When I first saw the programme ‘Number 57: The History of a House‘, my first thought was, “Oh no — not another interior design programme!”. However, it’s turned out to be a very interesting series, covering not just the history of interior design, but also social history, technology, and the rise of mass production and marketing.
The premise of the series is that it takes a Georgian middle-class house in Bristol (57 Kingsdown Parade), strips back the decoration carefully to reveal each era of design, and then renovates it again in each successive style. Incredibly, there are fairly detailed records of each of the inhabitants of the house for more than 200 years, which gives a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people.
It’s interesting how closely the social mores of the time are echoed in the decoration. I didn’t know before watching the programme that one of the reasons for the cluttered, dark and heavy decorative style of the Early Victorian period was that they thought that disease came through the air. So heavy curtains and draperies at the windows seemed like a sensible hygiene measure. In actual fact, the popular cheap green wallpapers were dyed with a compound containing arsenic, which was released into the air with dusting and scrubbing, poisoning the inhabitants — so some fresh air would actually have done them a lot of good.
I also didn’t know that Charles Rennie Mackintosh (one of my favourite architects/designers) had his career effectively terminated by the First World War. His work was expensive and people understandably felt uncomfortable about lavish spending while their brave sons, husbands or brothers were dying in their thousands. The Art Noveau movement — of which Mackintosh was a part — was also very popular in Germany and Austria, so his style came to have unpatriotic associations. It’s a great shame, because I much prefer Art Noveau to it’s rather garish successor, Art Deco.