This week I visited Hardwick Hall, a 16th century stately home that was built to impress and has a fascinating history. It was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick who worked her way up from relative poverty - via four marriages - to become the second wealthiest woman in the kingdom. She specified an unusual layout: there is no grand entrance hall at ground level and the lavish state rooms are situated on the upper floors. Although it was occupied by her descendants until 1959, the building escaped re-modelling because it was used as a mere secondary home. The last, solitary occupant made herself cosy in just a few of the smaller rooms, which she equipped with modern appliances and furniture. The rest she left alone. She had done what many of us do - she had adapted the space to the way she actually lived.
Bess’ other house, Chatsworth, which was preferred by her descendants, is in a later but no less magnificent style. In talking about it with a friend we agreed that, although the architecture and setting of the house are exquisite, the interiors - lavish and opulent though they are - do not impress in the same way: they are messy. The rooms are decorated in a variety of fashions and contain a seemingly infinite and disparate collection of furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks. Consequently they do not cohere stylistically. While the vision for the building and its setting was clearly realised according to strict professional disciplines, the interior reflects the fact that daily lives are not lived according to immutable patterns. Only a vigilant and fastidious stylist is able to resist the gradual accumulation of mismatched items and it takes a rigid disciplinarian to throw out granny’s sideboard because it doesn't meet the current design aesthetic.
Is it possible to design interiors that suit the way people live? I read that, in California, a billionaire is having a house built to his specifications, one of which is a dressing room for his wife which incorporates a raised catwalk so that she can try on her outfits in front of an invited audience. Extravagant, but I suppose it could double up as a nifty skateboard track for their kids. Most of us, however, don’t have bespoke residences built for us; we make do with what has been built speculatively, in which case the organisation of the interiors involves a little compromise. And stylistic integrity, if it is considered at all, takes second place.
In mid 1940s America there was a serious attempt to re-think the way that houses for the masses were designed and built, and husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames took up the challenge enthusiastically. Their idea was to make a flexible living space that could meet the requirements of the ways in which people wanted - or were obliged - to live. They were driven by philosophical ideals that valued knowledge, discovery, technology and science for the common good, and saw no separation between life and work. It was a bold idea, but it didn't catch on; not everyone is a talented designer who can work from a home studio and, maybe, people prefer to separate their home life from their work - or perhaps they have no choice but to do so. In any case America subsequently filled up with “tract” houses built to patterns which allowed for none of the individuality which the Eames’ envisaged.
The Eames’ were very successful in other fields, however, especially furniture. Some of their pioneering chair designs are still being manufactured and can be found all around the world. I even spotted some in the cafeteria at Hardwick Hall.