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The Age of Comfort by J. DeJean [Oct. 14th, 2011|11:39 pm]


Age of Comfort, as a history of design, was a slight deviation from my norm, and a welcome one. While it is a history, it’s a history of comfort and privacy and their conceptual and practical evolutions, something that most histories don’t spend a lot of time discussing. DeJean makes a very strong case that the changes in furniture, clothing, and architecture from (roughly) 1670 to 1750 in France changed those standards of living dramatically, and for the better.

I think that I wound up learning a lot, including some fundamental principles of interior design that were not the focus of DeJean’s work. She also has a remarkable ability to describe in detail how life would have been different during earlier periods, both the “Age of Magnificence” and the “Age of Comfort” that followed it. Not even Tuchmann had the appropriate kind of attention to detail that DeJean demonstrates. Realizing how bare most spaces, especially “luxurious” spaces would have been before the 18th century was a bit startling.

Reading the book certainly gave me the bug to play around in the interior designing and architecture tool I have on hand, Sims II, and I ended up building better houses than I had previously because of DeJean’s influence. I certainly felt like I had a better idea of what I was doing, and that has made house decoration and construction much more fun than it was previously (also, knowing more about the game now than when I started gave me a better command of its tools). That in turn led to ideas that I hadn’t considered before that I ended up really liking. It’s always nice when my hobbies inform each other.

That said, the book is by no means perfect. To start with the little details, I think a few more carefully chosen color plates would have been appropriate. Also, a closer view of the architectural drawings would have been appreciated: they’re so small that they aren’t really understandable (not that I can read French, either, so it might not help that much).

Also, DeJean doesn’t give a good account as to why the Age of Comfort ended. While it is very clear that the French Revolution brought it to a screeching halt, the Age of Comfort seems to have been in heavy decline for at least fifteen years prior to this, and DeJean makes no mention as to why this might be the case.

Then there’s the reality that most of what DeJean talks about, especially in the early decades of the movement, applied only to the super-rich. There might be something to be said for the influence of the rich affecting those lower in the socioeconomic order, and DeJean touches on that specifically during the chapter on clothing, but comfort began and continued to be most heavily influenced and practiced by royal mistresses and plutocratic millionaires. Most of the French probably missed out on a lot of the benefits that DeJean describes. And that’s not even the two real problems.

The most annoying problem in the book is that the thesis statement is restated constantly. Every chapter will include some version of it, and probably a reminder of how the subject matter being discussed (the book is arranged by area/room, rather than chronologically) relates to the others and how they combine to form this special time period. First of all, I don’t need that reminder all the time: the material should tie itself together well enough that that shouldn’t be necessary. Second, it got me wondering whether the thesis wasn’t restated constantly as an attempt to convince the reader that it was accurate when it may in fact not be. Certainly by modern standards, the roughly 80 years that DeJean covers is a very long time, and a time when France suffered several major changes in national fortunes that either sped up or slowed down the advances being made in comfort technology. It seems strange to think of the principles of comfort as “sudden shift” over a period of time that large, though I will grant that some of the early decades of the period would have felt extremely different and revolutionary at the time. It might also be it did seem coherently revolutionary within the wider European context, but that suspicion about the validity of the thesis remains.

And the biggest problem with the book was that I couldn’t keep reading it. I would read a paragraph or two, and then stop. I wasn't intentionally doing this, but it kept happening, even when I was in a situation where I had nothing better to do. I ended up learning a lot, but it only rarely happened that I got really engaged in the material. That ended up making the book take way longer to finish than its page count (236) would have indicated, and I think that is a major strike against it. By the time I reached page 200, I was ready for the book to be finished and move on to something new, so I bulldozed through the rest of it yesterday without taking in as much as I had previously. I don’t know if that difficulty is the sum of the lesser flaws I mentioned, my general disinterest in this sort of history, or possibly a dull writing style. But for whatever reason, that gives me pause in recommending it: it's a good read, but it isn't a fun read.

In any event, I learned too much not to recommend the book, especially to people that have some interest in the history of decoration but otherwise limited experience on the subject.