Forget this ah…wilderness, back to nature stuff! Get with the real, the civilizing program. Why does everyone I know recoil in horror when I show them pictures of rococo interiors or drag them into the Met period rooms? How far we have come from our roots. The book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean recalls them to us, with style.
The 18th century English may have had the edge in satire, hands down (French caricatures of the time seem to me to be crude in comparison with what the Brits were able to produce; see Gatrell’s book and these posts) but the French had it in the style realm. Ms. DeJean’s book narrates how our homes came to be what they are, why French style has been synonymous with style for so long, and reveals the origin of toilets (no, the English did not invent them), blinds and curtain treatments, sofas, armchairs, night tables, bidets and boudoirs, living rooms, reading rooms, and the whole notion that one’s architectural surroundings should encourage a way of life, or reflect one’s consciously held values of the good life.
She describes the rise of cotton as the darling of the fashion industry, indeed, the rise of a fashion industry is itself a part of her subject. Looking at 18th century images of people today we may feel they are over dressed and formal, but compared to their fathers and mothers, they were practically naked. Such freedom – as Rousseau said, man born free, is everywhere in chains… Is the first step towards liberty to dress well? No wonder Oscar Wilde was so fond of French culture.
Today, such philosophical notions are part of the standard training of architects and architectural historians, but their origin is usually traced to the Bauhaus, the Functionalist idea, William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement. Who would have joined Morris in a spiritual marriage with Francois Boucher, but they are brothers under the skin after all. Decoration was an almost ethical pursuit for the Age of Comfort: it emodied ideals of life, leisure, sex, romance, and the development of the intellectual and moral self. So much for rococo frivolity! What could be more serious than pleasure!