitive: our grandparents’ houses, in offering glimpses of the past, are often the first places in which we understand that there are different ways of decorating and organising our homes, and that those differences might reveal something about fashion and class.

My maternal grandmother grew up in an ancient farmhouse in rural Norfolk with no electricity or running water; her whole bedroom, she would tell me, would rock lightly back-and-forth on particularly stormy nights. I only knew her, though, in the home she made with my grandfather: a perfect time-capsule of home-counties Sixties chic with G Plan furniture and souvenirs from business trips to China. I remember, as Johnson-Schlee does, the “sweet slippery sensation of socks on a parquet floor”.

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Johnson-Schlee uses this bank of intimate and sensory memories to great effect. The key idea of the book is that the materials of domestic comfort contain within them the traces of a thousand hours of labour, disguised from us by what Marx termed the commodity fetish. And yet, Johnson-Schlee argues, the fabrics, houseplants and picture frames of our homes also signal the potential of a different way of living, broken free from capitalist modes of production.

[See also: Books of the year 2022]

At his paternal grandparents’ house in Essex, the aesthetic of chintz offers a radical perspective on the alienation of labour. “Chintz” originally meant a florid, woodblock-printed fabric hailing from central India. It posed such a threat to European clothing manufacturers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the governments of England and France imposed bans in the form of protectionist trade policy disguised as sumptuary laws – part of the crisis of taste and geopolitics evoked by Fitz-Adam’s screed against chinoiserie.

Quickly imperial exploitation and industrialisation led to British firms replicating the designs of Asian fabrics. By the mid-19th century George Eliot was complaining of the “chintzy” look of British-manufactured cloth. The word no longer signified desirable imported goods; instead it had come to connote the pale imitations made in the sweatshop mills of Lancashire. From this place of snobbish dismissal, Johnson-Schlee recovers the liberating potential of the aesthetic. For his grandparents “the dream of chintz was not of [a] distant place, but of the immanent world of work transformed into a site of endless bounty”. The tender aesthetic of their interiors allowed this working-class family, derided for their doilies and their Constable biscuit tins, to appropriate a “Victorian bourgeois dream of rural life and make it their own. They were constructing a utopia from bits and pieces.”

Ikea’s 1996 advert campaign waged a war against this joy in the intricate and soft, urging women to “chuck out the chintz” and thus gain liberation from dusting and the proletarian associations of this degraded aesthetic. Of course this chic minimalism is itself an attempt to disguise labour, by globally dispersing manufacturing, and proclaiming the end of domestic work. Johnson-Schlee deftly connects the Ikea campaign to the transformation of the Victorian terraced house into a financial asset; chintz is anathema to the estate agent, whereas “magnolia meant that a house was always ready to go onto the market”. It makes me remember hours spent on my paternal grandparents’ carpet, pudgy fingers deep in the psychedelic whorls of the brown shag, while my Nain endlessly polished ornamental brass tack, muscle memory from her youth spent in domestic service at the “big house”.

Elsewhere Living Rooms turns to the domestic scene in social media, particularly the “cleanfluencer” Mrs Hinch who, along with her enormous grey velvet sofa, has become an Instagram phenomenon. The sofa, as if itself placed on the analyst’s couch, is subject to a reading that zips from tropical hardwoods to Scottish lakes, from the petrochemical-industrial complex to the sweatshops of Bangladesh. Johnson-Schlee is never patronising but instead reflects incisively on the perverse pleasures of watching celebrity influencers perform domestic labour: “Every one of Mrs Hinch’s followers wants a clean house, but they are also dreaming of wages for housework.”

The greatest strength of Johnson-Schlee’s writing is its profound empathy. When discussing the work of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott he relates the case study of a young boy who would compulsively tie together his furniture with string, a sublimated attempt to regroup a family drifting apart. Living Rooms is a similar exercise: it takes disparate lives and objects and binds them back together. Through it we can start to see beyond the churn of fashion, towards the innumerable lives of labour that comprise our own domestic comfort – and we can begin to contemplate how that comfort might be extended to all.

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