The Modern Interior

October 23, 2008

The visual reticence of this little book, 20 x 15 cm, with a grey cover showing a black-and-white photograph, undersells the expansiveness, diversity and materiality of its subject. The title is equally spare, giving no hint of argument or approach and suggesting, by omission, a definitive account. Indeed, The Modern Interior is puffed as "essential reading for all students of modern design, architecture and culture, as well as anyone interested in why the interior spaces we inhabit look the way they do".

The inclusiveness is justified: Penny Sparke's work is often used by those outside design history to understand the meanings of designed objects and spaces, from ruched curtains to car bodies. The Modern Interior is essential reading for its demonstration of the stylistic and functional heterogeneity of its subject. Extending far beyond the Modern Movement, Sparke defines the modern interior as "the inside location of people's experiences of, and negotiations with, modern life". Arguing that during industrialisation, public and private spheres have been characterised by instability rather than separation, Sparke writes usefully on the ways in which the domestic interior infiltrated the public sphere in the second half of the 19th century.

The book's first part, "Inside out", shows how department stores, hotels, restaurants and railway carriages, for example, adopted the comforts of home. Part two, "Outside in", explores ways in which the Modern Movement sought to replace the Victorian domestic interior, inspired by the "rationalisation and standardisation" of "commerce, industrial production and work". The chapters demonstrate that the move of the interior "inside out" engaged key concepts such as privacy, novelty, mass consumption, fashionability and decoration, whereas the "outside in" trajectory is characterised by Sparke as public, rational, mass-produced, abstract and designed.

The Modern Interior presents a compelling argument to consider interiors outside the home, just as it charts the complex interplay between public and private in all interiors, domestic and otherwise. This persuasive book is a well-crafted and engaging read, albeit one requiring a couple of small qualifications.

Firstly, for Sparke, the modern interior was "a much more complex phenomenon" than "modern painting, the modern poem and the modern novel", yet "the interior's role in defining modern identities has, to date, received relatively little attention". In fact, a wealth of work exists, and many of Sparke's examples - although not, significantly, her argument - are familiar from the literature of design history, her own existing publications and other work mentioned in the excellent endnotes.

Secondly, as a leading contributor to the Modern Interiors Research Centre at Kingston University, Sparke addresses design historians when she situates her book as a corrective to accounts of an "easy transition" from "Victorian to modern style". The dominance in existing studies of a story of an easy transition is debatable; such a shift has formed a core concern for historians of a period from the middle of the 19th century to the present. Here, however, Sparke's chronology is focused on the years from 1850 to 1939. An extended account of the modern interior after 1945 is thereby invited by this absorbing text.

The Modern Interior

By Penny Sparke. Reaktion Books. 240pp, £16.95. ISBN 97818618937. Published 28 August 2008

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