Against Nature: Domesticating Modernism in Nineteenth-Century Europe

We often think of “modernism” in design as a particular style or look, exemplified, perhaps, by architecture and objects of the 1920s. This course instead proposes the nineteenth century as the primary period of modernization in European design: the time when new materials, technologies and forms were adopted and adapted to define the experience of modernity. Developing its theme from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against Nature, in which an aristocratic aesthete withdraws from public life to design an artificial, interior retreat minutely calculated to affect his sensory experience, the course invites students to explore modernism in both private and public space as a nineteenth-century construction, with special emphasis on the interaction of nature and artifice in design. Like the iron-and-glass greenhouse, whose unnatural conditions superseded Nature’s laws, the modern homemaker—with access to new products, as well as new ideas about hygiene, comfort, and psychology—could design a controlled interior to rival and even replace the outer world. The selection, arrangement, and cultivation of material objects and cultural ideas developed, over the course of the century, from privilege to pastime for middle-class consumers. From the 1820s through the 1890s, the design of these modern “luxuries” was in constant debate due to conflicting theories of aesthetics and ethics; the display of novel or exotic objects at World’s Fairs; growing fascination with machines; and even nostalgia for regional vernaculars. Addressing this network of ideas, people, and things, we will investigate nineteenth-century modernism as a spectrum of new formal and ideological possibilities from which designers and dwellers had to choose. Focusing on developments in Britain, France, and Germany, we will consider the negotiation of the natural and artificial in the work of prominent figures like K. F. Schinkel, Christopher Dresser, and Victor Horta, as well as lesser-known designers and firms. Primary readings will include texts by Gottfried Semper, William Morris, and Émile Gallé, as well as accounts of interiors in period fiction. Readings will intersperse recent critical literature with historical critiques of nineteenth-century material culture, such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. 3 credits.