The home as we understand it—not just a place to eat and sleep but also one that supports and enhances personal life and well-being—is a remarkably recent invention. The clean, comfortable private residence, which first proliferated in 17th-century republican Holland, was a tangible sign of the dawning Age of Reason and its educated middle class, embrace of progress, and recognition of human rights.
Joan DeJean’s claim that the French rather than the Dutch invented the modern home may tweak history. But DeJean, a professor of Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania and a historian of French culture, makes a strong case that between 1670 and 1765 Paris was the world’s capital for designing the stuff of life, from furniture to clothing. In The Age of Comfort, she traces this outpouring of creativity to a shift in cultural ideals from magnificence and public display to ease and private delight.
To appreciate France’s transition from la gloire to le commodité (cleanliness and convenience), one might revisit the splendid misery of aristocratic life as wonderfully depicted in Roberto Rossellini’s film The Rise of Louis XIV (1970). At court, everything was engineered for the public display of royal power and grandeur. Both sexes were uncomfortably dressed to the nines at all times. Rooms—including those used for sleeping—were large, more-or-less public spaces that opened directly onto each other and were sparsely furnished with hard chairs that enforced bolt-upright perching. Regarding hygiene, ooh la la! The malodorous hallways of Versailles were pocked with piles of human excrement.
Fed up, the Sun King’s descendants set about changing things. Perhaps in gratitude for the new flushing toilets and bathtubs with hot and cold running water at Versailles, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, gave him a bidet. The young aristocrats riddled their stately palaces with secret passages that led them to private lives in newly cozy, intimate rooms. They ordered the first padded armchairs and sofas with slanted backs that encouraged lounging, to say nothing of seduction, as well as the early armoires and chests of drawers that conveniently stored their many new possessions. Ladies shed the rigid, boned grand habit in favor of loose, kimono-inspired clothes made from the new lightweight, washable Indian cotton, so that they looked to one older noblewoman “as if they were dressed for bed.”
Nouveau riche financiers and real estate moguls followed the breezy young royals’ lead, and soon tourists flocked to Paris to ogle the chic goût moderne. By the turn of the 18th century, the new “interior decorators”—often upholsterers whose shops were the first furniture stores—were advising clients on cutting-edge “French taste,” which featured innovations such as large windows, white ceilings, and hardwood floors.
In a major architectural change, the upper-class home turned from the display of status and the past’s Classical splendor to an emphasis on the functions of daily life and the pleasures of the present. Smaller rooms meant for specific activities, such as sleeping and bathing, were connected by hallways that allowed privacy. In her boudoir—a feminine version of the male study—even a woman could read, write or gather her thoughts.
The Age of Comfort is most engaging when De Jean connects changes in design with shifts in what we’ve come to call “lifestyle.” Writing about the bedroom, for example, she suggests a link between the popularity of private sleeping chambers and hygienic plumbing and the increase in aristocratic couples who married for love and shared the same bed. At times, however, she shifts from this conversational, big-picture, cultural approach to highly technical discussions of “architect-designed seating,” say, or flawed heating systems in a way that can jar the general if not the scholarly reader.
By the 18th century, the French had mastered “l’art de vivre,” and in many circles their taste in such matters remains the dernier cri. On a deeper level, DeJean observes, their advances reinforced the idea of social progress and pose a chicken-or-egg question: “Is it possible that sofas and writing desks actually helped pass on a message of philosophical enlightenment?” But she also wonders if the era’s emphasis on private over public life presaged our own modern obsession with the self and its comforts and accoutrements.
Such musings aside, the historical record shows that when Thomas Jefferson, the ambassador of the revolutionary young nation poised to change the world, returned to America from Paris, he brought with him not only new ideas but also furnishings, clothing, and wines. The philosopher Voltaire, showing his compatriot’s characteristic scorn for false modesty, declared the France of the Enlightenment to be the “most civilized nation,” and, like Jefferson, readers of The Age of Comfort may find that they couldn't agree more.
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Winifred Gallagher's books include Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009) and House Thinking: A Room by Room Look at How We Live (2006).
Reviewed: "The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began" by Joan DeJean, Bloomsbury, 2009.
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