Ideal Homes, 1918-39
Domestic Design and Suburban Modernism
Deborah Sugg Ryan
Studies in Design and Material Culture Series
Manchester: University Press, 2018
Paperback. xvii+246 pages. ISBN 978-0719068850. £19.99
Reviewed by Dr Caitríona Beaumont
London South Bank University
Deborah Sugg Ryan’s book begins with the personal and then develops into a fascinating and detailed study of housing design and the meanings of home in interwar Britain. These interesting intersections between the subjective, design history and a social history of the home makes for a gratifyingly fresh take on the history of housing design and domesticity during the years 1918 to 1939. Adopting this original approach readers are introduced to the world of the interwar house by Sugg Ryan as she reflects back on the house she purchased and moved into in 1995, no. 17 Rosamund Road, Wolvercote, Oxford.
This thread of the personal, with four individual stories of interwar home ownership and home making, weaves its way throughout the book and is a very effective method to draw together the key themes of the book which are: housing design, homemaking, class, gender and modernisation. We learn about the Colletts who lived at 17 Rosamund Road, the Kinghams at 23 Bromley Road, Middlesex, Mass Observation (MO) Respondent Housewife 082 who lived in Marlow, Buckinghamshire and the Freedmans at 1 Burleigh Gardens, Southgate, North London. It is no surprise to learn that Professor Sugg Ryan is the series consultant and on-screen expert for the successful BBC 2 programme A House Through Time which similarly links together the history of a house with the lives of its inhabitants.
The book is divided into six chapters, each expertly covering the central themes and contains numerous black and white and colour images and photographs to illustrate the arguments made therein. I particularly liked the mix here of posters, cartoons, advertisements and photographs, including photos of the author’s own home at 17 Rosamund Road, all of which allow readers a unique view into the interior of home life in the 1920s and 1930s. These images and the photographs in particular, vividly demonstrate that there was no one style or fashion dictating design at this time. Instead the homes created were a more complicated mishmash of the traditional and the modern, as evidenced by the photograph of Alfred Smith and his family eating dinner in 1939 surrounded by a traditional range oven and modernistic ‘jazzy’ wallpaper .
Chapter 1 introduces us to the interwar house and makes use of rigorously researched photographs to build up a picture for readers of what ‘home’ looked like during these years. Here the author sets out her intention to focus on the meanings of domestic design ‘architecture, interiors, decoration, furniture and furnishings of the modest, semi-detached, privately owned, “modern” suburban house in the interwar years’ . This decision does rule out a wider commentary on housing and alternative homes during these years, for example the experiences of those living in flats, rural cottages or slum dwellings. However the narrow focus is justified by the rich detail provided in subsequent chapters on the creation of the ‘ideal home’, such a potent symbol of security, ‘Englishness’ and modernity in the years between two catastrophic world wars.
Chapter 2 has as its focus the connections between suburbia, class, gender and home ownership. Here we follow the story of Ronald and Miriam Kingham as they purchase their first home in suburban Middlesex in 1932. Their experiences are set within the wider context of the 1930s where cheap building costs and low interest rates benefited those who were able to dodge the worst effects of the economic depression and take their first steps onto the housing ladder. Gendered experiences of housing and home feature in every chapter and here Sugg Ryan rightly emphasises the importance of owner-occupation on the political status of working-class women . The chapter provides a detailed account of life in suburbia during the 1930s and the ways in which traditional gender roles shaped the different experiences of men and women living in these new housing estates. As discussed, the benefits of interwar ‘mod cons’ could be outweighed by loneliness and isolation for wives uprooted from their kinship networks. Class as well as gender impacted on identity in suburbia. For example separation between middle-class and working class housing was taken to extremes with the ‘Cuttleslow walls’ dividing public and private estates . The chapter includes fascinating detail about the process of buying a house and the fittings and furnishings appearing in new homes. The wonderful MO 1937 Mantelpiece Survey captures in time items placed on display on mantelpieces across the country. Sugg Ryan uses this innovative source to inform our understanding of how and why people filled their homes with particular objects and reflects on the meanings of each one .
Chapter 3 shifts the discussion to the history of design during the interwar years and provides an excellent account of the place of modernism in the history of interwar housing. This includes an account of how designers, architects and homeowners envisaged the ‘house of the future’ and the tensions emerging between popular taste and the concept of ‘good design’ as championed by architects and design historians . Chapter 4 returns to the theme of gender with an exploration of how the drive for efficacy in housework influenced interior design generally and kitchen design in particular. We are able to re-live the life of an everyday housewife through MO Respondent 082 and understand the impact that the so-called ‘servant problem’ had on the lives of wives and mothers at this time. The discussion here of labour-saving designs and of women’s lives within the home would have benefited from reference to popular women’s organisations, for example the National Council of Women, Townswomen’s Guilds, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Women’s Institutes. An opportunity is missed here to include in the discussion the agency of women who joined these groups and the concerns and aspirations they had in relation to the homes they lived in. To do so would have added greater weight to Sugg Ryan’s assertion that the home offered ‘women active opportunities to influence and make their own spaces according to needs arising from their own experiences’ .
Chapter 5 takes as its theme ‘Nostalgia’. The author cleverly uses nostalgia as the lens through which to discuss the relationship between interwar design, empire, Englishness, modernity and the concept of home. I was particularly intrigued by the suggestion that suburbia can be seen as a manifestation of empire with ‘the pioneers of the new housing estates…seen as colonial settlers’ . This chapter returns to the tensions ever present between perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design and the role of class and gender in these debates. The final chapter allows the reader to catch with the four families featured throughout the book and brings us up to date with their stories at the end of the 1930s.
The book concludes with the author’s own story of decorating 17 Rosamund Road. Her meticulous efforts to restore the house to its interwar style mirrors the attention to detail in this intriguing and original study. The book is well written, convincingly argued and successfully merges design history, social and gender history in what is undoubtedly an important new contribution to twentieth-century British history.
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