August 30, 2013 6:04 pm

The hidden messages behind home interiors

Leaders throughout history have used home design to reflect how they want the world to see them
Illustration by James Ferguson on the interiors of a home©James Ferguson

When I tell people I am a university lecturer in interior design, they express surprise that there is a degree in such a thing. My students are paranoid about it; countless courses have been rebranded as “interior architecture” in a bid to ensure they are taken more seriously. They should not have to. The subject of interiors is serious – it is about power, our place in the world and how we want to be perceived. We all use our homes to remind ourselves who we were, and how to behave. We always have.

The Romans of the ancient Republic hung the walls of their atria with the death masks of their ancestors. The word “atrium” meant “blackened”, for the place of the ancestors was the hearth and the heart of the home. It still is – look at any mantelpiece decorated with family photos.

In the UK’s great medieval halls, where and how one sat determined one’s importance. In fact, sometimes people wouldn’t be seated at all. There was only ever one chair, and it was only ever occupied by the most important person there: everyone else had to squeeze together on benches – if they were lucky – or stand at the door, hoping for scraps from the high table.

The classically educated gents of the 18th century would have been well aware of the etymological link between decor and decorum; and Georgian dining rooms, for example, were painted a rich bloody red to match the port the men were guzzling, while the colour scheme of the room to which the ladies would withdraw was as delicate and pale as they were expected to be.

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These traditions are as implicit and as ubiquitous as Christmas; and because we all read them, they lend the rooms we live in great, if implicit, political significance. Once upon a time, autocratic rulers were judged by the palaces they lived in. In his scandalous Lives of the Twelve Caesars, published in the second century AD, the court writer Suetonius gossiped extensively about the lavishness of the golden house of the wicked emperor Nero, comparing it with the austerity of that of the good emperor Augustus, even though he had seen neither.

Palaces could stand for whole nations. For example, in Britain many offices of state are still named after the pieces of furniture that occupied Westminster Hall when, in medieval times, the kings of England lived there. These range from the King’s Bench – the highest court in the land – to the exchequer, which was a chequered tablecloth rolled out twice a year and used as an abacus to help count out the royal tax receipts.

Interiors can also be used to reflect government policy. The gilded salons of the Grand Appartement in the palace of Versailles were fashionably decorated for cocktail parties held three times a week for all members of the ancien régime. It was a subtle instrument of political control: not to attend would mean political suicide (as well as the social suicide of missing a great party), and Louis XIV calculated that an aristocracy perpetually hungover and worried about what to wear was an aristocracy under control.

Of course, our political leaders today don’t live in palaces any more, at least, they don’t call them palaces; but decor still matters.

“I am delighted to work with the Obamas,” Michael S Smith, the Los Angeles-based decorator and antiques dealer, said in 2009, “as they bring their own energy and style to the residence at the White House. The family’s casual style, their interest in bringing 20th-century American artists to the forefront and utilising affordable brands and products will serve as our guiding principles.”

Floral porcelain plates were replaced with native American pottery, a bust of Martin Luther King, and a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The empty space where, for decades, nervous functionaries had stood in front of the president’s desk was filled with two suede sofas and a coffee table.

In April 2009, Michelle Obama talked about it all to Oprah Winfrey. “I want comfortable sofas, I want art that reflects contemporary and traditional, I want to bring in new American artisans,” she said.

Winfrey was quick to push the point. “You want more than just a few plates on the walls,” she said. “You want pieces that are inclusive of American culture.”

“Right,” replied the first lady, “and we want approachable comfort.”

When Michelle visited Samantha Cameron in Downing Street in 2011, they were photographed in “approachable comfort”, lounging on a trendy yellow sofa. In the background was Sam and Dave’s new kitchen. They had a kitchen-cum-living room, you see, just like any normal middle-class family. The UK prime minister once promised to lead the “most open and transparent government in the world” – a pledge neatly expressed in the openness of his sitting room. You wouldn’t get that at the Elysée, or in Pyongyang, the picture silently said.

The homes of our leaders are filled with coded messages about their politics, and so is their passing. When Cromwell abolished the British monarchy in 1649, he broke up the King’s Bench – quite literally the seat of royal authority – and buried it under the floor of Westminster Hall. When Augustus died, his Roman successors piously preserved his simple country furniture; but Nero’s house, they buried under a public bath. Imagine how many times the White House or Downing Street have been redecorated – effectively by democratic constitutional convention. The new first lady always makes a polite comment or two about her predecessor’s homely taste – and then the furniture is broken up, or sold on, the walls painted or papered and almost nothing is left.

Like high street fashion, like bubblegum pop, interiors are here today and gone tomorrow. They make bad monuments. The King Ozymandias of Shelley’s poem hardly called on the mighty to look upon his three-piece suite and despair; instead, he tried to impress them with a marble colossus.

Perhaps it is that very ephemerality that makes interiors reflect their makers so truthfully. Buildings take years to build, which means by the time they have been completed, the world in which they were conceived has all too often passed away. Any one of us can repaint a room, on the other hand, in a weekend, and we can change it again on a whim.

Interiors speak for us right here, right now, and they are as capricious and changeable as we are. They are not just the places we live in, but spaces that, like our leaders, speak for and to us. Our homes are not just places we go to get away from the world, they are, quite literally, the seat of our power.

Edward Hollis is author of ‘The Secret Lives of Buildings’, which was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. His new book, ‘The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors,’ is published by Portobello Books

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Hard politics and soft furnishings

1. Nero’s banquet hall: The Roman emperor Nero may have been the father of the revolving restaurant: his banquet hall in Rome was a circular space that rotated day and night to imitate the earth’s movement.

2. The purple room: The name “Porphyrogenitos” was given to anyone born in the “Porphyra”, the purple room in the Sacred Palace of Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire. The room no longer exists, leaving only the phrase “born in the purple”, used today to refer to royal blood.

3. The chequered tablecloth: In most countries, there is a minister of finance. In Britain, there is a Chancellor of the Exchequer – literally the doorman of the chequered tablecloth. In medieval England, the exchequer was used to count tax receipts. In time the word referred to the table where it happened, then the room, and, today, the ministry itself.

4. The King’s Bench: In 2006 stone legs of a table were found under the floor of Westminster Hall in London. Originally, it was the king’s dining table – his bench – from where he would administer royal justice.

5. Louis XIV’s bed: It took France’s “Sun King” more than three hours to get up every morning, in an elaborate ritual in his bedroom at Versailles attended by his entire court. No one has slept in his bed since the French Revolution in 1789. To do so, it is said, would revive the ghost of the king.

6. The last room: Out of sight at Versailles, there is a tiny room decorated with cherubs symbolising Louis XVI’s hobbies. Hunting and trade are shown and some of the cherubs are playing with frogs’ legs and lightning bolts. It was the last room built before the revolution.

7. Downing Street furniture: Number 10 is a paradox – a palace disguised as an ordinary middle-class home. No wonder the UK prime minister David Cameron was derided for fitting out his kitchen with furniture from high street suppliers.

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