Design History: Why Did Dark, Cozy Interiors Become Eclipsed by Light, Bright Ones?

Design History: Why Did Dark, Cozy Interiors Become Eclipsed by Light, Bright Ones?

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Carolyn Purnell
Oct 19, 2015
(Image credit: Rebecca Bond)

Abigail Ahern's Dark and Dramatic East London Home

Once upon a time, having a dark room was all the rage. Or at least it was the norm. While dark rooms have had a recent resurgence, I've noticed that people today generally tend to favor rooms that can be described as "light," "bright," and "airy." Why did the vogue for dark, cozy rooms give way to this preference for lighter ones?

One potential cause behind the cultural shift away from dark and cozy interiors is the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stress on ventilation, light, and air circulation. The historian Daniel Roche, author of A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800, has described how the eighteenth century ushered in a fascination with all things light-centered, in terms of decor. Stained glass in churches gave way to clear glass; in the home, glass and mirrors became less expensive and more common; the practice of whitewashing walls became popular; and lighter colors became more prevalent. At the same time, thanks to the rise of chemistry, scientists and reformers were becoming increasingly concerned with air quality, and new, open spaces were imagined which would allow air to flow more freely. (Historian Michel Foucault, author of Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, gives an example of how this fashion for ventilation altered nineteenth-century prison architecture. The closed cell gave way to open bars that allowed air to pass through.)

MilK Magazine

Open spaces didn't necessarily mean large ones, though. In Home: A Short History of an Idea, the architect Witold Rybczynski argues that by the late nineteenth century, there were some movements toward smaller houses and smaller rooms, thanks to the idea that these could actually be more comfortable. They were considered more efficient, since one person could easily clean them, but they were also cozier and more homey. Low ceilings and small floor plans could offer intimacy, privacy, or a sense of comfort. Smaller rooms were efficient and felt like a warm hug. It was only in the twentieth century that people really began to feel that they needed more space. The footprint of homes expanded and, as Rybczynski tells it, ironically, the need for privacy seems to have decreased, given the prevalence of open floor plans. Changing concepts of comfort which stressed openness and personal space (if not privacy) meant that tall ceilings, large rooms, and plenty of light came back into fashion.

Est Magazine

There's also the possibility that technology contributed to the change. Prior to the invention of gas and electric lighting, dark interiors were probably expected. Why try to fight the inevitable when you could embrace it and make it a feature of the home? But the late eighteenth century ushered in new lighting technologies like the Argand lamp, and later, gas and electric light, making it possible to move beyond the intimate flickers of candlelight.

As lighting technologies captured the public's attention, you might expect that people would have wanted to bathe their homes in brilliance, but it seems that for the better part of the nineteenth century, they were actually uncomfortable with the unfiltered brilliance of artificial light. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe claimed that gaslight was "totally inadmissible within doors. Its harsh and unsteady light offends." And people considered gaslight particularly abominable in rooms used for relaxing and entertaining, according to Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (157). As lights got brighter, lampshades got darker, and the preference was for indirect, reflected light.

(Image credit: Farrow & Ball)

Farrow & Ball via House and Garden

According to Rybczynski, "brighter interiors did not become fashionable because of technology, but because of a Scandinavian influence, which had more to do with sunniness than with electricity" (173). The preference for bright interiors was one of style rather than technological substance.

Considering the fact that there's no difference, architecturally speaking, between a space painted black and a space painted white, and considering that a major selling point of homes is the size of rooms, this does seem to make sense. But I'm not sure it can account for everything. At the end of the book, Rybczynski outlines what he calls the "Onion Theory of Comfort," where one era's notion of comfort might give way to a new notion, but remnants of the older theories remain buried beneath. Changing notions of privacy, shifts in style, medical and scientific concepts, and technological accommodations jumble together to form an unspoken, yet powerful, mishmash that makes many people favor light and bright over dark and cozy.

Color. via Time to Turn the Table

But maybe it's worth revisiting this preference and considering the alternative. Abigail Ahern's designs—including those featured in her new book, Color.center on dark, moody interiors, and she argues that dark rooms are more intriguing and cozy. And in the last few years, we've certainly seen the resurgence of dark rooms, particularly bedrooms.

What do you think? Do you prefer light interiors to dark ones? And if so, why?

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