October 26th, 2010

pearly whites.

Review: The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean

The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual – and the Modern Home Began

by Joan DeJean


Product Description: This remarkable history of late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century France introduces the age when comfort became a new ideal. Home life, formerly characterized by stiff formality, was revolutionized by the simultaneous introduction of the sofa (a radical invitation to recline or converse), the original living rooms, and the very concept of private bedrooms and bathrooms, with far-reaching effects on the way people lived and related to one another. DeJean highlights the revolutionary ideas—and the bold personalities behind them—that fomented change in the home and beyond, providing new insight into the household habits and creature comforts we often take for granted.


This is one of those books that I picked up because the topic seemed interesting.  Did I find it to be so?  Yes! But as I read it, I realized that there is no one in my life who would want to read this book and discuss the evolution of furniture with me.  It’s really hard to say who the intended audience for this book is.  It’s a little casual for serious historians, almost gossipy when DeJean confides that the granddaughter of King Louis XIV “got away with murder”.  But I can’t say that the Average Joe is really all that interested in the many variations of ‘sofa’ created by the French in the 17th and 18th century.


The overarching theme of the book is that as the idea of a ‘private’ life became a greater part of daily living amongst the wealthy French, specialized rooms and furniture developed to help sustain it.    Each chapter focuses on a different furniture item or room.  There’s a chapter, complete with multiple diagrams, about the flush toilet.  Another talks about the boudoir, which was originally intended as a counterpart to a man’s study – a place for a woman to relax and work on improving her mind – but quickly developed a reputation for other activities.  Mini-biographies of some of the great innovators of the era – both the artists who designed the furniture and the patrons who paid for it – help provide greater context.  There’s a fair amount of repetition from one chapter to the next, making me wonder if this book was pulled together from lecture notes or a series of presentations.


This so-called ‘Age of Comfort’ eventually spread throughout Europe, but DeJean concentrates almost exclusively on the contributions of the French.  Granted, she’s an author who specializes in French culture, but it would have been nice to hear a little more about what was happening in other countries.  She mentions England a few times, but only to point out that they haven’t gotten France’s revolutionary ideas about comfort yet.


If you’re interested in the beginnings of the art of interior design, this would be a good book for you to read.  I liked it, and thought the book was pretty neat.  It’s a different way to look at the Rococo period of French art, architecture, and furniture design.


4 out of 5 stars


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