Modernism and Grandma's Hand-me-down Desk
By J.J. Fellows
A Discussion of Beauty and Comfort
As I write this article I'm sitting at my Grandma's old, wooden desk. It's got some scuff-marks in the wood, and is cluttered with paper shoved in all the cubby-holes. Those papers are now my own, but I cannot remember a time when the desk wasn't full of clutter like it is now. One redeeming virtue of this desk is that you can close it all up with a roll-top, effectively hiding the unsightly clutter without ever actually having to clean up. This is a piece of function that I find highly attractive. I know my clutter is there, attesting to the fact that this is a lived-in house and that desk is a working desk, giving a comforting and homey feel. But I can still hide the clutter when my mom comes to visit, and appear (at least on the surface) like a responsible adult.
My house has many such hand-me-down wood pieces, all belonging to different members of my family in the past, virtually none bought with any interior design vision or plan in mind. This makes my home decidedly un-modernist. It is the antithesis of high modernist style. It stands in sharp contrast to what might well be the hallmark of modernist style; the Glass House in Connecticut. This house is made entirely of plate glass which is wonderful in that it allows a 360 degree view of the surrounding forests, but not so great in that it affords exactly zero privacy.
The Glass House is a piece of art designed by architect Philip Johnson and built in 1949. It still stands as a National Trust Historic Site, and information about it can be found here. It's a beautiful house in its clean lines and simplicity. These ideals are still ones held by interior designers today. And with a felt need to simplify our lives, I think the clean lines of modernist design are still appealing to many people. The furniture inside the Glass House was collected and arranged with care (it has to be, as everything in the home is always visible to anyone walking by), and the whole house gives off a sense of order, serenity, cleanliness and simplicity that my house manages to fully elude. If the Glass House is the hallmark of a simplified life, my home is the hallmark of a life in chaos.
The Glass House created quite a stir when it was first built. Kevin Melchionne in his article, “Living in Glass Houses” notes that “[i]t is still widely hailed as a high modernist masterpiece and is regularly included in surveys of modern architecture.” (Pg. 191) However, though my house, with its hand-me-down wood furniture, may never live up to the Glass House in terms of design, I do have one advantage.”At the same time that Johnson's house is celebrated as great architecture, it is sneered at for being unlivable.” (Pg. 191). It is unlivable, Melchionne explains, because everything in the house is geared towards aesthetic appeal. That is, the house sacrifices comfort for beauty. It's like wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes all the time. Sure they look great, but you wouldn't want to go hiking in them!
Literally everything in the house, and the exact placement of everything in the house, has been designed to be attractive. Move one object, leave one coffee cup or unpaid bill out, and the house loses its aesthetic appeal. Plus, with the oppressive knowledge that everything, everything, is visible at all times to anyone walking by, the glass house actively discourages any lived-in comfort. My carefully crafted illusions of adult-hood would all be exposed as lies in the glass house. There is nowhere, no roll-top, for my clutter to hide in.
I do not deny that the Glass House is a work of art. I'm no art critic to make these claims. But, even so, I'll stick with my grandmother's desk for now. It's cluttered and scuffed, and will never win any modernist awards for aesthetics, but it is livable and homey. And comfort is worth something too!
Melchionne, Kevin “Living in Glass Houses: Domesticity, Interior Decoration and Environmental Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 56 No. 2 1998. Pp. 191-200