Friday, 19 September 2014

Don't let pictures clutter your house!

George Nelson & Henry Wright Tomorrow's House: A complete guide for the home-builder Simon & Schuster 1945

I picked up this hybrid how-to book/manifesto for modernism at a London flea market because it had some good pictures of modernist houses. But there's some wonderfully ridiculous accompanying text that mixes chummy helpfulness with supercilious bossiness, a sort of Alain de Botton of its time. There's a whole section on pictures, which I'm sharing because it's so hilariously ridiculous. It's also rather revealing of a certain strain of authoritarian modernism prevalent at the time. Read with horror:
"Pictures on the wall are another, and a particularly irritating, way of cluttering up interiors. The pictures in most houses are so appallingly ugly or commonplace that it is impossible to understand how they got there in the first place. ... A picture is not a decoration. It represents in a limited area some experience an artist has had which, when communicated to other people, gives them a certain amount of pleasure and a better understanding of the world around them. In this sense a picture is not entirely unlike a book. But who would sit and read the same book over and over and over again day in and year out?" 
Pictures, just irritating clutter! They tells us, "anyone with eyes in his head and a minimum of honesty must confess that any picture, however fine, becomes boring if looked at for very long." The solution? Storage cabinets! You can keep "a dozen or a hundred favorite pictures" in a storage unit and rotate them. 
"Whether they are originals or reproductions, incidentally, doesn't matter a bit, except to those snobs who are unable to appreciate art except in terms of how much it costs. The reproductions on the market today, so many of which are the same size as the original and very faithful in their rendering of color and even of texture, are just as good from the viewpoint of the average man as the originals. This is indicated clearly enough by the fact that you can't tell half the time whether you are looking at an original or reproduction until you are about six inches away from it - and who wants to look at a picture at a distance of six inches?" 
And you don't need to worry about storing frames. They can stay on the wall - just change the pictures! "With four frames of different sizes ... you could change your pictures whenever you wanted to, and in about the same way that museums have always done it." Yeah, that's how they do it ... leave the frames on the wall and swap the canvases around from time to time.

The Alain de Botton bit comes in with the contextualising: "We are not interested in passing on home decorating advice - useful as such an activity may be. the purpose of this book is to build up an attitude towards the house and all of its parts, an attitude which will help produce a living design adapted in every way to the physical and emotional requirements of the family." So there!

It's all quite amusing, and we can look back on it as harmless fun. But if there's a lesson for today, it's that we should be careful of being too absolutist about new fashions. That glib attribution of snobbery to those with different views is all too familiar today, too. And I suspect many of our fads will come to seem just as ridiculous. 

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