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Mary Schoeser: A room of one’s own

Why do we feel the need to decorate our homes? The use of an exotic paint shade, the creative upcycling of an antique chair and the choice of a black quartz kitchen countertop must be about expressing who you are as well as following interior trends. As many of us have turned to redecorating our homes while stuck in isolation, we remember the advice given to us from textile historian Mary Schoeser, who says it’s all a matter of gossip and grooming

Fashions come and go in interiors. However while interiors are full of objects, they differ from what we wear, eat or read in generally existing over a much longer period of time. Few are created ‘from scratch’ and even these seldom remain unchanged. Evolving with us, they are places of both privacy and sharing, solace and celebration. They offer a chronicle of our lives.

The desire to decorate is found around the world and through time, as is the ability to take something intended for one purpose and use it for another. These human traits would have less value if we were unable to remember and share our inventiveness. This is, in part, what interiors do for us; they carry memories of our own activities, as well as the evidence of previous lives, both known to us and far distant and past.

The furniture we live with varies from culture to culture, but in each instance it has changed little in the past 500 years. The basic ingredients of today’s interiors are recognisable by the 1550s. What has changed since then is the styling of interiors, but more in the matter of details than of function. The major changes occurred slowly – it was not until the late 17th century, for example, that seating developed fixed padding and upholstery. Fabric and blinds first supplemented and then began to replace wooden shutters only 150–200 years ago.

This gradual process suggests not disinterest but rather satisfaction, tempered by the inventiveness of human nature. The slow pace of change also suggests that the rooms we inhabit today cannot be radically new. Yet there is an urge to create highly individual, even eccentric, interiors. It is as if we are looking for an interior reality to tame the alarming effects of globalisation. ‘No’, our interiors say, ‘we are not all the same’. This impulse, though, again has roots in the far-distant past.

The universal message of interiors is that they are places to meet and create in. They also offer safety beyond the obvious physical barriers of walls and doors. Robin Dunbar is a developmental geneticist who argues that language emerged in humans to replace the grooming activity of our nearest relatives, the great apes. Grooming is their way of establishing bonds. Dunbar believes we use language in the same way, to develop the relationships and loyalties that bind together the ‘small world’ of people that we depend on. Everywhere our small world numbers about 150 people, which is also, interestingly, the average size of a four-generational family. But without kinship links of this quantity, how do we form our clans? What if objects also play a part in creating and remembering bonds? Then how we decorate takes on new significance.

“There is an urge to create highly individual, even eccentric interiors. It is as if we are looking for an interior reality to tame the alarming effects of globalisation”

The importance of the table and the visible signs of individuality in our interiors provide direct links to those important activities of gossip and grooming. The gossip, or informal, personal conversation about persons or incidents that forms alliances, seems to be more confidential when shared inside around dining room or restaurant tables. The grooming, a sensuous, touch-based form of bonding, is offered to family and friends in a ritual event each time they enter your home. After the warm greeting, the multitiude of interior textures and colours take over, sending their clues to the senses. Friends and allies will respond positively. If you point out a new vase or a newly painted wall, their response will be to touch it. If others are content amid the contents of our homes, they are likely to be content with us, too.

Decorating, then, is not a trivial pursuit. Representing the anthropologist’s point of view, Mary Douglas declared that ‘good taste’ is an index of social connections, reproductive fitness and our ability to mobilise resources. My own view is that the way the index of ‘good taste’ varies from place to place all over the globe is explained by the small-world theory. We need only understand and partake in the tastes of our own ‘clan’; in decorating our homes we participate in preserving and adjusting that style. Doing so declares our allegiances. Doing nothing sends a message of disinterest in worldly connections, which is why the bare interior is rightly associated with hermits and religious orders. Clearly the common urge to make a room one’s own is more than a decorative indulgence; it may be a matter of survival.

With thanks to Mary Schoeser for her permission to use this text.