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Photograph of the Internal Courtyard and Interior of Parker and Unwin’s Northwood – with an abundance of wild flowers growing over the window sills. Stoke-on-Trent, 1901-1903. Source: Garden City Collection.

As a word, comfort has been in use in Britain since the 13th century, originating from the medieval French ‘conforter/confort’ –  meaning physical or emotional support – or more specifically solace.

Comfort’s definitions range from the medicinal, spiritual and nutritional to the physical, material, thermal and most recently again the emotional.

This dissertation looks to situate comfort within a history of language that goes back to the mid-18th century with the rise of gothic revivalism in Britain and the idea of ‘gloomth’ (gloom and warmth). From there, ideas developed around notions of health and sunlight during the 19th century in the arts and crafts movement and taken further still in the 20th century through mythologies of cleanliness and hygiene under the gaze of modernism.

Tomas Maldonado in The Idea of Comfort (1991) speaks of the continuous rituals of comfort in domestic space that can be seen as the (re)ordering of objects and desires that themselves are codified expressions of the emotional self. [1] The obvious question, then, is why had this psychological and physical condition been codified through the term ‘comfort’?

This study of the keyword ‘comfort’ consciously looks to the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams in Keywords: A vocabulary on culture and society, published in 1976, and of architectural historian Adrian Forty in Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, published in 2004.

This dissertation will explore a series of ‘conditions of experience’ or words of ‘otherness’ that are linked through history and language. The first, a key project by Alison and Peter Smithson that showcased modernism’s myth-ridden relationship to ‘cleanliness’ and ‘hygiene’, namely their 1956 ‘House of the Future’.

The second being the idea of ‘gloomth’, as depicted in ‘Strawberry Hill’, the gothic revival villa of Horace Walpole. The sensitive control of Strawberry Hill’s interior by Walpole was created with sombre paint and wallpapered walls along with gothic detailing and an abundance of painted and stained glass.

The last of these addresses the ideas of ‘sunlight’ and ‘health’ as shown in the Parker and Unwin Partnership’s ‘Northwood’, a large domestic project built in Stoke-on-Trent between 1901-1903. For Barry Parker, sunlight was not a luxury but a necessity. His straightforward use of recesses and for Northwood specifically, the courtyard, flooded the house with fresh air and sunlight.

Language is clearly a critical factor in architecture. As Witold Rybczynski remarks in Home: A Short History of an Idea:

‘Words are important. Language is not just a medium, like a water pipe, it is a reflection of how we think. We use words not only to describe objects but also to express ideas, and the introduction of works into the language marks the simultaneous introduction of ideas into the consciousness.’ [2]

This dissertation then, not only looks at the historical and linguistic developments of the keyword ‘comfort’ in relation to domesticity, but also deliberately does so through what we call historical semantics.[3] This means simply that we must look at the historical origins and present meanings of words, simultaneously, in order to grasp the entirety of the situation. In terms of domesticity, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas writes in The Idea of Home: A Kind of Space (1991), a dwelling is:

‘Highly efficient for maintaining itself in being, it is easily subverted and survives only so long as it attends to the needs of its members.’[4]

Ultimately, our homes and the materiality of our domestic culture and tastes have to be seen as being in constant flux. We decorate and (re)decorate for myriad reasons, as Alison J Clarke points out in Home Possessions - through the death of a family member, changes in financial circumstances or the act of moving into or out of a house all equally demand that households ‘invert, reinvent or perpetuate their material worlds’.[5]

We try to quantify ideas around these domestic acts through personal experiences and by translating our emotions, indicating to others how these feelings relate to broader norms in society and culture, whereby, to a degree, certain aspirations lead to feeling comfortable. Jane Rendell writes in Doing it, (un)doing it, (over)doing it yourself about the differences and similarities we all face when it comes to our understandings of the home, with ever-changing relationships constantly ordering and (re)ordering it:

‘The imagination creates these fluid relationships, rejecting the constraints imposed by rules of domestic order where ‘everything has its place’. The dividing line between messiness and tidiness is blurred. Inside is outside. The seams are the décor.’ [6]


By highlighting comfort’s historical and linguistic relationship to British domestic architecture, we can, as Forty notes in Words and Buildings, ‘recover the past meanings of words’[7]:

‘Our problem, then, is to recover the past meanings of words so that we can interpret what those who uttered them intended to say. But this is no simple matter, for the history of language is not one of the straightforward replacement of one meaning by another, like a car manufacturer’s model changes, but rather a process of accumulation as new meanings and inflections are added to existing words without necessarily displacing the old ones.’ [8]

By doing so, we give the meaning of the word(s) and the word(s) themselves a reality.[9]

[1] Tomas Maldonado and John Cullars, “The Idea of Comfort,” Design Issue, Vol 8. No1 (Autumn 1991): 36.

[2] Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea. (New York: Penguin Books. 1986/1987), 21.

[3] For a definition of Historical Semantics see Raymond Williams, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. (London: Fontana Press. 1976/1983), 23.

[4] Mary Douglas, “The idea of a home: A kind of space,” Social Research 58, no 1. (1991): 307.

[5] Alison J Clarke, “The Aesthetics of Social Aspiration” in Home Possessions; Material Culture Behind Closed Doors, ed.Daniel Miller. (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 26.

[6] Jane Rendell, “Doing it, (Un)Doing it, (Over) Doing it Yourself: Rhetorics of Architectural Abuse,” in Occupying Architecture, ed. Jonathan Hill. (London: Routledge,1998), 229-246.

.[7] Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. (London: Thames and Hudson. 2004), 15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 13






Copyright of image: © Image courtesy of Garden City Collection

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