Monday, 31 December 2018

What is comfort?

Interior of Ralph Lauren's Office
“During the six years of my architectural education the subject of comfort was mentioned only once.” Witold Rybczynski, Foreword to Home: A short history of an idea (1986).

This is a fascinating notion, yet Rybczynski’s book is not entitled “comfort” but “home”. The author loosely equates home with comfort throughout the book, but unfortunately, he doesn’t give a definition of either term, so we readers have to hunt around to work out what he means. He admits his own study is untidy but states “there is comfort in this confusion”, and then adds “hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kind of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior design and architectural magazines”. In other words, comfort is for the author contrasted with sterility.

Finally, right at the end of his book, he returns to the term “comfort”, which he states approximates to “a domestic atmosphere that is instantly recognisable for its ordinary, human qualities”.  He continues:

“Domestic comfort involves a range of attributes – convenience, efficiency, leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy and privacy – all of which contribute to the experience; common sense will do the rest. Most people – 'I may not know why I like it, but I know what I like' – recognize comfort when they experience it.”

This is sloppy thinking. My subjective comfort may not be your comfort; what if we judged books on the basis of how nice they make us feel? The utilitarians had enough difficulty trying to work out how much good an action did, quite apart from how good something makes us feel; it’s hardly the way to have an informed discussion. For example, the author ignores “efficiency” for most of the book, yet suddenly includes it in his list of attributes of comfort.  What is efficient about a Chippendale chair? When he describes images of contemporary comfort, he uses Ralph Lauren interiors as a model. These interiors, available in four themes, “Log Cabin”, “Thoroughbred”, “New England”, and “Jamaica”, sound as fake and kitsch as the titles suggest. The interiors (and Lauren's own office  suggests something similar) look like a commercial. If that is comfort, give me a prison cell any day.

The author admits that “comfort” has changed over time – although he never examines in detail what constituted “comfortable” for the inhabitants of the many domestic interiors he describes. When Odysseus returns home after many years, he is not recognized by anyone in his own house except for his dog, which recognizes him and wags its tail. Perhaps that is what some people mean by “home” – nothing to do with interior design at all.

The author tries to distinguish “comfort” from “the idea of comfort” (p32), but this doesn’t really help. He claims that medieval humans had different priorities: “it is not so much that in the Middle Ages comfort was unknown … but rather that it was not needed” (p35). That is highly suggestive, but not followed up in this book. If ideas of comfort have changed over the centuries, then why do we judge the Durer engraving of St Jerome in his study by present-day standards of comfort?

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