Josna Rege

256. Interior Design

In 2010s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Nature, parenting, Politics, reading, Stories, storytelling, United States, Work on April 10, 2014 at 8:17 pm

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

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As a child, one of my favorite books was E. (Edith) Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906). In one chapter, which stands out in my memory, the children use the magic amulet to go into the future, where a little boy takes them home with him. Here is a passage from that chapter:


mzs5ml3S3Z-r0eAiTHEckaQThe little boy brought them to a house, and at the window was a good, bright mother-face. The little boy rushed in, and through the window they could see him hugging his mother, then his eager lips moving and his quick hands pointing.

A lady in soft green clothes came out, spoke kindly to them, and took them into the oddest house they had ever seen. It was very bare, there were no ornaments, and yet every single thing was beautiful, from the dresser with its rows of bright china, to the thick squares of Eastern-looking carpet on the floors. I can’t describe that house; I haven’t the time. And I haven’t heart either, when I think how different it was from our houses. The lady took them all over it. The oddest thing of all was the big room in the middle. It had padded walls and a soft, thick carpet, and all the chairs and tables were padded. There wasn’t a single thing in it that anyone could hurt itself with.

‘What ever’s this for?—lunatics?’ asked Cyril.

The lady looked very shocked.

‘No! It’s for the children, of course,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me that in your country there are no children’s rooms.’

‘There are nurseries,’ said Anthea doubtfully, ‘but the furniture’s all cornery and hard, like other rooms.’

‘How shocking!’ said the lady;’you must be VERY much behind the times in your country! Why, the children are more than half of the people; it’s not much to have one room where they can have a good time and not hurt themselves.’

‘But there’s no fireplace,’ said Anthea.

‘Hot-air pipes, of course,’ said the lady. ‘Why, how could you have a fire in a nursery? A child might get burned.’

‘In our country,’ said Robert suddenly, ‘more than 3,000 children are burned to death every year. Father told me,’ he added, as if apologizing for this piece of information, ‘once when I’d been playing with fire.’

The lady turned quite pale.

‘What a frightful place you must live in!’ she said. ‘What’s all the furniture padded for?’ Anthea asked, hastily turning the subject.

‘Why, you couldn’t have little tots of two or three running about in rooms where the things were hard and sharp! They might hurt themselves.’

Robert fingered the scar on his forehead where he had hit it against the nursery fender when he was little.

‘But does everyone have rooms like this, poor people and all?’ asked Anthea.

‘There’s a room like this wherever there’s a child, of course,’ said the lady. ‘How refreshingly ignorant you are!—no, I don’t mean ignorant, my dear. Of course, you’re awfully well up in ancient History. But I see you haven’t done your Duties of Citizenship Course yet.’

from Chapter 12, The Story of the Amulet

It may come as no surprise that Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society. But in the long passage quoted above, what struck me most powerfully as a child was that that society of the future was child-centered; that not only was the inside of that home more beautiful than any they had ever seen, but everything was designed with the safety of children as the highest priority. Anything less would have been considered criminal. Ever since, I have felt strongly that the twin principles of beauty and utility—both form and function, the aesthetic and the ethical—should guide all interior design. Our father built almost all our furniture, and as an architect and city planner—an architect for the artistry, a planner for its usefulness to real people—his approach to design reinforced E. Nesbit’s utopian vision in my mind.

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While staying in Germany this past week I have been repeatedly impressed by the ingenuity of the design of everyday items in the home, electric outlets and power strips, light switches, electric kettles and refrigerators, designs for showers and for toilets. I have also been impressed by the importance given—in equal measure, it seems—to comfort and pleasure as well as to safety and convenience in furniture, appliances, and household décor in general.

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Why is it that so many household items in the United States are dangerous as well as difficult to use? How much additional thought would it take to give some consideration to the end-user during the design process? The power outlets in Germany are usually recessed, so that the plug does not protrude so far or fall out so easily. Electric lights and flush toilets have large, flat easy-to-press plates that allow for no-hands operation, rather than fiddly toggle switches and flush handles; electric kettles have clear interior markings to indicate different volumes of water; refrigerators have warning sounds to remind you to close the door; and shower heads easily slide up and down and rotate to left and right on a vertical pole.

P1050622Why can’t comfort and beauty go hand in hand? I have never seen so much beautiful furniture as I have this week in Germany. Bauhaus, the German art school that set design trends throughout Europe from 1919-1933, believed that there should be no distinction between fine art and applied art. In their Manifesto, they say that “It is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting—and much more useful.” Admittedly, the red leather couch depicted above is probably priced out of many people’s reach; still, I wanted to include it here not only because it’s deliciously comfortable, but also because it couldn’t be further from the clunky recliners they sell in the States that look like medieval torture devices (not to mention being plain old ugly). In E. Nesbit’s utopian society recliner manufacturers would have been called to account for their products’ danger to the children who had been hurt or killed by them. Let’s envision homes in which form and function are both integrated into an elegant, useful, affordable, and environmentally sound interior design.

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Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. I’ve noticed the same thing while traveling abroad! Have you noticed anything about the windows? In houses I visited in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, the windows had two ways of opening; if the horizontal lever was swiveled upward, the top of the window detached from above and opened, inward, about a foot; if the horizontal lever was swiveled downward, the window could open like a door (it may have been the other way around, come to think of it…)! And then there were the dish racks in cabinets above the sink! So simple, so efficient. It quietly shouted “mindfulness” to me. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes, Morgan! I thought about including the window design, but I wasn’t quite sure yet how to operate them! You describe it beautifully. And yes, it reflects such attentiveness to the user and the use. Thank you for this comment, and your other, sweet one a couple of weeks back. Sorry I haven’t gotten round to replying yet; it came just as I was getting ready to leave on this trip. But I was so touched by what you said. Take care and be well, J

  3. The first time the window opened from the top, I ducked and covered my head — I thought it was The End! Lots of love, and enjoy your travels!

  4. I love that couch! Safe travels.

  5. Sounds wonderful. I wish the designs were available here at a reasonable price. I seem to be losing my ability to comment. Sorry.

    • Yes, Kristin, that’s just it. One can get these things in the U.S., but only at premium prices. Why is it that the norm has to be ugly and inefficient, easy to break down and hard to use? (And don’t worry about the shortness of the comments. I’m always delighted to receive yours, and humbled that you make the time. It’s hard enough to manage to write a post every day, let alone comment on many others’; I too feel that I’m losing my words.)

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