In Good Taste: Self-Expression and the Home

Deborah Cohen

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Are we defined by our possessions, or is it our individual personalities that determine the objects we buy? What makes "good taste," and is "bad taste" really something to be avoided? Inspired by a re-reading of historian Deborah Cohen's excellent book Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions, these are just a few of the questions I'd like to tackle today.

In Household Gods, a book that explores the post-1830 British preoccupation with homes and interior decor, Deborah Cohen has described how modern consumerism took root in an era of evangelical fervor. In the early nineteenth century, amid a culture of Christian revival, it was considered sinful to accumulate too much earthly wealth and to adorn one's home in the products of luxury. Yet as disposable incomes rose and the strength of evangelicalism's hold lessened toward the middle of the century, purchasing power became a signal of work rewarded and of a productive life.

After the middle of the century, home design no longer carried the taint of sin for Victorians, but it still carried a significant moral weight, and "good taste" in design became intimately linked to having good character. To use one of Cohen's examples, "Faux marble, then, was wrong not simply because it sought to deceive onlookers, but because, as the background against which a family went about its daily business, it created an unwholesome and ever-present influence" (18). The objects that one brought into the home did not simply reflect one's character; they had the power to directly mold it as well. Better rooms had the power to make better people.

In an effort to spread the dictates of good taste, design reformer Henry Cole set up a Museum of Ornamental Art, which welcomed more than 125,000 visitors in 1853. One of the most popular attractions was the "Chamber of Horrors," a collection of objects that signified "Instances of Bad Taste." Popular though this particular attraction may have been, design reform could not quell the flood of objects— tasteful or no— that streamed into the marketplace thanks to industrialization.

Novelty had a significant effect on consumers, and armed with a surfeit of choice, consumers began purchasing objects that expressed their individual preferences, and by the early 20th century, there was a new confidence that possessions could clearly mark one's individuality. Themed rooms became all the rage: oriental smoking rooms, a sitting room filled with objects decorated with the Tory Primrose, and, in one unusual case, a Tess of the d'Urbervilles room, dedicated to the West Country atmosphere of Thomas Hardy's writings (127).

Skipping ahead to the conclusion of the book, Cohen tackles what has been described as the "blandification" of the home in our own era. To her mind, the self-expression aspect of home design has been toned down, and we're seeing a homogenization (or democratization, depending on your perspective) of interiors. The reason? It's "...in part a consequence of the huge rise in property prices. Conceiving of your home as an investment discourages risk-taking" (210). "Good taste," which is generally conceived of as being relatively neutral, depersonalized, and not visually overstimulating, serves the purpose not of setting an individual apart but of allowing her to claim a middle-class identity. In Cohen's words, "Personality, as it plays on property programmes, is a much more complicated matter than the home magazines acknowledge. A house decorated in the name of self-expression is more likely to be off-putting than appealing....After watching a few property shows, it is difficult not to feel self-conscious about one's own decisions" (209).

There's a lot in here to process, and I've only given the barest contours of the historical trajectory Cohen painstakingly recreates. (I'd highly recommend picking up a copy of Household Gods to get the full story. Plus, you'll be privy to lots of great pictures.) But what interests me most here is the tension that she establishes between the home as site for self-expression and as a site for identification with others. To a large extent, I think this is correct. When we design our homes for resale value, we're no longer thinking of our home as ours, but as an investment that will someday have to suit the needs or tastes of someone else. And if you think of the items that often get described as "tacky" or "tasteless," they are usually items with a great deal of personal meaning or that deviate from the standards of good taste (bright colors, certain types of artwork, collections, and "clutter" to name just a few of the oft-repeated debates in the Apartment Therapy community).

To be clear, I'm not trying to imply that having "good taste" is bad. Good taste is conventional, safe, and quite often, comforting. There's something unifying about social acceptance, and given that humans are social animals, we need to be able to identify with others. Consequently, a home that confronted us with 100% idiosyncrasy would probably be quite uncomfortable to visit. No man is an island, and presumably, neither is his house.

But there are still some interesting questions to be raised. For one, did "moral decoration" (the idea that better rooms make better people) disappear completely? I'm inclined to think not, especially with the familiarity of the idiom "tidy desk, tidy mind."

And is having good taste, in some way, contrary to the self? Should a home be "property" or should it be "personal"? How does one strike a balance between making a home feel like an expression of one's individuality and a place where others can feel comfortable as well? Does this mean that every home should have a bit of bad taste to go with the good?

(Image: Bridget Pizzo / Adam's DIY Ode to Ornamentalism)

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Carolyn is a freelance writer and photographer, as well as a lover of all things colorful and quirky. She grew up in Texas and settled in Chicago by way of L.A., England and Paris. Currently, she is a professor at Illinois Institute of Technology.

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