Home Stories

Weil am Rhein

12 February 2020

In 2009, the financial software provider and publisher Bloomberg proposed a “Billy bookcase index”, a measure by which relative price and levels of inflation could be compared across countries. Billy, a bookcase designed by Gillis Lundgren for Ikea in 1979, had sold some 41m units by that time, and the size and geographical scale of Ikea’s retail empire made it a useful tool with which to compare the state of, say, the Slovakian economy ($39.35 on the Billy bookcase index) with Egypt’s ($101.55).

Billy opens Home Stories: 100 Years, 20 Visionary Interiors, a new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum examining the evolution of the modern Western interior. The curator Jochen Eisenbrand and assistant curator Anna-Mea Hoffmann have displayed the bookcase in an exploded fashion. Each of its constituent elements – which are designed to be easily assembled from a flat-pack – are suspended in a net-like layout. Next to Billy is a wall of framed Ikea catalogue covers ranging from the 1970s to the present day. At an annual edition of more than 210m copies, it is one of the world’s largest publications. In 2017, Ikea reported that Billy sales had exceeded 60m units.

We begin in the present day, then. In broad strokes, furniture is cheap, vaguely Scandinavian-looking, and identical whether you’re in Cairo or Bratislava. Home Stories is told through reverse chronology, with the first room setting out some of the pressures being exerted on domestic space today. It is not only transnational mega-retailers that are making our interiors more alike, Eisenbrand suggests. “The observation of how Airbnb leads to the commodification of the interior and is making it more homogenous is something we would have liked to have featured in the exhibition,” he explains. One project that was considered for inclusion is multidisciplinary designer Ioana Man’s 30 Listed Bedrooms, a superimposition of photos from Airbnb bedrooms in London, Brighton, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Together, these photographs create a strangely uniform picture – Airbnb has given rise to its very own anodyne aesthetic.

Ioana Man, 30 listed bedrooms. London, Brighton, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai (2014). IMAGE courtesy of Ioana Man.

While 30 Listed Bedrooms ultimately didn’t make it into the display, the curators point to other implications of the platform and its commodification of domestic space. A ballooning rental economy and housing shortages mean that we are living in tighter spaces: Spanish studio Elii’s hyper-compact 33sqm Yojigen Poketto Apartment, represented in the show by a video demonstration of the space’s numerous configurations, stands as an example of the high-end “micro-living” solutions that have arisen in response.

Here lies the challenge faced by the curators. Home Stories wishes to “highlight important societal, political, urban, and technical shifts that have shaped the design and the use of the Western interior”, but does so using interiors commissioned by patrons of considerable means (Billy is one of a few notable exceptions). These interiors make for great viewing in the form of tasteful videos and photographic footage (watching Yojigen Poketto folding in on itself like a piece of origami is undeniably satisfying), but it is debatable how well they represent the domestic spaces of the vast majority of people experiencing the societal changes that interest the curators.

As visitors proceed through Home Stories, this tension between the exhibition’s anthropological ambitions and its emphasis on canonical design history becomes evident. Thoroughly familiar interiors by Verner Panton, Mies van der Rohe, Josef Frank, and Adolf Loos are dotted throughout the display. They are wonderful, and presented expertly with the help of exhibition designers Space Caviar’s modular cork and steel podia – but it’s worth noting that they were created for trade fairs (Panton’s Visiona 2 was made for the 1970 furniture fair in Cologne) and wealthy patrons (Villas Tugendhat, Beer, and Müller). These were rarefied contexts whose relationship to broader political developments is difficult to pin down.

At the same time, the curators wish to point to the wider social forces acting on interior design. The section covering the 1960s to the 80s is entitled ‘Rethinking the Interior’. “There was a disruption of the interior in the 60s and 70s,” says Eisenbrand, “where the interiors reflected the changes happening in society.” Most notably for thinking about the interior, perhaps, was the radical reconfiguration of family relationships that took place in many Western countries, something that registered in a surge in collective living in the 1970s. No mention is made of this in Home Stories, but perhaps the Vitra Design Museum feels it has already tackled the topic in previous shows.

Instead, we encounter some iconic interiors from the period which did, in many ways, upend a number of design conventions – even if some of those conventions might be considered quite useful. For instance, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio’s Maison Parent (1973-74), shown in Home Stories through archival materials and a large-scale photograph, was an exercise in “oblique architecture”, which declared the vertical and horizontal planes obsolete, and mandated the sole use of tilted surfaces instead. This was the era of total interiors whose ambitions were a total transformation of social life.

Claude Parent, Maison Parent, Neuilly-sur-Seine (1973-74). IMAGE courtesy of Vitra Design Museum.

Later, the Italian design collective Memphis (founded 1980) flew in the face of received ideas about good taste and form, with its riotous kindergarten palette and obsessive emphasis on (plastic laminate) surface. Memphis’s work was soon embraced by collectors such as Karl Lagerfeld, whose 1983 apartment in Monte Carlo is represented in Home Stories through photography and a number of iconic furniture pieces. Seeing Ettore Sottsass’ Carlton bookcase and Martine Bedin’s Super Lamp (both 1981) reflected in Space Caviar’s stainless steel exhibition podia gives visitors a sense of the kaleidoscopic experience of stepping into a flat furnished entirely with Memphis furniture.

But it is the curators’ choice to display images and films from Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory in this section that feels closer to the anthropological ambitions of the show. This was the first site of Warhol’s Factory from 1964-67, a Manhattan loft which the photographer and lighting designer Billy Name covered in tin foil and silver spray paint. It was the backdrop to more than 500 of Warhol's Screen Tests and ushered in a new vogue for big city loft living, according to Eisenbrand and Hoffmann. While not “part of the canon,” in Vitra Design Museum director Mateo Kries’s words, it arguably marked a significant shift in how people thought about aspirational interiors.

Stepping further back into time, the section of Home Stories covering the postwar decades revolves around two opposing poles. On the one hand, postwar designers, architects, and interior decorators sought to open up the home to its natural surrounds: Finn Juhl’s home in Ordrupgaard (1941) and Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro outside São Paulo (1951) are chosen to exemplify this, their light-filled open-plan interiors and emphasis on natural materials in furnishings having achieved the much-desired “blurring of interior and exterior space” that is lauded by designers and architects to this day.

On the other hand, postwar reconstruction brought about a boom in the mass production of consumer goods in the Western world. “Technology really entered into the household,” says Hoffmann, “often via the kitchen”. Here, a display centred around the Kitchen Debate – an impromptu argument between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow – is a compelling example of how the home, its furnishings, and our behaviour in it can be instrumentalised for political purposes.

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev debating in the prefab house X-61 (Splitnik) at the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959). IMAGE Picture Alliance/AP Images.

Nixon: I want to show you this kitchen. It is like those of our houses in California.
Khrushchev: We have such things.
Nixon: This is our newest model [of dishwashers]. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installations in the houses. In America, we like to make life easier for women.
Khrushchev: Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.
Nixon: I think that this attitude towards women is universal. What we want to do, is make life more easy for our housewives.

This brings us into the final section of the show, where another kitchen is displayed. Here, a full-scale Frankfurt Kitchen sits at the centre of the room dedicated to the years 1920-40. Designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926, this unit was installed 10,000 times in the second half of the 1920s as part of the large-scale Neue Frankfurt social housing project. Its design principles were drawn from treatises on optimising the industrial assembly line. “It was an effort to liberate the housewife in her daily chores and give back time to her,” explains Hoffmann. “This is the space of the woman, the housewife.”

Domestic space is, historically, deeply gendered. For much of the 20th century, it constituted the feminine realm, while the public sphere belonged to men. Between the users of the 1920s Frankfurt Kitchen and Nixon’s later American housewife, however, the Second World War saw a brief moment in which women left the home to work in industry. For most women before that, and for several decades after, the home was a place of work rather than leisure and withdrawal. Things have changed since the 1970s, of course, with women entering the workforce on a massive scale, but the workload within the home remains skewed in favour of men to this day. In 2016, for instance, the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom found that British women do 60 per cent more housework than their male partners.

Installation view of Margrete Schütte-Lihotzky (1926). IMAGE Ludger Paffrath/Vitra Design Museum.

This dimension of the 20th-century Western interior is better tackled in the exhibition catalogue than in Home Stories itself. In her excellent essay ‘Interior Decorator, Interior Design, Interior Architecture: Lines of Development in a Professional Field’, design historian Penny Sparke traces the changing status of the interior designer. The earliest professionals in the field were women who typically advised their wealthy friends on how to decorate their homes. Elsie de Wolfe, often called “the first modern interior designer” is represented in Home Stories by images from Villa Trianon in Versailles (1905-1950). But countless others could be mentioned here: Rose Cumming, Dorothy Draper, Nancy Lancaster, Sister Parish, Syrie Maugham. All, as they were rather condescendingly known, “lady decorators”.

Sparke explains how the field became increasingly professionalised over the course of the century, and that when large contract jobs for public and corporate spaces emerged, men began to claim the interior for themselves, preferring the terms “interior designer” or (even more weighty!) “interior architect”. In many ways, this is reflected in the exhibition – in the rooms covering the 1960s and onwards, Vitra Design Museum focuses almost entirely on interiors by canonical designer-architects, rather than lesser-known interior decorators. This, argues Eisenbrand, is because interior decorators tend to be less grandstanding. “Architects tend to think more in general terms,” he says. “They claim to have solutions that are valid for a broader view of society (which can be quite patronising), whereas interior designers really work on individual projects.”

The domestic interior is a complex space in which social positioning, gender politics, and labour interact. How best, then, to trace its evolution? Does one showcase the work of contract interior designers working to specific briefs from wealthy clients? Does one show the ways in which designers and architects have put forward radical and sometimes utopian proposals for modern living? Or does one try to find documentation of how people actually inhabit their homes? Home Stories tries to do a little bit of all of these things, which ought to be commended for its sheer ambition. But it’s an approach that will inevitably leave each perspective feeling tantalisingly unfinished – there’s another three or four exhibitions in the topic, at least.